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Analysis: EA's core roster cut in half by hardware transition

What do you show the core when you can't show them your next-gen bets? If you're EA, you roll up your sleeves, pull a rabbit out of a hat, and make the best of a bad situation, says Brenna Hillier.

The publisher presented "ten great developers showcasing ten spectacular experiences", to quote CEO John Riccitiello, which sure seems like a decent line up. Unfortunately, only five of those games are guaranteed core experiences.

When a first-party fronts a press conference focused on peripherals and movie services, people start to panic; to shift focus away from games triggers immediate suspicions that the upcoming slate is none too delightful. Despite this, both Sony and Microsoft brought slim pickings to E3 2012, choosing to dwell on a small number of games rather than a face-blast of new information.

There's a good reason for it; both manufacturers are approaching a console transition, and it's quite likely that their fanciest plans simply must stay under wraps. Every publisher's catalogue looks oddly fore-shortened as the industry collectively pretends no new machines are on the horizon, and hopes the consumer stays invested in what it's selling this year.

EA is no exception. As a third-party, though, it doesn't have recourse to new peripherals, platform exclusives, and market share boasting to pad out its presentation, and must rely on other tricks. This year, the publisher presented "ten great developers showcasing ten spectacular experiences", to quote CEO John Riccitiello, which sure seems like a decent line up. Unfortunately, only five of those games are guaranteed core experiences: Dead Space 3; Madden NFL 13; Medal of Honor: Warfighter; Need for Speed: Most Wanted; and Crysis 3. Each of EA's other five "experiences" are less likely to impress fans out for a AAA bang-for-buck in the coming year.

Let's start with the most core of genres, the shooter. After giving a literal nod to Respawn Entertainment, which raised a little frisson of excitement for a new triple A FPS, EA brought DICE oin stage to talk about Battlefield 3 - a game which released last year.

"Games are changing from a thing you buy to a place you go," Riccitiello purred as the publisher shocked absolutely nobody in confirming the existence of Battlefield Premium. But do people still want to go to a place they visited last October, and fork out $40 to do it? Especially when Call of Duty's offered a similar locale since launch?

Speaking of games released last year, BioWare broke the news everyone's been waiting for: Star Wars: The Old Republic is going free-to-play to level 15. Going free-to-play is now so acceptable that even World of Warcraft has done it, so it's not a death knell for the MMORPG. But while EA was quick to defend the game's performance so far and promise new content, The Old Republic didn't front a massive new expansion or major announcement at the show, making its conversion the most newsworthy aspect of its appearance.

Need for Speed: Most Wanted is one
of the core-pleasers.

In the EA Sports showcase which followed, the top story was a Madden social game, and in the a rapid-fire motley that followed, good news like the return of NBA Live was glossed over in favour of exhaustive descriptions of FIFA's role as a social network.

To be fair, EA did back off the "destination" spiel in one regard. SimCity has started to take shape a little more clearly since its debut, and that's all for the good; the announcement of a social-spin-off helps dissipate fears raised by the original vague description of an always-connected, MMO-like, browser-compatible experience. Making it clear that there are two distinct portions to the brand relaunch means SimCity may win back the core.

To summarise: we saw a premium add-on service to one of last year's shooters; a free-to-play conversion for an MMO; an emphasis on multiplayer and social connectedness in sports; a social focus for the most single-player focussed genre of all time; - and finally, the UFC license, which is a promise for another day. Half of EA's presentation was devoted to non-core frippery.

What EA showed during its media briefing was its repeatedly-demonstrated capacity to weather the ongoing digital transition. This is great news for those waiting to see what the publisher brings to next-generation hardware, because it means EA will be solvent when the time comes - but it doesn't satisfy the clamour for new reveals and announcements which surrounds every E3. As such, EA's unlikely to win any awards for this year's effort, but it deserves a few points for its sleight of hand in an era when keeping your cards close is harder than ever, and for fronting a 2012-2013 line up with more high points than lows despite the deadline of new hardware.

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