EA entered its fiscal year 2012 on Friday, and is now looking at a product slate likely to define not only the next 12 months in games, but third-party publishing in this generation full stop.
A far cry from its all-things-evil days, EA's star is on the ascendency. The mega-publisher is wooing disenchanted gamers with dedication to new IP, a public disdain for complacent sequel churning, and a progressive attitude to digital distribution and platforms.
After a depressing 2009, EA clawed back in 2010 and with a stellar line up, some goldmine properties, and the likelihood of a year chokers with new announces to keep us keen, 2011 may be its best year ever.
Up, up and away
In February, EA raised eyebrows in the financial world by announcing a $600 million share buyback, its first since 2004. While this move advertised the publisher's confidence in new strategies, it did more than convince investors to keep share prices high - it also granted EA just a little more financial independence from the vagaries of shareholders.
This is important, because EA has twigged to something many gamers have been avowing for years: the investor-friendly approach to games publication stagnates and may ultimately harm the industry. The "milking" attitude of recent years -over-saturated sequels and rushed development, which analysts call the "Blitzkrieg" approach - leads to amazing profits, but has analogies with the steep decline which smashed the games industry in 1983.
EA has bought itself some more breathing room to focus on the slow build of carefully nurtured new franchises like Dead Space; low-earning forays into more explorative development; the resurrection of older properties; digital distribution; and social and mobile gaming - all concepts anathema to conservative investors.
EA's 2011 Fiscal year ended on Friday, in all the fanfare of Crysis 2, reliable license Tiger Woods with PGA Tour 12, and, tellingly, the launch of freemium Facebook title World Series Superstars, developed by PlayFish using the EA Sports license. FY 2012, known to those of us at home as "April 2011 to March 2012," kicks off this week - and you can expect it to kick hard.
Fiscal Year 2012
After a short pause to catch its breath, EA kicks of FY12 with Portal 2. EA's distribution deal with Valve is something fans of the latter tend to overlook, but this apparently mutually satisfactory business arrangement is likely to be a major player in EA's first quarter. Look for it on April 19 in the US, and April 21 everywhere else.
EA has bought itself some more breathing room to focus on concepts anathema to conservative investors.
Next up is Darkspore. Built by EA Maxis on the Spore engine, this PC exclusive was delayed from March for a last round of polishing and testing - a frustrating decision for eager fans, but one which may help woo back alienated PC gamers. The action RPG-strategy hybrid launches on April 26 in the US and April 28 in Europe.
Things go quiet for a few months in the build up to Northern summer, but June 7 brings Shadows of the Damned, a collaboration between the eccentric Goichi Suda and Resident Evil creator Shinji Mikami, to PC, PS3 and 360. Western hype is low, but the Grasshopper Manufacture fanbase is gleefully anticipating an over the top descent into hell.
Just a week later, American McGee answers the decade old prayers of fan with Alice: Madness Returns. Sequel to a massive cult hit, the multi-platform release drops on June 14 and will take a hearty slice of the nostalgia dollar as well as the gloom-and-doom crowd.
Normally we'd see a new Madden in June or July, but with strikes putting this year's NFL season in jeopardy, EA hasn't put a date on it. Reports suggest a delay, but EA Sports is unlikely to skip a year altogether. To keep sports fans sweet, July 12 brings the NCAA Football 12 on major consoles.
After observing another traditional lull, EA Sports will strike back with NHL 12, FIFA 12, and FIFA Manager 12, all of which will likely appear between early September and the end of October on every possible platform. Perfect exceptions to the annual-sequel-of-death curse, these yearly titles are sure to perform as well or even better than their precursors.
The Big Guns
As Christmas draws near, the big guns come out. Battlefield 3, the first core entry in the series for over six years, debuts on November 2 on the major platforms. The hype is already powerful, and has barely begun to ramp; this will be major, even if it turns out to be a platformer about a an adorable puppy and crashes every thirteen seconds. Which it won't.
Mass Effect 3 is yet to be dated, but EA will get BioWare's dead cert smash in before the Christmas shopping period ends. A major stocking filler, and the first to hit all three platforms simultaneously, the final entry in Commander Sheperd's adventures will likely outsell both its forebears.
Sliding into 2012, EA has the next entry in the SSX series scheduled for the post-holiday period.
Other less certain releases in the closing quarters of FY12 include the long-rumoured Syndicate, and a Need for Speed title from Black Box, possibly a follow up to 2008's Undercover.
Somewhere among all this, EA and BioWare will unleash the beast: Star Wars: The Old Republic. Investors are wary of the MMO gamble, but with two major draw cards - an incredible license, and one of the highest-ranked RPG developers - EA is backing it all the way, to the tune of an unconfirmed $100 million investment.
EA has already said that the game will release this calendar year.
2011 events, reveals and announces
Despite Dead Space 2's strong performance, EA is unlikely to reveal Dead Space 3 at either E3 or gamescom. Riccitiello's comments at the 2011 Goldman Sachs Technology Conference suggest the publisher is turning away from the industry's reliance on rapidly-developed sequels, despite their attraction for shareholders. This is the franchise's "off year"; 2010's Dead Space 2 release almost exactly two years after the original, and made no showing in the first round of events between the two. However, EA may reveal a less resource-intensive spin-off or port, as it did with Wii prequel Dead Space: Extraction at E3 2009.
A surprise reveal may come out of EA Los Angeles at E3. The Danger Close team, responsible for Medal of Honor's single player campaign, has been hiring, and the wider studio has been chasing a multiplayer network expert. Danger Close has already confirmed it's working on the next Medal of Honor, and EA may want to release a major expansion soon.
The next entry in the Need for Speed series, in development at Black Box for over almost two and a half years, is almost certain to appear at E3.
EA LA will also probably reveal one or more mobile titles at gamescom rather than E3, based on recent recruitment, the rapid turn around of smaller titles, and the German event's friendlier attitude to non-core titles. If so, expect something based on Pandemic property Mercenaries, as well as tie-ins to current and upcoming properties as EA exploits the cross-platform potential revealed by apps like Autolog.
EA Canada, Salt Lake, and Montreal are also likely to unveil new mobile or digital-only titles this year, although EA Montreal's suspicious silence may be leading up to a new Army of Two at E3.
EA's newly-forged strategy studio, Victory Games, is unlikely to make an appearance with the new Command & Conquer so early in development, but it may turn up at gamescom. With so much other stuff going on, though, don't bet the farm on it.
EAP's question marks
EA Partners is a whole new world of doubt and speculation, but one thing seems certain: this will be the year we see Starbreeze's rumoured Syndicate. The game's long development period suggests it will probably be ready by E3, and would benefit from the hype ahead of a possible 2011 release, but EA may choose to take the game to gamescom to cater to its strong European fanbase.
Funcom's The Secret World is expected to build on past appearances by showing up to both major western shows as well as the Tokyo Game Show, but Funcom is taking a "done when its done" approach and EA seems unconcerned with hurrying along a low-resource distribution arrangement.
Respawn Entertainment, the studio largely composed of ex-Infinity Ward staffers, is unlikely to make a showing this year, although an announcement and tease cinematic may come out of E3. If not, EA is likely to keep the reveal for E3 2012 rather than debut at gamescom.
Likewise Insomniac Games' secret project, which was only announced in March, is unlikely to see an official reveal this year, as the studio continues Resistance 3 development.
Whichever way you look at it, though. the next 12 months for EA are certain to be banner. Expect a major update on the company's titles from this week's European spring showcase in London.