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Embracing change: EA’s Hilleman on the real next gen

Nathan Grayson speaks to EA CCO Richard Hilleman on everything from social games to the PC revival, through SOPA to new portable hardware - and more.

The phrase “videogame executive” doesn't exactly conjure up a colorful image. You probably imagine a clean cut business type in a no-frills suit. When their mouth opens, out comes an immaculately harmonized chorus of a thousand PR reps. In all ways, they get the job done – and that's it.

And then EA chief creative officer Richard Hilleman walks up and – with his mere existence – proves your imagination wrong. Clad in plain attire and sporting long, gray hair that'd look more at home on Gandalf if he were in a '70s prog rock band, Hilleman immediately comes across as a man who marches to the beat of his own drum. He's hardly the type you'd expect to emerge after nearly 30 years toiling away under EA's roof – with credits including, among many other things, catapulting Madden Football to stratospheric levels of success.

And yet, even sitting near the top of one of gaming's most established companies, Hilleman hasn't grown complacent. He could easily keep milking the same cash cow, but he continues to search far and wide for greener pastures. For instance, he's now dabbling in social gaming of all things – a field that only intersects with football when John Madden himself logs in to water his Farmville crops.

So, what do you discuss with someone who's seen it all? Try everything. During the Games::Business::Law conference at SMU in Dallas, TX, I chatted with Hilleman about the gulf (or lack thereof) between hardcore and social gaming, EA's renewed interest in PC gaming, the future of dedicated portable gaming, piracy, and much more.

VG247: Social gaming sort of cannon-balled into the center of the industry. Some members of the old guard tried to dive out of the way, others tried to catch it, and others got crushed. Which of those categories would you say EA fell into – at least, initially? Did social gaming's popularity take you by surprise?

Richard Hilleman: I think we were more aware than almost anybody else. A lot of the early Zynga employees are actually ex-EA employees. In fact, it's almost disproportionate. It looks like an EA satellite operation sometimes.

What I think we did is we were aware of what they were doing. We were aware of the numbers they were describing. But we, in most cases, could not independently verify any of the things they said. And so we were skeptical until we could independently approve what we saw. I think we were among the first to do that, though. We did some things that allowed us to better understand what their customers were doing. And that led us to understand the value early, which is one of the reasons we made the investment in Playfish that we did. It was a piece of strategic property we could not afford to ignore.

Speaking of, EA's spent the past couple years putting together quite the dream team in both the social and casual spaces. Last year, of course, you scooped up PopCap, which is pretty much a cherry on top of a sundae that's on top of an empire. So are you planning to acquire more developers this year, or do you feel like you're finally in a good place in that respect?

Two years ago, mobile and social were new parts of EA that were doing new things. They operated outside the current console and property oriented teams. What's changed is that those two platforms are now fundamentally integrated into the way we manage those properties.

So instead of seeing one big group in EA, what you're seeing is, say, Battlefield has a mobile group and a social group, the BioWare guys have a mobile and a social group, and the sports guys have a mobile and a social group. And what they're doing is pursuing the products that align with their customers and their product loads. So I'd say what you've seen happening in EA is the mainstreaming of social gaming.

"Some of our triple-A customers and some of our mobile customers and some of our social customers were the same person. Just because they have a particular predisposition to play a shooter doesn’t mean they’re not interested in Farmville or vice versa."

So you have these wildly different versions of a game like Dragon Age – console, mobile, social, etc – and they appeal to different crowds...

I'm gonna question your supposition. One of the things that we discovered pretty early on in our experience in mobile is that some of our triple-A customers and some of our mobile customers and some of our social customers were the same person. Just because they have a particular predisposition to play a shooter doesn't mean they're not interested in Farmville or vice versa. Those take place at different places in their lives, different contexts, and with different expectations.

So I question the supposition that they're different people. They might be the same people living different parts of their lives. We think that distinction is important, because if people are playing many of the same games, that means that it's possible to better understand what gameplay is available to them next.

A lot of publishers, however, haven't integrated things quite so well. For instance, THQ took a crack at the casual space with its uDraw tablet, and now there's a frightening chance that the whole company could be drawn to un-life. Is it discouraging to see some of the industry's best and brightest get so thoroughly flattened by the giant Indiana Jones boulder that is inevitable change?

Not for me. If anybody at EA should be institutionally oriented to the status quo, it should be someone who's worked there for 28 years. But I am completely the opposite. The way I describe it is, I'm a mountain man. The minute it gets to civilized, I'm not interested. When something's new or has the opportunity to produce new options or opportunities, that's what I'm interested in.

We have an entire industry that was built by people who have remarkably short attention spans. And I'm as guilty as anybody else. If you look at my career, I run Madden for four years and then I get disinterested and do something else. That is the story of my personal career. I think the people who are most successful in this business have the same characteristic. So the fact that THQ isn't doing well means they don't have enough [of that]. I mean, it's gotta be harder for us to change than THQ. It's gotta be.

Look, I don't like it when Zynga gets bad press, and I don't like it when THQ gets bad press. There are folks at EA who think it's a “they lose, I win” type of thing. I think that's not true. We are not a business that's big enough yet where we can afford for people to make our business look bad. Regardless of who they are or what their intentions are. So if somebody writes something about Zynga that's wrong, I'm as likely to say it's wrong as anyone else is because I think misconceptions and mis-attributions in our business are just negative. They hurt everybody. They help nobody.

So I don't view it that way at all. I'm a fierce, fierce competitor, but I get the big picture.

You spent a large portion of your Game::Business::Law panel discussing social gaming's business-first, game-second mentality.

Design the business first. You cannot retrofit the business in later. Social games are completely backward in almost every way.

Right. So do you think that's where many of the cries of “exploitationware” come from?

So there are folks who are sensitive to the compulsion and addiction effects. I think the illusion is that videogames do that on accident, while social games do it on purpose. I think some of this, too, is that the core [audience of] 25 or 50 million has gotten used to having this as its exclusive domain and being the pace-makers. They did not participate in this conversation.

So the folks who grow Metacritic and the critical content of this business were not involved and missed the trend completely. By the way, they missed most of mobile too. So the net effect is that they've lost their voice of legitimacy for predicting the business. And there are only two answers to that: either you embrace it or you ridicule it. We see people playing both strategies.

"Our PC products of the past five years tended to be derivatives of our console titles. What I think you’re gonna see over the next few years is a change. Reason being, that decision limits you to too small a collection of PCs. So right now, if I try to reproduce my PS3-style gaming experiences, I shut out 95 percent of laptops on the planet. And that’s just unworkable."

Between Origin, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Battlefield 3, EA's suddenly re-embraced PC like some sort of long lost love. Other major publishers, though, are definitely inching in that direction – not moving in leaps and bounds. What, exactly, persuaded you to scoff at claims of piracy and give gaming's favorite slow-mo Transformer of a platform another go?

I'm even gonna fight back and say we never really left it. The fact is, the biggest-selling product in the PC space for the last five years has been The Sims. We have been relentless in our faithfulness to that property, and we will continue to be in the future. The PC will, of course, be a big part of that future.

What we haven't done is continue to push products that didn't work. So we built sports games that didn't necessarily sell on PC, because those customers preferred the console experience most of the time. There were a couple of exceptions. FIFA and Tiger Woods would do some business on PC. But the vast majority of the rest of the stuff didn't really work, so we didn't continue to push it.

There are cases now where our ability to integrate social, mobile, console, and PC experiences are bringing us back to the platform. Second of all, things like streaming games aren't possible unless you have a PC version. So I think what we've done is return to the PC because it represents the dominant gaming console in the world, and we can't ignore it. I think our back-off had more to do with short-term revenue than it did with anything strategic.

Our PC products of the past five years tended to be derivatives of our console titles. What I think you're gonna see over the next few years is a change. Reason being, that decision limits you to too small a collection of PCs. So right now, if I try to reproduce my PS3-style gaming experiences, I shut out 95 percent of laptops on the planet. And that's just unworkable. We kind of went too far [in that direction] on The Sims, but luckily, we're growing back into the market.

But you're gonna see us embrace machine specs that are further down. The good news is that Sandy Bridge-based Ultrabooks are really capable machines. You can't run Battlefield 3 on them, but you can run almost everything else. I mean, the new Macbooks Air runs SWTOR like a champ if you put Windows on it. So the answer is, don't run off to the future again. Don't raise your specs so high that you're disconnected from the majority of machines out there – especially laptops.

Which is interesting, because that means all that “PC gaming is dead” talk from back in the day...

...Was correct, but only because people had defined PC gaming so narrowly. PC is the biggest potential gaming platform. [In terms of] total number of people playing on it, it wins. It wins based on China alone. It wins based on one country alone.

Speaking of allegedly “dead” platforms, the vulture-and-hyena-packed peanut gallery was hungrily eying dedicated portables for the majority of last year. Then 3DS had a sales resurgence, and PS Vita started wowing crowds based on design alone – in spite of hilariously high memory card prices. So do you think people jumped the gun on that?

Look, they're both really good pieces of hardware. They're both good designs. The issues that are in front of Nintendo and Sony are not issues that they control. So here's the problem today: the iPod Touch is approximately in the same price range. And if you do the aggregate math, it's superior.

So I have an 11 year-old and a nine year-old in my house. Between the ages of zero and five, pretty much our entire relationship with those children was dominated by two devices: a DS and a portable DVD player. Our children did not travel anyplace longer than an hour without one or both of those products. Now, as a parent, the single most irritating aspect of both of those products was the amount of lost and damaged software. So I currently have a stack that tall [gestures] of DS cases my children have lost the cartridges to.

For me, that's less of an issue than it is for some people on this planet, but it's still fucking irritating. And many of them can't be replaced – meaning that they lost stuff that isn't made anymore, so I have to go dig up a used copy. Same thing with DVDs. The number of DVDs that survived more than a year without being scratched beyond the point of usefulness or lost was pretty small.

An iPod Touch gives you the ability to get one dollar games that can't get lost and rip movies that can't get lost, which means that this device has turned into all the things I needed to buy for my kid in one package with no incremental investment required afterward. And that's the problem. That's the destroyed market value that iOS has done to the handheld market. And I don't know how to get it back. I don't personally know how to get it back.

That doesn't mean there won't be a market for people who want the best immersive experience. I mean, I have a PSPgo in my bag, because I play driving games, and [iOS] blows for driving games. So I have optimized for the best experience I can get on a portable, but I'm going to be the minority. There's gonna be five million of me and five hundred million of them.

"I’ve been doing copy protection for 30 years. Nobody hates it more than me. It can’t work, and let me explain why: no matter how much time I spend on it, the community of people who break it far exceeds the amount of time I can put into it. So, it’s one guy on one side of the door and 6,000 on the other. I’m just gonna lose. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when."

Meanwhile, a million miles away from that topic, SOPA/PIPA. The Internet rose up, those went down, and Civil War II: The Warcraft Wars didn't occur. But piracy's still alive and well, and – while it's not sinking the industry – it is putting quite a bit of strain on it. So what's the next step? And can it get any dumber than horrifically misinformed laws and DRM? Because I want to keep my faith in humanity, but it's getting kind of hard.

I've been doing copy protection for 30 years. Nobody hates it more than me. It can't work, and let me explain why: no matter how much time I spend on it, the community of people who break it far exceeds the amount of time I can put into it. So, it's one guy on one side of the door and 6,000 on the other. I'm just gonna lose. It's not a matter of if; it's a matter of when.

What's changed things – from my perspective – is the degree to which the user wants online play. The minute that the user wants online play, it means that he cares about who he is in that game and what his achievements stand for. Once that's true, you become the primary defender for my intellectual property. When you have a status in my game, you don't want someone else to abuse that status and break it. So suddenly, you've gone from being my opponent in the piracy contest to being one of my guards. That is the only solution. It's to give you enough value on the other end of that wire that you want me to know who you are.

So the best answer is to change the piracy dynamic by changing the partnership. So it's not us against the world; it's us and our customers against piracy. Suddenly, we outnumber the pirates for a change.

So then, SOPA/PIPA also get a big thumbs down from you?

It gives us some judicial tools to prosecute pirates that we never had before. So just because a law overreached doesn't mean it wasn't trying to do something that needs to be done. I would hope that what comes out of this is a re-examination of it.

For instance, John Stewart took the Senate hearings for the bill and showed the parts where they were all saying, “You know what we need here? We need a nerd.” As John Stewart said, “I got a hint for you. They're called experts.” You call them about everything else.

So the point here is that SOPA as a piece of legislation was incomplete and unfinished. I think it will get fixed. I don't think that's such a bad outcome.


About the Author

Nathan Grayson


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