EA Sports seeks to keep up with mobile explosion

Jul 11, 2012 By Walter Pacheco

As the world of electronic games rapidly changes, so does EA Sports.

The industry is evolving from expensive console games to free or cheap online, mobile and . Maitland-based EA Sports, a brand of global gaming giant Electronic Arts, is seeking to keep pace on several fronts, its leaders say.

Later this year, it will launch new versions of its "" and "FIFA" titles - two of its powerhouse franchises - to incorporate and social-sharing features through Facebook and , , and iPod touch and Android devices.

The company also plans to nurture the next generation of at the EA Sports Innovation Lab it opened June 22 with the Florida Academy, part of the University of Central Florida.

"We've changed how we are organized as a company and how we deliver content and what that content is," said Daryl Holt, EA Sports chief operating officer and vice president. "We feel really good about the future. We've grown a business even in what seems to be a very picky and challenging market."

Computers along the hallways of EA Sports' main campus in Maitland are constantly playing millions of sessions of online games to test how they are performing in the real world. Small teams of developers now gather daily along those same hallways for 15 to 20 minutes daily to discuss goals met the previous day and what each member will work on.

"It used to be that each member of a team was in charge of one aspect of a game, but now each of them knows about and takes part in the development of every part of a game," said Holt, whose company employs about 800 in Maitland.

Officials said pairing franchise games with social, digital and , as well as allowing gamers to play from one device to another will grow Electronic Arts' position in the industry.

"The true value of games for Electronic Arts isn't to be strong on one platform, but to strengthen them across Facebook, console, digital and mobile," said Andrew Wilson, head of . "We want to tie these games together for players no matter where they're at and on what device they're playing."

EA is moving ahead, too. In July it is expected to unveil new titles for Nintendo's new Wii U, a console with a large touch-screen controller similar to a tablet.

made financial strides with its digital content last fiscal year, reporting a digital revenue stream of $1.2 billion - nearly 30 percent of its $4.1 billion annual revenue. But its overall mobile platform isn't as strong. It has nearly 170 apps in the iTunes App Store, and as of Friday, none was listed in the top 10 games - free or paid.

EA also has some catching up to do on Facebook, the social network that reaches nearly 1 billion users worldwide.

AppData.com, an independent company that measures app metrics on Facebook, shows EA ranks at No. 8 with more than 40 million gamers playing its 24 social games every month. Zynga, the top app publisher in the social-gaming industry, has more than 251 million users playing its 89 games.

EA is hoping to change that later this year by launching "SimCity Social" on Facebook. The app will compete against Zynga's "CityVille," played by nearly 30 million users.

An important key to EA's gaming future is the talent it hires to produce games and applications as the tide shifts toward more social interaction between players.

UCF officials said Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy's curriculum, which is closely monitored by EA, is reflecting those changes in the industry.

"We often get requests from EA to make sure we are teaching students now what is relevant to what they need," said Rick Hall, production director at FIEA. "Some of our projects are specifically mobile, where our students post their work on iTunes."

Despite the changes in the gaming industry and the decline of the console game, Wilson feels strongly that EA's console franchise games will remain relevant to the company.

"Gamers are playing them longer, and we deliver digital content to extend that entertainment," he said.

While console games can turn a large profit for powerhouse companies such as EA, experts say there's more to lose if packaged games fail.

"EA has a large staff that can work on a single console game for years with a budget parallel to a major blockbuster movie. The stakes are high," said Orlando, Fla., game developer Carlos Carbonell of Echo Interaction Group. "But take smaller groups who can work on a social with a smaller budget and the profit, if it succeeds, could be much larger than a blockbuster. If it doesn't pan out? Well, there wasn't much invested."

Carbonell also said the prize for a small developer might not be money.

"Sometimes profitability is not important when the games are reaching more than 10 million people on ," he said.

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