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Challenging everything

EA talks this year's line-up, next-gen gaming and sequelitis.

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Image credit: Eurogamer

Last week, Electronic Arts held its annual games expo, this year titled Studio Showcase '06, at its Redwood Shores campus in San Francisco. Rather disappointingly, corporate communications VP Jeff Brown opened the event by announcing which games we weren't about to be shown - such as Command & Conquer 3, Crysis and next-gen FIFA.

However, we still got the chance to have a go at new instalments in the Tiger Woods and Need for Speed series, not to mention all manner of US sports titles, Warhammer Online, Superman Returns and the Xbox 360 version of the Godfather.

We also got the chance to sit down for a chat with Brown, and discuss how strong EA's line-up is looking, who's got the best chance of winning the next-gen console war, and whether it's fair to say that EA relies too much on sequels instead of producing more original IP... Read on to find out what he had to say.

Eurogamer With regard to the product line-up you've presented today, what kind of feedback are you receiving so far?
Jeff Brown

I was just saying to somebody, the thing that worries me the most is that people are so enthusiastic about the NHL Hockey game, which is not considered one of our big games - but everybody thinks it looks absolutely fantastic. It's a mixed blessing; number one, they all like it, but number two, hockey - from a business perspective, you never know if you're going to sell that many NHL Hockey games.

That said, I think the line-up at Christmas this year is an embarrassment of riches. I think we're going into the holiday with a lot of good games on a lot of good systems, whether it's 360 or Wii or PlayStation 3 or the current generation stuff for the PC... [We've got] more games for those systems than anybody else, and in many cases before anybody else gets there. So, the business equation is looking very, very good, and if I was a gamer in the UK, a gamer in Europe, I'd say, yeah, it's worth buying one of these systems, because there's a lot of really great software coming out.

Eurogamer Would you say that EA is equally committed to all three next-gen platforms?
Jeff Brown

No. I don't want to be indiscreet, but the truth is EA is most committed to the platform with the biggest installed base. We've always been very practical and open about the fact that this is a business; if you do well in business, you get to keep making more games, and you can hire more people to make more different kinds of games - as long as you remember that this is a business first.

One of the things that we noticed after E3 is we thought, you know, we're going to support Nintendo, they've got an extraordinarily loyal base of consumers all over the world, and we had a number of games we planned to make for Nintendo Wii. That said, we were very surprised by the level of enthusiasm we saw at E3 and subsequently for the Wii.

This is not a business plan, but there are a lot of people at EA who are walking around whispering: "40 / 40 / 20 per cent." The last time out, it was 65-70 per cent PlayStation, and everybody else divided up the 30 per cent that was left. Microsoft obviously took a big piece. Now it looks like 40 / 40 / 20 - Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo - and that is good for us, and it's good for people who like games.

Here's another thing that I think trends well for both the business and for consumers: everybody's saying that the Nintendo Wii is so unique that it's going to be the second system people buy, meaning if you own a 360 or a PS3, you'll probably also buy a Nintendo Wii. The funny thing is, some people say that discursively, like it's some sort of dig at Nintendo - and what they don't get is that if you're second on everybody's system, you're first overall.

It is very possible that Nintendo is going to expand its market by being the second system, that people who are hardcore and own a 360 or a PlayStation 3 will also go and buy a Nintendo Wii because it is so unique and so different this time. Whereas they didn't also want a GameCube against an Xbox or against a PS2, they'll go out and buy it, because it's a different experience.

If you look at what EA's doing with the Wii... Today we showed off Madden NFL on the 360 and I've seen it on PlayStation 3, and there are some differences between the two but they're largely the same experience. The Wii is a totally different experience, and if you like Madden NFL on 360, you still don't know what it's like on the Wii - it's a completely different experience.

That just opens up so many possibilities. First for gamers, that there's different kinds of games, different kinds of experiences. And then second, as a business prospect, you look at what the motion picture business calls ancillary markets - you get people to come to the movie theatre, then you get them to buy a DVD, then you sell a package to cable television, and it cascades down again and again. Well, you get ancillary markets against an initial investment in the code with this thing. From both the consumer perspective and a business perspective, the Wii changes a lot of things.

But your question was are we favouring one or the other, and we favour the one that has the highest installed base, the one with the most consumers. If it's a choice - I'm guessing now - between seven million 360s around the world versus, first month, one million PlayStation 3s, well, guess which one we're going to favour. It's pretty simple. That said, keep an eye on the Wii - that is a very interesting dynamic.

Battlefield 2142.
Eurogamer So perhaps it might not be 40 / 40 / 20 then?
Jeff Brown

Let me tell you, if they get up to 20 per cent worldwide, that is a momentous event right there. Look, I'm not predicting it's 40 / 40 / 20, and I hope you understand that is not EA's business model - I'm just telling you that the buzz going around is that rather than this huge, lopsided victory for one, and then a pretty good number two and a distant third, you can see some parity for the top two. You could even see 30 / 30 / 30, something like that.

Eurogamer What do you think about the PlayStation 3's price point? Do you think that's going to damage its chances of being the market leader this time around?
Jeff Brown

Say what you will about the PlayStation 3, we know this as fact: Sony Computer Entertainment and Sony Corporation are very, very, very good at marketing consumer electronics. These guys aren't dumb. I wish it was cheap - look, at EA, we wish there was a $200 PlayStation 3 out there; we love big, big numbers on installed base.

But they have a business that they have to maintain, that's the price point they came to. Is it a little high? Perhaps it is, but I would never underestimate their ability to market consumer electronics. Again and again, they've really distinguished themselves. Does it hurt them? It certainly remains to be seen. I wouldn't say that yet.

Eurogamer There seems to be a feeling amongst gamers that Sony's been very arrogant, not just with the price point, but by suggesting that it's cheap since consumers are getting a lot of hardware for their money - and that this is actually damaging Sony and the PlayStation brand. Do you think that kind of criticism is fair?
Jeff Brown

I don't think it's fair. And at the risk of sounding arrogant myself, I don't think it's relevant. I've been in this business for seven years, which is not a long time, but it's long enough to have seen a couple of cycles of hardware, and I know that there are always trips and stumbles at the start of these things.

Everybody writes these big stories like 'Oh my God, what will this mean? Will they stumble for the next for years, can they recover?' When Sony first put out the PlayStation 2 there were hardware shortages, and some manufacturing glitches, and everybody was like 'Can they recover?' If you watch that cycle, then certainly you know that whatever people are saying now - could it be a stumbling block - remains to be seen. I give Sony a lot of credit and would never ever underestimate them.