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Riccitiello's EA not afraid of risks

"It's very easy to sequel a product."

Dark blue icons of video game controllers on a light blue background
Image credit: Eurogamer

Other companies making sports games wait for new consoles before they take risks - but EA doesn't, not any more, head honcho John Riccitiello has boasted.

Take the recent decision to pull NBA Elite: the basketball game wasn't ready because it was more ambitious than a routine annual sequel should be, apparently, and delays aren't an option when you need to stay toe-to-toe with a real-life sporting season - fans won't tolerate it.

So EA handed NBA 2K11 a golden platter: a rival-free season of sales.

But, Riccitiello told Kotaku, "I'm actually kind of hard-pressed to find a constituency that is less well off from the decision we made.

"A more important [point] is: it's very easy to sequel a product when you don't seek to change it very much. If you seek to change it fundamentally you're inherently taking a sizeable risk. When you seek to change something that is on an annual sequel basis you're taking a really sizeable risk, because if the technology you're betting on doesn't come together in the first or second cut, you don't make your window.

"From time to time we take those risks; usually, in the sports game business only during a platform technology transition. But sometimes, like we did with FIFA, not during a technology transition. We took a similarly ambitious move four years ago with FIFA and pulled it off – in the same studio with many of the same people.

"People admire game companies that take risks," Riccitiello went on, "but in retrospect they only seem to admire game companies that take risks when the risks work.

"That's not a risk any more if you only take risks that work. I think of it as like skiing: if you occasionally don't fall down, you're not trying hard enough."

Those NBA Elite controls.

NBA Elite rethought the way a basketball game could be controlled. By mapping controls to the analogue stick - as in FIFA, as in Fight Night - a new world of opportunities sprung to life. But what Riccitiello said EA was trying to do was make a two-year game in 18 months.

"We [were] in the middle of a nail-biter," Riccitiello recalled. "The demo goes out. We final the game. We do an internal review. We're not happy. Interaction between the label and sales organisation says the game is likely to be a 60 or something along those lines essentially for the fact that it wasn't finished. What do you do?

"There aren't many decisions that are essentially squarely on my desk. This was one."

Had NBA Elite gone on sale (it very nearly did), Riccitiello believes his game would have lost 5:1 to NBA 2K11 in sales. Worse, EA would have tarnished its reputation and become known as "one to ship secondary spots titles".

"You'd be shocked at how many last-minute decisions are made," Riccitiello revealed.

"In most games, whether it's Crysis 2 or GTA or Red Dead Redemption or, I don't know, Blur - there isn't a locked window when the product needs to hit the shelves [in order] to compete with the sports season," said Riccitiello.

"What most people would have done, if this was a shooter or a Sims game, is say, 'Look, there is no season for Sims, there is no season for shooters.' The team would never have mastered the game. They would have kept it in production, waved the white flag apology, put it into three or four months of development and delayed the game.

"But there's no basketball [season] then," he added, "there's no sequel that's necessary a year later."

Does that mean there will be an NBA Elite game next year? "We're EA Sports, for Christ's sake," Riccitiello blurted enigmatically.

All in all, EA reckons you weren't hard done by because there was still NBA Jam available to buy. And, being a positive person, Riccitiello thinks the extra space afforded to that title was a good thing.

NBA Jam was released at the end of November. What did Eurogamer think? . "A stripped-down version with just the Classic Campaign and a multiplayer mode would have made for a cracking downloadable release; as it stands, NBA Jam is a very good remake of a classic arcade game that's unfortunately surrounded by a lot of unnecessary fluff."

The first 15 minuts of NBA Jam.

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