Now that Electronic Arts has purchased Playfish for up to $400 million to help it hasten the transition from retail package dependency to a more digital focus, what can we expect? Looking at the quotes from COO Sebastian de Halleux in the press and today’s EA earnings call might provide some clues:
“I can say that we’ll be working first to take our own IP and share it across EA’s other platforms.” – de Halleux on PaidContent.org
You can definitely see IP like Pet Society and Restaurant City being extended to the Nintendo DS and possibly for the Wii – they nicely fit the demographics of these more “casual” platforms. These games also have core social components that could take advantage of the connectivity being introduced via these devices. But a first priority? That surprises me.
“The basics is that this is not going to change anything much for users, specifically — only that some of the franchises in the hardcore space will be looked at more seriously [in terms of social gaming]” – de Halleux on games.com.
Where the first quote talks about extending Playfish IP to the EA’s core platforms, this looks at EA leveraging Playfish knowhow to bring their games to the social space. But I’m puzzled by the focus on “Hardcore” titles like Madden, Tiger Woods, Battlefront for a couple reasons:
- The audience for the “hard core” games is predominately male, while Facebook has become more and more female
- Social activity in sports games is typically head-to-head and that usually is synchronous play – most of the big social games that reach the masses are at their core asynchronous. Madden has had difficulties in creating a great online head-to-head league-style playoffs in the past because you need to sustain 32 users for a considerable commitment of time (if someone in your league takes off on vacation, the whole playoff process is delayed). This year they finally introduced computer-controlled teams to try to alleviate the issue of people dropping out.
- Sports/hard core games typically require a dedication of a chunk of time to play, whereas social games on Facebook are relatively short-play, ten to 15 minute games. The challenge on bringing Madden or Tiger Woods to a platform like Facebook is how to capture the essence of a sports match but break it down into a five to ten minutes of gameplay.
While there is no question there is a niche that is under-served, it would seem that the surer bet is to focus on bringing EA’s most successful casual content from the pogo.com brand on to Facebook – the casual player is migrating from the Pogos of the world to Facebook. Poppit, Word Whomp, Jungle Gin already have created socially engaging games where users work together to “rescue” fellow players and seem to be a natural extension for the Facebook platform.
But that wasn’t mentioned at all today during EA’s earning’s call. Instead, for guidance about the titles Playfish might work on, they suggested “looking at top mobile games that we have.” Those top titles? Pretty much the blockbusters:
- Tetris and Bejeweled (not sure of the rights for Tetris and doubt PopCap is likely to give them rights for Facebook since they are already there with Bejeweld Blitz)
- The Sims
- Need for Speed
- EA Sports titles: Madden, FIFA, Tiger Woods
- Hasbro titles: Monopoly, Yahtzee and Scrabble
Today’s additional announcements (EA cutting 1,500 jobs for games below 2 million units in sales that wasn’t a Hasbro or Sims title) further refine the scope (they’re going from the mid-60 titles of two years ago to the mid-30 titles next year). Then listen to EA Games Label Presient Frank Gibeau from today’s call: “[Free to play] opens up new access points to experience the game and upsell [to the full game].”
The conclusion I’m drawn to is that the EA brass sees Playfish as a way to help port their quickly narrowing list of existing IP and to use the channel to sell the full-blown games. Publishers like PopCap have already learned you can’t take a download game like the aforementioned Bejeweled and just put it on Facebook – they’ve actually re-worked the IP and introduced Bejeweled Blitz, to create a game that organically works within the Facebook platform. And as I mentioned earlier, focus on sports titles have their own unique challenges.
So while I think EA made a great acquisition in Playfish, my concern is that they don’t totally understand what they’ve bought or where the synergies are. Yes, there is no question you can take existing blockbuster IP and figure out ways to make it social – but I wonder if already-social games from the Pogo.com platform are a better fit for Facebook. Further, if Playfish is focusing on figuring out how to port the blockbusters, will EA also give them the leeway to create new titles outside the quickly narrowing EA scope (or is that pretty much a greenlight for other developers to stake out their claim knowing Playfish won’t have the bandwidth to compete)?
I am certain the strong team at Playfish will help focus EA on how to really leverage Facebook, I just hope the team at EA listens.
More Signs of a Game Industry in Transition
One astute analyst during the call asked the EA team if they thought some of the decline in console retail market was because of time competition with Facebook (e.g. more users spending time on Facebook – and ostensibly playing games – instead of playing console games). John Shappert, COO, responded “I think the economy is impacting footfall at retail; people are still playing and buying, but they are being more selective; Playfish opens up doors to folks that aren’t console players.”
Once I tweeted that response, I immediately got back one from David Scott, Founder of Casual Collective: I was in my local Game store and this guy’s wife said to him “leave it, I’m just going to play that farm game.” (I kid you not).