Electronic Arts was the only game publisher using the 2009 International Consumer Electronic Show (CES) to debut brand new games to attending journalists, analysts and consumers. The key focus of this year's show was on casual games like The Sims 3, new Hasbro installments like Trivial Pursuit, Scrabble for Nintendo DS and PSP and a suite of new Xbox Live Arcade games called the Hasbro Family Game Night. Chip Lange, EA Hasbro vice president and general manager, talked about the year-round business of casual games and what the future of interactive entertainment looks like in this exclusive interview.
How is EA using this year's CES show?
Casual is one of the biggest stories at EA right now. We have business partner meetings at the show in order to strike strategic deals. There will be press benefit for getting our news out there and that should help retail channel because they'll certainly hear the momentum we're generating at the show.
Why did you choose to use CES to show new games to press?
We have a pretty diverse line-up. I think when you look year on year, what we're doing is showing that we have a lot of momentum in this family and casual space and there's a lot of focus and investment and innovation happening at this company. I think it was missed over the holiday season because there were so many big blockbuster EA games. One of the things EA is focusing on to make this a priority at the show is making sure everybody realizes we've invested and we have some very strong franchises in this space that are representative of a strategic shift for this company.
What are the key games for the show?
The big tentpole launch at CES is The Sims 3. It's the number one selling PC game of all time and it's one of the most popular brands in the interactive entertainment space. The team has done an amazing job of rebuilding that franchise and adding a lot of innovation to it. We have Littlest PetShop, which was a phenomenal success this holiday -- which the NPD numbers will verify when they come out. To show this is an on-going franchise and an annual business, we have a spring release showcased. We have our Casual Family like SimAnimals, which is a new extension of the Sim family.
What is EA doing when it comes to Wii games and trends for that platform?
Party games have been very popular on Wii and MySims Family offers party mechanics as well as characters that can have individual traits. Trivial Pursuit, one of the most popular Hasbro brands, now has a new party game that can entertain a group of people in the room. We freshened it up and made it a fun game. If you look at some of the trends we've seen recently with games like Rock Band and Guitar Hero, people are coming together and using video games as an entertainment platform for parties and the Trivial Pursuit game that we're demonstrating really takes advantage of that mechanic. Celebrity Sports Showdown will also be at CES.
What's new in the Hasbro video game partnership?
We're really excited about Scrabble and all the success we've had with that in the social networking space, on phones and on Pogo. Now we're moving onto consoles and portables and XBL. This is the first time people are going to get their hands on our whole suite of connected console products for the Arcade. We'll be showing Scrabble, Connect Four, Yahtzee, Battleship, Boggle, Sorry and Sorry Sliders. The innovative part about that is these games are all available individually but you're going to be playing in this digital gaming room. You'll be able to easily pull another game off the digital gaming shelf.
EA took some flack from consumers and press when Scrabble replaced Scrabulous on Facebook last year and the game didn't offer as robust an experience. What's EA doing about that?
Scrabble is a living product and we're constantly improving it. One of the things I'm proud about how we handled that whole thing is that we were proactive in that. We had a feedback button on our product that we listened to. We had monthly meetings where we consolidated the top feedback that came out of the community and we would modify our development schedule based on what consumers were asking for. A lot of the later developments like being able to type your letters and making animations an option rather than a default on to deal with latency issues for slower PCs all came from the message boards. We continue to evolve the game based on feedback from the community. We did launch it in beta form and evolved it but I feel like we did a pretty good job listening to gamers and updating it.
Is Facebook going to be an avenue for more games like Scrabble for EA?
Absolutely. We feel like it's a real dynamic social platform and it's not just Facebook, it's the whole open social network communities out there.
How challenging is it to get today's gaming press to focus on casual games amidst all of the big blockbuster games that crowd E3 and other trade shows?
It's a challenge, but I think it's a challenge that started a lesson. I think people have realized that the video game market has grown from being just a series of core holiday blockbusters to being a global male/female interactive platform for all ages. I think the most astute analysts and writers on our business no longer have to be convinced of that. They're looking for the evidence of that. I feel like CES is an opportunity, and a place to showcase the evidence of that market change. I think E3 will be more of that. People are going to come looking for it. We get that there are now girls, families and moms playing... what's EA doing about it and what are its competitors doing about it? We're going to be making our best case that our offerings for that aggregated global and expanded audience are better than everybody else's.
Does Toy Fair in New York become more important for casual games because of the audience it attracts?
Toy Fair becomes a big deal because of the message of the type of products we're bringing but also because of our partnership with Hasbro. There's no bigger company at Toy Fair than Hasbro and we're one of Hasbro's largest and most strategic partners. We present our products together.
Given all the hype surrounding the big blockbuster games at E3, should casual games be separate from E3?
No. I think E3 needs to change to be able to look at the entire interactive industry of which this category is now firmly implanted as a component of it. I would look more for E3 and the attendees at E3 to start coming to see casual as one of the key tentpoles just as they did with sports. I was working in sports when that became a key tentpole. We felt like the industry changed and people needed to change their expectations. I think the casual line-up in every company is a core component of the stories we're telling and it's now a core component of the interactive audience. And that's what the show is about.
What has EA learned about the Wii in terms of trying to crack the first-party sales stranglehold Nintendo has had with games on that console?
I think the challenge with Wii...it's a unique platform in the way you interact with it, it's unique in its consumer base and its unique in its family orientation. The game I'm the most proud of that I think has made some in-roads in breaking that stranglehold in the charts is Nerf. What we did with Nerf was we embraced the controller mechanic and we figured out how to innovate upon it both in terms of the game and the way you use the controller with the blaster we released. When the NPD figures come out you'll see consumers agreed with us that that's the type of innovation they'll reward on the Wii. I think it's treating that platform as a unique opportunity and delivering unique experiences for that platform. It's harder to port your way to success on the Wii, but if you really focus on it there's enough of an installed base there so that you'll be rewarded.
What are your thoughts on the pack-in game, Wii Sports, which remains so popular with casual and new gamers. Do you think not having a pack-in game might result in more third-party Wii sales?
I think Wii Sports gets people hooked to the experience and then it's up to us to figure out how to extend that experience. I'd rather people be engaged in the platform and loving the stuff that's there because an engaged consumer is a great opportunity for me to sell new products and new extensions to. I think that's what you've seen with what we've done with the EA Sports brand and the Nerf game.
Where do you see the casual games space evolving in the video game business five to 10 years from now?
I think there's no longer going to be a stigma about who games. If you talk to second or third graders now there's no longer a stigma of who games. In five or 10 years, everybody will game just like everybody watches TV or goes to the movies. Games won't be this fringe entertainment option. The industry will evolve to support and enable products for all of these audiences. There will still be blockbusters for the 18 to 34 year old men in the games space just like there are blockbusters for the 18 to 34 year old male in the movie space and for TV. But there will also be blockbusters for 6 to 8 year old girls and blockbusters for 30-something moms. It's no longer going to be taking a risk. You don't look at Desperate Housewives as taking a risk on that show. Casual won't be a division, it will just be part of the landscape.
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