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EA press conference illuminates industry challenges, FPS fatigue

EA press conference illuminates industry challenges, FPS fatigue Exclusive

June 4, 2012 | By Leigh Alexander

Cheering at E3 is always controversial, but what about ironic cheering? At its Monday press conference, Electronic Arts certainly got a smattering of that during its intro video, as logos for its Sims, Pogo and other casual brands flew across the screen (after The Old Republic and Crysis 3, but still).

The company has an understandable challenge at E3, in that hardcore gamers have traditionally not gotten excited about social or casual games - and yet being ahead of the curve on the games industry's transition to multiplatform digital titles and the long-term software-as-service model is essential to its strategy.

That's obvious business sense, and even core console gamers will benefit from a business model that prizes long-lived and regularly-updated brands. It's just not as in-your-face as, say, the Dead Space 3 gameplay EA debuted first.

A stream of media nonplussed at the few high-impact announcements at Microsoft trickled directly from that event to EA's without much anticipation; EA is fairly risk-averse with its brand portfolio and can be relied on to tout its few big annual brands and its sports titles, alongside focusing much of its attention on the less-flashy mobile and social sphere.

The Dead Space 3 reveal was met with thunderous applause, and one wonders if publishers like EA must double down on amplifying the explosions, alien spatter and action sequences if it's to hold the attention of the traditional gamer.

With its 2013 installment, EA's Madden franchise marches reliably on toward greater football simulation experience, and charismatic Hall of Fame wide receiver Michael Irvin made a stage appearance to talk about building a career in football - a tie in to the gameplay progression in Madden's connected careers feature that tracks a player's narrative arc through RPG-like features and XP allocation.

Sports presentations often receive muted receptions at E3 (EA served Nerds along with other candies in the Orpheum Theater lobby, in what was probably a coincidence). But familiar gameplay features and accessible ones, like a fictional in-game Twitter feed that reacts to what players do - seemed to receive a warm reception.

EA's long been anticipated to release a version of Sim City on Facebook; the Sim brands under its Maxis label seem like an obvious fit for the social platform, where interaction and world-building are the current leading design paradigm.

Maxis head Lucy Bradshaw described a fresh approach to the city-building genre, promising elaborate ecosystems where friends' actions would affect one another. "More City, Less Ville," declared the trailer, as a bright purple UFO beamed away a cow.

Gunning for Zynga is always a popular stance, even though it'll take a much deeper look at the game mechanics to know how, exactly, Sim City on Facebook aims to offer a meaningful alternative; EA's Sims game on Facebook adopted almost precisely the same friction-heavy, notification-dependent mechanics that Zynga emblemizes.

Value adds that build deeper long-term relationships with fans around a game beyond a simple purchase are also a popular arena for major publishers looking to keep core brands relevant and lucrative. EA's Battlefield 3 Premium is a membership program for the game's 13 million fans available immediately, and players that sign up earn additional game modes, five themed expansion packs, early access and other perks.

The relationship traditional publishers need to have with consumers now around AAA content relies on using content updates and access privileges to offer the most perceived value for the least possible cost increase, with the lowest possible friction to try before you buy. BioWare promises Star Wars: The Old Republic will to "set a new standard for premium MMO content" with its upcoming updates, and for now playing is free up until level 15.

Here's the interesting thing: EA showed some Battlefield 3, some Medal of Honor: Warfighter -- how many videos that stare down a sight scope amid explosions and debris must we watch this week? Social media lit up with jokes about how Duty this, Medal that and War Battle et cetera were all starting to blur together.

Even developers seem a little fatigued with their marketing-scripted recitations, and it's telling that Microsoft's event felt light to most people when it comes to exciting game content.

The first-person shooter brought Activision - and by association, the game industry - stunning new benchmarks for earning potential that we might never have conceived of, but it's this E3 that raises the clearest flags about the genre attaining saturation, probably even fatigue.

Even when Crytek gave its vaunted talk about the technology and new environments that it hopes will make Crysis 3 visually incredible (must say, it looks that way), it was hard to care.

EA has incredibly strong brands and the advantage of spending years hoping to build over its rivals in terms of penetrating the connected social entertainment space. Grabbing some specific licenses with incredibly passionate fans - as EA's done by managing to score a multi-year UFC license- is also a way to assemble some a la carte muscle.

And the company's showing a promising inclination toward valuing development talent publicly: EA CEO John Riccitiello went out of his way to congratulate Respawn's Jason West and Vince Zampella on their recent settlement, and the new Need for Speed: Most Wanted is prominently labeled, "A Criterion Game." It is a step that ultimately, one hopes, will a culture of artistry and innovation in AAA.

But ultimately EA's presentation exemplifies the challenge in tack most traditional publishers are taking these days: heavy, almost obsessive ante-upping on genres that have already been proven in the hopes of proving new business models, while communication struggles on the mobile and social front. It seems the most electric new areas of gaming just aren't the ones that show well on a big screen with deep bass.

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