If we ran a video game company, maybe, just maybe, those of us who play video games would be like John Riccitiello. We really could be a boss. We could believe we're the good guy. And we would know things about video games.
We would possess in our core the knowledge absorbed by holding a controller for many minutes of our life.
We would be able to tell anyone what is (obviously) good about being able to have brick walls break in a first-person shooter. We could tell everyone what was (not so obviously) wrong with Mirror's Edge.
We would know these things, because we play video games.
But would knowing things about games make us a better gaming CEO?
That's the John Riccitiello question, the question of what happens when a guy who "gets" games, a guy who can hold his own talking about them, is in charge of one of the biggest gaming companies in the world. It's not that John Riccitiello is some gamer who got lucky. He's a former executive from Pepsi and Sara Lee on his second tour at Electronic Arts. That would be EA, the company that before Riccitiello's return was considered an evil empire, an assembly line for games that could be simultaneously shiny and dull, the company that overworked its employees and never even made the second-best game of the year. That company, gamer John Riccitiello believes, is capable of making the best games in the world.
This is the funny thing: The boss of one of the biggest video game companies on Earth plays video games. The driver of the Electronic Arts behemoth that bellows a new Madden, a Need For Speed and dozens of other games into the gaming market each year is a gamer. Maybe you would find it funny that it is funny. I have interviewed top gaming executives at Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and Sega during my nine years covering games — many of them smart, insightful men and women — and I can confidently say that few betrayed more symptoms of having played lots of good video games and having thought deeply about them than EA's John Riccitiello.
When we spoke earlier this month, Riccitiello told me that being a gamer wasn't the only thing that matters when proving one's qualifications as a gaming CEO. A boss in his field could maybe even do without it. But, he added, "Could you imagine, say running a book publisher if you didn't read? Or running a movie studio if you don't watch TV or go to the movies?" These are not the words that come from the mouth of Riccitiello's successful chief competitor, Activision boss Bobby Kotick, who had to explain to Kotaku in June that he didn't mean it when he told a crowd of game creators in February that he doesn't play video games.
"I don't consider myself a hardcore gamer," Riccitiello told me during the same interview, threatening to shatter the thesis I had formed from the several lengthy of conversations we have had over the past few years, all conducted during his second and current stint at EA where he serves as CEO. "But I play a lot of products."
Riccitiello used to talk about playing BioShock — about having finished it, but maybe he was just studying it on the eve of trying to buy the company that made it. He has finished Portal, if watching the ending on YouTube counts as finishing the game (It doesn't; but cheating is a gamer tradition). He is a self-professed lapsed Madden player, which means he used to, at least, be there.
Here's some proof of the concentration of video games in his veins. It's the thing he said to me last December when — without warning — I asked him whether EA would make a sequel to the experimental and admired, though critically and commercially shaky, first-person action game Mirror's Edge:
"I think Mirror's Edge was a fascinatingly original world. Fascinatingly original art direction. Music and sound design was great. I think the gameplay mechanic was a blast, but was intermittent and the levels didn't work. You found yourself scratching at walls at times, looking for what to do. Sometimes you had a roll going, downhill, slide, jump, slide, jump and then you just got stopped. It sort of got in the way of the fun…It was like we couldn't quite decide if we were building Portal or a runner."
That sounded to me like someone who is comfortable playing games or at least capable of understanding the gaming experiences of others.
Riccitiello plays enough to talk the talk and to make a convincing display that he is one of us, a person who just might know where the X button is without looking. That puts a different spin on the truth that, as a gaming CEO, he is determined to please his stockholders by getting the gamers of the world to part with more money.
Gamers can hope that this gaming CEO understands what it's like to play. They can hope he remembers how it feels wielding a controller in a moment when nothing else seems to matter. He seems to. And that appears to infuse him with a restless dissatisfaction with today's video games understood by only the most passionate of gamers — the ones who are hooked but want better-tasting bait.
"When I played games a decade ago or 15 years ago, I was a lot more forgiving," he told me during our interview this month. "Part of it was, if you could sort of simulate [something] in software, almost anything, it was the first time you saw it. If you could just pull off the technology and engineering, you didn't necessarily need the same artful insight, and you certainly didn't need the polish. A lot of it, if you remember games going back to like GoldenEye on the N64, is that we remember them as a lot better than they are."
He sees in his customers, the gamers, some of the same gaming habits he sees in himself. We treat games differently these days, he says: "I think consumers are consuming them differently and I am too. I'm probably playing fewer titles, but spending more time with them — they have to earn my respect to get that time."
Was it something other than his gamer instincts that instilled this idea in Riccitiello? It could be sales trends that inspired Riccitiello to re-engineer the EA factory in the last year or so to make fewer, better games. They've halved the output and will only (!) release 36 games this year that were made in-house. With that they've also shut down studios and laid off many developers, it should be noted, some of the cuts are ascribed to rising cost of doing business in certain regions.
Why make fewer but better games? It could be that it seems less important to make your 37th game of the year after the beating Activision's Modern Warfare 2 and Nintendo's New Super Mario Bros. Wii gave most other games last November.
But there's something else to this EA effort for fewer, better games, something articulated by Riccitiello the gamer when he talks about what he wants in a new video game: "I myself realize that ... I have a much higher standard. [A game] needs to be both exceptionally well executed and very artful. If graphics are relevant to the game in a meaningful way, it's gotta be somewhere near the leading edge of what people are able to display on that particular system ... or it feels to me that I'm just accepting something put together too lazily." The old quality standards don't cut it, he says. Surely, gamers nod with him.
The reader of a Riccitiello profile may cry out that every aspect of the EA CEO's quoted gaming habits just so happens to be the expression of an appetite EA's business plan is designed to feed. Skepticism aside, try out his praise for the smaller, portable games EA makes — specifically, Boggle on the iPad during a flight from Vancouver to California — and see if it doesn't resonate with your gaming life or that of someone you know: "I've got room in my life for five-minute games too, when they're well executed. Most of the time I don't like the cheesy easy stuff but if it's well executed it's fine and I'm having a blast with it."
Maybe he does know what a gamer wants.
John Riccitiello sometimes buys his games in real stores, the way you or I would. That does not keep him in touch with Joe Gamer. "To be fair, I probably have more economic resources than most gamers," he says. "So even if I were buying them at retail — and I do — I don't know that that would accomplish anything."
Money is the breaking point. Money is the matter about which the CEO gamer's experience might most differ from the regular gamer's experience. A $60 credit card charge hasn't stung the CEO in a long time. Should we the gamer be in charge, we would like to think we would remember. And we would be loathe to raise the price of a game higher. Yes? We would remember how it felt to be the little guy, wouldn't we?
As CEO and gamer, Riccitiello is at the forefront of finding new ways for gamers to pay more. He has not advocated higher game prices. But he has pushed for gamers to spend more on the games they buy. He stresses value. Why encourage the player not to pirate? Because, if they pay, they'll get more, he says. Why encourage the player to buy a game new instead of used? Because they'll get more for buying new.
It's all about a transformation Riccitiello has mentioned in most of the interviews I have done with him in the past three years, the transition from selling games (in CEO-speak, he says "packaged goods") to selling services.
Riccitiello, a lover of metaphors, hasn't found one that quite works to explain this transition yet. This month he tried on me the notion that "We don't sell toasters anymore we sell toast." Not quite. True, EA doesn't want to sell you just one thing that you don't replace for a long time, you know, like a toaster. They would rather keep providing you with new slices of content after you buy a loaf. But, well, no, this metaphor crumbles to a crisp.
(More successful is Riccitiello's go-to metaphor about the console wars — "They make the war. We make the bullets. We'll sell to any of them.")
Forget toast metaphors. What feels more correct is Riccitiello's expression of how gamers play in 2010 and how EA is changing its workflow to accommodate them. "I used to buy a whole bunch of titles and play them for three weeks and move on and never look at them again," he said, before switching from what he does to what you or I might do — "Today, firstly everyone goes online" — and then settling on what his developers do — "five years ago, the standard at every game company was when the game goes gold [and is sent to manufacturing], the 60 people on the title or 160 people, depending on the title, all of them [would be done working on that game] except maybe one or two guys who were gonna take a phone call, when you find out there's a video card from some Taiwanese hardware manufacturer you didn't have ideal compatibility with. ... For the most part today, for most games, the entire team remains intact post-ship[ping of the game] for a combination of free and paid [downloadable content], services, server management, code patches, figuring out exactly where people are dying and bunching up in the map, fixing that and improving the experience."
All of that post-release work the developer do after they are "done" with the game provides gamers the new slices of that toast Riccitiello was talking about. That is the new product EA is selling, the thing that would keep a gamer satisfied longer with a game and for which, Riccitiello hopes, they'd be willing in some way to pay. This initiative used to be called Project $10 and some gamers have complained its a rip-off for things the basic price of a game should give them. Riccitiello, proud already of the breadth of post-release content offered for free and for charge across games such as Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age, believes he is selling more value.
What Riccitiello seems to want to do with gamers' money is give them more for it, as sound a pitch as ever there was one. Skepticism again put aside, let's engage in some CEO-dreamed specifics of what a big game company like EA could get you to pay for. "I won't be surprised," he said, "if five years from now we're going to say to somebody, 'Hey look you're a Madden user' — at that point you might have a PS3 and a Wii and a PC and an iPhone and an iPad and a Facebook, and, you know, maybe two other game services, and we say 'Hey, give us this X amount of money, and we'll give you [Madden on] all of these things for a year...
"Right now I make [a] FIFA [game] on Facebook. I've got FIFA on iPad, FIFA on iPhone, three consoles, PC, I've got an online games service, and I don't think many people are going to buy every instance of that game. First off, it just adds up to a boatload of money. But I bet you've got most of that hardware, right? So why wouldn't I license you at some advantageous price all of what I'm making?
"The point I'm making isn't that we're going to do that tomorrow, that's not the point I'm making. The point I'm making is the fact that the business model needs to evolve and recognize a little bit that there's a big service component." That's one possible Riccitiello future to a present that just had his EA introduce Online Pass, a service paid for either with the purchase of a new game or as an extra charge with the purchase of a used game. The Online Pass system is designed to transition gamers into a service relationship with the EA sports games they buy and to finance that service. Adds Riccitiello, "The model is going to keep evolving in ways that I'm hopeful most gamers are going to find it positive. "
Not a radical enough future? How about this possible use of a gamer's money: "Think about the fact that at our company, I spend a billion dollars a year creating content and most consumers get the benefit of 1/20th of that. Now over time I've got a lot more to offer you than you're getting and I'd like you to get more of it. I've got an opportunity to give you more value for money. As we wind our way through all the changes that are being made in our marketplace I don't know whether we're going to get to a Rhapsody model where it's all-you-can-eat for 10 bucks a month. I don't know that I know the answer to that." Clearly, that would be a good deal on toast.
The EA CEO doesn't see himself only making subscription-based games in the future. He isn't turning his company into a factory of World of Warcraft-wannabes, each and every game something you pay for each and every month. That, any gamer knows, would be ridiculous. But we would pay differently because we now play differently, because, in part, he knows we do since he plays differently too.
There are times when Riccitiello has snapped at me during interviews, such as when I asked him a couple of years ago about the seemingly low sales of an EA Steven Spielberg game for the Wii called Boom Blox. Referring to my previous employer for whom I was interviewing the EA boss, he said "last time I checked MTV wasn't a financial network."
There are times when he's been aggravated by a fusillade of skeptical questions regarding whether his comments about quality games fueling EA to success would be proven true or discredited as wishful thinking. (He would point at the strong acclaim and sales of Mass Effect 2, Dragon Age and Battlefield: Bad Company 2 as realization of his vision.)
There was only one time, however, when Riccitiello heard me out and then said I had just asked "the best question I've had from a journalist in the better part of three years." Let's assume it was not the phrasing that won this praise but the topic, one about the repercussions of the divides among gamers who hate or are threatened by what other gamers play. The Xbox fans have anxiety about the Wii players, who, the worst snobs say, aren't playing real games. The Wii players sigh at the Facebook FarmVille players who, well... are they even playing a video game? What effect does this have?
To answer, Riccitiello recalled his first stint at EA and the purchase of a casual games company called Pogo that made simple puzzle and mystery games designed to be played on computers by moms and kids. "I was involved in the team that bought Pogo in 2001," he said. "For about five years, I swear to God, if they had had leprosy I don't think they could have been a more disdained organization [within EA] because they made cheesy little toy crap from the perspective of people that worked out of Madden or another games title. That prejudice existed up until I'd say a few years ago."
Riccitiello didn't see the snobbery about Pogo hurting gamers but he saw it damaging game development. It made developers look down on each other.
Today at EA, those groups are mixing. Some teams from the recently-EA-purchased Playfish, which makes games for Facebook, and teams that have made big-budget EA games are being forced to make some games together. "You take a team of people that's used to making the equivalent of a Hollywood blockbuster," Riccitiello says, "and now they're told to report to the guy that makes videos for YouTube. That's the way they think about it and it seems like a step backwards. And what I'm watching here is really fascinating. One thing is that the guy that's making videos from YouTube is saying, 'Hey I can get way better production values if I do this,' because they keep hearing that from the guys who are building it which is how you get a product like [EA Playfish's Facebook game] FIFA Superstars to look so cool. It does look pretty cool. The second thing you get is that the people who are building these [big] products live through one and two year dev cycles and the primary orientation in life is you sort of master it and it's done... Look at a [Playfish] team that publishes and republishes content every single week. And they use the telemetry to tweak and adjust and improve and they think that what they're doing is a service... What Playfish does is every title, every Tuesday gets republished based on the telemetry data from two weeks ago, a week to fix it, a week to publish it, and you do it again."
The cultures clash. And the cultures learn from each other. The big-budget game developers discover the power of updating a game constantly. The Facebook developers discover the power of making better-looking games.
To cap his answer, Riccitiello tried a new metaphor. "What's happening inside of EA for the first time ever feels like the 'I want to teach the world to sing' Coke commercials where people that build mobile games and people that do telemetry and people that are game designers on core games and people that are building MMOs finally — and for the first time — feel like peers. I think maybe we're a little ahead of the game industry consumer relative to that."
Would we as gamers-turned-CEOs be able to get over our snobbery? Would we pair the Wii guy with the PS3 lady? The Facebook expert with the cut-scene crafter? Would we try to teach the gaming world — or at least the game-making world — to sing in perfect harmony?
I don't know.
But I do know that we the gamers and John Riccitiello, the CEO who plays a game or two, would at least probably both say we had the same general goals for our video game behemoth. I think you'd say the kind of thing that any gaming CEO would probably say, of course, because when they offer their grand vision they say appealing things. But if you were a gamer, maybe it would mean a little something extra.
Out of Riccitiello's mouth, the goals sound like this: "I'm a gamer. I'm deeply engaged in the process of making sure we make the world's best games. That's that thing that's most important to me: Making the world's best games and services, stuff I want to be proud of, stuff I want to believe 10 years from now people will still be thinking about, stuff that changes the way the industry perceives what a game can be, new intellectual property, sequels that matter, that aren't just simply the next notch in an annual series of iterations. You don't get it right every single time, but basically we're trying to do great things."