Star Wars

Electronic Arts' Andrew Wilson reflects on his first months as CEO

March 18, 2014: 1:08 PM ET

The veteran developer discusses the challenges in today's competitive video game space and shares his predictions for big games based around the UFC and Star Wars.

By John Gaudiosi

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Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson.

FORTUNE -- Electronic Arts went in a different direction in September 2013 when it appointed Andrew Wilson Chief Executive Officer. Wilson, who had served as executive vice president of EA Sports and Origin, is a game developer by trait. The Australian is the first game developer to lead the world's fifth largest game publisher and at age 39, is also the youngest to take the reins since Trip Hawkins founded the company.

"To make a video game you have to be passionate," said Wilson, a 13-year veteran with EA. "Every video game is hard to make. It takes long hours, and you really have to love it. What I hope comes with me in this job is that there's that renewed passion for what we do, which is make great interactive entertainment. At the end of the day, that also comes with an understanding of what our people go through in order to make great games."

Electronic Arts (EA) has run into some issues with game launches over the past year. On the heels of the SimCity launch debacle in March 2013, which left many PC gamers upset with EA; the company ran into server issues with last fall's Battlefield 4 launch. (This month's Titanfall debut, which relies on Microsoft's server technology, had a much smoother launch with only minor server issues.) There was also a backlash when EA Sports shipped NBA Live 14 in tandem with the current basketball season, only to have major problems with the graphics and gameplay experience -- issues Wilson said the developer has attempted to rectify through free patch updates on PlayStation 4 and Xbox One. Ultimately, Wilson's goal is for the name "EA" to be synonymous with a company that makes games that are innovative, creative, immersive, entertaining and of high quality.

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"For whatever reason, whether it was because they were pushing the boundaries of innovation and they pushed a little hard and things didn't go so well," Wilson said. "We won't always get everything right, but my hope is that we're seen as a company that tries to do amazing things. When we get a little bit wrong, we do our best to fix it."

Video game analyst Peter Warman of Newzoo said EA is doing well, despite a 7% year-on-year drop in total revenues ($3.66 billion) in 2013.

"Electronic Arts has experimented with new platforms and business models a lot more than their direct competitors, and I expect that to pay off in the coming years under Andrew Wilson's leadership," said Warman. "He is relatively young for a CEO of the worlds' numbe- five game company in terms of revenues. Together with his hands-on experience with game development, that could be a serious advantage as EA attempts to climb back up the global ranks."

Wilson admits that the video game industry, as a whole, is in a vortex right now as consoles are transitioning from Xbox 360 and PS3 to Xbox One to PS4 and iOS and Android devices continue to grow in popularity. There's also the rise of free-to-play games across all platforms, while premium price subscription games still remain an option for some publishers.

"If the industry can avoid the distraction of platforms, of geographies, of business models, and really just focus on making great games for whatever their target audience is, for whatever that gamer-centric group of people is; then I think we'll be all right," said Wilson. "These other distractions are not without merit and they're important, but they can't be your center."

EA found its center with The Simpsons: Tapped Out mobile game, which launched in summer 2012. The game has generated more than $130 million through in-app purchases since launch.

"Great games work no matter what platform you're on or what business model that you're going with," said Wilson. "If you can provide great entertainment, then you can really get down to that minute-to-minute interaction that's fun and enjoyable and feels like great value."

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With new mobile devices launching regularly from technology providers like NVIDIA, Qualcomm and Intel across Android (GOOG) and Apple (AAPL) platforms, the games being showcased at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco are closing the gap between consoles and mobile devices. Wilson said there are two principles at work in this space: Moore's Law on technology and Metcalf's Law on network effect.

"Both of those things working in tandem, whether it is a result of the ongoing evolution of consoles or the ongoing evolution of mobile devices, is going to speak to a really cool opportunity for innovative gaming experiences in the future," said Wilson. "But the important thing to always remember is that it's about how you want to play in your living room or on the go. It's about when you want to play and for how long. Those things aren't governed just by technology.  They're governed by accessibility, the fidelity of the experience, the engagement of the experience and the emergent gaming that you get out of those things. I think that mobile devices are going to be a very, very important part of our future, but I don't think that means that all of us are suddenly going to stop playing games on our 60-inch TVs because that's great gaming, and that's great entertainment. How you get that game there, I think that's anyone's guess."

Back in November 2013, EA signed a 10-year licensing deal with Disney (DIS) to create multiple games across platforms set within the Star Wars universe. While only the Star Wars Battlefront game for Xbox One and PS4 from EA developer DICE has been confirmed to date, there are also online reports that an original Star Wars open world action game is in development at EA Canada. One thing that EA has made clear is that it's not making games based directly on the upcoming films from Disney.

"What Warner Bros. did with Batman was take the core roots of that IP and manifest that inside the walls of Gotham City and delivered an interactive experience that had real ties to what you would see in the films and what you had read in the comics, while having its own life because it could provide such deep and more immersive storylines," said Wilson. "When we look at the Star Wars properties that's how we're looking at it. We're not trying to build a game that replicates the storyline of any particular film."

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Despite its NBA misstep, the Force remains strong with EA Sports. 2013 will be the first year without a golf game in quite some time, as the company has cut ties with Tiger Woods. There will also be no new NCAA Football game, the result of multiple lawsuits involving the NCAA's usage of player likenesses. In addition to new Madden and FIFA games, EA Sports UFC will debut later this year. The company scooped up the Ultimate Fighting Championship license after THQ went bankrupt last year, bringing together the biggest name in mixed martial arts (MMA) and EA Sports, the developer behind the acclaimed Fight Night boxing franchise.

"There are products that we will do every year, and there are products that we'll do every other year and there are products that we'll do every four or five years, and the industry has demonstrated an appetite for that," said Wilson. "We get a new GTA game every four or five years, but there is an immense appetite. What we're looking at right now is how long is it going to take us to build a truly innovative game in that genre, and when do we think gamers are going to be ready for that next one." Gamers are playing titles longer, thanks to live services that accompany the games, Wilson said. "Do I think that UFC would be an every year game? I don't know, he said. "It feels like it's in that every-other-year mix, but in all honesty we haven't made that decision yet. That really comes down to how long it's going to take to make a great game and when do we think the audience is ready."

What the audience is ready for is more innovation in games, something early reviews of Titanfall have praised developer Respawn for. Wilson has been in the trenches at EA, and now he's leading the company into an evolving interactive future that has new opportunities along with new challenges.

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