Many years ago, Andrew Wilson, the new boss of Electronic Arts, met rap impresario Russell Simmons. The man behind Run DMC, LL Cool J and other classic hip-hop artists said something that stuck with Wilson.
"[Simmons] said, listen, human beings have an inherent need to steal, built into our DNA," Wilson told me.
"I thought, 'Well that's profound, but I actually don't feel like I have that need."
"[Simmons] said, 'Well, listen, there are different ways you can fulfil that need. The way we try to satisfy that is that if we sell you something for $US20, we give you $US25 in value. And by doing so, we have satisfied your inherent need to steal in a positive way. And when people do that, they tell their friends.'
"'But,' [Simmons] said, 'If you give me $US20 but I only give you $US15, you leave thinking I stole from you. And that's the thing human beings hate the most: to be stolen from. It's really simple.'"
Wilson told me this story today, November 1, during a brief visit to Kotaku's New York City office. He made the four-story walk-up with EA's newly-promoted head of console and PC game development, Patrick Soderlund, and a couple of public relations men ready to take action if need be. Maybe everyone else had heard Wilson's Russell Simmons story but it had me hooked.
The need to steal... what's that got to do with EA?
"Any time we create something," Wilson continued, turning to his own company, the one behind Madden, Battlefield, The Sims, Need for Speed and, starting in 2015, new Star Wars games, "if you're asking for an investment from the consumer in dollars and time, make sure they feel like they're stealing from you and that they are getting the best end of that deal and the rest will follow. And that will be our philosophy."
EA CEO Andrew Wilson: "If you're asking for an investment from the consumer in dollars and time, make sure they feel like they're stealing from you and that they are getting the best end of that deal and the rest will follow."
Andrew Wilson is about as new to being the CEO of EA as the world is to being aware of Miley Cyrus' preferred method of dance. Only about 40 days into the job, it's too early to expect him to be that specific about just how EA will be changing. But during his chat with Kotaku both he and Soderlund were crystal clear about a desire to change EA's reputation as gaming moves further into a new generation.
"There are lots of really big public companies that make a lot of money that are loved by their consumers," Wilson said. At that moment, he clearly wasn't talking about EA, consecutively voted two years running by online readers of The Consumerist as the Worst Company in America.
Wilson thinks he knows why those companies are loved.
"That's because the consumers feel like they get value from that company in the investment in their dollars [and] time."
The implication from Wilson is that EA hasn't been giving their gamers enough value, regardless of whether they've been charging $US60 for a game or nothing. And being named Worst Company twice has certainly stung Wilson, Soderlund and other top folks EA.
"When we got this the second time around, if you don't think about it as an executive in the company, you probably are not doing the right thing," Soderlund said.
"We started thinking about how we don't want to be viewed as the worst company in America. I personally don't think we've ever been the worst company in America, but it says something. The consumers out there are telling us something. And we actually took it very seriously. This was before Andrew was the CEO. We and [EA chief operating officer] Peter Moore and a couple of other guys in the executive company got together to try to understand what caused people to say these things. And there were some things out there that...consumers told us they didn't like. online pass was one thing."
So they got rid of online passes.
They also started something new to separate their Origin gaming service from more successful rival Steam: "We're also the only company that I know of that has the Great Game Guarantee on the digital store. You don't like the game, you can return it. I think that's a great value proposition. Again, it makes it feel like you're stealing from us rather than vice versa."
One of EA's problems of late is that, despite previous CEO John Riccitiello's stated commitment to improving game quality, EA's games haven't been good enough. The company is releasing fewer games than they used to. And they're been able to raise their review scores, but in Game of the Year conversations, you seldom hear an EA title discussed.
"The demand and expectation on us are higher than they ever have been," Wilson said, acknowledging the pressure to make ever more amazing stuff. "We need a mechanism and a process which we can get to better games more quickly. If we can be faulted for anything, over the years, it's kind of hanging on to ideas or concepts of games too long, driving too hard against them, spending too much to the point that we couldn't invest in other opportunities and ideas. And a big part of what Patrick and [fellow top execs] Frank [Gibeau] and Lucy [Bradshaw] and I committed to is let's drive a culture of innovation inside the company that actually starts a lot more stuff but at the same time kills a bunch more stuff before it gets to market so that we can give ourselves more short-term goals to get to that next innovative product."
All this sounds good, but I pointed out to the EA execs that just earlier this year they were churning out the likes of Army of Two: Devil's Cartel, Dead Space 3 and Fuse, games that gamers just didn't seem that excited about.
Wilson: "What I would like to believe is that we will never look back on games, from this point forward, and say, 'We should have killed that one.'"
"What I would say is that we create fun," Wilson replied. "Fun is a tough thing to create. It's subjective. It's an emotional calculation of enjoyment over time. That's what fun is. By its nature it's subjective. That's why we get bad albums and bad films and bad books because sometimes you just don't quite get it right. What I would like to believe is that we will never look back on games, from this point forward, and say, 'We should have killed that one.' There might be games that don't hit like we would want them to or don't reach the critical acclaim that we want to, but I want to feel like these we did it for the right reasons."
That you're proud of the games, I suggested.
"And I'm proud we did it," he echoed. "Whether it's games that succeeded critically, I want to feel like we had the right motivation when we built that game, we had the right creative engine and that I'm proud that we did it irrespective of the result. Again, I would like them all to be hugely successful and reach huge consumer and critical acclaim. That won't always be the case, but I want us to always do that in the belief that it has potential."
Rattling through a variety of platforms, it's clear that EA has cooled on Facebook gaming and regrets not doing more with mobile. On the latter, Wilson said, the company is focusing on free-to-play and expects to do better.
Wilson and Soderlund are both excited about the next PlayStation and Xbox, swearing that they are "platform agnostic" despite any seeming leanings to one machine or the next. (Sorry, Nintendo fans, but the Wii U didn't come up.) "It's kind of tough to go back to anything else, quite frankly," he said, sounding like a man who has upgraded to the next gen already.
As for PC gaming, EA still seems engaged even in a week in which it canceled a free-to-play Command & Conquer game. "There are a lot of people," Wilson said, 'Who are saying, 'Wow, people are selling a lot of tablets right now, is that going to impact PC sales?' My sense is, yes, it probably is to some extent. But PC gaming both as a premium and free-to-play market continues to grow."
Time and again during our conversation, Wilson and Soderlund returned to the of-course-they'd-say-that theme of EA needing to make better games. Still, for a company at a crossroads like EA is, it's good to hear them out and see what they think is the right way of doing things.
"If innovation, passion and polish is visible in the product, then ultimately you are bound to be successful," Soderlund said. "I think that is true with The Last of Us. Look at Battlefield. Look at GTA. You can sense that they put a lot of effort and love into making them.
"And I think what's going to come after that, whether it's DLC or something else, as long as we take the approach of being player-riven and not driven by a short-term financial decision, players are telling us that Battlefield Premium is a good thing, because they're buying it, they like it and they look at this and say, 'Wow this is a great value proposition. I get four or five expansion packs and all these things for $US50 that I can play over two years' time. That's worth something. Will Electronic Arts make money out of that? Yes, but will the consumers like it and want it? Yes they do. Wholeheartedly. I think that's an approach where if we come at it from a consumer perspective and we do things that they tell us they want and we do that well, business will follow."
The EA people are talking about their main franchises, about reviving old ones and about making new stuff. They talked a lot about making new games, in fact, name-checking BioWare and Criterion as studios working on brand-new stuff.
New consoles. Mobile. PC. That's they're broad focus. They want to make something great on each. And they want to motivate EA's creators to pull that off.
Soderlund: "If innovation, passion and polish is visible in the product, then ultimately you are bound to be successful."
At the start of our interview, I had asked Wilson how he found out that he was going to be EA's CEO. He'd been part of the exploratory process to find one and had been vetted to be the man.
Several weeks ago, he was out on a Sunday evening and got a call from EA chairman Larry Probst. "He said, 'Where are you?' I said, 'I'm out getting some dinner.' He said, 'Well, can you please come by the office?'"
"We sat down and had a glass of wine and he said, 'You're it, boy.'"
Probst really did have wine in his office. The man owns a vineyard. "We droke Probst Wine. It's actually a very nice Cab from Napa Valley."
Wilson got a new office out of being a CEO, but he did not get a premier parking spot. There's no such thing at his company. "First in, first served at Electronic Arts."