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FIFA 13 Interview: EA Sports' Mike McCabe On iOS, Cross-Platform... And FIFA 14

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FIFA 13 has only been out a week - and has sold more copies than any other game this year - but one big question is already being asked more than any other: what's next?

Yes, alright - that probably will involve a game called FIFA 14.

But what's really on EA's agenda for its next football game? That's a hard one. EA is talking as a "service" not a succession of boxed games and this year its mobile version has received even more of a sales bump than its console counterpart. So what does it all mean?

Mike McCabe, Head of Emerging Markets and New Platforms for the FIFA franchise at EA Sports, is in a good place to judge.

As the head of EA's mobile FIFA games he knows more than anyone not just where FIFA is, but where it's going.

We sat down (via phone) with Mike to chat about everything FIFA - from what's made FIFA 13 such a hit, what we should expect next year - and whether one day we'll be able to play on our iPhone against a mate on a PS3.

But what we found out is that while FIFA has a bright future, it might not all be about FIFA 14 after all...

FIFA is a big project, with lots of releases and big teams in Vancouver and Romania. So where do you fit in?

I spend most of my time focused on the mobile platform and the online platforms as well. Whether it's our mobile initiatives in Japan and China, or with some of the mobile social networks over there, or our iOS development on the App Store that we've just launched. Then for the online games that we're operating in Korea and are continuing to evolve and launch new games there. And then evaluate opportunities for other parts of the world as well. My world is very much mobile and online.

How successful has the launch of this version of iOS FIFA compared to previous versions?

We've seen very solid growth. We're seeing about a 62% increase year-on-year for our day one numbers. We're constantly evaluating where we're at. When we look at where we were last year for the iOS products we've seen a big increase in the number of top grossing stores that we've been able to achieve versus last year.

It's been a really good start to the year, or to the operation of the game, we're looking to build on that and look at ways we can extend the life of the product from being a great success in the first week and then a short tail. With all of our products now we look at how we can extend the tail of the game to continue that relevance and make it something that is played throughout the year.

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What are some of the new ways you're going to be doing that?

I think one of the ways we've done that this year is with EA Sports Football Club. Before it was a fairly solitary experience, with FIFA 12, in that you would be limited as to how much you could share or how much export from the game there was. With the inclusion of EA Sports FC in the iOS edition this year then the ability for me to have my friends from Origin visible within the game, see their achievements and so on is greater.

That's one of the core ways we've looked to build that lifespan of the product this year. We've also built for the first time into the game on-the-fly video editing, where you can export a replay from the game directly into YouTube… The final one is our online multiplayer which we've launched this year for the first time.

Is there not just an extent to which in mobile gaming people will naturally pick up and drop stuff more quickly than on a console?

Yes - there's a great deal of competition for mindshare and share of space on the device as well, to a greater extent. And a lot of franchises that's a major consideration, in how to maximise that one month revenue because the tail is very short. For us we're fortunate in that football is something that happens year-round, and for us with EA Sports FC we have daily and weekly challenges that are integrated into the game that are linked into the real world.

Do you have any idea how many people who are playing iOS FIFA also have the console version?

We don't - it's something we constantly try to dig into. We're really intrigued ourselves as well. There isn't a huge crossover. It's not as big as you might think. Certainly from our experience it's a low percentage. But we are intrigued. What we've found this year is we think there is going to be much more of a crossover than there has been historically in that we're providing a connected experience so whatever level you're at on the console will be reflected on the mobile… That's going to be important in driving our strategy for what we do with FIFA 14, because we either bring those platforms closer together or we isolate them.

In mobile games the market dictates you have to go for a lower cost - even £4.99 is a lot for a game. How much does that limit you in terms of what you can actually put into a new title? Is that a frustration?

I don't think it's a frustration. The market it where the market is, and obviously it would be lovely if people were paying north of $15 for the mobile game but it;s not where the market has found balance. And in the same way as console, it's found its natural point. The difference between those worlds is that there is two very different strategies of monetisation in the form of freemium and premium products.

This year we've decided to go for a premium model with FIFA based on the nature of the gameplay, and we think there is still a market in that space. But obviously you're aware there is a huge number of titles which operate within the freemium business state and use micro-transactions as their sole means of revenue generation.

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One of the biggest ones in that genre has been New Star Soccer - which I'm also a big fan of. It's an incredibly addictive game.

Yes.

Have you looked at that title specifically and learned anything? It inspires a real passion in people in quite a rare way. Do you look at titles like that and think about FIFA differently?

We do and it's something that if we could make five different FIFA games, we would. Definitely. There are different markets and we'd love to be able to make everything from the very casual to the very hardcore. But the reality is we have a finite amount of resources and developers, and FIFA 13 this year is the title which we felt was the best fit for our user group and also for the market as well, in the competing space as you space there are a number of titles that are there, both in Europe and North America and some in Asia as well.

But we learned from all of these different businesses and franchises, but not just from the football ones. Also what's happening in the free to play space and other console franchises.

A big part of what you do is emerging markets - and in many of those including India, China and other places a lot of people are still using 'dumb' phones or feature phones. Are you still producing titles for those devices?

We made FIFA 13 on feature phones - and that's for markets around the world where that still is that install base for feature phones. As you say it's still a huge market, in certain parts of Asia, certainly in greater Africa and South America. It does limit us in what we can do in that they're not connected in the same way, it doesn't have that internet-aware element.

The advances you're talking about with iOS FIFA are mainly connectivity-based and around multiplayer. So how important are the graphical and power boosts happening in mobile for you? What hardware innovation is going to make an impact on the same level as the jump from feature phones to smartphones?

It's a good question. If the analogy is Gen 1 to Gen 2 on modern consoles - Xbox to Xbox 360 - we would all put those presentation slides up and show you how you could see the individual strands of hair on the football player versus somebody who didn't resemble the player very closely.

That continues to be the case and we're still - for mobile - at that point. There's been huge graphical enhancements with FIFA 13. I think that's going to become less of a wow factor for people going forward. The Retina displays on iOS devices coupled with the processor power allow us to create beautiful graphics and cut-scenes and video. But we've pretty much already reached the bar on that one.

It's going to be difficult to make things much more realistic on the platform unless there is a quantum change. Limiting factors like battery are a challenge for that. The major difference is going to be the fact we'll move from a title-driven business to a service-driven business, where people will be experiencing FIFA through whichever medium is most convenient to them at any given moment, whether they're accessing it through their phone, a website in the office or a TV in their living room, it's ultimately one unified experience.

We've taken the first step towards that this year in the alignment between iOS and Xbox 360 and PS3. You can expect to see from us in the future that we'll continue that evolution.

Will we get to the point where I'm playing on an iPhone and my friend is playing on an Xbox?

It's something we've looked at in great length, and we really struggle with it. Obviously - yes, we can do that. But the challenge is the finesse and the experience to tune that across those two platforms, we just haven't got there yet. I don't know if people are going to want to play that experience because if I'm playing on Xbox you're always going to think I've got an advantage because I've got more control. It's very difficult without having all of the same controls to deliver the same experience.

But we may end up with something like SmartGlass or a Wii U experience, where someone is playing with a tablet in a different way at the same time?

Absolutely, and there is that technology not far away. For example with Wii U you see that experience where one player can be using the tablet for strategy, the balance of play and substitutions, as an interface point and another is using the controller.

We just need to make sure that when we go cross-platform with the core experience that we're not detracting from it and are giving a fair and balanced playing field.

And do you think we will get to the point where the iOS or mobile version will have the same profile as the console experience? And sales?

I do. I think if you look at the projected revenues for the mobile platform over the next five years and the projected revenues for console, there will be a point of inflexion where both are the same size. None of us know when it's going to be but we're very committed to both platforms and we see them both as integral to the future of the franchise and the company.