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Interview: EA's Sean Decker, Play4Free VP, On Free To Play Consoles, Convergence - And FIFA

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Everyone knows that video games can change how you see the world: instinctively reaching for the pause button during difficult break-ups; massively over-estimating how fast you can safely drive; stealing a motor-cycle and committing a string of bank robberies...

So it's probably no surprise to learn that one of the main minds behind the free to play games industry - Sean Decker, EA's VP of Play4Free, sees things a little bit differently too.

"I see the world as a micro-transaction," he tells the Huffington Post in a phone interview.

"If I get on an airplane, I could pay for economy. But I can decide that I want a pillow, drinks or a better seat, and I'll pay for it. The whole world is set up like that."

The world as micro-transaction. Makes sense for the man running Battlefield Heroes, Command & Conquer Tiberium Alliances and Need For Speed World, ostensibly free games where micro-transactions are driving growth and new revenue.

"It's kind of true!" Decker insists, reflecting on his 'free to breathe' utopia.

"It's like a TV package - you can get the basic package or extra stations, or pay per view, or maybe on your mobile. There are so many micro-transactions out there."

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Play4Free itself has reported "double or triple digit" growth year on year in revenue and players since its 2009 launch, Decker says. Big franchises like Battlefield are already there, and others are still to come.

Outside of Play4Free itself, free games are an ever bigger part of EA's business. In Asia, a free-to-play FIFA game is among its biggest successes. Elements of that style of social game are creeping in to its boxed FIFA titles, which are still more popular in Europe - and other changes are still to come.

But EA's wider play-for-free efforts have often had difficulties, and a mixed reception. First, there is the problem of retention. Decker admits - 70% of players give up on free games in the first 24 hours. The many other companies who run free to play games see similar drop-off rates, and often awkwardly compensate with over-aggressive attempts to boost revenue through ever more micro-transactions.

Anecdotally, many players are just too suspicious of "free" games to give them a real shot. Others find that when they do, they aren't willing to transition from users into customers.

In addition, the recent explosion in micro-transactions within mobile games has seen much criticism of EA's titles. The iOS 'free to play' version of Theme Park has many poor reviews written by players who feel unfairly pressured to pay for 'Super Tickets' and 'Cash', for instance. The same is true of Madden 13 Social, a free NFL game. Then again, The Simpsons: Tapped Out (also an EA title) has high scores and a near-permanent place in the iOS Top Grossing charts.

So is it fair to say that on free to play EA is still figuring out what works?

"For games, there is no one size fits all," Decker said:

"We have games where there are subscriptions, some people like them and they enjoy it in free to play games. Then there are ones with free-to-play micro-transactions, where you need specific things or premium games with micro-transactions on top of them.

"Originally, many years ago when we started doing this, we were scared to death," he adds, describing how cautious EA was to protect its core revenue-driving IP. "We were scared F2P would destroy 'this' and everybody would run to 'that', but we found that people have different tastes and desires about what they want."

For EA, there are obvious pros and cons to a free-to-play games. On the plus side, you get to constantly improve and update your title - and reap the rewards for years if it works. But on the negative side, it's tricky to launch these games: you need to give players just enough for free to get the idea, and hope they like what they see, without investing millions you'll never recoup if the audience doesn't stick around. And then you have to find a way to ask them for money.

"You don't have that kind of steep launch where you have $400 million sales in the first week after which it rapidly falls down and by the next year it's gone," Decker said.

"It is difficult. You want to go out with a concept early, so you can see if it's interesting to people, but at the same time if it's not a complete experience, or people are comparing it to a full game, they may feel it's not good enough," he said. "You need to be able to go out with something that is complete and interesting enough that people will enjoy it."

Beta testing is key, he added. Typically new Play4Free titles are in closed beta for anything up to eight months.

"You can start off small and see if this concept gels with people. Because it's free you'll get a large audience to come and try it out and... you'll see."

Free to play games also tend to attract a different audience to AAA boxed titles, Decker explained - and he insists EA has seen little to no "canibilisation" across brands.

"If I bought a $60 game I'm going to want to dedicate many hours to it. But having small kids - that's a little bit more difficult for me," he said. "The same thing - let's say you don't have the same disposable income and you want to try out a bunch of things beforehand, then this is a great model for them as well."

But while free to play does often attract casual gamers, he admits that the model also rests on the shoulders of fanatical fans who get so hooked they're prepared to spend serious money to keep playing, and winning.

"In Need For Speed World we have somebody who has bought over 100 cars in the game," he said. "They've bought almost everything the game has to buy - because they're having fun."

The "money barrier" as Decker put it - the bit where you hold out your hand and ask for cash, is still the trickiest part of balancing the experience of free to play games.

"That money barrier is difficult and interesting," he said. "For us it's - can you offer something of very clear value to the player where they feel they want to do it, but at the same time do not upset the ecosystem of everybody being able to play, and it will turn into 'pay to win'. You really need to do a great job of balancing that out."

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Above: Sean Decker in 2010

While Play4Free is a distinct business at EA, the lines between different revenue streams in gaming are, in a wider sense, constantly blurring.

Some of EA's biggest upcoming titles, like Sim City, have elements of being a 'live service' just as much as Play4Free games - even though they're sold as one-off software. Then there are paid mobile games, like the most recent Need For Speed iOS title, which have micro-transactions built in. And the more that convergence happens with the big brands - like EA's Need For Speed, or ID's Quake Live - it's possible to see a future in which free to play is the norm, not the experiment.

Including, maybe, on consoles.

So does Decker want to see Play4Free on the next Xbox or PlayStation?

"I've seen too many times someone trying to shoehorn business models or game on to a platform that really doesn't fit. I think that there is a place for it but it has to be done in the right way."

Likewise, are any franchises off limits for EA - like FIFA?

"There is a place for it and obviously it's been successful with FIFA Ultimate Team," he said, of a social-like sub-game included in this year's console version of FIFA 13.

"And that has really inspired us. I think again that's where somebody has purchased a full-price game and decided they wanted more out of it. There is something there for console, but it has to fit the platform."

In the end, you get the sense that while there is no end in sight of the year's FIFA game, if EA can experiment with its core IP and not feel that its hurting its core audience, they'll try it. Decker agrees.

"Everything is pretty much up for discussion," he said.