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Running the show at EA Games

Frank Gibeau has a big day ahead with the September launch of Spore, but that's not all that the EA exec has on his plate.

Electronic Arts, the world's largest video game publisher, announced Thursday that its long-awaited Spore had gone "gold."

The announcement means that the game, the latest from famous designer Will Wright, is finished and on its way to manufacturing for a September 7 release. It's a momentous step for EA given that it is probably the most anticipated video game of 2008, and one of the most important titles the company has worked on in years.

Frank Gibeau has been president of EA Games since June 2007. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

Last year, the company reorganized into four separate divisions, or labels: EA Games, EA Sports, EA Casual Entertainment, and The Sims, each of which is responsible for running several studios and producing its own revenue.

Spore is produced by Maxis, one of the 14 EA-owned studios that fall under the EA Games label, which is headed up by Frank Gibeau.

In June 2007, Gibeau was named the inaugural president of EA Games, and as such is responsible for approximately $1 billion in revenue from the studios that make game franchises like Need for Speed, Medal of Honor, Burnout, Battlefield, Warhammer, and others, including Spore.

On Thursday, as EA was hosting the game press as its annual summer Studio Showcase event, I sat down with Gibeau to talk about, among other things, Spore going gold, as well as his management style, the biggest challenges facing his label, and the skills the next person to take his job would need to have.

Q: Spore's just gone gold. How big is that for EA?
Gibeau: It's a huge milestone for our label, and especially for Maxis. Everybody is just feeling so pumped and excited to get it into people's hands, and get the feedback on what they're enjoying, and what people are doing.

Given that it's taken so long to be finished, how important is it that it's finally launching?
Gibeau: It's that much more important and that much more of a relief to finally have the game done at a quality level and potential that we all saw in the project, and especially for the folks at Maxis who lived it day to day. What's really powerful about this idea is that it's essentially going to be a platform for a lot of different types of creativity and imagination to have the editors with the creatures, the vehicles and the buildings. But you also have the mini games of Tribe and Cell and Space, and it's an incredibly flexible product. You can have user-generated content coming in, you can build modules out. You can come up with new expansion packs and you can have other platforms. This is just the first step in the Spore story. It's not just a level-based game that once you complete it you never come back. It's going to be something you can commit to and constantly be evolving and constantly be adding new things to it.

In the recent quarterly earnings call, EA CEO John Riccitiello suggested that Spore could someday be its own label, like The Sims.
Gibeau: The potential of Spore is so big that that's what we're shooting for. We're not going for a single or a double here.

How does that decision get made?
Gibeau: It's a variety of metrics. Part of it has to do with critical mass, how many platforms you're on, how much business is coming in, and how stable the business is. How global is it? Do you have the leadership team in place that allows you to step off and break away and become a standalone label? But we're starting off being very cautious about not getting too far ahead of ourselves, and we're making sure that Spore is a success after it launches.

How do you manage all the different studios under your label and their cultures and products?
Gibeau: What I've learned in my career, having worked inside a lot of businesses in the industry and at EA, is that the studios that have creative autonomy and cultural autonomy create the best games. So my concept is a decentralized organization. Let's look at each independent studio as a city-state. They have autonomy and they have authority. But they also have the ability to leverage the large organization where they need it. The next step is making sure I have strong leadership in each studio, people who can make this a scalable and well-run organization.

What do you see as some of the biggest challenges facing your label?
Gibeau: Job one is keeping our talent very high quality and very engaged in what we do. Ultimately, nothing happens unless we have the very best creators. I'm also trying to acquire new talent, either through relationships like EA Partners, or picking up companies like Pandemic and Bioware, or just recruiting outstanding individuals.

Job two is I need to move to an online model as fast as I possibly can.

How come?
Gibeau: If you look at our customers' behavior patterns, you're seeing them engaging with fully connected experiences. And I think we have IPs and ideas and expertise that can really allow us to do that. I think Spore is a connected experience. I think Battlefield is, and Warhammer. These can be very lucrative for us, and they can be very exciting from a developer standpoint, because you're moving from a fire-and-forget model to more of a service model, where you launch the game but you're thinking 24-7 about when's my first content pack, what's happening with telemetry, how are people playing the game, and how do I make their experiences better?

Does that mean we're likely to see an EA version of Xbox Live down the road?
Gibeau: I don't know how it'll manifest itself in terms of an overall platform service. But I'm just not interested in single-player-only experiences anymore. When we're green-lighting new ideas, we look at the team, we look at the IP and an important part of this is also looking at what is the online experience like, and how do we measure and capture an idea that's bigger than just a fire-and-forget model?

It seems like EA is turning out a series of all-new titles, like Spore and Mirror's Edge, while it was for a long time known for only making franchise games. How important is it to have these new games?
Gibeau: It's vital. It is what we need to do as a company. For a while there, we lost faith with our customers because we were churning out games that might have made sense from a financial standpoint, but frankly we had walked away from the art of making games and offering breakthrough creative experiences. There weren't as many games in our lineup that I wanted to play anymore. So part of what we embarked on here is to make more things that our people care about making and making more things that we own. That also puts you into a place where when you go online, you have a lot more flexibility and a lot more freedom to do things with that IP that in some cases licenses preclude you from doing.

In any organization there's competition between divisions for resources and attention from corporate. What's that dynamic like at EA?
Gibeau: Typically, we have everything we need in order to execute the business inside of our labels. We're fully resourced, and have a fair amount of capabilities and autonomy. I haven't found myself in the situation where I'm arguing with another label for resources. When we restructured, a lot of the big stovepipes and other organizational stuff that was in corporate got spread out into the labels. There's this concept of what we call "swim lanes," which is, this is what The Sims does, and we stay in our swim lanes, for the most part.

What skills would the next person in your job need to have?
Gibeau: What's absolutely vital is you have to have passion for interactive. You have to have passion for games. If you don't have insight into why these things are the coolest things ever and in your free time play them and understand why they're good, it'd be like having a film executive that doesn't like movies. And you have to have some vision about where this business is going. You have to be constantly looking for what's happening in your consumer base, and what is really innovative on the technology side. You also have to surround yourself with fantastic people that are smarter than you.

What is your typical day like?
Gibeau: I'm on the road a lot, visiting my studios. It's really important to go where the games are being made, and sit down with the teams, play the games with them and see where they want to go with them. So my day can start in Stockholm or Vancouver, or Montreal. I was in Edmonton last week with the BioWare guys going over their future SKU plan. I see my role as really helping to make the games better and giving people the broader visibility as to what's happening in the label. Like if they need a PS3 optimization engineer, I know where one might be at Criterion.

Is it more like being a shepherd than a director?
Gibeau: I don't manage. I influence. I have to convince you on the merits of my argument. If your argument's better, you win. I'm not a big hierarchical guy. I'm either going to win the argument or lose the argument, and if I lose it it's because you have a better one, and that's fine. I believe much more in the influence model and the inspire model than command and control.