The way Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson sees it, when the video game industry focuses too intently on the transactional nature of the business–like selling discs in plastic boxes–it’s easy to lose sight of what’s most important.
For Wilson, who recently ended his first year as CEO of one of the world’s largest video game publishers, it’s more important to take a step back and ruminate instead over why people seek out such pixelated diversions in the first place. When he talks about his vision for EA, he correlates the urge to play games with deeply rooted human needs, like the self-improvement that comes from tackling challenges, and the curiosity that motivates exploration and creativity.
“If you think about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and you get past the first few layers of things like food and shelter, you come to things like self-esteem, self-actualization, and the ability to create and leave a legacy,” Wilson tells Fast Company.
“Achievement, getting past challenges–if you take those things, they map out almost exactly to the reasons why people seek out entertainment. It’s because of social connections, competition, and self-improvement. When you realize that, you come to a very powerful center on which you can drive a vision from.”
That’s the sensibility he brought into the corner office in September 2013 after a 13-year stretch at the company that included duties like running EA Sports–and after EA’s reputation had endured a bumpy patch up to that point. Complaints from players over bug-laden releases rose to such a fever pitch in recent years that readers of the Consumerist blog voted EA the worst company in the U.S. in 2012 and 2013.
That helps explain why Wilson says he’s spent his first 12 months on the job working to bring what he calls a “player-first” reset to the company. As part of that mandate, the company already has pushed back the release of Battlefield Hardline, the latest installment in one of EA’s big moneymaker franchises, to give it a bit more polish instead of rushing it out the door into the lucrative holiday season.
Wilson, a surfer who also practices Brazilian jujitsu, says he likewise wants to break down silos within the company, making every unit from sales to game development more responsible for that “player-first” approach.
When EA’s top executive talks about the way he intends to go about putting his stamp on the company, he starts with his interest in understanding gamers–all the way down to the atomic level. That means internalizing not just why someone gravitates to an EA title, but what makes them spend time with games at all.
“You start with a player, start with what they need, and you drive your passion around that–which is much better than saying we want to build the biggest company or more games than anyone else,” Wilson says. “The first thing I said when I came in is I want us to be the world’s greatest game company. I think we’d become distracted in some parts of the organization, and we needed to unify the organization around that idea. I believe interactive games are the best form of entertainment, and we come to work every day trying to solve for that.”
Wilson says he’s got a three-pronged strategy to make sure the company stays pointed in that direction. One prong is the establishment of that “player-first” culture, a phrase Wilson repeats like a mantra.
For an example of what it looks like in action, earlier this year EA pushed the release of Battlefield Hardline–which will shift the franchise storyline from a military to a cops versus criminals focus–from this fall all the way to March 2015. In a company blog post when EA announced the delay, reasons cited included a desire to do more with the game’s multiplayer experience and to spend more time polishing the game’s single-player storyline to support a “deeper crime revenge story.”
“That’s been the greatest test of this player-first philosophy, and probably the hardest decision we’ve made,” Wilson says about the delay. “Moving one of our biggest titles of the year out of the holiday quarter–you just don’t do that.”
“One thing we came across after looking at [beta] customer feedback is the game was good, but with more time it could be absolutely awesome,” he continues. “The other thing is what players get for their investment of time. Not only did we conclude the game would be great if we took a few more months, but we wouldn’t be asking players to invest their time in something we didn’t think was all it could be.”
He wants the company also to wrench itself out of fixed business models for games as part of this cultural shift. In the past, EA has been hammered by critics for offering mobile games that are ostensibly free–until gamers quickly realize they’ll need to shell out for plenty of in-app purchases to make real progress.
That leads to another element in Wilson’s strategy for EA–growth in the company’s digital channels.
Last year, digital was responsible for a little less than 50% of the company’s revenue, and strong digital sales were cited as part of the reason for EA in recent days hiking its full-year forecast, as well as its second quarter earnings beat Wall Street estimates. During the second quarter alone, EA’s mobile sports games–titles like Madden NFL Mobile and FIFA 15 Ultimate Team Mobile–averaged more than 40 million monthly active users, up 250% year over year.
The reason for that emphasis on digital is born partly out of necessity–that’s where the eyeballs keep moving. In September, EA’s mobile teams gathered together to watch Apple unveil its new iPhone devices, and the next day EA’s mobile head Frank Gibeau wrote on the company’s blog the new iPhones are approaching “next generation console-level capabilities.”
Wilson wants EA to stay at the vanguard of the shift in gaming behavior, as an increasing amount of player attention gravitates to the small screen.
“The question is how we parlay our knowledge, experience, and dedication to the player into the future,” Wilson says. “We’re architecting a corporate strategy that has digital at its core and where we can push content to any number of devices.”
The final piece of Wilson’s vision involves the way he wants to corral EA’s different units and teams, and “get to the point where we operate as a single organization.” Rather than look at the company as a collection of units based on things like brands or platforms, he’d prefer to think–and for players to think–of EA as a kind of monolithic entity. Wilson says he thinks unifying all the groups inside EA will put the company on a better footing when it comes to having a relationship with players no matter what their entry point is to EA–whether it be a smartphone app or a console game–and staying with those players as they move across devices.
When Wilson describes what he’d like the EA of the future to look like, he turns to the way digital advancements and streaming technology have elevated music into an omnipresent entertainment category.
“When I was 15–I’m 40 now–the way I’d listen to music is I’d go to the store, buy my cassette of Bon Jovi’s Slippery When Wet, put it into my boom box, and that was how I listened to music,” Wilson says. “Today, digital music permeates every aspect of my life. Almost every device I own has the capacity to deliver music to me.”
“As I think about the evolution of technology and devices, if you fast forward 36 months, my belief is when you combine fundamental human needs with interactive entertainment, what we call games will permeate our lives in the same way digital music does today,” he adds. “That’s a profound opportunity for a company like ours.”