Whether or not you play video games today, you will in the future.
Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts, believes games in 2021 will be more diverse, more accessible, and simply more inescapable. Your smartphone and your game console will help you play with friends and strangers across the globe, but so might your virtual reality headset, your augmented reality glasses, or just the screen on your smart fridge.
Wilson has a knack for forecasting the future of the industry. In its 34 years, the creative process at EA has expanded from a handful of coders producing games in a couple of months, to hundreds of designers, artists, writers, and actors collaborating for years on global-facing blockbusters. But the past few years have been something of a unique inflection point. Wilson took the executive role at EA in 2013, the year the video game publisher won The Consumerist’s ignominious title of Worst Company in America — for the second time in a row. Under his leadership the company has shifted focus to what it calls “player-first,” creating an internal committee to learn what fans said and continue to say across the internet, and to grow from that criticism. 2016 saw a return to form of EA’s established sports franchises, a pair of critically acclaimed first-person shooters, a suite of successful smartphone games, and a high-profile flirtation with VR.
All of which is to say, in the world of big-budget game development, Andrew Wilson seems to understand what works now. But Wilson is looking forward: his ambitions involve a bigger, broader, and more inclusive future. That’s why we chose to chat with him about the video games — and interactive media — of tomorrow.
What is a day in the life of someone who enjoys video games in 2021?
The biggest shift I think we’ll see is games moving from being a discrete experience to an indiscrete experience.
When I was 15 years old — I’m kind of in my 40s now — if I wanted to listen to music, I had a couple of choices. I could sit up all night and hope they’d play what I liked on the radio, or I could go down to the record store. I could buy a cassette tape of Bon Jovi or Poison or Guns and Roses or whatever it was I was listening to, go home, put it in my boom box, and sit down and listen. I really had to make a conscious decision. Even that was an evolution from where we’d been 50 years before, where if I wanted to listen to music, I actually had to go and listen to an orchestra. I’d get dressed up in my tuxedo, and I’d go down and listen to music.
Today, by virtue of the fact that almost every device I own plays me music, and services like Spotify curate and cultivate and personalize that music for me, music permeates almost every aspect of my life. It’s moved from being something I have to make a conscious decision to engage with, to something that really surrounds every aspect of my life from the minute I get up in the morning to the minute I go to bed at night.
When we think about games today — already we’ve got more people playing more games on more platforms in more geographies around the world than ever before. It’s not just a console business, or a PC business, or even a mobile business. We’ve now got virtual reality and augmented reality and streaming, too. Now fast-forward that to the future, and you think about what the world looks like with a 5G network streaming latency-free gaming to every device you own. It’s really easy to imagine that games would permeate our lives much the way digital music does today.
From the minute I get up in the morning, everything I do has an impact on my gaming life, both discrete and indiscrete. The amount of eggs I have in my internet-enabled fridge might mean my Sims are better off in my game. That length of distance I drive in my Tesla on the way to work might mean that I get more juice in Need for Speed. If I go to soccer practice in the afternoon, by virtue of internet-enabled soccer boots, that might give me juice or new cards in my FIFA product. This world where games and life start to blend I think really comes into play in the not-too-distant future, and almost certainly by 2021.
In 2021, what will I see on the shelf when I go into a store or on the front page of a digital storefront?
I think we’re going to start to see games take on a really different proposition. One of the core reasons why we engage with games is for social interaction. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: once you get past air, food, water, shelter, you get to sense of belonging, which is really about socially interacting. You get to self-esteem, which is really about overcoming challenges, and you get to self-actualization, which is really about creating in a living world. Games are going to give you all of those things. I think what we start to see is less about [what the game is] — is it a shooter, is it a sports game, is it open world or closed world, is it a linear story or a forked story, is it multiplayer — and more about this one, existing world where we all play a part.
I think that entertainment will continue to be a really important part of our lives. We’ll have moved from paintings on a cave wall and throwing bones into a circle to a global community interacting through games in a way that’s truly positive and fulfills social connection and competition and creation and self-esteem and overcoming challenges. I think it’s going to be a really, really positive part of our lives.
What you’re describing sounds humongous, both as a virtual space and as a creative undertaking. How big are these virtual worlds? And how many people will it take to create them?
What’s really interesting is when I started making games, which was [in] 2000, a big game team was about 20 people. When I took on FIFA in 2005, 2006, we had about 200 people. Now, I hear stories elsewhere in the industry of game teams that have a thousand people. The size of the worlds that are created are really directly proportionate to the amount of people on a team, and the amount of time they have to build. It’s really architecture. It’s building like any build is in the real world.
Think about a world where we aren’t limited by the core team. Think about a world where we as game developers build kind of a foundational tool set and unleash 6 billion people on the planet to create whatever they think is amazing and what they believe will engage their friends, more than anything we could ever do.
The world that we will create will be infinitely bigger than the Earth that we live on, and likely bigger than the Solar System that we live in.
Are you referring to something like Minecraft that will allow players to create from within a game, or are you speaking about billions of people actually coding video games?
When I was a kid, I learned German at school. My school was really progressive, so we ultimately taught kids Mandarin. I grew up in Australia, so we’re part of Asia. China was a big trade partner with Australia. Progression got us to Mandarin. Now I have a four-and-a-half-year-old daughter. My hope is that she learns computer code, because I truly believe that will be the universal language.
Fast-forward 15 years into a world where we might speak French or German or Chinese or Japanese, but we all speak the universal language of code. Think about what that means in the context of creating entertainment inside of a virtual world. It’s profound.
This concept of a game following you through your day-to-day life is fascinating, but there are so many hurdles. Will we truly see the same game on each platform, or will the experience be unique depending on the hardware?
As you think about us putting the entire experience into the cloud, what then happens is the nature of the experience isn’t governed by the platform that you choose to play on. The nature of the experience is governed purely by the screen size that you have access to, and the connected controller, and the amount of time you have to play.
When you’re playing on a PlayStation 5 or 6 or whatever is available at that point, it’s going to look one way on your big-screen TV. When you’re looking at it through a mobile device, it’s going to look a different way. When you’re playing it on your internet-enabled fridge screen while you’re getting the eggs out in the morning, because you’re just doing a few quick trades for Madden Ultimate team, it’s going to take a different format.
The most important thing is that none of that time is wasted. It’s not throwaway time. Everything accumulates to the value of who you are in that virtual world. That’s really our vision: to get to a point where we [don’t] discern for you where you should play or how you should play, only that every minute of play that you invest in the experiences that we create adds value to who you are in that virtual world. You’re not throwing things away from one device to another or one experience to another.
That goes from device to device. It also goes from game to game, because again, we as human beings are the sum total of our experience. That’s what makes us who we are. That’s what gives us our character. We want to replicate that in the virtual space.
But how do you produce those games across all of those platforms?
What we’re trying to do is prepare the company for a world where truly there are more devices capable of playing games, and players are refreshing them more often and likely refreshing them asynchronously. You might refresh your mobile device at a different time than I do. You might buy the 8K, I might stick with a 4K. You might go down the Oculus VR route, I might go down the PSVR route. What I’ve got to do as a creator is try and keep you together with your friends inside experiences that you love, and the only way we can do that is at a core engine level.
We talk a lot about our single engine in Frostbite. It will scale up graphics on a bigger device and scale them down on a smaller device, so that we can build once and publish to many devices. It’s a world where we’re no longer having to make a decision like, “Do we build for the Xbox or the PlayStation or both?” There’s literally 30 or 40 or 50 different devices, and we have to be able to build for all devices that are meaningful for players.
We’ve been investing heavily on that front for the last four or five years. And we think now, by virtue of that transition, we get more games on the PS4 and Xbox One than any other publisher. You see us now starting to really grow our mobile install base. You see us get to the PSVR and Google VR in the same time frame. That’s the only path forward for us. In a world in which we have to build incrementally for every device, forget the cost implications of that, we literally just couldn’t do it from a person power point of view.
Representation is an ongoing issue with video games. For decades, we’ve had this generic protagonist: the joyless, bald, muscular white guy. It feels as if indie creators rapidly expanded beyond that hero, and AAA is gradually following suit. What is being done to improve representation in big-budget games going forward?
Representation is really important. Again, when I started playing games, we could squint and see 200 million players. Many of those players were 14-year-old boys playing in their mother’s basements. That was really what gamers were. There was this negative connotation about what being a gamer meant. Today the average age of a gamer, I think, is about 35. Nearly 50 percent of them are female, and certainly gaming transcends all forms of culture and gender and background, both socioeconomic and ethnic background.
As we think about representation inside games, what is the most important thing for us, like it is in movies and books and TV and all other forms of entertainment, is to really capture the true nature of the community that’s engaging in that content. When you look at some of our games today, you see that we have strong female leads, we have strong black leads, we have strong Latino leads, we have young leads to older leads. It’s really important as we design games, and that wasn’t really any mandate that we made as a company, and it won’t be any mandate that we make going forward.
It’s really just the creators inside of our organization saying, “Hey, I’m looking at who’s playing our games. We know that they want to look into the games that we make and see people like them so that they can better relate to those games. We want to capture that.”
The diversity that we live in today is amazing. It’s what is driving us as humanity forward is this real true understanding of who we are as a global community. We actually have probably more than any other community the ability to do that at the most profound level. We really want to capture that in our games.
Let’s talk about e-sports and competitive games. Are you concerned about the gap expanding between pro and amateur players — that newcomers will be too intimidated?
I think e-sports looks like just about every other sport. Again, I spent the last 15, 16 years of my life working in sport. There’s always the pinnacle of the sport. That’s a really important part, and that’s aspirational for us. We watch a bunch of basketball, baseball, football, and soccer.
But the thing for me as a dad that is the single most important game that I’m ever going to watch will be my daughter’s soccer game, because that’s the thing I’m most involved in. I love what’s happening in the Premier League, but that game that my daughter plays in is as important.
That’s our vision for what competitive gaming is. In all honesty, that’s how we think about the world. Do we think the elite leagues are really important? Absolutely. Are we investing there? Yes. But the thing that we think is going to have the most powerful impact on the world of competitive gaming is making everybody feel like they’re a star.
At some point we realize that we’re never going to play in the big leagues. That doesn’t mean we can’t play. We want to make sure that as the infancy of e-sports kind of grows and cultivates over time, that we don’t lose all those other players, that players don’t wake up one day and say, “Well, I’m not going to be able to play in the big leagues in a big stadium, so I’m going to stop playing.” That would be really bad because then millions and millions and millions of people would lose out on the opportunity to compete, would lose out on the greatness, the thrill of victory, would lose out on what it’s like to overcome the agony of defeat. We think that’s as much about what sport is as playing in the elite leagues. We’re investing as heavily there at a grassroots level as we are at the elite level.
You mentioned virtual reality earlier. I sense a reluctance from AAA publishers to appear bullish about VR. What is your best-case scenario for the future of virtual reality?
Think about the Laserdisc and the DVD. You can see kind of a strand of DNA that went through those things, but it required a couple of turns of the innovation cycle to get to a point where we had truly amassed consumer-ready media. I think the same is going to be true for VR. For any consumer entertainment product to take off, it really needs three things. It needs to be innovative technology. VR has that.
What you then need is a profound user experience. You need the best games. You need the best experience with those games. We’re not there yet. The three biggest categories in games are action-adventure, shooters, and sports. All require you to run around in a virtual space. That, for many people inside VR, creates all kinds of nauseating symptoms. We, as designers and the hardware manufacturers, have to solve for that. Refresh rate and frame rate have to increase, the way we design games is going to have to change. You just can’t take FIFA from the PlayStation 4 straight into VR without making some fairly fundamental shifts at a design level. We’ve got some work to do on the profound user experience.
The last thing you need is low barrier to entry. For many people that means cost. Right now, all of the frontline VR opportunities, notwithstanding the Google option, which has a different challenge, but all the frontline things, they’re pretty expensive. When you think about what has happened in our space when one platform, whether it’s Sony or Microsoft, launches at a more expensive price than the other, and you look at history, you see the cheaper one that was almost as good or equally as good usually won.
Gamers are very price-sensitive. I think we’ve got some turns of the cycle to happen to get a price point to a place where it becomes a no-brainer for people. We’ve got the innovative technology. Now we have work to do on the user proposition, and we’ve got to bring the price down. I think all of those things are very doable, so I’m bullish on it. I really am.
Earlier, you mentioned this group of millions of young white men playing games in their basement in the past. A lot of those people have grown up to become game developers, and created an industry largely of white men. Are there steps or opportunities in place now to improve diversity among the ranks of game makers — not just at the entry level — for the games of the future?
There has to be. Diversity is such an important part of this. Again, if you’re going to make games for a community, you have to have a true representation of that community. For the longest time our industry, like every other industry, was very white male-dominated. We’re seeing real change to that now. Some of our greatest creative leaders are women. I think two out of the three biggest games we launched last year were led by really strong, creative women.
We’re seeing lots of people come out of very different backgrounds and very different communities. Part of the reason [our FIFA product] is so great and captures the essence of what football means or soccer means to people around the globe. We had 19 different nationalities on that team, all [of whom] loved soccer, but soccer meant something different to them if they come from Argentina versus Brazil, or if they come from the UK versus Germany, or France versus the US.
Things mean different things to people from different places. That doesn’t mean they love them any less. It just means they look at it through a different lens. We believe it’s really important to capture that. I can tell you right now there is a very big push from us, whether it’s to engage with girls who code to make sure we’re getting 15-year-old girls into engineering. They love games, but have been scared off by this concept of engineering or computer engineering, which has been a white male-dominated world. We’re investing there. We’re investing in schools in different ethnic communities. We’re trying to recruit from around the globe, because again, what we have the opportunity to do is capture the true essence of a global community, of a global tribe inside of a virtual space. The only way we do that properly is to truly be representative of that community.
This interview has been edited and condensed