EA Boss Andrew Wilson's Vision of Gaming's Future Will Blow Your Mind

EA Boss Andrew Wilson's Vision of Gaming's Future Will Blow Your Mind


Games are set to change more in the next five years than they have in the last 45, he says

Games are set to change more in the next five years than they have in the last 45, he says

Australian-born 42-year-old game maker Andrew Wilson has been working at Electronic Arts for 18 years and has been the CEO of global game giant since September 2013. After running the successful FIFA soccer franchise for several years, he took the reins of the company six months after former boss John Riccitiello resigned. In doing so, he found himself leading a company in the middle of one of the most dramatic transitions of its 35 year history.

Six years prior, in August 2007, Riccitiello had rounded up all of his senior executives at the W Hotel in New York to lay out an ambitious long term vision for the company that would fundamentally change everything about the way it makes and sells games. According to Peter Moore, who was just starting at the company to run the EA Sports division at the time, the meeting later became known as the "burning platform" meeting. "It was alarming," says Moore. "The first slide was an oil rig in the North Sea, and the second slide was [explosion noise] Deepwater Horizon going up. And the analogy of The Burning Platform is that, you know, you can have something that's on fire, and you can hang out there for a while, but eventually it's gonna burn to the ground, or it's gonna, in this instance, sink into the sea. You can choose to take matters in your own hands, or you can hold your nose and jump. John said, 'We're jumping. We're seeing the future. The future is moving towards digital. The future is moving towards the fact that the gamer is in control."

The intervening years were tumultuous and challenging. Changing the company to deliver on that vision was a bumpy ride, but now 10 years later, Wilson is eager to convey what the new Electronic Arts stands for, and its vision for the future of games. Its public EA Play event, now in its second year, kicks off on June 10 in Hollywood and is intended as a manifestation of EA's "player first" mentality. It will showcase all of its latest games over the course of the weekend – from its sports games to the new Need for Speed and Star Wars games – and try to give fans as much access as possible so they can provide useful feedback.

Something that will be noticeable at this year's event – and something that has been a major shift across all game companies – is that there will be far fewer games showcased than usual.

"We put out fewer games but they're played far more hours and over many more platforms by ten times the number of people than when I started 18 years ago," Wilson says. "There's good reason for that. What has become apparent to us is that human beings have fundamental needs. Once you get past air, food, water and shelter – the necessities of life – then it's about sense of belonging, social interaction, self esteem, overcoming challenge and building self-worth. Self actualization and the creative element – leaving some kind of legacy," he says, noting that this is a subject he gets excited about. "When you look at entertainment in general, the participation in entertainment, whether that's movies or TV or books, drives or fulfills some of those motivations. When you get to work in the morning, you want to talk about House of Cards, or the latest album you listened to. Ultimately, you start to live that, but that's where it ends. With video games, though, you get that social interaction both in the real world and the virtual world, you get that sense of achievement. When we make games, we build them to make you feel good. We set puzzles and challenges for you that you might overcome with learning, and then we set harder challenges for you. Every time you overcome them, you build self-esteem and self-worth and fulfill that core motivation."

As individual games fulfill these needs more and more, audiences stay loyal to a single game and keep pulling new experiences from it. This is happening because games are starting to follow the same pattern we've seen with music, Wilson believes. "100 years ago, listening to music was a discrete experience. You'd put on a tuxedo and you'd go out to listen to the orchestra or the opera," he says.

We already know that scouts in Premier League teams and NFL teams use our games stats database to think about what kinds of players they need to go and look for and how they might find or attract these players.

"Today, almost every device we own plays music. Services like Spotify customize and personalize that music for us so that the music we're listening to is contextually relevant with very little input from us," he says. "Games are going the same direction. Games at one time were all about going to the corner store to play Double Dragon. Then it was about putting a disc in a drive to play on your big TV. Now, with mobile gaming and AR overlays, there are all kinds of things I do in my everyday life that can add to my gaming world. We see a world where the amount that you run as a kid impacts how much energy your players in FIFA have. We see a world where the things you have in the fridge govern whether the Sims are fed. You start to blend the discrete and indiscrete."

"We'll continue to build discrete experiences that you can play on your 80-inch TV, or on a hologram that comes up through the floor in your living room, or as part of participating in a 40,000-strong crowd at an esports event," Wilson assures us, mindful that gamers may find this larger vision hard to swallow at first. "But we'll also make this other stuff. Like Spotify delivering music to me based on what I'm doing, we'll start to build games that way, too. Games will blend between your real life and your virtual life – and that's what we think is the future of gaming."

The best example EA has right now of actually delivering on this is FIFA Ultimate Team, which pulls in real world player data to move the game forward. It's gone on to become the most popular part of FIFA in recent years, and now informs the way that EA's studios think about other games – and not just sports. "What if the data doesn't come from a professional, but from what you do in your life?" Wilson asks. "What happens if the data from the virtual world starts to influence the real world? What happens if we have 20 million players playing tens of thousands of Premier League seasons on a day to day basis? What happens when managers start to look at what the community is doing? We already know that scouts in Premier League teams and NFL teams use our games stats database to think about what kinds of players they need to go and look for and how they might find or attract these players. We already know that football clubs like Man City use FIFA in their youth program to help build better football IQ among their youth players. Once you get to a point where the experience exists in the cloud and streams to every device you own – then the experience is governed not by the local processing power but by how big the screen is, the control format, and how much time do you have to play – that's when you start to see a shift in gaming experiences."

Since Riccitiello gathered everyone in 2007 to reorient Electronic Arts, the studios have been focused on building more than just games. It needed a core platform with a single ID across every device that you own today and that you might own in the future, and it needed a game engine that could scale to everything from your PC to your console and your phone. Though Frostbite started out as the "Battlefield engine" it's now the guts of everything EA builds.

"Then it gets really interesting," says Wilson. "When you have a digital platform and you have constant connection with every player in the network, once you have an engine that can push content to every device you have now or in the future, once you have the best creative minds on the planet building new and interesting designs that can manifest in that world – then you start to ask 'well, what else is there?'"

What if you wanted to build a new Battlefield experience and you fed it every war story ever written? Could it tell you new and interesting and personal stories on a realtime basis every time you engage?

Wilson believes that the fundamental job of video games is to enable "amazing stories in an interactive world" and has been challenging his teams to come up with different ways of doing this. The direction they're now exploring almost seems like it exists in the realm of fantasy. "What we know about neural networks and machine learning these days is that you can feed [a computer] every poem that Emily Dickinson has every written, then give it a subject, and it will write you an Emily Dickinson-esque poem that to a layman like me is indiscernible from the real thing," he says. "You can feed a model every painting Monet has ever done, give it a photo and it will paint you a Monet that to the layman is indiscernible from the real thing."

So where is this going? "What if you wanted to build a new Battlefield experience and you fed it every war story ever written? Could it tell you new and interesting and personal stories on a realtime basis every time you engage?" he ponders. Presumably the answer to this is 'yes.'

"What if you fed it every acting performance that had ever appeared in a war film?" he continues. "Could it create an infinite character set to act out those stories it's creating in realtime? Think about it – we've got the platform, we've got the engine, we've got creative talent thinking about how to build and design in this world of discrete and indiscrete engagement – so how do we use technology to empower a global population of players to enjoy and experience things that are unique and customized and personal to them on a moment to moment basis?"

Though this all sounds almost unbelievable, it is, Wilson assures us, for real. "We have lab groups across the company working on this stuff," he enthuses. "That, over the next five years, is going to change the way that games are made and experienced more than anything that happened in the last 45. And it's the reason, after 18 years, that I'm still in this business and more excited than ever."

This sounds awfully ambitious for just five years, given how things look right now. "When you work in Silicon Valley, you quickly learn that most things take longer than you expect, but ultimately, if successful, are exponentially bigger than you could have ever imagined," he says. "I think you'll start to see this manifesting in our gaming life in the next five years. I truly believe that's the case."

One of EA's biggest partners is Lucasfilm by way of Disney, and the company has a long term deal in place to make Star Wars games. How does this notion of games basically writing themselves work with a franchise so big and tightly controlled. Is it even possible?

"Neural networks are spectacular," Wilson says, "but they live by a rule set. We see a world where in some universes – in a Bioware universe, for example – you give the environment a rule set. That might be physics, biology, chemistry and every story told in there would be relevant to that rule set. The same would be true for Star Wars. You give it the rule set and then you would let people tell amazing Star Wars fantasies. When I watched the Star Wars movies growing up, I would wonder what Han Solo does when he's not doing this. How many times has he smuggled crazy shit across the universe? What do you think that crazy shit is? In this future, those stories could get told."

If you think about every form of entertainment media that we have, the one thing that's been most disruptive is streaming.

The concept is genuinely mind-blowing at first pass. The jump from releasing a game where the facial animation is still a bit wonky to one where the game essentially builds itself based on an AI interpreting a ruleset and adjusting based on player involvement is a big, big leap. It's hard to imagine it happening in five years. "What I don't want to do is lead you to believe that we have all of these questions answered. What I do want to impress is that pioneering is at the very core of our being. That means asking questions of everything. As an organization, we ask questions about every vector of our business. Some of the questions are random and far-fetched and fanciful."

Regardless of how fanciful this sounds, Wilson seems confident that his teams will deliver. "If you think about every form of entertainment media that we have, the one thing that's been most disruptive is streaming. Books to your Kindle, TV through Netflix, music through Spotify. It's changed everything. Ownership, engagement, and it's absolutely changed the enjoyment model. There are lots of things that are going to change. Scale, in a networked world, is extremely important. You are going to have to have the core digital platform, the engine, the talent. At the core, you're going to have to have to be able to get experiences to players at any time, anywhere, on any device they own. Streaming tech is going to play a really big part in that."

"When Zuckerberg decided to connect the world through Facebook, it didn't happen overnight," Wilson says. "It started by connecting friends at Harvard, and built up from there. It's got to start somewhere. We don't want to be the company that waits for someone else to do it first. We don't want to get caught up in making sure we have the latest esports experience. That stuff's important, and you're going to hear us talk about that more and more. It's easy to get caught up in VR – that's important, and we're going to talk about that, too. But a big chunk of our company is orienting towards what we're going to be doing five years from now and 10 years from now. You'll start to see little hints that point to this new world this week. There are some big players in this space that we've shared this vision with, and you'll start to hear more and more from them about how they're going to accelerate this future."