Sat, Jul 07, 2007 - Page 16 News List

Quick-fingered boys make way forthe masses

John Riccitiello, head of the world's top video game publisher, aims to change the way we play


Scenes from Electronic Arts' video games Crysis, Madden NFL 07 and Battlefield 2142.


John Riccitiello is assembling his video game legions, and he wants you.

No, not you, desensitized, caffeine-mainlining, virtual-gun-toting twitch artist. No, not you, high school Madden fiend or video basketball jock. After all, he's already got you in his back pocket.

He wants to sign up everyone else. That means you, soccer mom. That means you, cubicle-dwelling Dilbert clone. That means you, seventh-grade girl. You may not think of yourselves as gamers now, but if Riccitiello has his way, you just might soon be.

He has embarked on this mission since taking over as chief executive of the world's number one game publisher, Electronic Arts (EA), last spring. The problem is that despite selling more games than anyone else, his company, like much of the industry, has largely fallen into a creative rut. Although EA has set the industry's overall tone both creatively and strategically since the mid-1980s and still generates about US$3 billion in annual sales, it has not seen its revenue grow for the last four years.

And after canvassing thousands of the company's employees around the world, after assessing media companies of every stripe as a private investor and, most important, after making his thumbs sore with hundreds of hours jumping, dodging and shooting, Riccitiello thinks he knows why: Its games are just too hard to play.

While the popular conception of video games is that only the bloodiest, most violent titles succeed, the most important industry story over the last few years has been the blockbuster success of Nintendo's Wii console and games like World of Warcraft and Pokemon, which cater not to the game geek but to the noobs (the updated slang for "newbie") in the mass audience.

Electronic Arts has had its own mass market hit in the family simulation franchise The Sims, which now accounts for about 13 percent of the company's revenue. But, as Riccitiello well knows, the company has remained too focused on conventional young-guy-centric franchises like Madden Football, Need for Speed, NBA Live and Medal of Honor.

"We've become a niche," he said recently at company headquarters here, in his first major interview since taking over in April. "Eighty, 90 percent of the resources that are put into play by us and most of our competition are in building sequels of games that super-serve teenage boys with fast thumbs."

So now Riccitiello is embarking on a project that entails nothing less than trying to redefine what video games are and, just as important, what they are perceived to be in modern pop culture.

For Riccitiello personally, that means speaking both as EA's chief executive and as an industry leader. "We're starting to be an art form and can have a massive cultural impact globally similar to television in the 1950s," he said. "But we could also become ham radio. We could go down the path where we're just reinforcing what we've done in the past, and we need to reinvent ourselves."

As the movers and shakers of the game world convene in Santa Monica, California, for the industry's top annual conference, called E3, which begins Wednesday, Riccitiello's effort to drive games toward the cultural mainstream will almost surely become one of the event's touchstones.

Since the early 1990s the majority of the industry - which along with EA includes giants like Sony and Microsoft - has essentially ignored most of the world's population while continuing to chase the same narrow cadre of young men who are prepared to spend up to US$60 on games that can take dozens of hours to complete. For decades that was good enough. But in recent years sales of traditional games have stagnated while titles and systems aimed at a more mainstream audience have become the fastest-growing part of the business.

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