Electronic Arts betting big on quirky Spore

Screenshot from Electronic Arts' highly anticipated Spore game. The irreverent game, from Sims creator Will Wright, lets players guide a species through evolution.
Screenshot from Electronic Arts' highly anticipated Spore game. The irreverent game, from Sims creator Will Wright, lets players guide a species through evolution. Electronic Arts
/ Source: Forbes

Sex and violence are time-tested ways to sell videogames — just ask Take-Two Interactive Software, which has made a mint with its Grand Theft Auto franchise.

Then again, a scandal about naughty content embedded in one of the games has also cost Take-Two millions in legal costs, battered its stock price and is now the subject of a grand jury investigation.

Meanwhile, game giant Electronic Arts, trying to stave off an industry-wide slump, is taking a decidedly more wholesome approach. It's also a risky one.

The company is making a big bet on Spore, a quirky game from Will Wright, creator of the long-lived and unconventional Sims franchise. Due next spring, Spore lets players guide a species as it moves up the evolutionary ladder, from single-cell organism to galactic space traveler. It's light on scantily clad women, automatic weapons and gore, bucking every money-making trend the game industry has come to rely upon. Then again, so does Will Wright.

Wright showed up in San Francisco Wednesday night to receive an award at the first MI6 conference — a sparsely attended two-day show for videogame marketers, who decked out the city's convention center with glittery banners, blimps and blue neon mood-lighting structures.

In his trademark large-lensed spectacles and faded black denim, Wright didn't look like a man whose hit title, The Sims, has already reaped more than $1 billion for EA. He took the stage, thanked his marketing-specialist hosts, told them he used to think of them as aliens but now values the way they entice gamers to bring his creations home with them. Then he left.

His brevity took the audience by surprise, but it seemed representative of the kind of irreverent change Wright has repeatedly brought to the gaming industry. Now would be the perfect time for another reinvention.

While gamemakers wait for the next generation of gaming consoles from Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo to arrive in force on store shelves, U.S. game sales dropped more than 10% in May compared to the same period last year, according to market research firm NPD Group. And the entire gaming software business could shrink by 20% before the transition is complete, according to technology investment bank SG Cowen.

EA is definitely among the wounded. Its stock price has dropped about 30% since early May, and the company reported a loss of $16 million in the fourth quarter; it has predicted lousier results for the current quarter.

Adding salt to its wounds, the company has chosen to spend its way through these hard times — a potentially fruitful but temporarily painful strategy. It purchased mobile gaming stronghold Jamdat for $680 million in December and paid approximately $100 million for massive-multiplayer online game company Mythic Entertainment in June.

Spore itself is likely a $20 million to $30 million investment for EA — that's the going rate for big titles. The company has also devoted about 70 developers to the project. So how much is riding on the game? EA executives often step into Wright's office in Emeryville, Calif., to make sure he's clear on their big-picture expectations. "They lay broad things on me, like 'make sure we hit the mass market,' '' Wright said after his brief stage appearance. "They want to talk about how much money we'll make and when the game will launch — of course, they want to replicate the success of The Sims."

Wright sees Spore as a franchise that could encompass cell phone, console and portable iterations rather than a single title ("I've told EA we've got to make that more clear," he said), but even if it doesn't sell as well as the company hopes, Spore could still do EA a world of good, he said.

"I think it's really important that, from making Spore, they learn how to create new, wholly owned intellectual property, because they've already got the franchise skills," he said. "This will increase their ability — they'll be good at the pre-production stuff."

In 1997, EA bought out Wright's game company Maxis for $125 million, a deal that's paid off handsomely for them over the past decade as they've launched countless spin-offs of SimCity games. But Spore will be the first Wright-made game EA puts out that doesn't feature the word "Sim" in the title. "I really want it to feel like a fresh new thing, but in the marketing, we'll definitely associate the two names together," he said.

But it's still not clear that the same far-ranging audience that enjoys one-track Sim titles will enjoy the complicated, long-term process of helping protozoa emerge into consciousness as space-faring diplomats — the ultimate goal of Spore.

"It's an epic game," said Wright, who estimated that it would take a gamer 79 years without rest to play out every aspect of Spore. "The biggest challenge will be making it seem accessible to people."