Behind the Curve: EA Finally Making Mobile Games Free This Year

Over the next year, Electronic Arts said a majority of its mobile game titles will become free, representing a seismic shift away from the premium games market.

“We started to see that freemium was coming in, and it took us a long time to move over,” said Nick Earl, who heads up EA’s mobile and social worldwide studios. “In all candor, we are behind.”

In an interview with AllThingsD at E3 in Los Angeles this week, Earl said the dominant model will be “freemium” in mobile. As with other game makers who depend on this model, EA will allow players to download the games for free, but then will charge a fee to buy virtual goods that enhance the game.

“We are all over that,” Earl said. “There will be a few one-time download games in the future, but they are such the exception, and the norm will be freemium games.”

As an example, EA is currently charging $5 for Madden, $5 for Need for Speed, $2.99 for The Sims 3 and 99 cents for Tiger Woods on the iPhone. A short list of free titles includes Monopoly Hotels and The Sims FreePlay.

Earl said to expect a summer launch of The Simpsons on mobile, which will mark the beginning of the transition.

The game starts off with Homer Simpson causing a nuclear explosion that wipes out Springfield (doh!); the player’s job is to rebuild Springfield using different characters, like Lisa, that are unlocked along the way, according to CNET.

Electronic Arts is one of the largest mobile games developers on both Android and iOS, but it also represents one of the biggest holdouts when it comes to shifting to free. Over the past couple of years, companies have found it easier to gain large audiences by making their games free, and then monetizing them through virtual goods. Players who get hooked on a game often end up spending more than they would have if they had paid for the game upfront.

Earl said it has taken EA so long to make the transformation because it requires a different skill set to build a one-time download. Freemium games act like a live service, which have to be able to support thousands of daily active users.

He said that as part of the switch EA will end up spending more time and energy on each title, and will ship far fewer games.

“Over the last three years, we reengineered the console business,” Earl said. “There was a lot of mediocre stuff and we moved to making a lot fewer good titles. Basically, we are taking that approach to fewer, bigger and better from console to mobile and social, and adapting to freemium.”

The company’s new mobile strategy represents just one component of EA’s goal of becoming a more digital company.

EA also used E3 this week to unveil a new digital platform, which it will spend $250 million on over the next four years, to investors at a breakfast. (Slides from the presentation can be found here.) The platform’s goal is to enable game players to access their same identity across mobile, social, console and PCs.

As I wrote earlier, the platform approach is one that many companies are attempting.

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work