In evolving video game world, Orlando's Electronic Arts pressed to reinvent itself

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November

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Wake up and good morning. It seemed only yesterday that California video game phenom Electronic Arts had announced an expansion to Orlando. Central Florida was abuzz as the next great hub of cutting edge game entertainment on the east coast and the University of Central Florida had teamed up in 2004 with Electronic Arts to kick off a graduate program in video game development at the UCF Center for Emerging Media.

That dream -- explored here in a 2005 column -- has not disappeared but it's sobering up from the early euphoria.

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Despite its local production of video game blockbusters Madden Football and Tiger Woods PGA  Tour Golf, Electronic Arts laid off 51 employees -- 8.5 percent of its 600 workers-- at its Tiburon studio in Maitland this week as part of a companywide cost-cutting plan, company officials said. The video-game developer said it expects to save at least $100 million a year by cutting 1,500 jobs by the end of March, closing some studios, and restructuring its businesses to focus on its most-profitable games and on the growing mobile- and online-gaming markets, the Orlando Sentinel reports. Here's the full story.

This posting is less an update on Electronic Arts but a reminder how tough it is for a company, even an Electronic Arts, to remain relevant and in the groove in such an rapidly changing world as digital entertainment. It's also a reminder to metro areas like Orlando -- and Tampa Bay as it pursues its own niche focus on industry -- how daunting it can be to choose and nurture a specific high-tech cluster whose momentum can change so quickly.

PhilholtEATiburonOrlandogm Don't count Electronic Arts out by any means. But even Phil Holt, EA Tiburon general manager in Orlando (see photo), told me in an interview and in remarks earlier this year that finding the next must-have game for the typically young and restless customer base of gamers is a perilous mission. The company's initial premise -- that gamers will sit together in one room in front of a PC or TV screen and play video game -- is so yesterday's news. Now it's global, online gaming 24/7 and your partner or challenger may just as easily be on the couch or in Singapore. And social media sites like Facebook are becoming hubs of gamers, too. Here's what Holt wrote in an e-mail this week to Orlando employees:

"The game industry is in a period of rapid change, and the pace of that change is accelerating. In order to control our own destiny and succeed in this rapidly changing environment, EA is taking bold action on costs so we can win in the future. We are not exempt from these cost actions here in Orlando and, subsequently, 51 of our colleagues will be leaving Tiburon."

How does Electronic Arts keep up with that tsunami of change? And how does Orlando and UCF make sure they are backing the right horse and teaching the right stuff? Nobody knows for sure, and that's the beauty and inherent risk of trying to become a global player. Go Orlando!

-- Robert Trigaux, Times Business Columnist

[Last modified: Tuesday, June 1, 2010 12:26pm]

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