Even at EA Sports, video games biz is all about what's next

Phil Holt has a lock on such annually updated video game blockbusters as Madden NFL and Tiger Woods PGA Tour. So I was shocked when he asks where he can find his next customers.

If anybody is a loyal consumer, it's got to be the players of these Electronic Arts-Tiburon games.

But that's not good enough, even for the developer of globally coveted software games that generate hundreds of millions of dollars — more than most smash-hit movies. Few industries seem as competitive, subject to consumer whim and so quickly technologically antiquated as video game entertainment.

Holt should know. As a kid outside Seattle, his parents started their own software game business in the 1980s, which was later sold to Electronic Arts. Now, at 38, Holt finds himself the vice president and studio general manager of game creator Electronic Arts-Tiburon in Orlando. It's the Florida affiliate of a California-based company. Holt spoke about industry challenges last week at the Tampa Bay Technology Forum's annual coolTECH exhibition.

Staying ahead of the video game curve is daunting. Realistic graphics, once software's Holy Grail, is so yesterday, because they are now nearly indistinguishable from real life. Designing games for the Xbox or Nintendo game systems are counterproductive. Customers increasingly demand access to games anywhere, any time, and want to customize them as they see fit.

On a large computer screen, Holt showed a YouTube video of "Fred Figglehorn" — a nerdy kid whose comic routine resembles Alvin the Chipmunk on speed — that has more than 2.1 million views. Holt's audience blanched. He also cited actor Ashton Kutcher's challenge to beat CNN to reach 1 million followers on Twitter.

That stuff, Holt pointed out, is new competition, so vast are the "entertainment" choices these days. "Our challenge is getting customers to sit down for a few hours to play together."

Every business, including newspapers, struggles to hold the attention and loyalty of too-busy consumers bombarded by advertising, new media opportunities and next-generation technology.

This year's Madden NFL 2010 goes on sale in August with new online features. Tiger Woods PGA TOUR 10 hit stores this month. A new game, EA Sports MMA (yes, mixed martial arts fighting) arrives next year. And EA Sports Active, exercise games played on Nintendo's Wii game system, is off to a hot start.

None of this is easy. The video game industry saw sales drop in May. Electronic Arts lost $42 million in the first quarter this year. Its stock trades near $21, down from over $50 this past year.

At work, Holt was forced to ban employees from playing World of Warcraft, a highly popular online game not created by Electronic Arts. And even at home, the Holt family with two young kids loves to play Rock Band, a competitor's video game.

Yes, for all the video game industry chic, Phil Holt the business guy struggles right along with the rest of us.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Even at EA Sports, video games biz is all about what's next 06/13/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 15, 2009 11:31am]

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