Throughout its history, Electronic Arts has been a leading third-party game developer: its Madden and other EA Sports franchises are now legendary, and many of its original titles—The Sims, Need for Speed, and Metal of Honor—remain guaranteed massive hits each time they’re updated. What’s less well-known is that EA is also the most prolific game developer for Apple’s iPod: seven of the sixteen iPod games sold through Apple’s iTunes Store bear the company’s logo; Apple’s own three games and three Kaplan test prep titles come in second. More importantly, EA’s titles include some of the iPod’s best: Mahjong, Sudoku, Royal Solitaire and The Sims Pool have brought table games to a new level.
iLounge caught up this week with James Holloway, who as lead producer for the Emerging Platforms group at Electronic Arts’ EA Mobile division is responsible for the company’s iPod releases. We wanted to understand how EA came to make games for the iPod, and some of the challenges that make iPod games different from the company’s typical console and handheld titles. James was kind enough to provide his insights.
iLounge: Take us through the months leading up to the release of EA’s first iPod games. They launched last September; when did work begin, and what took place during development?
James Holloway, EA: We started development one year before the launch of our first three games for iPod and it was very much a stealth mission. Very few people within the organization knew about it and everyone that was involved was on a “need-to-know” basis. We had a code name for Apple and the iPod: Core. It was Core-this and Core-that!
Tetris was one of three EA launch titles for Apple’s September 2006 iPod Games initiative
I’ve helped launch games on various mobile platforms (WAP, BREW, J2ME), but this was the first time we operated with such secrecy. Our first three games, Tetris, EA Mini Golf and EA Mahjong, were all developed internally. We used the mobile versions of the three games as a reference, but each game was developed from scratch as we wanted to pay particular attention to usability, quality and designing control schemes that were intuitive to the Click Wheel.
iLounge: We’ve heard varied claims about how iPod games are made: is a substantial amount of coding being done by Apple, is almost everything handled by EA, or what?
Mahjong’s beautiful music and art elevate an ancient tile-matching game to greatness
EA: Our talented teams here at EA Mobile first develop the games and then we work with Apple to do the final integration and testing on the iPod. To get ready for the launch, some of us practically lived in Cupertino. We even had to maintain the same level of secrecy while we were at Apple headquarters.
iLounge: Apple has included cheat codes in its iPod games. Have you included any secrets in any of your titles? What are they?
Also sold as Num-pre in Japan, the iPod’s Sudoku also lets you solve newspaper puzzles
EA: No cheats in any of our games, but there are fun little surprises in EA Sudoku and The Sims Bowling. For example, completing puzzles in Sudoku will earn you new seasonal backgrounds, all beautifully set inside a Zen rock garden. In The Sims Bowling, the more games you win and strikes you bowl will lead to new Sims life snapshots and items.
iLounge: Imagine that there was a console-style controller for the iPod. What would be the most visually impressive EA console title you think the iPod’s 3-D graphics hardware could handle?
EA: We always strive to push the limits of what the iPod can do, but gameplay still rides shotgun. Just like Apple, we passionately care about the user experience and innovate where it makes the most sense. It’s also a casual platform, so squeezing console-like titles onto the iPod isn’t necessarily what we are looking to do. We have to keep in mind that the iPod is primarily a music player with games serving as “snacks” for most people.
iLounge: One of the most common user complaints about the current iPod game library is that it won’t play on the iPod nano, and there are similar questions as to whether current games will work on future Apple devices and later iPods. Since iPod models typically disappear after only two years on the market, are you at all concerned about developing games that mightn’t be playable on next year’s models?
With ten card games in one title, Royal Solitaire is the future of iPod solitaire
EA: We are all too familiar with making games for lots of devices. On average, people buy new mobile phones every two years, and with such a quick replacement cycle we design our games to be scalable so we can rapidly deploy for new models as they are released.
iLounge: EA has been making games – ones with lots of replay value and visual diversity – for years. Having played your iPod games, and really enjoyed titles such as Mahjong, we’re wondering why these many-megabyte titles are stripped down to cell phone levels of features, without user-selectable backgrounds, music, and so on?
Easy to play, Mini Golf is a fantasy cartoon take on miniature golfing
EA: Wow, I actually think that our iPod games are distinctively different than our mobile games. Our seven titles all have different art, sounds, levels, and features. Mini Golf is a great example because we changed the holes and updated almost all of the art and sound. We strive to make games that are easy to pick up and difficult to master. Packing in lots of features may not add a lot of value and can actually take away from a simple, elegant game that people enjoy. With that said, we are still learning more about what people like and aspire to create new kinds of gameplay that iPod owners will want.
iLounge: How does EA choose the titles that appear on the iPod?
EA: Working with Apple, we determine which titles make the most sense for the video iPod and its owners. The Click Wheel has a very simple, elegant input mechanic that lends itself to certain types of gameplay. Most people who will want to play a game on their iPod are interested in something short, sweet, and interruptible – they must be able to jump in and out of game without penalty.
iLounge: Promotion of iPod games has so far been extremely limited. For instance, they received only limited attention at this year’s Macworld Expo, and even with millions of iPod owners out there, we don’t see press release blitzes like the ones that are done for brand-new consoles like Nintendo’s Wii. Similarly, if there are ads for the games, we haven’t seen them around. Is this a segment of the iPod market you’re hoping to build up, or are you relying on Apple to create the buzz to sell games?
The Sims Pool couples compelling billiards games with simple character customization
EA: You could say the same thing for mobile gaming – it can be a challenge letting people know that their phone – or iPod – can actually play games. We definitely want people to be excited about games on their iPods and Apple is doing a great job to build that buzz by way of in-store promotions, downloadable demos, feature placement on iTunes, and promotional emails.
iLounge: In the past, EA has been a leader in bringing bold new music into its console games. Will we see EA Trax or something similar in iPod titles, or are you relying on users to provide their own soundtracks to your games?
EA: EA game soundtracks are already available on iTunes. If it makes sense to incorporate EA TRAX into our iPod titles, we will make every effort to do so, but in the meantime, we also recognize that users enjoy listening to their own music while playing iPod games.
Using the same Sims content as Pool, The Sims Bowling lets one or two players roll and role play
iLounge: Many handheld titles are based upon popular console franchises, but with the iPod, it’s obvious that preserving both controls and graphics can be a challenge. Since Will Wright has said that he’s creating Spore to work on everything from PCs to cell phones, is there any hope for an iPod version? If so, how would a mobile Spore work?
EA: In making each iPod game, our main goal is to capture the essence of the original game, whether it is based on a franchise, entertainment license, or a classic game. Some games are more conducive to adaptation with the iPod and Click Wheel. I think we have captured what’s most fun about bowling and pool games in The Sims Bowling and The Sims Pool and as a bonus, added the customization and collection mechanics from the Sims games. As for Spore, it’s too early for me to comment on anything official. Sorry!
iLounge: Any parting thoughts?
EA: Thanks for covering iPod games on your site! We hope you and your readers are having fun playing EA games on their iPods.
iLounge thanks both James Holloway and Electronic Arts for their time and insights.