The always-competitive video-game industry is even tougher today. Console gaming has seen precipitous drops in sales since 2008 with no sign of reversing, thanks to the uptake of digital, casual and mobile gaming. Add the recently renewed political maelstrom over violent games, and it can feel like a sobering category.
Yet EA Games' head of global marketing, Laura Miele, is upbeat.
EA has moved aggressively into digital, developing a "listening engine," creating detailed gamer psychographics and distributing content across every platform. Its other advantage, Ms. Miele said, is that it plays in the $15 billion software side of the industry and its content, including "Battlefield," "Need for Speed," "Sims" and "FIFA," can be distributed digitally across a swath of platforms as sales trends shift to digital from physical retail stores.
"We're in a good position to go where consumers are. I think a lot of our content fits well in multiple platforms. I play "Need for Speed' as much on iPad as I do on 360," she said.
Digital is definitely where the industry is headed.
Sales of new physical retail content, or video-game discs inside boxes, peaked at $11.7 billion in 2008 and have dropped every year since. In 2012, sales totaled around $7 billion, according to NPD Group. Meanwhile, digital-delivery methods such as subscriptions, digital downloads, and mobile and social gaming have caught up quickly to disc sales, reaching just under $6 billion in sales in 2012. More than a third (35%) of consumers now say they would prefer to buy a digital game over a physical game, up 10 percentage points in just one year, according to NPD.
EA reported digital sales of $1.5 billion of its almost $4 billion in total sales in 2012, up 37% over 2011.
DFC Intelligence analyst Jeremy Miller said, "Game publishers today have to be really nimble in a lot of different areas, which is why it's difficult for all the big publishers."
Big titles like "Battlefield 3" will continue to be once-a-year blowout events, but the day-in-day-out conversations with consumers, creating additional digital content and moving game content across smartphones and tablets, is where the year-round success will happen.
Ms. Miele is counting on data and facts to help EA Games target messages and develop game content, having created its "listening engine" using everything from social-media buzz and chatter to game telemetry so EA can track its players' actions without having to ask for input.
In last year's release of "Battlefield 3," which went head-to-head with Activision's "Call of Duty," there was a Paris Metro map that EA saw getting consumer buzz and engagement. So it developed a downloadable add-on of indoor maps, rare for a battle game, and, as Ms. Miele put it, "not an insight we would have come to on our own." "Battlefield 3" has sold 20 million copies, with 7.5 million active online users.
The data has also helped EA develop nine personality profiles built around gamers' attitudes and motivations, instead of traditional targeting consumers by genre preference.
For example, shooter-game fans include "Conquering Captains," who play by the rules but are fiercely competitive; "Cutthroat Cowboys," smack-talking winners-take-all; and "Badass Bards," story-focused players who engage deeply in the characters. However, Cowboys also play sports games, and Bards crossover to action and role-playing strategy games.
Ms. Miele believes working with consumer data still takes a measure of old-fashioned intuition.
"A lot of it comes down to judgment and interpretation," she said. "There's so much information that you never had before. Before, all you had was gut and subjective experience, and you would just confidently go through your day saying, "Yeah, I killed that ad, it's going to be amazing.' But now we have this instant response from the marketplace at all times."
Another challenge for the industry arose after the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Conn., when the category again found itself in political crosshairs. The National Rifle Association deflected blame from gun ownership by pointing the finger at violent video games, and Sen. Jay Rockefeller introduced legislation to study their effect.
Ms. Miele said EA is working with the industry association, the Entertainment Software Association. "We're taking it very seriously and understand that people are making the connection," she said. "I will say that there are reams and reams of studies and data that are completely inconclusive and don't at all point to this connection. And I passionately believe that to be true."