Video game players to top 1 billion: EA's CEO

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - More than a billion people will soon be a part of the global video game community, presenting software developers a broad opportunity for growth, said John Riccitiello, chief executive of Electronic Arts.

John Riccitiello, Chief Executive Officer of Electronic Arts, poses for a portrait during the Electronic Entertainment Expo or E3 in Los Angeles, June 3, 2009. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

With many consumers worried about their jobs and curtailing spending, game makers like EA are applauding the rapid expansion of the market to women, older people and others new to the industry.

“A few years ago, I think there were a couple of hundred million consumer participants in our industry. I think we are going to break a billion in a year or two,” Riccitiello said in an interview at the E3 video game conference in Los Angeles.

“They are participating in lots of different business models: online casual PC, downloading games to their iPhones,” he said, referring to Apple Inc’s mobile handset. “They are doing micro-transactions on games like FIFA online.”

Such an influx of customers could help boost sales in the video game software industry, which Hudson Square Research analyst Daniel Ernest says grew to almost $29 billion in the fiscal year ending in March.

But with top titles often costing as much or more than a Hollywood film, video game publishers face a fair amount of uncertainty when deciding where to spend on game development.

After a wave of belt-tightening in the past year or so, including job cuts, studio closings and the cancellation of some games, many have adopted a strategy of putting resources in only their most bankable franchises.

With an eye on those billion customers, Riccitiello says that the company is still planning to deliver a broad slate of games, ranging from top-tier titles in best-selling franchises such as “Madden” football and an online version of “Star Wars”, to inexpensive games for mobile phones.

“We are producing fewer titles than we used to, but I don’t know that I would agree with the idea that you just can try to identify your hits before you launch them, and do nothing but that,” he said. “We had the number one market share in our industry last year, and we had our fair share of hits.”

But he added that he found it amusing to think you could focus only on hits, “not being able to know what they are before you start.”

EA ended the fiscal year in March with a loss of about $1 billion, after suffering a weak holiday season, and failing to score enough big sellers on the most popular game console system, Nintendo Co Ltd’s Wii.

But at the show, EA was optimistic about the coming year. Riccitiello noted that the company will have more games on store shelves for Nintendo’s Wii, the top-selling videogame console.

In all, it focused on a dozen coming titles, including the latest version of the blockbuster “Sims” franchise, “The Sims 3,” and fresh installments of sports franchises, such as “Fight Night Round 4.”

“I feel good about where we are,” he said. “I feel great about what we are showing.”

Reporting by Franklin Paul; Editing by Gary Hill