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Gaming at the speed of innovation

Future Wheels
A snapshot of "Future Wheels: Thinking 2+ Steps Ahead," courtesy of Andy Billings, VP of profitable creativity, Electronic Arts (EA).

EA’s head of profitable creativity believes a safe space to “play” keeps teams ahead of the game.

Imagine a day on the elementary school playground. You’ve found a stick and a patch of dirt. You draw a big circle, then invite a couple of friends inside. With that simple setup and the power of imagination, you and your friends might explore the moon, or roam the seas as pirates.

Andy Billings, vice president of profitable creativity at Electronic Arts (EA), believes play doesn’t have to be left on the playground – it has a role in the workplace. With a set of rules and low-fidelity materials, teams can set aside conventional thinking to address everything from smaller goals, up to challenges that might impact the organization’s existence.

Underestimating the need for speed

Fear is not good for innovation. Without an adequate sense of safety, creativity is going to dry up, then innovation is gone, and we’re in trouble.

Andy Billings
Head of profitable creativity, Electronic Arts (EA)

Billings helped guide EA through a difficult time when the company grew out of sync with the market and faced serious financial troubles. Despite being a well-known company of the computer age, responsible for many iconic game titles such as Madden NFL, The Sims, Battlefield, and Need for Speed, EA didn’t see changes coming.

Like companies in many industries, EA underestimated the speed in which evolving technology would impact its business model. Every year, “a lot of companies are getting disrupted out of business,” Billings said, even companies that might have seemed like S&P 500 mainstays, such as The New York Times, Dell, and Sprint, that are no longer on the list. This kind of turnover has only been accelerating in recent decades.

“You don’t have to have a degree in accounting to know that when your profit line goes off the bottom of the chart, you are in deep, deep trouble,” Billings said. This is the situation EA faced starting in 2008. Only a few years earlier, EA had been on top of its game, making impressive profits using a model in which they released game updates once a year, and consumers bought them as discs at GameStop or Best Buy.

“Organizations are built for stability, not change,” Billings said. EA, founded in 1982, had already settled into a stable business model. Except, the industry was changing under its feet: players were becoming increasingly attracted to games offered online, that were continually updated, and that they could play with other people from around the world.

For these and a number of other reasons – including some expensive product misfires and an alienated customer base – EA was a company in need of transformation. Part of the way Billings helped lead needed changes was by going back to the circle on the playground.

Back to the playground

“At EA, you might think it’s a goofy place. It’s actually a pretty intense, serious place – we are making games, but we’ve got to make them on time, we have to make a certain amount of money, you’ve got to make them better than your competitors. It’s still a pretty intense business. So, we use a lot of games and simulations so that people can experience the future in a game-like way where there are no serious negative consequences,” Billings said.

If new ideas and innovations are the lifeblood of organizations, then these types of exercises can be vital, but only in a no-fear setting. “Fear is not good for innovation. Without an adequate sense of safety, creativity is going to dry up, then innovation is gone, and we’re in trouble,” Billings said.

He gave the example of how “creatives” and “suits” need to be able to talk about the balance between the game designer’s vision and the practicality of what will sell. This is done through what Billings called “flight simulators” – exercises that allow participants to try out different scenarios.

These learning games are done with paper, cards, board games, and perhaps some financial software to run the financials or player numbers. After that, it is up to the unique power of imagination. “Humans are incredibly able to step across that line and suspend belief,” Billings said.

Learn by playing

“People will generate an idea – ‘I’m going to make an XYZ game,’ – and they’ll play it through. Or they’ll say, ‘I want to make a small, niche game. I want to have 1 million players,’ instead of 10 million, 20 million, 30 million players, and so they’ll get to play that scenario through.

Andy Billings
Andy Billings, VP of profitable creativity, Electronic Arts (EA), speaks with Kauffman Foundation associates about the convergence of work and play.

“Literally, in an hour or two you can make, in the circle in the sand, a bunch of games and see how they do, both in terms of quality and in terms of their financial results. So, you’re going to say, ‘Oh, okay.’ To me, simulations compress experience in time,” Billings said.

One of the keys to making these exercises work is to do them in a social format, where company rank is left outside the circle. Billings can tell when the process is working:

“When you come into those rooms, people are laughing, and yelling, and having a good time. If they’re kind of politely, quietly playing through, the magic hasn’t taken hold,” Billings said.

After that, it’s a matter of keeping things as simple as possible. “We don’t tell people a lot. We don’t tell people how to behave in these situations. We let them discover it. So, our learning model is just a little introduction around, ‘What is this all about?’ Just kind of, ‘What’s this universe going to be?’ Just jump in the swimming pool. It’s a games company. No one wants to listen to the instructions. They just go, ‘I’ll learn it by playing.'”

Billings also uses an exercise called “Future Wheels” to help avoid the kind of disruptions that might be coming while people are focused on current business. It challenges people to think two or more steps ahead. In this game, participants are asked to take a current change or innovation and to consider what the first, second, and third order consequences of that change might be.

He offered up the introduction of self-driving cars as an example. As autonomous vehicles become more prevalent, a first order consequence might mean less traffic on the roads, as vehicles serve more people instead of sitting in parking lots. Lighter traffic might then make longer commutes possible. And, because commuters would have time as the vehicle did the driving, they would be able to do work – or, as Billings says half-jokingly, play games. But, a great consequence is that airlines providing regional flights might find their service challenged by self-driving cars.

Gaming constant innovation

While Billings leads these exercises within a large company that struggles to be nimble, he thinks these same activities can benefit smaller organizations and startups. He is a mentor for a number of startups, and while he acknowledges new businesses don’t have all the liabilities of the established ones they may be trying to displace, he does feel they should have ways to stop and take stock.

“A startup’s got to have some way of saying, ‘Do we have some kind of regular way of periodically checking our progress? How are we going to do that? How do we make pivots and redirections?'” Billings said. “You can do small experiments in a startup that can give you huge amounts of learning. You could do an experiment in a day and potentially change your whole business model.

“I mean, we all start in chaos. But if you don’t get out of that, you don’t get traction, and then you won’t get to the place where you can test product market fit,” Billings said.

For all the behind-the-scenes work Billings and others are doing at EA, the company is not out of the woods and must constantly be innovating. Competitor Epic Games has challenged convention by putting out the wildly popular title Fortnite, which is a free-to-play game, relying on a “microtransactions” model for revenue. EA has countered with Apex Legends, also free-to-play, that has attracted more than 50 million players.

While Billings acknowledges that “creative disruption” is inevitable in the marketplace, his goal is to help his company avoid near-death experiences by keeping an eye on the future. “I’d say, maybe we’re never done transforming now,” Billings said.

Billings shared what he’s learned during his tenure at EA with Kauffman Foundation associates as part of an ongoing series of presenters, intended to spark dialogue about how we might think about our work differently.