May 1, 2023 - Technology

Interview: Electronic Arts hit-maker talks Star Wars, Battlefield

Photo Illustration of Vince Zampella from Electronic Arts

Photo Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios, Photos: EA

A career loaded with hits has led to an expanded portfolio — and added pressure — for EA executive Vince Zampella, whose team released Star Wars Jedi: Survivor to stellar reviews last week.

Why it matters: Zampella is helping reforge EA’s rep as a game maker after years of the mega-publisher’s under-achievement in creating games in key categories, including Star Wars.

Be smart: Jedi: Survivor comes from one of the teams at Respawn Entertainment, the studio co-founded by Zampella that EA purchased in 2017.

  • It follows Respawn and EA’s 2019 hit Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order, which sold more than 10 million copies, rewriting EA’s battered rep on Star Wars games and, according to Zampella, exceeding internal expectations.

State of play: Respawn is now developing at least two more Star Wars games — a strategy title made in concert with new studio Bit Reactor and a first-person shooter made in-house.

  • Respawn operates Apex Legends, a battle royale game launched in 2019 that remains one of the few viable competitors to Epic’s Fortnite.
  • And while it is not working on a sequel to its beloved Titanfall franchise (it would love to but nothing's in the works, Zampella tells Axios), that series’ game director, Steve Fukuda, is leading a “very small,” “skunkworks” team at Respawn: “The mission is to find the fun in something new.”
  • Oh, and in December 2021, EA put Zampella in charge of its repeatedly underperforming Battlefield military shooter franchise to turn it around.

What they’re saying: “At the end of the day, it's interactive entertainment, so that interactive portion has to feel good,” Zampella tells Axios, drawing a throughline across his teams’ many successful games.

  • “The story can be great, and it has to be great, especially in Star Wars, right? But if it doesn't feel good, who cares?”

Catch up fast: Zampella didn’t get this amount of responsibility by accident.

  • In 2002, after making Medal of Honor games for EA, Zampella formed a new studio, Infinity Ward, which created Call of Duty for EA rival Activision.
  • Through sequels and refinement, IW made Call of Duty one of the biggest and most influential gaming series of all time.
  • An acrimonious split with Activision led Zampella to co-found Respawn, where the team made Titanfall and then pitched EA a Star Wars game, initially rejected, that became Fallen Order.

Yes, but: Respawn has seen a string of departures, including its co-founder and top Apex Legends developers in the last year, forming new studios outside of EA.

  • “We’ve had an abnormally low rate of turnover, so this is just more in line with what you see realistically in the industry,” he said.
  • Zampella attributes some of the exits to talented developers wanting to try new things and the limits on how many projects can be greenlit at the company.

Between the lines: Survivor was developed mostly while its developers worked remotely due to the pandemic. It had been delayed from a planned March release because “it just wasn’t ready,” Zampella says.

  • Reviews have been strong, though the game runs poorly on some PCs, sending EA and Respawn rushing to promise patches to fix performance.
  • It’s an iterative sequel that expands and improves many aspects of Fallen Order, offering more dynamic combat options, more acrobatic moves for its playable Jedi and a much larger set of sci-fi worlds to explore.
  • “It's not just about telling the second part of the story,” Zampella says of the sequel. “It's about refining what you do.”

What's next: Getting EA's Battlefield in a good spot is one of Zampella's biggest upcoming challenges.

It's best not to think of it simply as a Call of Duty competitor, Zampella says.

  • It has a “specialness around the squad play” and “those only-in-Battlefield moments where you can kind of see something come together where it just blows your mind.”
  • “I can't really say too much, just because we're not really talking about it yet, but there's a lot that we can do there.”

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