Four new titles bring alternatives to gaming giant

It’s been a long time since Electronic Arts bet on a big unknown.

Since the early part of the decade, the nation’s largest videogame publisher has focused primarily on sports games, movie licenses and endless sequels and expansions for its small number of fully owned properties, like “The Sims” and “Need for Speed.”

In 2008, after nearly two years of course correction, EA is changing its ways.

The release last week of the new sci-fi/horror game “Dead Space” marks the company’s fourth original non-sports game this year, following “Spore,” “Army of Two,” and “Boom Blox,” and will be followed next month by the parkour-inspired title “Mirror’s Edge.”

“Dead Space” is also the first game under a program EA calls “IP cubed,” in which it develops properties with the explicit goal of expanding them into multiple media forms from the outset, instead of licensing them out later as an afterthought or a marketing exercise.

At the same time, EA has significantly cut down on its movie licenses and reworked its approach to sports to focus more on quality and broader accessibility.

“We found a few years ago that we had a set of problems where EA’s reputation became one of just doing sports games, sequels and licenses and the market was reacting to newer properties like ‘Grand Theft Auto’ and ‘Halo,” says Frank Gibeau, president of EA Games. “At the same time, movie and sports licensors started jacking up their rates and it was becoming less profitable to chase licenses.”

Result has been a major shift in the company’s slate. Though it still has licensing deals for major sports brands like the NFL, NCAA basketball and the NHL, as well as a few key Hollywood properties like “Harry Potter,” “The Simpsons,” “The Godfather” and “The Lord of the Rings,” there are fewer of them.

For a major videogame publisher like EA to launch five properties in a single year is a rarity, and a sign of how much the company’s culture has shifted under CEO John Riccitiello, who took over in early 2007.

EA’s new mandate has meant a major reorientation of its production process, including dividing the company into four labels and giving its 10 development studios more time and resources to test and prototype ideas, with the understanding that only a handful will eventually get the greenlight .

In addition to boosting development inhouse, EA has been reaching out to different creators. It recently signed a deal with “300″ and “Watchmen” director Zack Snyder to help develop three original games, following on a similar deal with Steven Spielberg, which resulted in “Boom Blox.”

EA has also been looking to bring in new properties through acquisition. That’s one of the big reasons it bought developers Bioware and Pandemic for $860 million last year and why it chased, unsuccessfully, “Grand Theft Auto” publisher Take-Two for most of 2008.

At EA’s flagship development studio in northern California’s Redwood Shores, general manager Glenn Schofield estimates that more than 50% of development work is now going into original games.

Schofield, who also served as exec producer of “Dead Space,” says there was a conscious effort within the company to reach out to partners as far back as last year about doing tie-in properties and to include the development team. That has resulted in a comicbook from Image Comics and a direct-to-DVD animated film from Starz’s Film Roman that tell the story up to the point at which the game starts. EA is also talking to producers about setting up a film.

“People used to think of things like that as a distraction, but I think our game is stronger because of the influence of the comics and the animated movie,” Schofield says. “Everyone internally is looking at ‘Dead Space’ as the model now because there’s just so much content that we’ve generated.”

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