John Paczkowski

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EA Hooks Playfish

acquisitions1Electronic Arts is betting big on social gaming. This morning, the videogame publisher said it will acquire social network games maker Playfish for $400 million. An interesting move given that Playfish COO Sebastien de Halleux dismissed rumors of such a deal just last month.

Under terms of the deal, EA (ERTS) will initially pay $300 million for the developer of such social games as Pet Society, Who Has the Biggest Brain and Restaurant City, including a $25 million retention agreement with Playfish employees. It will subsequently pay $100 million more if the company meets undisclosed profit targets.

By acquiring Playfish, EA is not only validating the social gaming market, but perhaps setting the valuation benchmark for Mafia Wars creators Zynga, which is expected to go public next year. It also tempers–to some extent, anyway–concerns that the lead-generation scam controversy that recently blew up around Zynga and Playfish might harm their perceived value in the market.

“This deal came about very quickly, but let me say that Playfish was never ‘up for sale’,” de Halleux told PaidContent. “We were focused on building our business, because we believed—and still do—that the game industry is changing. EA approached, and we realized that we could be in a better position to act as an agent of change, through them. We could build games and attract users on our own, but this deal accelerates that to a degree that wouldn’t have been possible.”

“Social gaming, with its emphasis on friends and community, is seeing tremendous growth and this is the right time to invest to strengthen our participation in this space,” said Barry Cottle, senior vice president and general manager of EA Interactive. “With the addition of proven expertise from Playfish, their broad consumer base and strong game brands, we’re moving ahead aggressively in our plans to lead in the category of cross-platform social entertainment.”

If there was ever a doubt that social networks might be a viable gaming platform, this acquisition pretty much obliterates it.