The EApocalypse

Man, it’s been a shit year for Electronic Arts so far hasn’t it? Rarely in the good graces of gamers at the best of times, the world’s second largest publisher (and once the largest by a country mile) has just been drowning in controversy in 2013. Between the microtransactions in Dead Space 3 to the continuing fustercluck that is the launch of SimCity with its always-on DRM, the company is just swimming in bad PR and furious customers. Don’t get me wrong, it’s reaping what it’s sown and it deserves all the ire that it’s getting. Never before have I seen a company so Hell bent on going to war with its own customers and expecting to come out the other side smelling of roses and money…alright, maybe Zynga.

The thing about this though is that is really doesn’t have to be this way. EA doesn’t have to be this way. What’s going on down in Redwood Shores?

I am generally not a fan of big business and the way it tends to treat its customers and this is the case in the video game industry as well. Big publishers love to push the bounds of unreasonableness to see just how much gamers are willing to take. It drives me nuts, as it does to constantly see the argument trotted out that businesses exist to make money and therefore whatever they do in the interests of that is OK because it’s what they’re supposed to do.  That’s bullshit. You know how businesses make money? By building a loyal base of customers, not driving them away. Without your customers, your business has no money. I mean, duh? If you are a CEO who thinks the needs of your short-sighted shareholders should trump the needs of the customers who actually generate value for those shareholders, you are doing it wrong.

At the same time, I do understand the plight of these companies and even sympathise with it to a degree. Like it or not, big publishers are important to a large segment of gaming. Those big, expensive AAA titles we all like so much? Big publishers need to exist and thrive for those to get made. A couple of bedroom programmers aren’t going to make Battlefield. Kickstarter isn’t going to fund the next Mass Effect. You can’t make a Dead Space experience for a few grand and sell it for 99 cents. Millions of people want these games and big companies are how they get produced. The games industry is a tremendously risky one, regardless of the level you’re trying to compete in and we live in a world where people want everything right now, they want it to be better than last time and they want it either free or as close to free as possible. It’s an almost untenable situation and is at odds with the very core of how some of the best interactive experiences have been created. As a whole, the industry doesn’t know how to handle it yet.

Some companies are handling it much better than others and they’ve done it by being focused on what they’re good at and catering to it while trying to push forward in their chosen space. For all of Ubisoft’s faults, I think they’re a great example of this. While they’ve dabbled into other facets of gaming such as mobile and social, their focus has remained hardcore AAA titles with another segment dedicated to family and casual games, almost all on consoles and PC. They’ve also managed to do this and continue experimenting and iterating on even their biggest money making franchises. They’re not necessarily raking it in but they’re weathering the current storm the game industry is in much better than most. I think THQ may have ended up in a similar position had they been able to hang on longer. I’ll talk more about Ubisoft’s philosophy in a future post but I use it here to demonstrate the stark contrast with EA.

For many years dating back to the 90s, EA was seen as the evil boogeyman of the game industry. They grew their fat wallets by releasing full priced updates to sports titles every year that were little more than roster updates and they were famous for buying studios that ran on creativity and running them, their people and their franchises into the ground. They frequently released games that were overpromised, buggy and often outright broken without supporting them properly. They drew near constant hate from gamers everywhere but always had their stable of sports franchises to tide them over. And time went on and game production costs rose, this formula waned and the EA money train began to slow.
Enter current CEO John Riccitiello. Fresh off of selling the powerhouse studio combo of BioWare/Pandemic to EA for a ginormous pile of money, he took charge of the company as a whole and came in with lofty ambitions to reverse their fortunes. His words were music to the ears of gamers. He said EA’s quality was poor, that there was no originality in their games and that a wave of new creativity and business models to go with it were necessary if EA and indeed the publishing industry as a whole were to survive and grow. He planned to completely reform not only EA but the entire idea of what a video game publisher was about and he was going to do it by trimming the fat and focusing on quality and new ideas. It all sounded great and for the most part, none of it’s come true. I won’t spend another 1,500 words detailing all the Riccitiello ambitions that haven’t come to fruition. I link to Jim Sterling’s Jimquisition series a lot but he often does a great job illustrating points I want to make better than I could. Check out his Why Do People Hate EA? episode to see just how badly EA has flubbed what sounded like a fantastic vision that John Riccitiello entered with.

The company has gone from one that wanted to embrace new ideas to trying to throw its seed into every pot available in the hope that something will take root. In the last few years, they’ve gone on another acquisition bender, buying up several prominent companies in the mobile, social and casual game spaces, all for ludicrously inflated prices. And almost none of them have panned out. They bought the companies when they were hot and just like the EA of the past, they were either left to stagnate or were interfered and meddled with to the point where their uniqueness and creative soul were drained from them and they didn’t bare the results desired. They did initially put a lot of effort into new IP and franchises but after a couple of these didn’t work out because not everything’s a sure bet, they got scared and retreated back to stagnant safety.

The only semi-new things we see from EA any more are their constant, desperate attempts to chase after what’s hot at the time. Not being able to make Battlefield a yearly series, they’ve been desperate to find something to compete with Call of Duty and that’s led to the largely dreadful attempts to reboot Medal of Honor, recently shelved after the piss poor latest title in that series. Hungry for a piece of the World of Warcraft pie, they poured an estimated $200 million into developing Star Wars: The Old Republic, an immensely ambitious effort to make the Star Wars MMO everyone wanted. Except they just made it exactly like WoW with a Star Wars skin and no one cared. The game was a flop and cost the company a fortune. Rather than understand that CoD and WoW are juggernaut outliers and that they should focus on building their own ideas rather than go head-to-head with those, they tried to latch on to their success and failed miserably. EA went from being a company with a bold desire to chart its own course to one wildly flailing its arms around, hoping that it would hit something, anything that would prove to be a cash cow as big as the two Activision tripped over.

When none of those things worked out, EA doubled down on mobile games and core console titles. Except rather than try to make unique and appealing experiences in those arenas, it just made all of its franchises an indistinct sludge with no single amazing thing you could point at them for, all in the interests of “broader appeal”. They took Dead Space, one of the only horror games I liked and turned it into an action series with multiplayer no one asked for in the second game and co-op no one asked for in the third one. They padded the third with a ton of boring side missions, bloating it to a ridiculous, unnecessary size. On top of all that, they stuffed Zynga-esque microtransactions in, shoving the option to artificially buy progress for real money into your face every time you opened a crafting bench. Never mind that the previous two games made money by selling less copies and having no microtransactions. Rather than look inward and figure out why their costs got so bloated and rein them in to keep the game focused and the sales requirements reasonable, they basically threatened fans by saying it had to sell an obscene number of copies to justify its existence. Let’s not also forget how what many consider critical story elements were cut out of Dead Space 3 as well as Mass Effect 3 to be sold later as DLC.
Then we have the new SimCity, a game that with its very name alone would have been a money press. Of course, that wasn’t good enough. They crammed it to the seams with always-on DRM, made the city size laughably small and piled on half-baked social features that were forced on players in order to drive engagement through overexposure (i.e. how most Facebook games work) and sell people DLC. No one asked for any of this, gamers weren’t cramming for smaller cities and forced social integration. We all just wanted a new SimCity but now we have an online-only game that as of this writing, doesn’t work.

To me, the new SimCity embodies a near perfect representation of the modern EA: A company who is desperately trying to be a jack of all gaming trades and is not just a master of none but not even competent at any of them. It treats its paying customer as adversaries and not allies, a relationship that’s poisonous to everyone. The company is acting completely contrary to the incredible vision that John Riccitiello came in with and I think that’s so sad. Reverting back to their old ways hasn’t helped either. They lost hundreds of millions over the last few years and are only just barely clinging to profit right now. Their financial future is far from certain, even with the stable of hits they do have.

Had he been able to execute his ideas the way he expressed them to fans, I think it could have been an amazing thing, a creative and business revolution in an industry that desperately needs both right now. Why has this vision rotted away so badly? Did Riccitiello just lose faith in his own ideas? Were EA’s shareholders just too clueless and short-sighted to give him the time necessary to do it? Given that he hasn’t yet been ousted from his position as CEO (though there have been rumbling of this before), they obviously mustn’t think he’s doing that bad a job. I really don’t want to hate EA. I don’t want to hate any publisher. I think competition is good and the more people that make games, the better we as gamers are. I also love the big AAA franchises and want to see more and better ones get produced but the way EA is doing things right now is not sustainable. They need focus and clarity, they need to pick an area of gaming and put all hands on it. They need to let creators create for a while and be willing to take some risks. And most of all, they need to stop treating customers as cash machines and start rewarding their loyalty and make them feel welcome. This all sounds so basic but it’s apparently too hard for the average shareholder to comprehend.

I don’t know how they’ll do it but EA needs to tell the market to sit down and shut up for a while because only happy customers who want to spend money with you will generate long-term growth. People are only willing to be fleeced for so long before they’ll move on and then you have nothing. SimCity could be the tipping point for a lot of people and the lessons it is giving are ones that should be burned into the minds of not only EA but their competitors who think that their model is the right one to follow. EA needs a revolution and if not that, a major correction. It’s time to let one of those happen.

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