It’s on the books, people: EA CEO John Ricitiello is out. The #2 publisher isn’t going to hit its numbers for the quarter and has been underperforming for some time, even as it endures a hailstorm of ongoing negative press. In his memo to employees, Ricitiello takes the high road, assuming all the blame for EA’s revenue problems and stating unequivocally that the buck stops with him. I respect that, and I’ve always had at least some respect for John Ricitiello. He may not have been God’s gift to CEOs, but there’ve been worse in this industry; the truth is EA’s suffering can’t all be laid at his door – though the culture that allowed it probably can.
A few months ago, a large poll awarded EA the dubious (and sort of bizarre) distinction of “worst company in America.” The publisher beat Bank of America by thousands of votes. At the time, EA rightly laughed off the award, remarking that companies like BP, Halliburton, and Philip Morris – all of them former Worst Company winners – weren’t nominated that year. Reading between the lines is where you’ll find what EA’s clever spokespeople were actually trying to say: seriously? A video game company? Spend some time in Bhopal or El Salvador sweatshops. Visit a Foxconn plant. You expect this to bother us? If you voted for EA then you have no idea what real corporate greed is capable of.
And it was a good response. EA is a dumb company with poor customer service and a very shaky track record, but “worst?” even “evil” is reaching.
Ricitiello’s been in trouble for a while now, ever since the financial returns on Mirror’s Edge and Dead Space, both titles that returned modest sums but needed to be blockbusters to justify the publisher’s continued support of new and (in the case of Mirror’s Edge) somewhat avant-garde IP. At the time the publisher slashed jobs and announced it was transitioning back to the more tried and true business model of releasing terrible franchise rehashes and endless sequels.
Since then it’s been on a steady course, with a handful of business and PR blow ups here and there – the Mass Effect 3 ending fiasco was directed more at Bioware than EA and didn’t cost any money; the catastrophic but not unexpected failure of The Old Republic MMO doubtless eviscerated the publisher’s bottom line. And these past few weeks there’s been the Sim City release, an event that you’d have to be kind to describe as a fiasco. EA and Maxis have been caught lying repeatedly, and in the past few days they’ve just stopped answering the phone as increasingly damning evidence of their malfeasance comes to light.
But in the end, I don’t think Ricitiello quit because of Sim City, or The Old Republic, or any other single thing. I think he’s stepping down because as CEO, it’s his responsibility to deliver on the wishes of the shareholders, and EA has failed to do that under his management. It’s business.
The truth is that John Ricitiello isn’t that bad a guy. He tried to take EA in a direction that would differentiate it from Activision/Blizzard, to develop a stable of new IPs and new concepts while trying to support existing successful properties. That gamers didn’t buy those new IPs is not entirely his fault. Meanwhile, quality of life issues at EA studios have improved significantly since the EA_Spouse controversy, and the publisher owns some very valuable properties that it will be able to continue to capitalize on. Ricitiello’s departure is a sign that the video games industry still has a lot of problems, and that those problems are widespread – gamers are as guilty as corporate bosses for the issues we see.
What matters now is who will be chosen to replace him, and what that new leader will do to get EA back on track. While I’d like to believe that EA’s board of directors will show foresight and choose an out of the box risk-taker who’s more passionate about restoring fan loyalty than about selling more Madden games, that’s probably a pipe dream. The shareholders are much more likely to bring in a corporate mouth-whore of the Bobby Kotick/Thomas Tippl/Larry Probst variety, because those people will create the short-term illusion of generating stability and revenue while consistently poisoning the well of customer faith. And shareholders care less about doing the right thing than they do about making out big on their stock options.
Farewell, John Ricitiello. You were a man, taken for all in all; you had plenty of flaws and made tons of mistakes, but among all your weaknesses there were positive traits. It’s too bad that those traits weren’t enough to stave off EA’s current fate. I admire that you did the right thing and took the blame. You’re the CEO, you should. Here’s to hoping you leave behind a company that’s smarter than it was when you started. But I have my doubts.
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