Poor EA. Just as the publisher, long-reviled as a frumious monsterporation of creativity-gobbling soul-holery, was beginning to recover its tarnished rep among gamers and industry, it gets walloped by losses for its trouble. $391 million in losses last quarter, plans to slash another 1,500 employees – this time from Pandemic, Maxis (!), Tiburon, Mythic, Black Box, and the internal Command & Conquer team – along with about a dozen titles on the current slate. All this is, to be honest, punishment for CEO John Ricitiello’s recent efforts to turn the company around and make it into a place that’s at least a little more supportive of new ideas, new IP, and healthy working conditions.
24 months ago EA would have been described as a “megapublisher,” back when we were naive enough to think that game companies couldn’t get much bigger, richer, or more powerful. Then Activision, in a sort of hideous reverse mitosis, engulfed Vivendi Entertainment, which included the storied Sierra On-Line and, of course, Blizzard. Total cost: something like a bazillion dollars; the result was the true megapublisher, like the wicked megacorps of bad sci-fi; the mighty Activision/Blizzard, headed by the Snidely Whiplash of the videogames industry, the deservedly-maligned Bobby Kotick who will, heaven willing, die in a fire, after which his soul will be shredded by a million slavering demons before being rejected as too toxic for Hell by Satan himself and left to haunt the world in shattered fragments of pure negative energy.
Wait, where was I going with this?
Oh, yes! Back in the day, EA was famous for terrible working conditions, poor quality assurance, rejection of new or innovative IP, and general stay-the-courseism of regular sequels and sports franchises. But the backlash against the company, particularly inside the industry, was really incredible… and CEO Ricitiello, not exactly a paragon himself, seemed genuinely moved by it. He supported the acquisition of some new studios, allowed some intriguing (if not altogether successful) new IPs like Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, reformed (sort of) the company’s Quality of Life policies, and declared that his company was No Longer Evil. Meanwhile, Kotick’s Activision/Blizzard eagerly slimed its way into the position once held by EA: eliminating quality of life, establishing a culture of fear among developers, canceling all but one new IP (the uninspiring-looking Singularity from the hugely inept Raven Software) and ditching several promising in-the-works games.
Result? Activision’s doing okay, weathering the current economic maelstrom, while EA loses almost half a billion dollars and cuts its workforce by more than 25% in less than one year. And at Monday’s shareholder conference call, Ricitiello made it clear that his company was abandoning its brave new focus and returning to the philosophy of stagnant IP, lots of sequels, tired sports franchises, and safe casual games (culminating in the recent $200 million acquisition of Playfish, a fact sure to lend cold comfort to the EA employees about to get the axe).
But really, who’s fault is it? Well… ours. I mean, not ours personally, but gamers’ in general. EA tried innovative new things and they didn’t sell. Of course, it doesn’t help that the company’s also made a few missteps in the last 18 months (i.e., Spore); some expected blockbusters weren’t (i.e., Hellgate London); and we’re naturally not taking into account holiday and post-massacre numbers, which will include three-million-each-easy-sellers like Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age – both, of course, from BioWare, whose sister studio Pandemic (of Mercenaries fame) is about to get melon-balled. But it does boil down to the fact that EA lost money and if it hadn’t, Ricitiello’s experiment would still be going on.
I’m not going to lecture anyone on their failure to buy Brutal Legend or Madden 1,251,623. EA is still not a very well-run company, depending on The Sims for something like 30% of its revenue and failing to sell to the Core or the Casual marketplaces effectively. But at the same time, you can’t blame the CEO of a publicly-traded company running for cover when a bold new initiative strikes out as spectacularly as this one has. Here’s to hoping that EA is able to find a middle ground.
UPDATE: check out Chris Remo’s hilarious The Ballad of John Ricitiello. Thanks Dubious Quality for the find!
I’m rather pissed that EA bought Pandemic and then has systematically kept them from doing anything great. You think Quick-time events in Mercenaries 2 was Pandemic’s idea? Not to mention a million other shoddy design decisions that have “EA marketing” stamped all over them.
Not to mention using their excellent experience on the Battlefront games to crap out the shoddily done Lord of the Rings: Conquest.
I wouldn’t be surprised if they eventually make Pandemic into BioWare’s version of Treyarch.
That commentary aside, none of this is surprising. The economy in the US continues to suck eggs, I hear it’s not exactly stellar anywhere else, this is not the time for bold new directions. I’m expecting the game industry to be pretty stale until well into 2011 and maybe longer if the economic recovery drags.
EA has always been evil and will continue to be so. That whole “new direction” by Ricitiello was merely a burp in its bile-spewing, gaseous existence. Now that PlayFish has been gobbled, those employees should run for cover because EA will kick them to the curb after first draining their collective knowledge by having them train their off-shore replacements. Been there, done that.
To be honest I never fully understood why BioWare merged with Pandemic before the EA buyout. They just seemed like such different studios, albeit with equally talented talent. I hope EA doesn’t gut the studio too cruelly.
Arguably the fact that “EA Marketing” has so much say in game development is what hurts so many EA published games. Marketing has its eye on one prize, and that rarely aligns with making a good game. Interference of marketing in the development process almost always results in bad things… like Quick-Time Events and in-game billboards.
Steerpike got up earlier than I did this morning. I read an article about EA not 30 minutes ago and was going to comment on it in the Forum. (LA Times: “Electronic Arts to slash 1,500 jobs and buy Playfish”) This article builds on my increasing concerns about the future of the kind of games that I can love: the adventure game.
This year has been a hard one for old Spike. I have only played 3 games that really excited me – one of which, “Yoomurjak’s Ring”, turns out to be on my Top 5 favorites of all-time. I’ve played a few others that were OK, but no great shakes. I’ve started, and abandoned maybe 6 others. Inbetween, I’ve played several casual games at Big Fish, but I don’t really consider those to be full-fledged games, just light “snacks” between “meals”.
Several times a week I pore over the internet looking for the next game I might love. The pickin’s seem to get slimmer and slimmer. The topper came recently when I was reading about the sequel to “Chronicles of Mystery: The Scorpio Ritual”, which I thought had some good things going for itself, but ultimately fell short. I hoped that the devs would do better with their next game. We shall know shortly. Turns out there will be 2 versions of the sequel, with slightly different titles. One will be a full-length traditional adventure game, and the other will be…wait for it…a hidden object-type game available from the usual suspects. This is the second time recently that I have read about this happening – devs either going “casual” as a second line of revenue, or abandoning traditional games/supply channels altogether.
I hate to sound snippy and don’t want anyone to think that I am being cynical or critical, but hey, this is TR, so here’s my take on what I’ve been reading and seeing. We are getting soggy in the brain. Casual games have their uses. But I am seeing more and more devs of traditional games move into the casual game market. Have we (the worldwide gaming community) developed a case of ADD? Do we lack the time, or patience, for traditional 20-30-or more hours of gaming? What about story? What about having to think about how to proceed in a game? What about THINKING? “Puppy Stylin'” Is not “Sim City”. “Hidden Magic” is not (you pick a title). Give me something hard to chew on for a few weeks. Please! I don’t want to manage a Diner.
Some of that “sogginess” is gaming going mainstream. That means greater demand for “popcorn” entertainment. I hate to draw the parallel to movies, it’s just so easy (ie: intellectually lazy).
As a long-time software developer I appreciate how project complexity can often affect your end profitability. Fallout 3, an immense game with incredible complexity, will never reach the profitability numbers of Modern Warfare 2. The core audience is not large enough and the cost of producing the game is too immense.
We’re seeing an increase in casual games simply because of
2. High and quick ROI (Return on investment)
I keep wondering when we’ll become oversaturated with casual games, it just hasn’t happened yet.
In the meantime, not-so-casual but equally vapid games like Gears of War 2 will continue to be the big sellers in the non-casual games market. Not that I have anything against Gears of War, but they are truly the fast food analogue of gaming. Hey, I love fast food but I’m now old enough that I would prefer to have a real meal when I can get it.
So while it feels like games are getting dumber, in truth the audience is getting larger. The easiest way to make money is to appeal to the lowest common denominator. That’s just simple business. That won’t prevent more complex or deep games from being made, but they will have a difficult time being noticed.
In some ways it might be good that the gaming industry is getting smaller, because it has a chance for real change once the economy improves. The way it was going, the only real studios left were going to belong to EA or Activision. Eventually the economy will come back and people will be willing to take a chance on a new fresh studio that is not infected with by mega-publisher market-think.
Unfortunately, gaming enthusiasts will have to ride out the current reality until that day comes.
Very true, Jason.
For me, this is sad because people are losing jobs, but also because EA is going to return to ideasless, safe games. To quote Ricitiello: “Electronic Arts has a core slate of games label and sports franchises that we will iterate on a either annual or bi-annual basis. And I think you know what those major titles are – all of them are selling or have sold in their most recent edition 2 million units or more. After that, we’ve got The Sims and Hasbro, and frankly anything that doesn’t measure up to looking like it can pencil out to be in very high profit contributor and high unit seller got cut from our title slate from this point going forward.”
I mean that’s just admitting defeat. And that’s really sad. I never stopped hating EA but I did feel a little less guilty in the last 12 months or so when I was buying their games. Yes, they saddled some of them with shitty DRM (main reason why I never purchased SPORE), but I did buy Dead Space even though I didn’t think as highly of it as some other people. I purchased Brutal legend even though the game is, my love for Tim Schafer and heavy metal aside, kinda shitty. I even bought Dead Space Extraction because it’s pretty good. I wanted Ricitiello’s plan to succeed, because that would possibly have shown that you don’t have to squash creativity and stiffle free thought if you want to be reasonably successful. Sadly, it was not to be…
I should have said “Thank goodness for indie devs.” Many are not North Americans or Western Europeans, and they are creating some of the best adventure games around. Small neighborhood restaurant vs. McDonalds. Gotta love ’em.
Spike, even though I know it’s an irrational fear, I sometimes worry that casual games may overtake the games I actually care about. What I have to remind myself is that this isn’t a zero-sum situation; as Jason O says, games aren’t getting smaller, the audience is getting bigger. PLUS, one of the key reasons casual is exploding right now is one that’s rarely commented on: casual games are easily accessible at most offices, so they’re work time-wasters. They attract an audience that’d never describe itself as “gamer,” just “slacker.”
Adventure as a play format has suffered a long cold night, since the last of the Gabriel Knight titles. But the rise of the independent scene, plus small European studios, have really caused a resurgence in adventure. It’s not my cup of tea, but I feel for all the gamers out there who, like yourself, really love adventures and look for them first. You’ve been getting the short shrift for a lot of years, and while I don’t think adventure will ever approach the high it had back in the day, I do think the quality and size of selection will improve, provided communities are able to communicate through word of mouth.
I really applaud Ricitiello for trying. I wish he was in a position to keep trying for a few more years, because I feel that his strategy WILL, eventually, bear greater fruit than Activision’s. It’ll just take longer.
Meho’s point is the most important, really. Corporate strategies aside, more than a thousand people are going to be unemployed, and in this economy, there’s no silver lining to that.
A really think the main problem is that none of us regular guys have any money. I have been intending to buy Brutal Legend for a while now, but I have to wait until I get more than four days on a paycheck. I also don’t see how the EA Sports games can be that much of a profit. I like the occasional sports game, but I refuse to buy two releases in a row. It is better to wait until they have done something to really change the gameplay. They also make the move to the bargain bin in record time.
On a side note; Mr. Sakey, you are truly the Yoda of the adjective
Thank you, Jesse. Being a Yoda of anything (aside from a Yoda of Not Being a Very Tall Person) is welcome and flattering. 🙂
The economic problem is coumpounded by the holiday massacre itself. According to my chart here, I should have bought Modern Warfare 2, Demon’s Souls, Brutal Legend, Dragon Age, The Void, Borderlands, and Magnacarta II, all in the last few weeks. Instead I got Borderlands and Demon’s Souls.
Partly because I don’t want to blow a zillion bucks on new games that will sit (my Excel sheet has a filtering system that moves must buys into a “for the summer lull” column, so I don’t need many right away), and partly because there’s… just… too… many!
Don’t bother with Magna Carta and Brutal legend until they are very cheap, though, as they aren’t exactly worth the big bucks. And at least you guys CAN buy The Void. Over here, they have never heard of it.
It’s now available on Steam!
Well, ain’t that the good news!!!
I’ll try and get hold of this when there’s some stupidly-cheap offer on. It looks crazy.
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