Monday, 8 April 2013

EA: We Can Do Better - A Point-By-Point Rebuttal (and Rant)

Few things in the gaming business are capable of annoying me nowadays - a testament to both the evolution of my natural pessimism to full-on hopelessness and the devolution of the medium in certain respects - but there's a good chance that many of the aforementioned annoyances have their roots firmly planted in EA's business tactics (or lack thereof).

From the most recent missteps regarding SimCity - which has the dubious honor of being one of the few games to get a score reduction in a major publication in lieu of severe server issues, dishonesty regarding the DRM scheme the game uses, as well as the new industry-norm of buggy and/ or unimplemented features - to the more "usual" criticisms against overusing micro-transactions, DLC and DRM, to the continuation of buy-and-shutter tactics that gave EA such a bad name during the turn of the millenium (more recently with Visceral Montreal and EA2D a.k.a. BioWare San Francisco), EA seems keen to go down in gaming history as The Big Evil One.

Moderate-length foreword: I don't like EA. I used to like EA, back when it was called Electronic Arts and made efforts to push the industry forward, instead of down and into the ground. I was practically in love with the Electronic Arts that gave me the Strike series, the Bard's Tale games, the ambitious yet flawed Black & White. Dungeon Keeper. Crusader: No Remorse. Fade to Black! King's Bounty! KKND! Lands of Lore 3! Neuromancer, Nox, Need for Speed! Populous. The Sim City, Syndicate series. The later parts of the Wing Commander and Ultima series! System Shock 2, maybe? Or Theme Park and Hospital? Oh, and all those NBA, NFL, FIFA, NHL games everyone but me is so keen on.

I blame it all on the logo change. Or not...

EA, in short, was a big contender for the Doing It Right award of the millenium. Fast-forward a few years later and EA now seemed to change - slowly at first, but with a momentum that still holds true to this day. 

First it was Origin Systems (We Create Worlds) of Ultima fame. Then came Bullfrog and Westwood. Companies bought, stripped of their intellectual properties, then shut down - unceremoniously, like some kind of used tissue paper, being discarded once it stopped being useful.

Then came the Age of Exploitation - where EA now focused in creating as many big names in the industry, then proceeding to run them all to the ground, sucking them dry of any possible sequel potential by demanding yearly installments in each series. NFL, Need for Speed, Battlefield, Mass Effect, Dead Space - some of the hottest IP's in the industry, pumped for sequels year after year, each offering minute differences with its' predecessors, all in the name of brand exploitation.

Which brings us to the present day. First we have EA President, Frank Gibeau's open letter in February, which among other things announces a new free-to-play racing game, the company's excitement for the PS4's announcement - oh, and the shuttering of Visceral Montreal and BioWare San Francisco. That the letter is titled "Transition Is Our Friend" is another slap in the face, as well as a grim reminder of what kind of minds now run the company.

Presumably, the transition from building to flaming deathtrap is also our friend.

Transition is our friend, indeed! I can only imagine how friendly the aforementioned employees must feel, having transitioned from the relative security of a steady paycheck to the uncertainty of unemployment in today's post-crisis market. There are no words, no words at all, to describe the feeling of bile rising when I first read this letter.

Which, of course, was nothing compared to what happened in the two months between then and now. In the last two months, EA has seemed determined to kill off the (very) small amount of goodwill they still had in their customers. SimCity launched, a disaster by all accounts - from logging servers reaching peak capacity on launch (thus locking customers out of their games), to the dogged defense of the always-online requirement (which was proven wrong by modders), the subsequent retraction of said defenses in favor of branding the game an "MMO experience" rather than a multiplayer-enabled sim game and finally, last night, the release of yet another open letter, this time from EA's COO, Peter Moore, this time titled "We Can Do Better".

The letter can be found at this link, but long story short: EA had been voted last year as U.S.A.'s "Worst Company of 2011" by the Consumerist magazine, "beating" such corporations as BP and the Bank of America. This year, it seems like EA will once again score top (or rather, bottom) marks once again - this letter is probably meant as a rebuttal, or possibly an attempt to convince their customers otherwise.

Here are some of the accusations leveled against them, along with Mr. Moore's rebuttals (in his words, those accusations that "hold no water"). All quotes are taken as-is, with no omissions, from the actual letter.

"Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme.  It’s not.  People still want to argue about it.  We can’t be any clearer – it’s not. Period."

DRM, defined as Digital Rights Management, is widely held to mean any piece of software that attempts to validate the authenticity of a given game, in the main to confirm that it's being used by its' legitimate purchaser. EA has gone on record to say that they consider SimCity as an MMO experience (thus necessitating the always-online requirement). They have also gone on record to state that the GlassBox engine, around which the game is built, does several of its' calculations server-side, so as to free up more resources on the user's end.

Both of these assertions were rendered false and moot, by virtue of a single line of code being altered in the game's files. Oh, and Maxis' own Lucy Bradshaw, which later stated that the game could, in fact, be conceivably made to work offline - with no particular development costs - but didn't, because of some unspecified reason that contained a lot of the word "social".

Above: Twister. Not pictured, Lucy Bradshaw's own twister of statements and take-backs.

Thus, the only plausible reason that the always-online requirement has remained (when an offline mode could have been implemented alongside the onine segment of the game at no particular cost) is due to the need for customer control, as a system for confirming the authenticity of the software. In other words, DRM.

"Some claim there’s no room for Origin as a competitor to Steam.  45 million registered users are proving that wrong."

Like I mention above, I am not currently a big fan of EA. Another reason for that is their sheer determination in forcing down my throat a digital distribution client (Origin) - a client I currently use, but not due to better features (such as linking your software library's contents, to changing your screen name to something already in use, to presenting your storefront in a functional and easy-on-the-eyes way) and certainly not due to offering better deals. Instead, the reason I use Origin is because of exclusivity. 

Mass Effect, Battlefield, SimCity, Crysis, Dead Space. The most recent installments in these series are Origin-exclusives (while their previous entries you're in all probability likely to own through a different digital platform), thus leaving me with the feeling I've been strong-armed into installing and using a service I have no other reason in using.

The most baffling thing, though, is that with all their resources, material or otherwise, EA can't even do as simple a thing as copy their biggest competitor - Steam, in which I already own upwards of 400 games - in things such as functionality, features, value. Sales, every single day, during most holidays and usually as deep as 80%? Nope. Optional social networking features, such as sharing screenshots, guides, videos and profile customization? Nope. Cloud services, unified achievement system, multiplayer platform capabilities. Screw that noise. Hell, I'd even have settled for an advanced search function with filters and the ability to see offers in the front page, instead of checking third-party sites for them; Origin seems to be determined to stay mediocre.

What's rubbing me wrong the most with the above statement though, is the 45 million mark. Notice it refers to "registered" users, when it's possible to make a free "placeholder" account with no games in it. Then again, that might account for about half a million, right? How about also removing the users of all those "Origin exclusive" games? After all, if your customer doesn't have a choice, any competition is non-existent. That should account for about 20 million, give or take a few - shared between the BF3, Dead Space 3, Mass Effect 3, Crysis 3 and SimCity (not 3) communities. Oh, and let's not forget Star Wars: The Old Republic's player base, which requires an Origin account even when the client is not in use. Since it's turned to a Free-To-Play model (very restrictive, by the way), I'd estimate the total player base at about 2 million. 

Thus, the 45 million mark drops to about 25 millions of registered, not concurrent, users.

Tens of millions playing
these? I think not.
"Some people think that free-to-play games and micro-transactions are a pox on gaming.  Tens of millions more are playing and loving those games."

As with the previous statement, a lot of number-juggling here. No actual number provided. No sources provided (the previous statement is exempt, since EA is by all rights the source of metrics). Also, the thought occurs that while "tens of millions" might be playing a Free-To-Play title, none of them are (or should be) required to dig into those micro-transactions.

The hope here, I think, is to use a conjunction of two statements to hide the truth. Millions of players might indeed play and enjoy a Free-To-Play title (though there's no clarification if it's an EA Free-To-Play title). Some people indeed think that EA's DLC policies are taken too far (as an example, look no further than the Sims 3 list of gazillion DLC packs). Nowhere, however, is it explicitly stated that tens of millions of people play and enjoy EA free-to-play titles and/or EA titles with micro-transactions.

After a brief browsing of the Origin store page on "Free Games", I can only find thirteen or so games, half of which are the sort of casual fare (such as Monopoly or Mahjong), a couple are relatively unknown shooters (clones of other, more popular contemporaries), a couple of browser-based installments of the C&C and Ultima series and the only "big" names in the list are SW:TOR, BF: Heroes and NFS: World.

Therefore, EA does not in fact own any serious amount of Free-To-Play titles/ player bases and as a result the above point is rendered redundant/ useless in the "Worst Company" argument.

Edit: I was recently reminded (via Twitter user @JediMB - thanks a lot!) that Mr. Moore was more likely to be referring to their Free-To-Play library of mobile device games - an area of gaming I've not invested any significant amount of money or time in. Lack of research on my part aside, it'd still be nice of Mr. Moore to give some actual numbers - "tens of millions" sounds terribly vague.

I'm also curious - was there an actual point to this statement, in regards to the whole "Worst Company of 2012" argument? Despite the obvious "we're doing well, regardless of bad public opinion" that's possibly aimed at allaying investor fears, I can't think of a good reason. If anything, having tens of millions of happy customers would do a lot in safeguarding against the aforementioned "award".

"We’ve seen mailing lists that direct people to vote for EA because they disagree with the choice of the cover athlete on Madden NFL. Yes, really…"

While this is the single point I'm willing to concede to Mr. Moore, I have to ask: Does it really matter? By his own writing, there's 45 million happy customers (based on Origin accounts currently registered; again, not active but just registered) - surely the one or so million of unhappy sports jocks that hate your new cover aren't much cause for concern?

Unless the controversy has more to do with last year's cover vote - one that cast Michael Vick as a possible cover athlete for Madden NFL 2012. In this case I'm sorry, but frankly if you decide to even consider a controversial figure such as Mr. Vick for your cover, you probably deserve at least some disgruntled fans.

"In the past year, we have received thousands of emails and postcards protesting against EA for allowing players to create LGBT characters in our games.  This week, we’re seeing posts on conservative web sites urging people to protest our LGBT policy by voting EA the Worst Company in America."

Again, no source. How many are these "conservative" sites? What's their user count like? Are these "thousands" of email/ postcard senders the number you expect to vote against you in the Consumerist poll? What game is this, anyway, that allows for BT characters to be created (LG, yes, in Dragon Age Origins, Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 at any rate)?

And this is what gives me the biggest bile-attack by far. The shameless attempt to piggy-back their way onto a very real, serious issue - discrimination against the LGBT community around the world - in a bid to win some sort of sympathy vote, or perhaps to calm investors, or maybe just to save face from the disaster that a second consecutive year as Worst Company In America would be.

Lastly, this great gem from the final paragraph:

"Origin is breaking records for revenue and users"

Which would have been hilarious in its' own way, had it not been preceded by CEO John Riccitiello's resign, just two weeks prior due in part to - you guessed it - "shortcomings in [EA's] financial results". So much for breaking a revenue record.

Screenshots courtesy of EA and the SimCity site.

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