Okay, let’s do this!
So, EA are NOT killing off Visceral Studios, and Dead Space as an IP is safe… for now.
There was a hell of a reaction yesterday, not least because it’s becoming very clear that the general apathy and bad press over the micro-transactions within Dead Space 3 have really put a dent in those sales figures. I think we all know, deep down, that it’s not going to pick up. Dead Space 3 was alright, but nothing special, and that EA claimed the game would need to see five million sales just to break even demonstrates a disconnection from reality that is alarming in its naivety. In an era when people are tightening their own belts, and when sales are falling for the first time in over a decade, it’s becoming clear that the current methodology being used with these games isn’t going to survive for much longer.
But that’s not really the heart of EA’s problem. Sure, monetary woes will force it to change and adapt, like any big company has to in these hard-up times. Studios will be streamlined and inevitably there will likely be cuts and job losses. But if the rumour should have fired any warning shot across the bow of the good S.S. EA, it’s that no-one didn’t believe it. It was so plausible, so believable… so like EA. That EA would ditch a studio and an IP that didn’t quite match up to its forecasts doesn’t shock us. It doesn’t surprise us. It’s just… what EA has done, for years.
EA has a long history of this. In 1998, it closed EA Baltimore – a branch of Origin Systems. Origin themselves were shut down in 2004. Bullfrog Productions found itself binned in 2001, after falling sales. Westwood Studios in 2003. Heck in 2006 EA bought out DICE, only to hours later kill off one of its biggest branches in Canada in an attempt to streamline the business. From Maxis to Kesmai and a bunch of branch studios EA set up along the way, for the best part of fifteen years now the EA way is to buy studios, and if they don’t pay their way, to shut them down.
Now, this isn’t to say I am mad at EA for any of this. If something is pulling you down and bleeding money, then you obviously do something about it. Business is a harsh and cruel world, but it’s the alarming regularity by which EA do this – every year, without fail, EA slices off another piece of its twisted Cthulu-liked visage. So when Dead Space 3 fails to set the world alight and doesn’t sell very well, you can be forgiven for actually believing there was something to this rumour. Many websites and commentators did, typically with the sort of anger and bile usually reserved for the most heinous of crimes in society. EA, whichever way you slice it, has a track record. It has a history. A reputation, if you will. And it just fit together so perfectly you couldn’t really tell it wasn’t true.
Herein likes the conceit; that a lie appears more truthful than any factual statement from EA in the last few years should be the strongest warning to EA yet that consumers are growing tired of its games. That people would so readily believe it demonstrates that as a company, it has reached a point of no return; circling the bottom of the barrel just closely enough that it exists in a perpetual state of life and death. The falling sales figures, the terrible server issues with the new SimCity, the lack of sales from Dead Space 3 despite being considered one of their strongest franchises all point to a growing discontent and a slapdash – even sloppy – attitude within EA as it exists. There’s no reason to care because we’ll just roll our eyes and go “That’s EA for ya!”, but with dwindling sales figures and growing budgets, the alarm bells should be sounding at EA Towers. That general shrugging is becoming a real rot, a destructive and insidious disease that is undermining EA as a company, and everything good it does.
And EA has done really good things. We forget that EA have seeded many great new IPs this generation – Dead Space being one of them, you also have Mirror’s Edge and the subsequent freeing of the industry from renowned “Patent Troll”, Dr. Timothy Langdell. A man who sat on the trademark for “Edge” for years, to the detriment of the market. And heck, Need For Speed is still one of the finest racing franchises out there and that it continues to do well and is left alone to thrive is great.
But of course, EA have done stupid things. Lots of stupid, hurtful things to consumers. From the awful mess that was The Old Republic and watching key BioWare staff effectively walk out, to Origin and then those micro-transactions that they want to put into every. Single. Game. They. Make. Not to mention their repeated insistence that single player games must die out if their business is going to thrive – no offence to whoever dreamt that little pile of horse manure up, but you are frankly an idiot and be forced to listen to Justin Beiber’s new album on loop, by having a pair of headphones taped to your head so you can’t pull them off. It’s a little sadistic but it’s not against the Geneva Convention. Not yet, at least.
And it’s the bad now outweighing the good; it’s the stupidity and the insane taking over. In the last few years, it really does to consumers look like the lunatics have taken over the EA Asylum, and are running rampant with its core franchises and business ethics. A company that is anti-consumer and anti-choice is not a company in good stead. It’s not the sign of a healthy company that they cut off anything popular if it doesn’t somehow meet increasingly baffling targets. EA doesn’t look in a good position because it really isn’t – it’s net loss since 2008 totals $2.5 billion, with its share price tumbling 75% in that time. Then come its most recent acquisitions to break into the now-flailing Social Gaming market; PlayFish in 2009 for a crazy $400 million, and PopCap in 2011 for an eye-watering $650 million. Even at profitable rates, it would take EA decades to see any return from such investments. That’s not to mention that the market there has been decidedly unstable of late, and under EA the best they can come up with is a “Plants vs. Zombies 2”. Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, does it?
So why is EA in such a position? Well, earlier this year, investment blog 24/7 Wall Street named the ten CEO’s it thought would – or should – be fired this year. And what do you know? John Riccitiello came in at number five! Hooray! When investment pundits and experts start thinking you’re the weight around a companies neck, then you’ve got a real problem. Not to mention that John Riccitiello has become something of a poster child for the worst excesses of the video game industry. Indeed, most of EA’s woes have happened under his watch, so the buck does invariably stop with him. But EA was doing stupid things before him and will do stupid things long after he is gone unless it takes decisive action to change its image.
It needs to change its image. EA as it stands cannot continue to exist unless it makes an effort to get more consumers on-side, to start those sales rolling in. EA has to streamline without being total knobs about it. EA is also going to have to realise that the dreaded Single Player experience is, shock of all horrors, cheaper in the long run – it’s insistence to run online servers itself has continued to put a drain on resources, when so many others would willingly host these games of their own volition. And it will also have to accept that with money tight, that it cannot continue to throw around budgets that would make even the likes of Peter Jackson and James Cameron reach half-mast. When the likes of Dark Souls can be profitable with a couple hundred thousand sales and go on to sell millions, and arguably make FROM Software ridiculously wealthy as a studio in spite of the fact their output over the years has been less than stellar, you realise it takes one game. Just one game. And it’s an incredible realisation that companies out there are making money, and doing very well for themselves. That people are willing to fork over their cash for the next instalment in the Souls series.
Even in such tight times, sensible budgeting and sensibly managing your units can really save money. FROM Software are just a very good example of a studio that manages itself well; even if it did give us the atrocity that was Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour, over the years it’s given us Tenchu Z and others. And still survived. Still got on with things. It doesn’t always make the best games, but it’s efficient enough that I don’t hear any real cries from the studio about how hard up they were. Or are, although at this moment in time they probably can’t believe that Demon’s Souls and Dark Souls became so successful. To pinch a line from The Producers; “What did we do right?”
EA complains and moans to the press at every opportunity it gets. It’s distaste for us as consumers is all too evident. It’s loud, obnoxious and bleeding money. It’s blaming everything and everyone it can before it ends up realising that it dug its own little hole. And that people can now spark rumours like this and have the Internet believe them because it sounds like something they would do, this should be the moment that EA realises that it cannot continue this way. The only way is up, and it will no doubt be a long and difficult road. I wouldn’t be surprised if along the way we see the loss of Visceral and/or BioWare, huge and popular as they might be. But EA will have to do it. It’s a fat, bloated monster and it can’t move whilst people throw stones and rotten fruit and vegetables at it. It’s crying that this is so unfair, but the people weren’t eating. Why? Because EA was eating all the pies. The reason it’s fat and bloated is that it’s been draining from other sources to the point that people are going to pelt it with whatever they can.
EA is the architect of its own destruction. I’m not angry at EA. I rather pity it as a company. It’s a shocker that even Bobby Kotick and Activision look like angels next to John Riccitiello and EA. But what good will blame do? Perhaps, rather than telling the market what it wants, EA could learn some humility and ask the market what it wants instead? That might be a good step. If people want Single Player games, you give them single player games. There’s a very large population out there in the world still without decent Internet access, who will always play alone. There will be people who would just rather be left alone and adventure on their own accord. If people aren’t biting on micro-transactions, perhaps it’s evidence that this is one area of the market where they don’t work? People aren’t going to pay £40/$60 for a game only to end up being asked to pay for tiny little additions any more. If you must, then it’s time to slash the price of the games to compensate. You can’t have it both ways.
EA needs to communicate. And I don’t mean bitching and whining to the press every time something happens in their shallow, vacuous little existence. The world has someone for that already – their name is Paris Hilton. Or anyone who was on Big Brother in the UK. Either way works. It needs to communicate with the market, its own studios and the press in a way that doesn’t come across as spoilt or childish. And it has to stop telling the market what it wants – look at the market, and extrapolate from there. More and more of the most popular games are single-player powerhouses. Multiplayer titles like World of Warcraft are losing subscribers. This cannot be a coincidence.
Ultimately, EA just has to stop being a dick. It’s time for a radical rethink, because right now it’s a sitting duck and taking fire from all sides. And no-one feels bad for EA that this rumour happened in the first place. No-one sympathises. They just want EA to stop being dicks. This should be one of those moments that EA realises it needs to radically revamp its public image or risk alienating everything it has ever worked towards. This should be the “Eureka!” moment, the light bulb, the catalyst for change.
I’m not mad at EA. I just wouldn’t hold my breath over it.