Weekend Bonus; Nintendo vs. EA – Again…

When an EA person speaks his mind, all hell breaks loose.

 

“Hear. Feel. Think.”

It’s strange to start off with a line pulled from the original version of Final Fantasy XIV, but heck, it says an awful lot. When you’re conducting business, sometimes these are the three stages you go through before formulating an opinion. You listen to the market, you let it sink in and then you formulate from there. No-one is perfect; I’ve been a believer of that for some time. Not a single company on the market right now has a completely clean Rap Sheet, and many companies often go through cyclical moments of crystal-clear clarity before descending into mindless blabber and arse. Sometimes it’s the other way around though, they start off talking utter nonsense but in time, the muddy waters clear as the dirt settles and you can appreciate it more when that happens.

I’ve obviously said my bit about EA’s take on the Wii-U; I don’t believe them for a second, but that’s because their argument doesn’t stack up to the facts. I genuinely would feel more respectful of them if they had come out and said, as we all kind of already know, that their relationship with Nintendo was doomed when the issue came down to how to sell DLC. It’s not merely an issue with Origin; I see U-Play on the Wii-U, so I can’t really see the problem with a stripped back account-tether for the Origin service. But Mass Effect 3 Wii-U was clearly designed with the express intent of selling you content directly through the game. Nintendo obviously didn’t quite agree with this, and things went downhill from there from the looks of things. I understand EA’s need to control its content; it hasn’t had a good few years, and it still fears piracy and dwindling sales. Part of me can somewhat sympathise with that; I don’t think it’s the true reason, but it’s easier – and safer – to blame something like that in a company than to accept your boss and public faces have been acting like fools for the better part of five years. Job security. Sometimes it’s just best to go along with the lie, because you get paid longer.

With John Riccitiello now departed from EA, there was always going to be the dying death-throes of the old guard bubbling up to the surface at some point. The Wii-U spat has been interesting as EA have tried their best to let down the Wii-U gently, with carefully constructed sentences such as, “We have no content in production for the Wii-U currently, but we are looking forward to future arrangements with Nintendo.” It’s a polite way of saying, “We’re actually still trying to convince Nintendo that we’re right and they are wrong and until we sort this out, we’re not releasing games for the machine.”

But it hasn’t stopped a few of the old EA views from bubbling up and taking the limelight.

The first was that the Wii-U was not powerful enough to run the Frostbite 3 engine. Something I think most technically-minded people already knew was EA stretching the truth somewhat, considering there are multiple engines that have more power and potential than the FB3 Engine that run perfectly well on the machine. Even Epic conceded that the UE3 engine could run on the Wii-U if people wanted it to; and say what you like about the legalities and methodology of Denis Dyack and Precursor Games, there’s no doubt that the CryEngine 3 running on Wii-U looks impossibly pretty. It was a bit of a misstep for EA, a statement that was clearly lacking in truth but something that the audience, eager for a stick to beat Nintendo with over it’s sluggish start with the machine, were all too happy to grasp with both hands. The truth, it seemed, was less favourable than the lie. People liked the lie more than the truth.

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. Six months is still a long time in the market, and yes, I’ll concede like anyone else that Nintendo are doing far more for the 3DS right now than they are doing for the Wii-U. The barren state of the Wii-U in terms of content is frustrating, especially for a company that has clearly been through this only recently with the 3DS. Much like the 3DS, I like the retro games. Super Metroid is as wonderful now as it always was, as is Kirby and Super Mario World. But ultimately, they are not really pushing the system. The one game right now that seems to be working the Wii-U and keeping it afloat is the mysterious ever-changing Rayman Legends Challenges App.

Of course, there are other games. Played with the right controller, Tekken Tag 2 Wii-U Edition is still technically the king of the hill. It’s very nicely optimised. And Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate is an incredible game, even if it’s just an HD update of the old Tri title. But despite these great examples, the Wii-U has been home to some truly shocking ports – that Mass Effect 3 I mentioned, not to mention Darksiders 2. A port so terrible and horrendous that I had to give it it’s own special place in last years worst games. The first time in my life I’ve ever really had to make the clear distinction between multiple versions of a game being both great and terrible at the same time. Given these examples, and others, there’s obviously some who grasp that the Wii-U is “weaker”, when really it’s just shoddy workmanship. And that’s fine. You can believe what you want to believe. If you don’t like the Wii-U, as long as you are respectful to others, there’s no real problem.

So, nearly a thousand words in and suddenly I come to the latest development. And this one comes courtesy of Twitter, a one Bob Summerwill – listed as a Senior Software Engineer at EA Canada. In response to a tweet posting a link about EA’s lack of Wii-U news, he responded;

“The Wii U is crap. Less powerful than an Xbox 360. Poor online/store. Weird tablet… Nintendo are walking dead at this point.”

Now, I’m all for opinions but this is perhaps a classic example of how not to do it, much like Adam Orth earlier this year. He obviously went on to say Nintendo should release it’s games on other systems and get out of the hardware race, saying;

“Nintendo are still operating like it’s 1990. Instead, they make this awful console.”

and later, on EA’s lack of Wii-U games;

“It is an utterly intentional decision to focus our resources on markets which actually matter.”

Now, I am totally okay with people having an opinion. But, being a software engineer – a SENIOR software engineer to boot – this guy strikes me as a bit strange. For a start, EA already have demonstrated with one of their Wii-U games, Need For Speed: Most Wanted, that not only can the Wii-U offer the best version of a game but that “weird tablet” can make a positive difference to the experience. EA’s problem is clearly not one of technical incompetence, no matter how their PR appears to suggest such. We’ve seen proof that EA, at some point, was committed to the Wii-U enough to invest in arguably one of the best games of the machines launch window fare.

Operating like it’s 1990, however, is a statement that he’s going to regret. Even if his Twitter feed has gone down, people these days screenshot and share, so nothing is hidden for long. EA’s business model has been operating archaically for some time; such an impassioned fear of the online audience that it seeks to control it, supporting things like the SOPA bill – until, it seems, the public opinion became such they had to be publicly against it to avoid ramifications. Nintendo may be fairly new to things in the brave Online world, but it was clearly smart enough to call EA’s bluff on DLC policies. You want to use it’s system, you pay your way. We make a lot of noise over tax avoidance – well, this is kind of similar. EA wanted to use the Miiverse to get content to customers, but not actually give Nintendo it’s share because “We’re doing it in-game!” It’s an ultimately weak argument that saw EA divorce from Valve’s Steam service, and now Nintendo’s Miiverse. The difference is that in forsaking the Miiverse, EA are obviously going to wholly forsake the machine in question; unlike the PC, there’s no way to get around the limitations of a consoles firmware without breaking multiple laws in the process.

EA have also regurgitated games for some time; invested heavily in trying to beat Call of Duty, which has managed to continue to be superior even using older software to do it. EA’s PR has also been considerably stuck in the past, unaware at times that the nature of the Internet means that once you say or do something very stupid, that you’re going to be recorded forever. That’s the digital age for you. Nintendo’s silence may be deafening, but you know what? It is silence. They aren’t moving, true. But they’re not digging a bigger hole. It’s not the best situation to be in – of course not. No-one is going to dispute the lack of long-term Wii-U news has really undermined its audience, along with other decisions, but it’s not making things worse for itself either. It’s Schrödinger’s Console. In a state of existing and not-existing at the same time. It’s strange, Not entirely pleasant, but kind of not entirely without merit right now.

Some have argued Nintendo should respond to the guys statements. EA’s only official statement to Kotaku was;

“EA has a strong partnership and an active agreement with Nintendo to develop games for the Wii-U. Last year we released Mass Effect 3 and several of our EA Sports titles on that platform. So far, we have not announced any new titles for Wii-U this year, but that does not preclude more games in the future.”

Some would even argue that that appears to be progress and actually a rather positive statement. Very different from the recent comments from inside EA. But Nintendo need not respond. If anything, comments from Mr. Summerwill are childish, ill-informed, tasteless and frankly nothing more than an example of the very worst side of EA. Sure, his Twitter was deleted as soon as the smell of smoke came from underneath his seat, the one he lit himself with his comments, but make them he did. And whilst some will continue to slate Nintendo, there are others now who have considerately stated that this was going too far. Words such as “Unprofessional”, and “Disgraceful” have boiled to the surface.

And they do have a point.

Look, I make no secret that I don’t know the intrinsic details of the Nintendo vs. EA spat – there is obviously more than is being said. And with EA’s most recent comment, it’s perhaps also worth pointing out that in spite of their differences, the two companies do seem to be communicating about future games, meaning that the spat may even have been somewhat overblown or resolved by this point. We simply do not know. Nor, does it seem, Mr. Summerwill was aware of the shift in tact. Perhaps that’s why his Twitter went silent – EA stepped in to silence him in the quest to build bridges. Or perhaps they just didn’t want to continue to be bogged down by the news of the past few weeks and move on. Either way, it’s an inherently old-EA action, one that lacks any respect from someone whose position rather denotes a need for such a thing.

There’s no doubt that many of us are frustrated and angry at Nintendo right now; considering the recent press, yesterday’s brief Nintendo Direct was something of a let-down that did nothing to ease the concerns and fears of owners and developers alike. But with only a few weeks left until E3, there’s the chance Nintendo could pull it out of the bag then. I do see the potential in the Wii-U, and know that the first year or so of a console can be a terribly lean and difficult time. It’s hard to get games on a machine with a smaller install base than the previous lot, moreso when the games coming on the old machines appear to be at the top of their game. With no backwards compatibility, there’s no reason for someone to upgrade. Gran Turismo 6 the latest case in point; released more or less as the PS4 launches, which does seem frankly like cannibalising your own sales pitch.

Much like the Adam Orth debacle, Microsoft thought staying silent on the issue would be a good idea. Taking down the Twitter channel and hunkering down seemed like a good plan to weather the storm, but it was a heck of a storm and Adam Orth eventually lost his job as a result of it. Twitter is a fantastic method for companies to communicate with their users, promote their material and genuinely show they are human beings. But there’s still, for companies, the expectation of professionalism. It’s obviously not the first time someone’s done something incredibly stupid on Twitter and it’s clearly not going to be the last time someone does something very silly on Twitter – perhaps why I do my best to limit my time on it, really that’s just prudence. But when the person is tied to a corporate entity, or in a senior position somewhere, there’s something of an expectation that the person is educated, intelligent and able to converse their point in a tangible, sensible manner. We should know better, everyone makes mistakes. Just such mistakes now are public and can get very messy, very quickly.

I don’t entirely disagree with Mr. Summerwill either on his last point. EA, as a company, is perfectly entitled to take its business where it feels it needs to go; and when you consider the last few years of purchases and closures, you’d think the only way was up. If EA don’t want to make any game for the Wii-U, that is their prerogative. Some might even argue that’s the best advertisement for the Wii-U that you could get. But equally, EA must know also that the next generation is going to be one hell of an ask for consumers; sure, there’ll be plenty of power. But that will come at a cost, not only to the industry but to the consumer. We’re already looking at a price of $499.99 for the new X-Box (even if you buy it on the hire-purchase method, it’ll still overall come to this price). Sony are being very quiet on the PS4 cost; $499.99 has been mentioned, but then, so has the dreaded $599.99 price point. Right now, the Wii-U in the UK is £199.99 – and likely to only get cheaper by the time these machines are out there. It does, as we know, have more power than the current consoles. Okay, maybe not the raw potential of its upcoming rivals – but it’ll be much more affordable.

With content due by the end of the year to include a new Mario Kart, Super Smash Bros. and 3D Mario title, you could argue that the Wii-U is rather a bit early to the party. Had it come out this November, with all the content, there’s definitely a case for it undermining the market and perhaps even being able to keep its original pricing point at the same time. The difference between them is only going to be that much more stark this time, and as usual, it’s going to be the consumer who ultimately decides – not some trumped-up analyst or senior software engineer. The Wii-U currently inhabits an odd limbo between generational jumps. It can’t claim to be part of the old one, but it’s a bit early to be trying to undress the new one. Sometimes you can, simply, arrive a bit early. Before the dance hall is set up for the big show.

EA don’t want to completely burn that bridge for a very good reason. Because if and when the Wii-U comes good in the market, it’s going to want some of that action – that’s not really a surprise. “Oh look, we DID manage to get the engine working just as the Wii-U is taking off! How about that, eh?” It’s not uncommon to see such things happen, for people to change their minds when circumstances force them too. If it cuts off the supports, Nintendo isn’t likely to want to trade or deal with them – and that is frankly a dangerous place for a company like EA to be in. It’s a different dynamic.

And it’s why Mr. Summerwill’s statements are likely to cost him dearly. EA have been rude about the Wii-U, disparaging even, but nothing that it wouldn’t have been able to come back from at some stage. Mr. Summerwill’s comments cross the threshold and would do considerably more harm, especially if EA and Nintendo are trying to patch things up. It’s a brief reminder of the bad old EA, an EA that the company is desperate to move on from. And that’s the core of what is wrong with it. He said what I think we all know EA has been saying in private; but sometimes honesty is not the best policy. In fact, sometimes it can be the worst thing you can do.

And whilst I have no idea how the next few years will go, I suspect that how we see it now is unlikely to be how it ends. By the time we get to post-E3 analysis, or the launch of the new consoles or even this time next year, we’ll probably have forgotten about the whole Nintendo vs. EA thing. If it picks up in sales, you’ll – no pun intended – see a big U-Turn on such things and it will look all cosy again. Nintendo’s main crime right now is that the Wii-U isn’t as successful as others wanted it to be. Nintendo have a lot of responsibility to take for that too. We can’t let Nintendo think that we’re not still rather annoyed at its radio silence. It promised more communication. We expect more communication!

But Nintendo will remain silent over this one. Because there’s no need to bring themselves into it. It was a little tirade from someone who, we suspect, isn’t likely to keep their job. And that sounds horrible, but ultimately, he is a representative of EA whilst he is on Twitter. And in any area, if you are seen to publicly make a potential problem for your company, then you may not have that job for much longer. It’s a harsh lesson, but it’s one that most of these people should have already learned by this point.

And really, even in the unlikely event the Wii-U does go belly-up, Nintendo dominates the handheld console market – and arguably has owned the handheld console market since the release of the Game Boy in 1989. It’s fought off even the most experienced and wealthy of challengers – in some cases, bleeding them dry as they tried to compete. If it doesn’t have a home console, it will focus on the handheld market instead. It’s content is unlikely to go cross-platform as a result of that detail. I’ve even spoken to people who think this would be a great thing for Nintendo to do. I wouldn’t wholly disagree either. But ultimately, it’s a market that is entirely theirs. Many have said their grip has weakened; but there are clearly no signs of that right now. The 3DS is selling more units than home consoles. It’s another huge success for Nintendo, at 31 million units and growing week on week. Call it anything you want – you can’t call it a failure.

EA won’t want to shun that kind of market, no matter what it thinks of the Wii-U. To do so would be professional suicide. And anything that puts that “special relationship” at risk isn’t likely to stay around for long. Rather like any special relationship, it entirely depends on which angle you are looking from that denotes whether or not something will work out.

EA won’t want to sacrifice their ties to Nintendo. Even if the Wii-U turns out to be a bust, it’s a company which has pretty much already won the generational handheld battlefield, again. It’s likely to see as big a market as the first DS – which stands at 154.5 million units. EA know this is not the audience to be turning away. That said, EA is a company not well known for its foresight.

After all, in 2011, EA said they thought the Vita had more of a chance of success than the 3DS (via CVG).

Nothing like a punchline to end on, is there?

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