So, yet again, EA turns up on another “Worst Companies in America” list – this time at number five.
There are many who argue that this is a little unfair – after all, one spot behind it is Foxconn. You remember that company, right? The Chinese parts manufacturer that makes components for all your current tech, from mobile phones to PC parts and games consoles and the one which decided rather than address living and working conditions at its Chinese plant that were driving people to depression and suicide… spent millions putting up nets on the buildings walls to catch people trying to jump off. Yeah, that one. This time, their plans for a US plant face driving dozens of people from their homes thanks to Eminent Domain laws, as well as charging things like roadworks and tax writeoffs/incentives to the local government. Which will cost an estimated $4.5 billion. Good to know they haven’t lost their touch.
Then there’s Vice Media; facing charges of inappropriate sexual conduct. I could go on, but it’s a taster – EA’s biggest crime is being the Evil Overlord of the Video Games Market, or so people would have us believe. It’s hardly in the same league.
But they’re kind of missing the point as well.
EA has long been disliked by gamers – it won The Consumerist’s Worst Company in America award two years in a row at one point, and whilst that was driven by a public vote – it emphasises just how unpopular EA has been in recent years. Nothing seems to have changed; EA is still doing the usual thing, still cramming greedy mechanisms into its games, still shuttering talented studios down and putting people out of work because EA wants to chase one particular avenue than broaden its approach, still dropping P.R. clangers left, right and centre. It’s still EA. So why was it so especially bad this time around?
Well, Star Wars: Battlefront II happened.
You have to take a moment to realise just how monumental a cock-up this was for EA. Yes, the game was a bit on the lame side. Yes, it undersold – 7 million copies when it predicted 12 million across the holidays. And yes, it was a bit of a bomb. But there have been very few video games like Star Wars: Battlefront II. Very few games with the potential to be a catalyst for dramatic change in the industry, for all the wrong reasons.
The Loot Crate – or “Star Crate” – system was the most major note. It was deeply unpopular and tuned early on to essentially drive people to spend additional money; getting all the content could cost hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars and it was all chance-based. This is important because it attracted the attention of outside regulators and political figures across the world, who were perhaps justifiably concerned that a Star Wars game – a thing that kids would want to play – was pushing for extensive monetisation. Many have called it “tantamount to gambling” – they’re sort of right, though it is just enough in the grey area that it involves more investigation and perhaps changes in the law.
That’s the first point – changing the law to stop EA is one thing, but the law applies to everyone. Activision-Blizzard, WB Interactive, Capcom, UbiSoft, Sony, Microsoft, Nintendo… any changes to the law would of course hurt EA’s options for monetising content, but it would also equally hurt everyone else. Overwatch would need radical changes, as would games like For Honour and Shadow of War: Middle Earth. And those are games on the market – it doesn’t even get into games in the works, which would need to be delayed or face hefty licensing arrangements in the aftermath of considered proposals. Getting the attention of politicians and the regulators in such a way was an unmitigated disaster, because the implications to the wider industry would be embarrassing. Also, Free to Play games would be much harder to monetise too.
The second step is what it said about the ESA, and the ESRB Ratings System. After all, the ESRB has a rating that covers a game like Star Wars: Battlefront II;
Real currency? Sounds like a potential stonewall for Loot Crates. But of course, the problem is the ESA has been “overlooking” this particular trend, with many of these games getting a T for Teen rating, rather than the AO Adults-Only rating they should be getting. In short, the ESA has been derelict in its duty to protect the consumer by applying the correct ratings to video games.
This is not entirely EA’s fault; Overwatch predates the Battlefront II fuss. But it was the game, and the company, that brought this all into the light and started making people take a good, long, hard look at the ESRB as a system. After all, the ESRB was founded to avoid additional legislation; it was to self-govern and regulate itself, to protect the customer and most importantly – protect the industry from the excessive practices that might attract the unwanted attention of legislators. That was its primary function, the reason it came into existence in the 90’s following myriad gaming scandals like Mortal Kombat. And here it is, refusing to categorise these games as AO because, and I quote; “These mechanisms are not legally gambling” – fundamentally missing the point, because if they are investigated and found to BE gambling, you just failed to protect the industry.
In effect, EA’s mishandling and overreach in this instance has raised questions as to the effectiveness or indeed, the distance the ESRB has to the games industry at large. An industry body set up to regulate the industry that isn’t regulating the industry correctly or by its own standards is an ineffectual beast – and an expensive one at that, as the ESA also run E3 each year. If it’s not effective, or doing its job, then governments are going to start asking if they might need to have their own regulations – and at that point, the core point of the ESRB ceases to exist. No company to date has shone a more troubling and harsh light on what is a MAJOR component of the industry.
Then there’s the fact this is a license.
Companies like Disney don’t give these things out willy-nilly; they want to know their franchise is in good hands, and with the Battlefront II fuss, Disney reportedly had to take a far more hands-on approach with EA. This isn’t unknown but it is unusual – most of the time, games get made and they get released and things go on as normal. Disney was reported to have had weekly meetings with EA’s executive board demanding updates and progress reports on the state of the game; not only does this show an incredible level of mistrust, I can’t imagine having to fly out to EA’s headquarters every week and then presumably having to stay over and then fly back to wherever the next day was a low-cost affair. Read between the lines and you get the message; EA cost Disney money. And that’s a bad thing.
EA has loads of licenses too – the 007 license, a ton of sports licenses from Madden to FIFA to The Open. Disney is unquestionably one of the largest entities in the entertainment industry – and here it is, quite visibly and vocally expressing its displeasure and dissatisfaction with EA. This means EA is likely to get a lot more scrutiny from Disney in future (if Disney don’t end up yanking the license and putting it in the hands of another company), and as a result, other organisations will be more wary of licenses already in EA’s hands, and future licensees would be more cautious.
And again, this wouldn’t be expressly limited to EA; the industry is rife with this sort of thing, so exactly who do you trust with your big money-making franchises? It makes the development, marketing and cost-efficiency of this kind of endeavour far more difficult than it needs to be. EA messing up with what should have been a bankable success, with a franchise with proven money-making potential and a franchise that coincided the games release with a much-anticipated movie sequel… getting the picture? EA snatched the salt of defeat from the maw of what should have been the easiest victory of the year.
Is getting #5 on that Worst Companies in America list justified? Eh, morally and ethically in terms of personal business practices, maybe not. It sucks that EA shuts down studios but they at least get references and presumably severance pay, so whilst it sucks – at least there’s something.
But in terms of the impact it has had and could very likely continue to have on the industry it is in? Potential legislation and licensing arrangements with governments, and forced age ratings for any game with a gambling system (of any kind – which would include MMO’s!). Showing the indifferent attitude of your industry body, to the point of rendering it visibly pointless. Undermining your industry bodies reason for existing. Sowing the seeds of mistrust, making license holders more wary about who they give their goods to and how much freedom they get in future.
I mean, it could be worse – they could have fired Amy Hennig from a very good interesting single-player game oh wait…
Okay, joking aside, maybe it’s not “worst” in terms of moral or legal duplicity or action. I’m sure there’s a good case to be made that EA is a bit too high up on the list. But let’s tie this off with a realisation – Sprint cocks up? People just switch mobile carriers. Spirit Airlines? People fly another airline company. Weinstein Company? Movies will still get made; whether they’ll be good or not without a creepy man behind the scenes is up for debate (there are still plenty of creepy guys behind the scenes). They screw up, there are alternatives. There’s no domino effect; people move to the next stop.
EA drew the kind of attention that can and likely will have far more wide-ranging effects on the industry at large, affecting everyone – developers, publishers, console manufacturers… it seems so trivial on its own, one loot crate scandal. But it only takes one cough to cause an avalanche sometimes. One spark to cause an inferno. Small mistakes can have big consequences – and EA is big enough, and hated enough, that small mistakes can be amplified to an extraordinary degree.
I’ve joked about this before, but it must be said – can EA really show its face at E3 this year? Jeez. Can you imagine how utterly embarrassing that would be? EA has set into motion a series of events that could (and likely will) radically alter how the industry can profit from games, or even label games going forward. EA has become the face of it all – and yes, EA is not solely to blame. That’s important to keep in mind. I’m not saying EA is the sole company to blame here, they’ve all been doing it by and large. But – and it’s a but big enough to satisfy Sir Mix-A-Lot, it is the one that got caught; and it’s the one whose actions have now led to a very vocal discussion about putting a padlock on the cookie jar. And EA thinks it can waltz into E3 this year and go, “We’re still cool, right guys? We’re still friends, right?”
If you thought EA’s press conferences were cringey before, this year will need to come with a warning that people may spontaneously fold in half through the full-body cringe.
I can’t wait!