The NeedlesElectronic Arts: It's Just BusinessThe Needles - RSS 2.0
So what happened? Growth fueled growth, feeding on itself, and the premiums in attention and remuneration paid to independent developers became untenable against the increasing demand for prolific output. Celebrity endorsements like those in EA Sports precursors Earl Weaver Baseball and John Madden Football became a greater priority, as having a household name on the front of the box proved more lucrative than attempting to build entirely new brand recognition around developers who were unknown outside the game industry. As game development became more competitive and financially risky, the balance of power shifted away from the developers, giving EA the clout - and eventually the will - to operate on its own terms. And while going public in 1991 was doubtless the best move from a business perspective, it also signaled a drastic change in the company culture, leaving it beholden to investors whose only interest in videogames were the revenue they could generate.
But despite a decade or more of scorched-earth tactics, there have been small signs recently that change may be afoot at the company. Speaking in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, John Riccitiello, who took over as CEO in February 2007, criticized the industry's reliance on sequels (for which EA is notorious), saying, "For the most part, the industry has been rinse-and-repeat. There's been lots of product that looked like last year's product, that looked a lot like the year before." The trend toward incremental annual upgrades was "boring people to death," he added. And in February, he issued a statement in conjunction with the release of Electronic Arts' third quarter results expressing dissatisfaction with the current state of the company and promising greater efforts to increase the quality of Electronic Arts products.
Gaining even more attention from gamers was the company's reaction to a blatantly false Fox News report on Mass Effect, which claimed that the game featured "full digital nudity" and graphic sex. In response, EA sent a letter to Fox News producer Teri Van Horn, pointing out the numerous errors in the report and requesting a correction of the record. And despite their widely held antipathy toward the EA empire, gamers across North America responded by lining up behind the company, expressing their support, gratitude and occasional surprise at the publisher's willingness to stand up to the Fox monolith.
The jury is still out over whether all this frank talk and pro-industry behavior represents a true sea change for EA or just hot air in the face of stiffening competition from Activision and Ubisoft, but the mere admission that the company's efforts have flattened out while the industry as a whole continues its phenomenal growth is worth taking notice.
And EA's heavy hand hasn't been entirely without benefit for gamers. While the company's games have been stuck in a mudbog of mediocrity for years, the wide-ranging appeal of various EA Sports franchises, The Sims juggernaut and movie tie-ins like Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings have helped bring gaming to a much more mainstream audience.By moving away from their core demographic, EA has played a large part in significantly boosting the industry's legitimacy.
Walking away from the industry's favorite bugaboo isn't going to happen overnight, and neither can people be expected to just forget about their very legitimate questions and concerns about the sports genre and the future of Rockstar franchises as part of EA's ongoing attempt to acquire Take-Two. But it might be worthwhile to remind ourselves that Electronic Arts is not, in fact, "evil." It may be dispassionate, brutal, occasionally even nasty, but in that regard it's really just another major corporation attempting to stay atop an increasingly competitive dog pile. EA's relevance to core gamers may be at a low ebb, but its shareholders continue to smile. That's just business - and it's a fact of life about our industry that's not about to change.