The Firm

The Firm
The Conquest of Origin

Allen Varney | 11 Oct 2005 12:00
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But EA, which sold sports and licensed games by the millions, was used to releasing sequels every year. The corporate office commissioned Wing Commander Online, Privateer Online (based on the 1993 space sim), and the licensed Harry Potter Online. And, inevitably, Ultima Online 2, which the marketing department retitled Ultima Worlds Online: Origin.

Staffers argued against doing UO2, because it would compete with UO. But Mattrick greenlighted it in 1999, cancelled Wing Commander Online and assigned its team to UO2. A bunch of guys who liked spaceships, reassigned to animate monsters? They quit six months later, and UO2 had to start over. The game never really recovered.

In March 2001 Mattrick cancelled UO2. Among his reasons: UO2 would compete with the original UO. (EA repeated this story precisely with Ultima X: Odyssey, greenlighted 2002, cancelled 2004.)

Business Matters
Privateer Online: cancelled in 2000 to avoid competition with EA's big bet, Earth and Beyond. The core PO team moved to Verant (later Sony Online Entertainment) and created Star Wars Galaxies.

Harry Potter Online, cancelled at Origin 2001, assigned as Hogwarts Online to EA studio New Pencil, cancelled 2005.

Transland (a surrealist game), Silverheart (an RPG with design contributions from Michael Moorcock), Firehorse (Hong Kong John Woo-style full motion video), mainstream RTS Technosaur: cancelled, cancelled, cancelled....

"The business was changing radically, in ways an independent developer/publisher like Origin probably wasn't equipped to handle," says Spector. "We were becoming a blockbuster business, like the movies. When Origin's revenue and profits took a hit and EA gave us a very... aggressive budget number to hit, it was mostly my projects that got killed - I wasn't happy about that. But what were they going to do? Kill Richard Garriott projects? Chris Roberts projects?"

Spector's games (Ultima VII Part 2: Serpent Isle, Ultima Underworld, System Shock and many more) consistently brought returns a small studio would think quite respectable. But the economics of a billion-dollar corporation are different. For EA it makes more sense to reach for the sky with every single project. The games that die or get cancelled become tax writeoffs, and the rare hit pays for all the rest. The worst case is the mere modest success, a mediocre return on equity without corresponding tax advantages.

Spector says, "Mattrick told me I needed to make games more like Richard and Chris - swing for the fences, go for the megahit, spend a ton to make a ton - instead of consistently turning out smaller games, making some money every year. I thought he was nuts at the time. Took me several more years to admit that, like it or not, he was right and I was wrong."

The forces that propelled Electronic Arts to success and gave it the funds to purchase Origin - the incessant marketing, the quest for blockbusters, even the ferocious executive infighting - also made it difficult to exploit Origin effectively. EA could have preserved Origin as a small design house gestating new ideas. Rather than alienating staffers and discarding the valuable Ultima and Wing Commander brands, EA could have kept Origin alive in body and spirit, just as it could have preserved the other studios it bought: Westwood and Bullfrog and Maxis and...

But though this was technically possible, it was not imaginable. Like any huge company, EA is risk-averse. The company has every incentive to play it safe and do a competent job on Madden 2009 or Tiger Woods 2017.

A New York Times article on EA (August 8, 2005), "Relying on Video Game Sequels," observes, "Electronic Arts plans to release 26 new games [in 2005], all but one of them a sequel, including the 16th version of NHL Hockey, the 11th of the racing game Need for Speed and the 13th of the PGA Tour golf game." In the article CEO Probst said sequels appeal to Wall Street investors because they have a steady following among consumers. "He added that the company had a goal of putting out at least one entirely new game every year, and had several major original games in its pipeline." Blogger Bill Harris observed, "A 'goal' of one new game a year? Damn, Larry, don't be so crazy ambitious. Remember Icarus."

Beeman says, "You'd like to think a marriage of EA and Origin would result in a merger of their strengths. But instead of combining EA's execution with Origin's creativity, the end result was more like Origin's execution with EA's creativity. EA limited Origin's selection of projects to sequels or other 'proven' ideas, then let Origin run wild. I think this was pretty much the introduction of that meme into the industry, but clearly we still see it today."

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