Do not miss week’s Extra Credits. If you only have nine minutes this week to spend on videogames, then stop reading my article and check out Extra Credits as Daniel Floyd, James Portnow, and Allison Theus take EA Games to task for their abominable and offensive marketing campaigns. I think this is the most important thing to appear on The Escapist in a long time. (Which is saying something.) But if you’ve got more than nine minutes, then let me jump on the EA-bashing bandwagon for a minute, because this ties together a lot of ideas I’ve talked about in the past.
Whenever I take a major game company to task, I often see a lot of people shrug, “Ah, they’re just a big evil corporation. Nothing you can do about it.” They say this in the same way someone else might say, “Hater’s gonna hate.” This response makes me sad, and I don’t think it’s necessarily true.
For the benefit of those who didn’t watch the video, the three events discussed in Extra Credits were as follows:
1) When EA launched the Sin to Win campaign for Dante’s Inferno, aiming their marketing several notches lower than any previously established lowest common denominator. They invited people to commit “acts of lust” with (their?) booth babes, which meant they either wanted crowds of men to sexually harass the models, or they were offering the models as whores. They also hired people to pretend to be Christian fundamentalists and picket their game.
2) In Medal of Honor, there was an outcry when it was learned that players could play as the Taliban. EA caved, and removed the Taliban label from the game.
3) The Dead Space 2 marketing campaign tried to sell players on the title by saying “your mom will hate it,” a claim that is only appealing to people who are too young to buy the game. Once again EA seemed eager to generate controversy in a foolish bid for attention. While the EC team didn’t talk about it in their video, I want to point out that there is a case currently working its way through the U.S. Supreme Court on whether it should be legal to ban violent videogames. A major part of the defense in this case is that these games aren’t being sold to minors. EA’s timing here is foolishly self-destructive, not just to themselves, but to the entire industry.
But the problems at EA aren’t just in their marketing department. The problems are widespread and affect everything from development to funding. It’s the corporate culture of EA, and it is poisonous.
Remember that EA was one of the early adopters of online activation. (They weren’t the first, though. That honor goes to 2kGames for BioShock.) They were eager to embrace the most anti-consumer policy in the videogame industry since the decision to refuse refunds. It was a movement that regarded the customer as the enemy, and EA was on the forefront of it when they put online activation on Mass Effect and Spore. In the case of Spore they took it one step further with the introduction of re-authentication. You know, in case your copy of the game … becomes pirated?
That was over three years ago. At the time I pointed out that it would be an inconvenience and an attack of consumer resale rights, while doing nothing to combat piracy. I think the last three years have proven me right.
Two years ago EA bought casual game developer Playfish Games for three hundred million American dollars. And then they laid off 1,500 employees. I understand that they wanted to get into the casual games business, but buying companies is expensive. You’re not just paying for all the stuff you want, you’re paying for all the parts you don’t want. Imagine you want some paintings for your house, so you go out and buy an entire art gallery. You’re buying all their stock, their team, the building, and all other company assets, even though all you want is a few paintings. This is an especially foolish move if you already employ thousands of painters, and have to fire some to buy the gallery.
This move showed that EA didn’t have a vision for what they wanted to do with casual gaming. They didn’t have games they wanted to make, or a passion for this new audience. They just knew they wanted to do what everyone else was already doing. Since the purchase of Playfish, the casual market has stabilized and we’re no longer seeing the rampant growth we were before. EA got in late, and they paid a premium for it. I will be very surprised if they ever make back that $300 million.
I’ve said many times before that character matters, and that the behavior of a company is a reflection of the attitudes and values of its officers. Compare the behavior of EA with fan favorites like Valve or Stardock, companies who manage to put out strong titles and pay the bills at the same time. (You might argue that these companies aren’t publishers. I’d counter by saying that Valve has transcended publishers by building the dominant digital-delivery platform.) Sure these companies screw up, but that’s when we get to see what a company is really made of. The good companies admit fault and resolve to do better. The bad ones issue a canned apology and move on without learning anything.
While EA might look like a Borg cube from the outside, it’s a company made up of thousands of passionate, creative people, (I know some of them, they’re good folks) with a very small number of people at the top. This is good news, because it means that with a change of leadership (or even better, a simple change of heart) the company can correct this behavior. There is literally nothing forcing EA to act this way. The depressingly cynical view they hold of their audience doesn’t serve their customers, their public image, their legacy as a creative company, or even their shareholders. If they took more pride in their work, they would be better off. So would we.