For almost as long as there have been videogames, debate has raged over their worth as art. Be it early text adventures or the latest high-tech simulations, long-winded discussions about the artistic merit of interactive electronic entertainment have been as close as the nearest message forum. But there’s a more fundamental aspect of our hobby that’s undeniably true and yet often overlooked: Art or not, it’s all business.
No one in the industry today embodies that ethos as purely as Electronic Arts. The world’s largest independent videogame publisher, EA has long been the number one public opinion whipping boy among gamers, a kind of Evil Empire whose cold, voracious eye is a threat to all it falls upon. And the fate of those smaller fish swallowed up by the leviathan is often unpleasant, because EA doesn’t just acquire: It destroys.
Long-time gamers will have fond memories of names like Westwood, Bullfrog and Kesmai, three standout development studios from the early days of PC gaming. Bullfrog and Westwood were behind long-ago hits like Populous, Syndicate, Magic Carpet, Command & Conquer and Eye of the Beholder, while Kesmai was a pioneer in online gaming, launching Air Warrior, the first graphical MMOG, in 1986 as well as other early multiplayer titles for the CompuServe online service. But despite their pedigrees and status, all three are gone now, victims of assimilation at the hands of EA.
On the surface, it’s a shame and a loss. The talent, diversity and creativity of these three studios were a boon to gamers; not every release was destined for greatness, but there was always a feeling that every release at least had the potential for it. New ground was being broken, new genres were being invented, and these three studios were at the forefront of it all. Who knows what they could have accomplished if they had been left unmolested by the faceless, soulless corporate giant?
Which is why it’s so easy to forget that Electronic Arts, the Great Satan, was right there with them in those heady days, laying the groundwork of gaming culture long before the mainstream even thought to give it a second glance. In fact, to be a little pedantic about it, EA was first, blazing a trail for everyone else. Westwood launched their first title in 1986, while Bullfrog didn’t get down to business until 1988; Electronic Arts, on the other hand, started in 1983, putting out a few titles you may have heard of: Pinball Construction Set, Dr. J and Larry Bird Go One On One, Archon: The Light and The Dark and a little something called M.U.L.E.
EA also took an unusual approach to its relationship with developers, impractical in today’s era of large-scale development but emulated to some degree by oddball publisher Gamecock. They put dev teams front and center, highlighting them as the creative forces behind the games, with names and photographs of individual team members included on game packaging and, in some cases, even featured prominently on the cover. It was part of EA founder Trip Hawkins’ plan to attract the best talent in the industry to his publishing house, and it worked, with revenues growing from $5 million to $11 million to $18 million over the company’s first three years of existence. Electronic Arts’ roots as one of the earliest supporters of independent game developers can be difficult to reconcile with its current reputation for merciless profiteering, but there’s no question that without its efforts, some of the finest and most groundbreaking games of that era would never have seen the light of day.
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.