I know it might seem like I was just EA bashing last week. I know right now they’re the guys we love to hate, and I know I’ve certainly done my share of gleeful EA bashing over the years. But I’m not just demonizing an already hated company because people like to share those kinds of articles. I’m focusing on EA because they’re a massive company that controls a huge portion of the AAA games that make up our hobby. When EA is run poorly, the games we love suffer. We get less value for our gaming dollar and the developers we love don’t thrive the way they should. More importantly, the bad decisions EA has made are understandable and explicable once we see that the problems in this company are actually common and banal. Lots of really big companies have squandered fortunes making EA-type mistakes.
So John Riccitiello has left EA. We can assume he’s left because the company wasn’t really thriving under his guidance and everyone is hoping that a new leader will take the company in a better direction. Of course, to avoid the mistakes of the past they have to understand how the company came to make those mistakes in the first place. If you’re going the wrong direction, picking a new direction at random can just swap old problems for new ones. So how did we get here? How did a group of generally intelligent, well-educated guys go so wrong?
Like I said last week, the main reason EA is badly run isn’t because the leaders are bad guys, come to ruin all our Christmas releases with their Day 1 DLC. It’s not corporate greed, or that the company is “too big”. The problem with EA is that it’s an entertainment software company and the majority of the EA leadership doesn’t have a background in software or entertainment. They are “money men” – people with a background in venture capital, management, and overseeing large established industries. Before EA, Riccitiello’s job was running the Bakery Division of the Sara Lee corporation. This sort of industrial and financial oversight work is radically different from producing software in this young and rapidly changing new media. Basically, these men are out of their depth and out of their area of expertise. These guys don’t work in software and don’t play games, yet they’re running a company that requires a keen understanding of both. They’re trying to reach consumers and shape public opinion, but they don’t have a firm grasp of gaming news or the culture that surrounds the hobby.
Oh, I’m sure they “play” games in the sense that they sample their own company products, but I seriously doubt any of them really go home and click away at Starcraft or Assassin’s Creed late into the night. I admit this is speculation on my part, but really: Could someone who plays games and is immersed in the culture make the mistakes EA has? Ubisoft had a horrible time with their always-on DRM and eventually abandoned it. Blizzard generated a ton of negative press when the always-on requirement of Diablo III became problematic. Then EA repeated those mistakes, only more seriously and on a grander scale, even though they had recent events to inform their decision-making.
Nobody that uses Steam on a daily basis is going to look at Origin and think it’s a comparable product. The changes to the Dead Space franchise (turning a spooky game that runs on fear and isolation and turning it into a set-piece action shooter with multiplayer and microtransactions) is so ludicrous it sounds like parody.
Videogames are a young medium built atop rapidly-changing software which runs atop a rapidly changing internet and which is experiencing a continual revolution in how products are marketed, purchased, and consumed. If your company makes soda, fast food, running shoes, or pantyhose, then you’ll have to cope with a revolution about once a generation. If you’re making videogames, then you’ve been experiencing multiple concurrent revolutions, all the time, for decades. Every year technology is changing the way we play games, the kind of gameplay they contain, how we produce them, the devices we use, and how we buy them. You can’t watch the market research and sales figures and assume you know what’s going on. If you want to be a major player in this industry, you need to play videogames.
Leadership takes vision. And you can’t have a vision unless you have passion. The leadership of EA does not have a visible passion for videogames. Imagine what Apple would be like if had been run by a Steve Jobs who didn’t really use or care about gadgets. Imagine a Starbucks where the decision-makers didn’t really care for coffee and just thought of their product as any other beverage. Imagine a Whole Foods Market run by a John Mackey who wasn’t really into the health food scene and just thought of his products as groceries. These companies are all success stories and have experienced amazing growth precisely because they adapted to their chosen market and anticipated consumer needs. That kind of leadership is impossible if you don’t intimately understand the products and customers.
The EA mindset has been to watch what sells and make more of that. This sort of reactionary decision-making prevents innovation and breeds stagnation. If you’re running EA, you need to be able to look at a policy or a game and decide, “Is this something the consumer will buy?” If you need to spend fifty million to make the game before you can figure out if people might want it or not, then your leadership is nothing more than a fabulously overpriced Magic 8-Ball. In fact, what we have at EA over the last few years is worse than random. They’re stagnating in a growing market, running previously-successful franchises into the ground, driving up costs, and chasing philosophies that have proven to be failures elsewhere.
Ideally, the new EA leadership – whoever it turns out to be – will be more than just a single person with a fresh org chart. EA needs leaders with backgrounds in software, entertainment, online retail, and consumer electronics. EA needs to hire someone who plays videogames and reads gaming news for fun, not because the job requires it.