ColumnExperienced PointsVideo Games

EA’s Problem Isn’t Greed

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Back in 2013, EA won the the title of “Most Hated Company in America” at the Consumerist for the second year in a row. Peter Moore, the company’s chief operating officer at the time, responded to this news with a blog post that attempted to deflect blame, downplay the company’s shortcomings, trivialize the negative press, and throw shade at the frustrated consumers who voted to give EA this ignoble award. He made sure to remind everyone that EA didn’t cause a major oil spill or a financial collapse, and that it doesn’t hate gay people. At the end of this vague and meandering defense of the company, Moore promised they would “do better” without ever acknowledging the most serious consumer complaints or making it clear how he planned to improve things.

If Moore did anything better before he left the company in 2017, it doesn’t seem to have helped. Last year 24/7 Wall St. compiled a list of the 20 most hated companies in America, and EA took spot #5 ahead of corporate rogue’s gallery mainstays like Facebook, Comcast, and Monsanto. In the previous lists of “Most Hated” companies, there was always the excuse that EA was being picked on because the poll was held online and so the results were skewed by the internet-savvy gaming culture. Supposedly, EA wasn’t that unpopular, it was just unpopular on the internet.

The 2013 Consumerist titles were based entirely on a public survey, but the 24/7 Wall St. one also included survey results from the American Customer Satisfaction Index and employee reviews on Glassdoor. That means this newer title takes into account consumers and employees, which makes it a little more grounded in fact, and a little less based on internet drama.

The point is that EA has been very unpopular for a long time. This unpopularity has endured through several CEOs. It’s not tied to a single studio or game franchise. Whenever the unpopularity of EA comes up, the conversation always turns to the subject of greed. I touched on this subject a few weeks ago when I talked about how poorly EA was handling the Star Wars license, but I think it’s worth going into more detail.

I dislike the greed complaint for two reasons. First, because it’s not really the source of their problem. All big companies are trying to make as much money as they can. Disney puts out Marvel movies, Apple puts out new iPhones, and Netflix puts out new shows. They all do these things in the hopes of making more money. For the most part, their customers are happy with them anyway. If EA’s greed manifested in the form of trying to make money by making good games that the public wanted to buy, then we wouldn’t have a problem.

Secondly, gripes about greed are ignored outside of gaming. The argument makes it sound like we’d approve of EA if it just tried to make less money. If an EA executive sees complaints about greed, they can just dismiss us as entitled consumers who want more for less. If an EA shareholder reads that gamers are complaining about greed, they’re likely to conclude the executives are just doing their job.

Apple makes billions selling overpriced phones, but they’ve never been the most hated company in America. Same goes for Netflix, Warner Bros., Valve Corporation, Disney, and countless other companies in the entertainment and consumer electronics industry. Those companies make ridiculous amounts of money — some of them more than EA  — without generating resentment, protest, and a never-ending wave of bad press. The problem at EA isn’t that it’s trying to make money. The problem is ignorance and mismanagement.

EA’s profits come mostly from its major cash cows: Madden, FIFA, and Battlefield. It doesn’t require a business genius to make money with those properties. As long as the company keeps churning out those reliable money-makers, the resulting billions of income can hide the fact that just about every other property is being horribly mismanaged. The central problem is that the people running EA have no expertise in the business they’re trying to run. Of the 10 executives listed on EA’s site, only one (CTO Ken Moss) has a background in software. There’s not a single game developer among them. They’re clearly not avid gamers.

It’s fine if most of the executives are MBA types. You need folks like that to run a business. The problem is that they shouldn’t all be those sorts of managers. Your company needs a Walt Disney. A Steve Jobs. A Satoru Iwata. A Lee Iacocca. That person doesn’t need to be the most powerful executive or the most famous person. They don’t need to be a famous visionary like any of the people I just mentioned. They don’t even need to be a particularly nice person. (Jobs allegedly wasn’t.) They just need to understand the business and be in a position where someone will listen to them. EA is a ship where all the officers know how to give orders and operate the helm, but nobody knows how to navigate.

Businesses are not interchangeable. Someone in the leadership needs to have some sort of insight or vision. Without industry-specific expertise, a company is doomed to blindly chase trends. You can’t predict where an industry is going if you don’t understand the products or the customers. This is exactly what’s been going on at EA.

EA’s leadership doesn’t understand their customers.

EA had a lot of success with loot boxes (née card packs) in the FIFA and Madden franchises, so the leadership decided to put them in a completely different game in a totally different genre aimed at a different audience. Mistakes are understandable, but apparently nobody understood the business well enough to know they were doing something inherently risky. If even one of the executives played an online shooter or followed the culture around those games, they would have been aware of how prickly the community can be about balance and unlocks. Messing with those mechanics is inherently perilous. Just because FIFA players are willing to pay for random content unlocks doesn’t mean this other audience will be.

If I was a sneaky executive and I wanted to try introduce loot boxes to a Battlefield or Battlefront title, I’d put them in a separate game mode. If there wasn’t any backlash and sales didn’t fall, then I’d gradually migrate the loot boxes over to the standard online gameplay. I’d do this at the end of a game’s life as part of a big map pack or other free content offering. I wouldn’t make it part of a launch title until I was sure we weren’t going to harm our customer base.

It’s not hard. You just need some basic framework for understanding what people want and expect from your product.

EA’s leadership doesn’t understand studios or their core skills.

The ongoing tragedy that is Anthem is a great example of EA’s leadership failing at basic business management. They saw Destiny was making money, and decided they wanted their own version. For all its faults, Destiny was an online looter shooter with finely tuned gameplay and a story that nobody cared about. EA decided that the best people to copy this template were the storytellers at BioWare, who had no experience making online shooters, no expertise making loot-grinding mechanics, and had never been particularly strong when it came to gameplay. The team’s core skill is in storytelling, which is irrelevant in this genre. (The Mass Effect 3 multiplayer was developed by the now shuttered studio BioWare Montreal, which was not involved with Anthem.)

The alarming conclusion you can draw from this is that the EA leadership gave this project to an unqualified developer based on the fact that Mass Effect and Destiny are — at the most superficial level — science fiction games with shooting. That’s like someone thinking the director of The Polar Express ought to be put in charge of Snowpiercer because both movies feature trains in the snow.

Anyone with a rudimentary grasp of game development or the respective cultures surrounding these two games would have recognized that this move didn’t make a lot of sense.

EA’s leadership doesn’t understand game genres.

EA’s history is filled with wrongheaded attempts to make the company’s less popular games more like its most popular games. It’s like if McDonald’s realized the McRib was their most popular sandwich, so the executives tried to boost the sales of their other products by putting barbecue pork in everything from milkshakes to fish sandwiches. That’s not how products work.

When the EA leadership tried to turn the solitary experience of Dead Space into a buddy co-op shooter with Dead Space 3, they showed they don’t understand their audience or even basic business theory. Market segmentation is basically Business 101. Different consumers want different things. That’s why you have to make more than one game every year.

If even one executive had spent a single evening sitting in the dark playing survival horror, they would have immediately realized that co-op was antithetical to the Dead Space experience. They were literally harming the attribute that made the game appealing to its fans. Tens of millions of dollars were wasted making a game nobody wanted because the people in charge didn’t understand why fans liked Dead Space to begin with.

EA’s leadership doesn’t understand game mechanics.

Anyone who’s ever sat down and played any of the SimCity games before 2013 would understand that they’re a fundamentally single player experience. I can’t find a link for it all these years later, but at the time I read an article alleging that the multiplayer idea came from the developers at Maxis and not from the EA leadership. Even if we believe that, rather than assume this to be corporate damage control, it doesn’t really let the executives off the hook. For years the leadership had been promising that single player was dying and the future was multiplayer. I could forgive the Maxis developers for looking for a way to save their jobs by moving their game towards a design that management would be willing to support.

In any case, an executive who understood the business would be able to look at the design and ask how this familiar gameplay loop could possibly benefit from the addition of multiplayer. It’s literally the executive’s job to protect the company from bad decisions like this one, regardless of who came up with the idea in the first place.

The multiplayer in SimCity functions like a shooter where you can dump extra bullets into a bin that can be picked up by some other random player operating in their own isolated world. For some reason, achieving this barely perceptible level of interactivity between players required that all of the game logic be moved to massive server farms. Moore’s blog post also insisted that the always online design was definitely not a form of digital rights management. I’m willing to take him at his word, but that means the leadership approved this enormously expensive multiplayer system even though it served no purpose whatsoever.

This story also showed that EA’s leadership wasn’t paying attention to the industry as a whole. The infamous Diablo 3 controversy had taken place the year before. The executives had an obvious example of just how dangerous it was to take a previously single player game and force the audience online for the sequel, and that if you’re doing that anyways it’s critically important to make sure servers are ready on day one. They weren’t, and the game launch was a disaster.

In the end, EA closed down Maxis and the SimCity franchise is now dead. Despite the corporate belief that the future is multiplayer and live services, Cities: Skylines has since taken the lead in the city-building genre with an explicitly single player experience. That game will be four years old this year, and it’s still selling new DLC. This success could have belonged to EA. Management just needed some understanding of this incredibly famous and long-lived franchise.

EA’s leadership can’t lead.

For an example of EA executive bungling that falls outside of the normal list of consumer gripes, there’s the time EA purchased casual developer Playfish Games for a staggering $300 million and then quietly shut the operation down just four years later, seemingly having gotten nothing out of the deal. They failed to see coming trends in casual gaming and they had no idea how to pivot to that market. They engaged in wasteful crash spending to catch up, had no plan for what to do with the developer, then shut the whole thing down. Gamers never really care about those sorts of mistakes, but they’re the sort of thing that ought to be really upsetting to shareholders.

The most damning fault of all is that EA’s leadership doesn’t know how to use their resources to make money. Taking into account the loot box controversy, Project Ten Dollar, EA’s habit of shutting down servers, the studio closures, the PR gaffs, the outrage around their perma-crunch development policy, and all of EA’s other sins, it’s pretty clear that the vast majority of these mistakes could have been avoided or mitigated if the leadership either understood the industry or was open to advice from their developers.

The points I’ve made in this article aren’t some secret knowledge. These things are obvious to lots of people in the industry. Over 9,000 people work at EA. The company employs some of the best and brightest gaming professionals. If the executives encouraged a corporate a culture where people felt free to question things and offer constructive criticism, and if the management was willing to listen to their talented experts, then literally hundreds of millions of dollars could have been saved, and a lot of serious IP damage could have been avoided. The fact that the company took these actions despite employing developers who knew better suggests that EA’s leadership is unwilling to hear criticism or bad news.

I realize that most people reading this article aren’t going to shed any tears for EA’s wasted money, but that’s part of the point. We might get mad about studio closures and canceled games, but shareholders ought to be mad that EA is wasting so much potential. The focus on EA’s greed distracts from their more serious problem: being a horribly run company. That’s the problem that’s more likely to bring about a change in management.

Shamus Young
Shamus Young is a game developer, critic, and novelist. He's just published a new cyberpunk novel. Check it out!

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