EA’s homework – Five ways to improve
When EA face criticism, they use numbers and sales in lieu of polls and opinion. Whilst the vocal minority say one thing, silent statistics say another. If EA have such an unhealthy community relationship, why are the figures so high? It’s easy to press “install” on something that claims to be free, and iterative, mass market videogames are always going to sell well. Isn’t that besides the point? Consumers are burnt out on sequels, DLC, and shovel-ware - so what can we do to improve relations?
In the wake of Peter Moore’s ostensibly internal plea, I set about writing this article criticizing the whole thing, dissecting his statement, and trying to work out what it means for both EA and the consumer. What was its aim? Who was it for? I concluded that it vastly understated the importance of EA’s alienation from the “vocal minority” (people with an opinion), and denounced his over-reliance on figures, which he seemed to attribute to the quality and value of their products.
It simply wasn’t right to say that whilst one party has an opinion on something, a second party negates it simply through downloads and purchases. Opinions are more important to the consumer than statistics. Doing well doesn’t mean you’re doing right.
Since then we’ve been collecting community feedback, trying to figure out exactly what EA need to change in order to improve their product, which will invariably improve their image. Some of these are our ideas, and some of them are yours, but something we noted was exactly how cogent and incisive the “sensationalist vocal minority” are when you reach out to them without having condemned them for talking in the first place.
#1 – Nurture extant demographics; stop trying to grow and merge them – it kills them
Need for Speed Most Wanted didn’t need to rehash Burnout Paradise City. Medal of Honor: Warfighter didn’t need to try and scrape up Call of Duty and Battlefield 3 fans. EA are trying to concentrate more money into fewer, more expensive products. In doing so, they’re able virally promote a product through consistent marketing efforts – which are costly – thus churning out downloadable content and “additional” unlockables at an extra price. The more people playing your one product, the more people are hyped about it. This is economically sensible for EA, but it comes with compromises:
a) Addiction exploitation. First person shooters under the EA brand are no longer skill based. They’re designed to offer easy, fast paced, cyclical rewards. It’s easy to kill, and it’s easy to get killed. I’ll do better next time, just gotta get in the game. Because of this, they’re able to offer a host of gimmicky unlocks (IR scope anyone?) that offer players the notion that they can ‘one up’ the enemy. Spacing out these unlocks, whilst making them seem necessary, means they can easily charge a one off fee to unlock them all – especially a while into the games lifespan.
You might not have a problem with any of the above, but it means that any other first person shooter EA might release is a potential competitor to their primary brand. If one is making more money than the other, because it’s now substituted by continual purchases, then why keep it afloat? Hell, why even make it? So whilst you might enjoy Battlefield 3, and the directions they’re going with it, the growth and development of the brand necessarily – and has – kills prospective alternatives.
b) Subject to taste. We don’t all like the same things, and merging similar products into the same product by axing or quelling alternative developments means that products are lacking in subtlety and nuance. The primary game mechanics are the same, but everything is so mass-market that everything lacks quirk or charm. Because of this, the inherent value in a game under their name seems to be defined by its function. As I’ve previously said, they are a functionalist enterprise. Their games are designed to work – both mechanically, and in how they promote the sale of bolt-on content. This ties in directly to my next point:
#2 – You need to take bigger risks
EA will claim they already take huge risks. They sink millions of investment resources into their big releases, which is exactly why they have to appeal to as many people as possible. Populist products are inherently difficult to critique, because of reasons stated above. Often, as I said, the function is the majority of the merit. However, relying on iterative albeit functional products for a demographic of consumers who consume so often, and so analytically, is of course problematic.
You must invest in smaller development houses with bigger ideas. DICE was once one such house. Buying studios with a proven track record quells creativity, it doesn’t grow it. At the moment, EA might argue that risking failure when there are iterative sequels that guarantee sales is senseless. Perhaps a year ago this would be true, but EA killed Medal of Honor: Warfighter by helping to create an apathetic gaming community who care more about senseless progression than story and nuance (queue: give the people what they want), ensuring failures in products that could have been successful if they delivered them earnestly to the demographics who adored them.
There will always be a demographic for fast paced first person shooters, there’s nothing wrong with that, but as it stands you’re creating a culture of gamers who, when presented with something more, say: “this is just a rip off of ___.” That’s not their fault, because you constantly push the line between this, and that. The differences are subtle, but the similarities are overwhelming. One product, as a consequence, seems vastly superior. For more on this, check out this article.
As an addendum to this point, EA are directly contributing to the closure of development houses who fail to meet sales targets. They fail to meet sales targets because they’re not allowed to make the games they wanted to make. They’re forced to make products. They’re forced to appeal, based on iterative mechanics and familiar context. That’s not to say EA doesn’t provide jobs – it does – but they need to make some effort to extend farther than sure fire sales if they want to create some really innovative titles. There are millions of talented people out there who desperately need the work. Just imagine what we could see if their ideas were given the resources to come into fruition.
#3 – You think you’re getting away with free-to-play and freemium shovelware. Stop using statistics to support its popularity.
You’re only getting away with it because the type of people who enjoy social village creators are people who rarely have an opinion on gaming. The figures show that F2P social games are incredibly profitable, but they’re also tantamount to abhorrent. They’re designed to milk people for cash. It’s as simple as that. Either you spend valuable time to enjoy this product to the full, or you buy our gems. Both are expensive, and that’s exploitation. The fact that people are willing to pay is irrelevant. It’s gambling with a 0% chance of the house losing.
EA fully admit that they want to hook people at pivotal moments, in order to maximize the potential for a DLC or “gem” sale. How do you try and engineer a sale? And what does that mean for the product? If you consciously knew that every time you loaded up an application, you were subjecting yourself to a chemically induced sales pitch, would you keep playing? Free-to-play shovel-ware is so aesthetically pretty, and charming, because underneath the graphics, it’s exactly the opposite.
Free-to-play aims to exploit the consumer, and using statistics on the number of downloads to circumvent any ethical quarrels is abhorrent. You need to stop doing that. I can count the number of free-to-play games that appropriately use the model on my two hands. EA produce none of them. There’s a difference between free and free-to-play, and it wouldn’t be so overtly shady if publishers accepted that. Free-to-play will likely cost you more in the long run. Would you rather spend £3 on a mobile game, or £4.99 on an extinguishable in game currency? Anyone who prefers the former is considered a “vocal minority,” whilst the latter are merely people sitting on the toilet, bored.(2)
Gambling is inherently anti-consumer. Free-to-play follows the same principle. The difference is, in gambling, the potential reward is a return on your investment, whilst in free-to-play, it’s a meaningless token, or a false sense of achievement. This, arguably, makes it even worse than gambling. I’d rather have a percentage of my innings back, rather than a charming pixel pizza house. Of course, the argument goes: if people are willing to pay, we’re going to cater to them. Sure, but that’s the same excuse drug dealers use. This is an article about the reception of EA as a corporation.
#4 – Stop the spin
This problem is two-fold. The community are appealing to EA in the wrong ways (this includes myself, since my views on free-to-play are unhelpful in this appeal; they’ll be ignored or deconstructed). As a consequence, EA are appealing to the wrong part of the community. SimCity didn’t help. The fact of the matter is, as I have said numerous times, SimCity doesn’t have “always-on DRM”(1). In arguing that it does, EA are able to brush aside your criticisms. There’s nothing they can do about it. You’re wrong: it’s as simple as that. I won’t go into it here, but you can only fight logic with logic. Yes. You can hack the game to work offline, but it’s clear to anyone with any sense that SimCity is a game about managing towns in an online region with your friends, working towards regional structures. This requires more than one person, and playing alone comes to the detriment of that experience. That is the experience Maxis had intended for its players, and if you don’t like that experience, then you don’t like the game. It’s unfortunate, but I’ll cover criticisms in #5.
That said, EA have to appeal to those who have genuine concerns. Concerns that can be accounted for, and substantiated by evidence. For example, Warfighter is dead. Crysis 3 had a disappointing reception. Dragon Age clearly suffered directional issues. What’s going wrong between EA and its development houses? EA admit when a franchise isn’t doing as well as it hoped, so why not try and explain why that is? My appeal is seen in #1. If you want to make a successful RPG, then make an RPG – don’t make an action game. If you want to make an authentic first person shooter, make an authentic FPS, don’t make a Call of Duty action spectacle. If you want to make a large scale, multiplayer FPS, make one: don’t compromise it by limiting yourself to technology on other systems that can’t support the core ideas.
Whilst it’s true that porting identical products between 3 platforms necessarily leads to compromise that comes as a detriment to the game, there’s not really much we can do about that other than hoping the PS4 era helps to alleviate some of the porting stress. An example of a logical appeal is as follows: EA, would you consider investing in some PC exclusives, from smaller development houses, considering the PC market has had an astonishingly profitable year? EA, since you want to promote Origin as a competitor to Steam, wouldn’t it make sense to show more love to PC users – the primary Origin demographic?
EA know that many of us have a point – but they’re able to ignore the incisive few, using the sensationalist vocal as an excuse to do so.
#5 – Cherish your consumers
This one only really works if the four above are at least improved. If you look at the smaller publishers, such as Focus Home Interactive, Paradox Interactive, Kalypso Media, CD Projekt Red, and Koch Media, you’ll notice how in love with them their consumers are. They’ve all made mistakes: Tropico 4 was basically a DLC pack. CD Projekt threatened to sue everyone in the world, ever. Paradox tried to out Mount and Blade, Mount and Blade, and Koch Media through Deep Silver tried to sell us decapitated tits. You don’t have to be perfect, but there’s one thing all these, much smaller publishers are doing right: they’re creating the games people want, not making people want the games they create.
When you think about an EA game, what do you see? Polish. Spectacle. Chunky, console graphics on the PC. Iterative mechanics. Press __ to perform the following action. All of the trends seen in EA titles seem unavoidably negative. You see a decline in quality with every sequel, and an increase in linearity. Stories get worse, and dynamics grow even more compromised. Every release seems to want to cater to more and more people, and in doing so, caters to no one with an opinion. Gamers know what they want, you can’t keep shoveling out products with expensive marketing, in hopes that people buy into it (ref. Crysis 3 reception).
Learn something from your smaller cousins, and give consumers some figureheads to love. Lead developers are leaving development houses they built from the ground up, and they’re being replaced with no one. Who do we talk to about a game? Or a problem? Who are the characters at EA? Who are the Will Wright’s, Sid Meier’s, Rihanna Pratchett’s, Dean “Rocket” Hall’s? Who made these games? If you want consumers to feel a part of the EA scheme of things, you need to inject some personality!
Gamers want to shake the hands of the people who made their games – but you consistently hide yourself behind your fortress, lock in key, where you talk about how to maximize sales, ignoring any semblance of community.
Reach out; cater to the needs and wants of gamers; stop trying engineer them. Backlash exists for a reason, and an inability to sensibly articulate discontent is worsened by a faceless corporation without any character. Good games are built by gamers, so you’d better start hiring some. At the moment, community and corporate apathy risk jeopardizing the launch of the next generation. We’re not excited, we’re worried. That’s a sign that something’s awry.
(1) The argument is that EA forced Maxis to have “always on DRM” in order to cut piracy rates. Whilst that seems like a logical assumption, that doesn’t necessarily entail that it is true. I have enough faith in Maxis to believe that any attempt to steer their direction so drastically would be met with at least some leakage of discontent. We’d have heard about it. Maxis are a very head-strong developer, and whilst I admit it’s convenient that the game is always on, and that EA were probably pleased with that, I think it’s true that they had envisioned a social MMO dynamic, not merely wanting to recreate SimCity 4 with a better engine. Social games are more marketable now, unfortunately, and it’s just a victim of the current gaming climate – a climate helped created by EA. Still, its intention wasn’t to lock down the game, it was to bring it into the social sphere. Its function is not one of DRM, that wasn’t the intent. I would say “in my opinion,” but I’m convinced that this is a fact.
(2) Free-to-play can be done right, but the mobile market is heavily exploited. League of Legends, Team Fortress 2 et al are not the same as The Simpsons: Tapped Out. There are far, far more free to play games – even excluding the Asian market – which are nothing more than elaborate ploys to divorce you from your money. I’ve yet to try Real Racing 3, but it might be an example of EA doing free-to-play reasonably from what I know about it. However, the model was chosen because it makes them more money. Where does that money come from? You. It doesn’t do the consumer any favors. “But you get some of the game for free!” Yeah, demos were a thing, once.