“Are we really the worst company in America?” asked Peter Moore, COO of Electronic Arts, the man responsible for the company voted ‘Worst Company in America’ in a poll on The Consumerist. The Consumerist, of course, is a website which aggregates SimCity results under the tag “SIMSHITTY(1).

You can’t argue with numbers.

Let’s take off our “I want EA to die in the face” hats for a moment, and try to make sense of Moore’s appeal to reason. Firstly, the poll on The Consumerist only means anything because it sounds so authoritative. The site is called ‘The Consumerist’ – how liberally corporate! The award is called ‘The Worst Company in America’ – how audacious! Put these things together, and you’ve something that sounds sweetly legit, and it hits a niche. Hold on, I hate EA – and they’ve won an award validating my feelings about them? I’m in, the internet said unanimously.

So is Peter Moore, because what could have been easily ignored has been officially discussed at fort EA – Gargoyles permitting – the product of which is a cleverly orchestrated plea to both reason and statistics: we’re not that bad, I mean, look at all this money we’ve made! You can’t argue with numbers.

We’re not that bad, are we?

Let’s not be naive here: Peter Moore is someone who thinks this poll is ridiculous, unfounded, speculative, and sensationalist. I feel the same way, although I don’t use the same evidence to support that. His commenting on it is, ostensibly, an attempt by EA to ‘come down to our level’ and ‘play the game we started.’ His reply is disingenuous, dishonest, illogical, but devilishly clever. I don’t want to use a tired Nazi analogy, so I’ll use a Bosnia analogy. It’s a bit like the defense of Srebrenica, citing that war is bad, and bad things happen, and we should expect bad things in a bad climate, and they’re imperfect, which necessarily leads to a few, occasional, bad things. It wasn’t genocide, it was war! Free to play isn’t inherently exploitative, we just live in an evolving gaming climate!(4)

My analogy is purposefully exaggerated. It’s satirical. I’m trying to give you a sense of how ridiculous this all is, although I do think his opening paragraph does sound a bit like someone who’s done very bad things, trying to establish a coherent sense of ethical understanding:

“I’ll be the first to admit that we’ve made plenty of mistakes. These include server shut downs too early, games that didn’t meet expectations, missteps on new pricing models and most recently, severely fumbling the launch of SimCity. We owe gamers better performance than this.”

This is a pre-school apology.

What offends me is the last sentiment: “we owe gamers better performance than this.” I don’t know about you, but I think EA is a company who fires arrows towards target demographics as cost efficiently as possible, mopping up the aftermath once the arrow lands – target or no. They aren’t a company who try to make people happy per-se, they’re a company who try to successfully distribute populist, marketable products, towards increasingly merging demographics(2).

I am quite rationally of the opinion that the only people EA apologise to are the creditors, investors, and marketers. PR is hype management, it isn’t the community’s friend. As a gamer – you aren’t EA’s friend. They don’t owe you anything. If they screw up, apologies are an internal affair. That’s business. When Warfighter died in the water, EA were sorry it didn’t “resonate well with the consumer” (it sold poorly), they weren’t sorry they sidestepped Medal of Honor fans – people who liked the franchise – in lieu of larger sales. That’s like being sorry for getting caught, not performing the act. This is a pre-school apology.

The dynamic and flow of his statement

It’s basically telling you all to shut up and suck it.

It was never slated as an apology, but that’s what the PR prowess behind this provocatively nit-picky piece really is, isn’t it? It wants to look like they’ve some understanding of where they went wrong, but as you progress through the statement, you’ll notice how it’s actually a complete denunciation of the poll, the reasons behind peoples voting, and the logic people employ to derive their opinions of EA. It’s basically telling you all to shut up and suck it.

“Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme. It’s not. People still want to argue about it. We can’t be any clearer – it’s not. Period.”

I agree. Contrary to popular belief, as I have written, “EA didn’t create an annoying DRM system, Maxis created an annoyingly social game.” You can huff and puff about this all you want, but Maxis decided SimCity is about building little towns with your friends, and working towards regional structures. That’s what their game is about. It’s not about sitting on your own, building and managing one large city. I know that’s what you want it to be, and I know that if you hack it, you can almost make it that, but that’s not what Maxis intended it to be. It’s really very clear if you play it, and although about ten thousand forums disagree with me on this, the idea that it “could have been offline” is completely irrelevant. Developers don’t make design decisions that they feel would come as a detriment to their game. Playing SimCity on your own isn’t playing SimCity how they intended it to be played.

There’s something Moore and I can agree on. But in comes Moore’s offensive over-reliance on numbers. Do you know who else made sentimental ethical statements based on people and statistics? Stalin. Okay, okay… I’m just kidding.

“Some claim there’s no room for Origin as a competitor to Steam. 45 million registered users are proving that wrong.”

I think Moore is tossing this into the argument because it’s so easy to disregard. The initial reaction is pro-consumerist. More platforms is always a good thing. Monopoly on anything is always a bad thing. He knows consumers don’t really want Valve to dictate their gaming diet, so he’s getting on our side. Some people honestly think that Gabe has the right to control your life, people. Can you believe that? Queue South Park style mob reaction.

Steam wasn’t very good when Steam launched, and people only tolerated it because there wasn’t really anything much like it. It had the space to grow. The problem is Origin arguably doesn’t have that space – so EA are forced to invest heavily into it with quite cumbersome and full-on methods. It isn’t God’s gift to gaming, because Gaben is God, isn’t he? Let’s be honest, you can take or leave Origin. It’s there if you need it, and it sometimes has extra sales – that’s not a bad thing, and no one really thinks it is. Stop playing the victim, Che.

“Tens of millions more are playing and loving those [F2P] games”

”Some people think that free-to-play games and micro-transactions are a pox on gaming. Tens of millions more are playing and loving those games.”

Some people think something, whilst tens of millions merely hold no opinion, and get on with it. I don’t think that’s a very compelling argument. Look at how it’s structured. This isn’t an ideological statement. Moore didn’t say that the majority of people hold the opinion that F2P is great, he merely indicated as to how easy it is to press “install” on a licensed product that offers X amount of free fun.

They know time isn’t free, and they know you don’t have a lot of it. Kinda sounds like exploitation.

Personally, I think that aside from – literally – the amount of games I could count on two hands, free-to-play is a horribly abused, horribly anti-consumer model that comes dangerously close to the exploits of gambling. Hook them, addict them, get them spending. That’s why it exists. It exists to get people spending their money on one product – over, and over again. I don’t have the word-count to go into this in full, but in order to get people spending money on games that would otherwise use the classical model, there have to be necessary changes to the mechanics of the game. Dead Space 3 – one of the most acceptable micro-transaction examples – took away ‘credits’, replacing them with ‘scrap’ – something you could purchase with real money. They took something away from the game in order to charge you for something that you could have otherwise done with the cost of the box.

You don’t have to have an opinion on that – and most people wont. It’s something you have to think about, and something easily excused under the guise of “who gives a shit?” Most people don’t. If EA wanted to offer something substantial, they’d do their own research into those who support their F2P techniques vs those who don’t – not merely suggesting some have an opinion, whilst others are docile and apathetic. That’s dumb.

Seriously though, free to play is a plague. People download free-to-play games because they’re taking a shit, and they play them because they’re easily hooked – of course they are, the games are designed to do that, and the game claimed to be free. Aren’t you sick of every “free” game being a horrible social grind-fest, eventually asking you to either waste hours of your life, or hand over small amounts of cash? That’s not free. My time is not free. Don’t devalue my time by purposefully trying to waste it so I buy your ‘gems’. They know time isn’t free, and they know you don’t have a lot of it. Kinda sounds like exploitation.

Free-to-play doesn’t even come close to the same flow and dynamic of classically priced games. They think of ways to extinguish your patience, or stress you into putting your hand into your wallet, and that’s how it is. That’s why every defense of it is numerical. “If it’s so bad, why are these numbers so high?” Well, because not everyone sits around and talks about this stuff.

There are those who do free-to-play as honestly as possible, but EA are not one of those companies. They are the ones who abuse it. It’s as simple as that.

Discrediting demographics

“We’ve seen mailing lists that direct people to vote for EA because they disagree with the choice of the cover athlete on Madden NFL. Yes, really…”

I’m also on Moore’s side here to some extent, but picking one example like this when you’ve already admitted to some shortcomings which are viable seems to indicate you’re just looking for a scapegoat. You’re implying that thousands of other people had equally ridiculous reasons. Of course they do – that’s not the point – the point you should be making is that the poll is a trolling tool. It doesn’t matter if your reasons are good, or if they’re bad, an internet poll has no inherent meaning – it’s fallible, exploitable, and sensationalist.

Moore’s reasoning should have been that the poll in its entirety is a fallacious attack, rather than validate the result by claiming some people had bad reasons. In doing so, he merely opened himself up to swaths of legitimate retorts: “well, how about…” This article is one such retort.

He actually played the gay card…

“In the past year, we have received thousands of emails and postcards protesting against EA for allowing players to create LGBT characters in our games. This week, we’re seeing posts on conservative web sites urging people to protest our LGBT policy by voting EA the Worst Company in America.”

They’re not seriously defending alleged consumer negligence behind the support of liberal movements are they…?

“If that’s what makes us the worst company, bring it on. Because we’re not caving on that,”

Oh. I don’t think that NFL cover choices and the decision to not be idiotic in your support of the ever-evolving moral zeitgeist is really the problem here, EA, and what started as a reasonably impressive response to a very delicate accusation seems to have gone in the direction of a total and utter misfire.

He goes on to cite more numbers under the guise of “truth”, and claims that EA are “committed to fixing our mistakes,” but he astonishingly uses The Simpsons: Tapped Out as an example of how EA are “breaking records for revenue and users.” Tapped Out, of course, is yet another iterative city builder, using The Simpsons licence as an excuse to do something you could do in a game like, say, Anno 2070 – rewardingly, and with difficulty – in this case with great ease, a lot of time, and money pouring out of your pockets. I fail to see why Moore thought this was a good point.

Mass market success does not denote the quality or value of a game. A game is a work of art. Imagine if the value of art was defined by how accessible it was? What would be the point?

This is EA’s real problem, I feel, and one of the legitimate reasons people have concerns with them. They seem to think that market success dictates whether or not a game – or a product – was any good. This simply isn’t the case. The Simpsons: Tapped Out is an iterative pile of crap(5), designed to pass the time of bored people. It’s designed to give you a sense that you’re working towards something. You never get tired, because it constantly grows. You never get annoyed, because it’s so easy and ‘charming’. You invest your money because you’ve already invested some time. That’s its function.

Most free-to-play games of this type are literally defined by the token of their function. They’re a functionalist enterprise. That isn’t art. You critique them in how well they achieve their goal: to make a shit load of money, in small doses, from the maximum number of people possible, for the longest possible time. There is literally no way, I feel, to dress that up so it looks good for the consumers. “Gee! This is fun! Look at my little [insert licence] village grow!”

Call be a snob, and then go back to your statistics about how one group has an opinion, and the other are idle, voiceless statistics.

What is the problem with EA, then?

Do you know why F2P games – especially ones on phones – are so popular with EA’s management? Because they’re gambling games with a 0% chance of the house losing. Think about that.

This culture of hooking gamers on one product is killing genres, other games, and entire development houses. That’s a fact.

The real issue with EA is that they’re trying to merge sub-genres, and take fewer and fewer risks. They rely on established franchises, blending with every sequel into genre grey-areas, where everything sort of looks and feels the same. Sure, everything is iterative to an extent, but Half Life 2 isn’t Call of Duty. A first person shooter doesn’t have to be the same as another first person shooter. You may now proceed to argue how everything will always inherently be the same because everything has been done before, but I’ll gleefully ignore you. Paradise City to Most Wanted.

So whilst they’re merging any semblance of existent sub-genres into one pile of samey shovelware, they’re also socializing everything so much that, conveniently, everyone needs to be an individual in whatever game they’re playing. I can see you, and you can see me, so I want to look different. I want to be different. I want different skins, I want different guns. You have a better skill-chart than me, so I want to play more. Everyone’s talking about this, so I gotta keep playing – I gotta keep spending. If I don’t play more, I’ll never get better. Shit! New maps. No one’s playing the old maps anymore. I’d better buy the map pack, I’d better buy the extra XP.

Everyone is better than me! I’d better use that IR scope, I’d better buy the unlocks. I’m still dying! Gotta play more, gotta get better. Since when was gaming so damn stressful? Skill has been replaced with gimmicks, and the last remaining MMS that required any skill, Medal of Honor: Warfighter, a game I heavily defended, has been killed because Battlefield 3 is the bigger market product(3).

Warfighter‘s multiplayer was subtle, team-based (squads of two), and its campaign was well nuanced, authentic, and relatively enjoyable. Unfortunately, EA helped create a culture of “I don’t care about the story, I just want to play the multiplayer,” and why play anything other than Battlefield 3 when you’ve spent $60 on the game, $60 on the DLC, and X amount on the unlocks, if not hundreds of hours of your time? This culture of hooking gamers on one product is killing genres, other games, and entire development houses. That’s a fact.

EA don’t take enough risks. There won’t be any more “Mirrors Edge’s from EA, and they’re killing off sub-genres left right and center. Everything feels the same, and we’ve seen it all before. That’s why, in my opinion, EA are upsetting gamers. You don’t care about us. You don’t want to deliver us art, you just want to shovel off product towards us. Do you know how insulting that is? This is our hobby. We invest our lives into this. We share this with our girlfriends, and our boyfriends, and we talk about it with our family. It’s a core part of who we are, and the products you make help to define us – just in the same way literature, film, art and music do.

EA are, in their words, one of “the tallest trees,” but they’re also one of the poorest examples for quality, innovative gaming. It simply isn’t enough to reduce bugs and show us a sales sheet. It’s getting to the point where that is becoming upsetting.

If EA want to improve their public image, they need to take bigger risks. Give money to smaller studios with big ideas. Hit the niche demographics, and cherish people who love the smaller games. Don’t try and grow markets, try and nurture them. People are sensationalist, vocal, and abusive exactly because you’re “the tallest tree.” They want to look to you for quality, innovative gaming, but all you do is brush them aside and show them the money. When did that ever bring people together?

(1) I don’t mean to belittle the work of The Consumerist, I mean simply to point out that their poll is of no inherent value. Like someone smearing pig-shit onto a canvas. The conversation – the product of the act – dictates the worth of the act.

(2) They had two similar FPS IP’s between two different demographics. With the sequel to Warfighter, they tried to appeal to the adjacent demographic. In doing so, they failed, thus killing the project. They didn’t try to make Medal of Honor fans happy, they tried to make everyone buy the damned game. In doing so, they went out of their way to side-step the demographic who cared about their franchise. They want to merge demographics into one key, marketable area, with fewer, more expensive products, with as many people playing as possible.

(3) Warfighter’s merits were subtle, and lost on a lot of people because they didn’t bother looking at it. If you don’t like it, that’s fine, but I don’t need a lengthy dissertation as to why it sucked because you tried it for five minutes and found a bug. Read my article on why it misjudged if you’re interested, if not, let it die in peace. 

(4) Before you start taking these snubs seriously, they’re deliberately apathetic references to classical internet sensationalism. They aren’t serious, even if somehow you agree with them. 

(5) I don’t mean to belittle the developers. You are all very competent, and the game is mechanically functional – but you are adding to a culture of gaming apathy, and lowering the standards of consumers, allowing exploitation, and could spend your time better on, perhaps, gambling games, where at least people have a chance of winning their money back.