NOTE: This column was completed several days before the announcement that EA CEO John Riccitiello has stepped down from his position. But this kind of served to make this column more timely than ever. While I don't really mention Riccitiello below, you can read this as a list of mistakes that led to his resignation.
Last week I accused EA of being brain-dead, tone-deaf, inept, and clueless. I also said that their main problem isn't greed. I'll go even further and say that the EA leadership isn't evil. And even though I said their policies were "brain dead", I'm willing to bet the EA board of directors is made up of some reasonably intelligent, well-educated guys.
Having said that, this is a company with problems beyond the pricing and convenience issues I mentioned last week. Even if you don't work there or buy their games - even if all you care about is bottom-line stock price - this is still a badly run company that's failing to live up to its potential.
Some people defend EA by saying, "They're making money, so they must be doing something right." But this is setting the bar really low. EA has some of the most valuable IP in the industry, they have massive clout, they own some of the most prestigious development houses (Maxis and BioWare are the obvious ones) and their products shape the way non-gamers see and judge our hobby. When you look at the way they keep prices high on their back catalog and the way they ratchet up prices with DLC, it's clear that their products are also the most expensive. If you've got popular products and high prices, your profits should also be high, right?
But in reading their financial reports, it's clear this is not a thriving company. All that muscle is going to waste. Some years are better than others, but even their good earnings are modest in the face of their size. This is like having a major-league pitcher pulling down the salary of your average IT professional. Sure it's good money, but it's nowhere near what he should be making.
Sometimes they even post losses. Videogames are growing and growing, reaching bigger audiences and coming to dominate our culture, and yet this videogame publishing juggernaut hums along in first gear, not going anywhere and occasionally laying off a few hundred people. Compare this to Valve, who regularly boasts massive growth (50% last year) that seems much more in line with the growth of the industry as a whole.
So let's look at why such a powerful company is having such meager success. A disclaimer: This is not financial advice. Another disclaimer: You don't need to haggle over things like, "But that decision was BioWare's fault!" or "Actually, Maxis did that!" The leaders of these divisions are people approved or even appointed by the EA leadership, and those people are striving to please their bosses like any sane employee. We're taking a high-level view of the company here, and don't need to concern ourselves with the gossipy stuff going on behind the scenes. Ultimately the blame for the actions of a corporation falls at the feet of the leadership, so that's where we're putting it.
So we have a powerhouse company in a booming industry that really isn't going anywhere. Here's my outsider's perspective on what they're doing wrong.
1. Failing to understand different game markets
Have you ever noticed how some people are just really, really offended by the idea that EA sells new copies of FIFA and Madden every year with little more than a roster update? Do you know who doesn't mind this? People who buy FIFA and Madden games.
This shows a pretty clear difference in what these fans expect from their favorite titles. BioWare RPG fans don't want yearly releases that amount to an oversized mission pack. The Dead Space Necromorphs can wear out their welcome quickly, and playing a new Dead Space game every year would just burn out the franchise entirely. Yet EA is pushing for shorter release schedules on these action games because yearly release works well for sports games.
Mass Effect probably took three or four years to develop under the then-independent BioWare. Mass Effect 2 took three years. Mass Effect 3 took just two years. Dragon Age 2 was rumored to have been in development for less than a year. I'm sure you can remember the controversies and player frustrations that surrounded these latter two games. While shorter development cycles are crucial for sports games, they're actually harmful for other kinds of games, and the publisher's failure to understand this has damaged the names of good developers and (formerly) successful franchises.
2. Crash spending
There's an engineering joke about the follies of trying to solve problems with manpower. It takes many forms, but the general idea is "If one chef can make a cake in an hour, then twelve chefs should be able to finish the cake in five minutes!" The big publishers keep complaining about the rising cost of game development. But why are costs going up? We've been stuck in the same graphics generation since 2005 or so. Since we're not chasing new graphics, games should be getting cheaper.
The only reason to be spending more is if we're trying to make games faster by hiring more chefs. But roleplaying games are not sports games, and have different developmental needs. The rules of football (either one) don't change from year-to-year, but people playing action games want each title to bring something fresh or interesting to the table. It takes time and iteration to balance that gameplay and time to write those stories, and throwing more people at the problem has diminishing returns and a negative impact on quality. Instead of a wonderful arthouse of worldbuilding and experimentation, you end up with a conveyor belt where people crank out 3D models.