EA is the ‘Worst Company in America’, but not really
There’s a time and a place for hyperbole. In the Internet age, time for most means “right now because I’m pissed” and the place is “anywhere that lets me.” As the elder sibling of two often hyperbolic teenage girls, I’ve come to dislike it. And yet, I’ve been confronted with it all day as every gaming site I visit has a story on how EA is the “Worst Company in America” according to Consumerist voters. Or, in Internet parlance, “teh worst!1!” Admittedly, there are reasons to dislike EA and I can’t say that I’ve always loved them. I wrote an article a few years back arguing that it would be detrimental for them to gain exclusivity over the NFL license. But though EA has made some mistakes over the years, they are by no means the worst company in America. Let’s consider the crimes they’re guilty of.
On everyone’s mind immediately is the ending to Mass Effect 3 and the fact that there was DLC available when the game launched. I’m going to refrain from talking about any specifics of the ending, but the conspiracy theory floating around essentially argues that if EA had never purchased BioWare, the ending to Mass Effect 3 would have been a lot better. This argument makes very little sense considering that BioWare started the Mass Effect franchise with Microsoft as the publisher. At the very least, it seems unlikely that EA had much impact at all on how the story ended and the fault seems mostly to lie with BioWare. Would they have chosen to end the game the way they did had they not been a part of EA? Who can really say?
Mass Effect 3‘s day-one DLC is also a touchy subject. If done poorly, it can feel like the developers removed content they shouldn’t have. But for Mass Effect 3, this is not the case. If the DLC wasn’t publicized, you wouldn’t complain that it wasn’t included. Even without playing the DLC, there’s still a ton of content available on offer. You can play Mass Effect 3 for over thirty hours without it. It’s still optional content and if they hadn’t released no one would have walked away and said they felt something was missing. Also optional are the much derided microtransactions allowing you to purchase in-game bonuses with real world cash. EA’s not putting a gun to your head to make you buy them, and you can be successful in multiplayer without them. Society makes the lazy pay more, whether they’re buying guns for a game or going to a restaurant for dinner.
You are perfectly allowed to hate them, but EA is a company that responds to one thing primarily: market demand. If you don’t like it, don’t participate. Say what you want about them, but EA is smart. You have to be in order to stay one of the largest publishers for decades. They wouldn’t spend their money building launch day DLC or developing microtransactions if they knew that no one was going to utilize it. The fact of the matter is, they included these things because there are consumers out there that are OK with purchasing DLC for their brand new game. There are consumers that want a leg-up in multiplayer and will spend their cash to get there. The goal for any business, be it video games or rap music, is to find a market and to exploit it for monetary gain. Don’t be mad at EA that this market exists and they’ve found a way to capitalize on it.
We also have the online pass business that EA has been spearheading. Buy a used EA game and expect to have to shell out some scratch to play multiplayer. I do see the argument against online passes. One consumer sacrificed their right to play the game online when they sold it. The used purchaser simply takes the spot the other person paid for and is no longer using. There’s no added cost to EA if I were to hop online with my friend’s copy of Dead Space 2. But I also see their point. If you weren’t able to purchase the game in a manner that they actively oppose, you would have had to go out and buy a new copy, so whether you agree with them or not, you have to admit that on some level they did lose money.
There’s a much larger debate around online passes, but I don’t want to derail this into a discussion that I’d inevitably have to bring lots of other publishers into. But even the online pass phenomena is not enough to justify EA being handed the “Worst Company in America” title. No one nominated Blizzard for The Golden Poo because all of their games use online passes. Oh, but they publish on PC. Right. Look at the used PC games market. When you find it, let me know. It doesn’t exist because nearly every major PC game released today requires activation online. What EA and many other publishers are doing is bringing the same sales model they’ve employed on PC to consoles. PC gamers moaned but moved on and the platform’s doing just fine.
But EA kills studios, the haters cry! Westwood and Bullfrog are sad, but those studios died years ago and I think EA has improved. Currently, Maxis, the house that built SimCity and The Sims, is used as evidence. Players hate that EA “killed” Maxis by forcing them to produce endless iterations and expansions. Again, we have to look back at market demand. Just because you don’t personally purchase their games doesn’t mean that no one else does either. The Sims is a ridiculously successful franchise critically and commercially, and there is a huge market segment that would be extremely disappointed if content slowed down. What games are we missing from Maxis? They’re developing a brand new, built from scratch SimCity right now. They launched a new IP with Spore just a few years ago. They’re obviously not being strangled. It may be very satisfying to Maxis’ staff to produce new content for The Sims.
Oh but Pandemic! The closure of any studio is sad. People lose their jobs, creative works are often lost. But the Pandemic closure was part of a larger shedding of 1,500 employees at EA. It was a business decision based on the fact that the three games Pandemic released while a part of the EA umbrella weren’t good. Mercenaries 2, Lord of the Rings: Conquest and The Saboteur all struggled to varying degrees critically and commercially. Mercenaries 2 did the best in sales, but it was a huge disappointment to fans. EA would actually be the worst company in America if they did continue to pump money into the studio after it showed repeatedly that it wasn’t profitable. Did Pandemic produce decent games before being brought in by EA? Sure. Might they have produced more? Maybe. But it isn’t like they weren’t given a chance to prove themselves.
Most of the things EA is guilty of other publishers have done or are doing. THQ closed Kaos Studios in 2011 even though Homefront sold millions of units and was mostly critically successful, which is worse in my mind than the Pandemic closure. Warner Bros. locked out single-player content in Batman: Arkham City behind an online pass, which not only punishes players who buy the game used, but also new consumers who don’t have Internet access. Many, many games allow you to use real currency to purchase in-game perks. Oh, and how could I leave out Origin. Flashback seven years to when Valve announced Steam was a requirement for Half-Life 2. Flashforward to when EA made Origin a requirement for Battlefield 3. Same arguments, but people are in love with Steam now.
As one of the biggest and most prominent players, EA is merely a lightning rod in an era of change in the industry. Because of their size and profile, they do all of the things that annoy you, where other publishers have only manage a few of them. Truth is, nothing is going to change. EA knows that you will adapt because the entire industry is doing exactly the same thing and consumers are buying into it. EA is part of an industry that is moving in a fairly uniform manner in this direction and they’re taking the brunt of the ire.
EA isn’t buying out the FCC to get their way, like Comcast did during the NBC Universal buyout. That’s a threat to our democracy, but apparently to gamers, charging for online access is worse. EA doesn’t charge you ridiculous service fees just because they control a certain market, like Ticketmaster does. Ticketmaster has a monopoly on most ticket sales in the US and EA has a monopoly on football, but at least EA doesn’t charge you an additional fee just so you can have the privilege of shelling out more money to buy the latest iteration of Madden. Gamers, let’s drop the hyperbole, grow up a little bit, and embrace perspective.