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The evil doings of a mEgA corporation…

I like to look fondly into the future through my patented crystal ball from time to time, but lately, the ball has gotten dim. At first, I simply attributed it to the glut of good games that came out this holiday season and the fact that I’ve been plugging away diligently at said games, which is probably having terrible effects on my eye sight. But then, the news came forth, and I realized why the crystal ball was troubled: EA had purchased exclusive rights to make NFL football. For all you non-Americans, this is major news over here. Forget baseball, more people in America watch American Football than any sport that matters.

Football games also sell better than any other sports games for that matter. Over the last few years, there’ve really only been two good games on the market: The Madden NFL series from EA and the 2K series from Sega. The two games accounted for most of the sales of NFL games, while competitors attempted to break in with little success. This year however marked the first year that Sega actually dented EA’s armor, when they released their NFL game a month earlier and thirty dollars cheaper. The game, published by our buddies over at Global Star software in collaboration with Sega, caused quite a stir. Apparently, a much greater stir than anyone could have imagined.

The 2K games were, quite honestly, the only serious football game I could play. It’s much less strict than Madden has always been, but at the same time it’s still pure football through and through. I’ve played them since the Dreamcast, and what the Visual Concepts development team has done with that game over the course of five years is incredible. Granted, they never reinvented the wheel, but they came pretty damn close. Now though, they’ll never get a chance to do that, because the only football game in town is now made by EA.

EA will certainly offer up more than just Madden. NFL Street 2 hits stores in just a matter of days, promising enhanced arcade football. Still though, is this really fair? The purchasing of the NFL license is obviously EA’s silent admission that they can’t compete with Sega Sports, so now they’re just simply going to run them out of business. Sega made a dent in their armor, which is a great thing because EA’s lack of Dreamcast support helped kill off Sega, so I’m all for Sega doing whatever they want to hurt EA. Yes, maybe I am biased, but that’s not the point. This is a dangerous thing that’s happening, even for gamers who don’t care about the NFL.

In related news, EA is now currently trying to be the sole owned of the NBA license as well. The good thing is, the NBA rejected their bid, because other companies create great NBA games and the NBA would end up losing money if EA was the only owner. EA also already exclusively owns the rights to the PGA Tour, FIFA soccer, and NASCAR.

What EA is trying to do is bad for all of us. Earlier this year, EA purchased up Criterion, the makers of Burnout and, more importantly, the owners of the Renderware graphics engine. Now, that might not seem important, but go play any of the Grand Theft Auto games on the PS2. Every one of them is made with that engine. Dozens of other games are made with it to, and you probably have a few of them in your collection and don’t even realize it. That very helpful tool allows designers to have cutting edge graphics without the cost of developing a brand new engine. According to the company themselves, over 500 current generation titles use the technology. Do you really honestly think that EA is going to let everyone have that engine for nice and cheap, or do you think they’re going to get a high royalty price out of anyone who wants to use it? If you went for the latter, kudos, you’re catching on fast.

Now, onto Ubisoft, a company that pulled itself out of almost failure to become one of the premier game developers in the world, and at the same time, showing the world that great games aren’t just made in Japan. According to IGN, EA now owns 19.9% of the company through the purchase of stocks. “We have no control over what Ubisoft’s management chooses to do with the company,” said EA spokesman Jeff Brown. You can rest assured however that as soon as the profits start rolling in, EA will be sure to increase their investment in the company. Hey, you remember that NBA license I mentioned earlier, and those other developers who make games for it? Did you know that Ubisoft is publishing a basketball game? In a NY Times statement, Ubisoft considered the purchase to be hostile, and that the acquisition of their stock by EA was unwanted and unnecessary.

If EA is running around, limiting what the competition can do and creating higher prices to be able to do what they still can, they’re going to hurt gaming. Sure, other companies have exclusive rights to certain things (Atari owns the Dungeon’s and Dragons license), but EA is taking this to an extreme. We’re moving out of platform wars now: the battle is now between the third parties. A mega company like EA is going around and swallowing up competition rather than compete with them. My crystal ball tells me that unless another dominant third party can step up and challenge EA, there will be no end to what they purchase and acquire. “We believe that the decisions of the NFL to grant an exclusive licence for video games do a tremendous disservice to the consumers and sports fans… by limiting their choices, curbing creativity and almost certainly leading to higher game prices,” believes one representative from Take-Two Interactive.

Even worse: if EA owns a lot of different development companies, and an increasing majority of games coming out are EA branded, what are they going to do to the console manufacturers? If a company has that much leverage, what are they going to use it for? Microsoft sold Xbox systems at a loss when they originally came out, because they knew the software would sell and they’d make up their profits through royalties. What, exactly, will stop EA from saying “we’re not going to pay that much to make games for your system”? If EA owns the licenses to all these different games (the NFL, FIFA, NASCAR), and owns the sole rights to dozens of franchises (Splinter Cell, Ghost Recon, Burnout), all the manufacturers, even the mighty Sony, will be held ransom to whatever EA wants.

This is a situation that is going to resonate through all levels of gaming. Unless another third party developer emerges to battle against EA, there’s going to be a very different gaming future. Think of gaming like this: there’s a door in front of you, and a game unlocks the door. On the other side of the door is fun, happiness, and joy, and on your side of the door, there’s fifty dollars in your hand. Right now, there are a lot of different keys from a lot of different people. Some keys cost less than others, but all the keys will work. You buy the least expensive key, and after opening the door, you have fun and happiness, but now you want to open the next door. You notice that now though, all the keys cost more than you have, and all of the keys are made by one person. That one person has no need to sell you a lower priced key because you’ll eventually have to get through that door and you’ll buy it eventually.

That’s what my crystal ball says.

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in February 2003.

Gentle persuasion

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