Electronic Arts: Not the devil you want
I’m just going to go ahead and leave this right here: if you’ve spent a good chunk of your time online screaming about how EA is the worst company in the world, you are why companies think gamers are idiots. Yes, you.
EA, as a whole, is a company you basically can’t have a normal conversation about. It’s one of the biggest publishers in gaming – there’s a reason the company gets its own stage time at E3 when that’s eaten up mostly by the companies producing actual consoles. And the company has a huge stable of studios it owns, game it publishes, and things it sells. Oh, how it will sell things. It was one of the first companies to open up microtransactions in-game, and the company’s history is a long one of doing things that make money, first and foremost.
None of that should be surprising. It’s a company, it’s devoted to making money. But when you talk to gamers online, there’s this image that EA is the literal actual villain of the game industry. Which at best makes gamers look like a batch of petulant, entitled twits, and at worst makes us look like we don’t collectively know what we’re talking about. Usually both at the same time, really.
First of all, let’s establish something as a baseline: EA is a publisher. That means their goal is getting games that sell for as much money as possible. Every other publisher has the exact same goal, and will do just as many underhanded things if it fulfills that central goal. As a company, it provides distribution and promotion for titles as well as funding studios working on development. That is how it works. We give you three million dollars to make a game, you make enough money with that game to convince us that it was money well spent.
Here’s the thing – that’s what EA does. Nothing more, nothing less.
Dr. Greg Zeschuck had a fascinating interview when he left BioWare discussing what it was like at the studio before and after it was acquired by EA. One point he stresses – multiple times – is that EA, essentially, writes checks and then lets the studio do its thing. He describes it as the company giving you enough rope to hang yourself, with the repeated insistence that the studio never lost creative control or was asked to do something they collectively didn’t want to do.
Zeschuck at the time of the interview planned on never making another video game, period. He had no particular reason to lie. He had, in fact, ample opportunity to state any dissatisfaction he had with EA as a publisher and owner of the studio he helped to found, but neither he nor co-founder Dr. Ray Muzyka did so. That’s telling, don’t you think? With absolutely nothing to lose or gain from painting a pretty picture, both of them quite happily stated that EA, functionally, signed the checks and then let the company do its own thing, with the stated and non-malicious message of “this game needs to turn a profit to justify these checks.”
Heck, he even explains that BioWare did change when they were bought – they became more ambitious. They were more free to try new things. They didn’t have to play safe, because they had more budget and less fear that one bad game would wipe out the studio.
The Internet decides to take a different narrative, one in which EA is singularly responsible for everything that goes wrong with studios that they own. It’s something said by a lot of studios… after they’ve released weak games that have been widely panned and possibly after the death of the studio. Never by the people riding high, only by the ones on the bottom. It’s almost like the publisher provides a convenient scapegoat for the people involved to keep trading on the goodwill generated by older titles without being accountable for anything you personally didn’t like.
Again – none of this makes EA a charity of a company devoted to being super-nice people all the time. This is a company. It tries to make money. It wants games that sell well and finds ways to make as much money off of them as possible. But that’s what every publisher does. If you say that EA is evil for that reason, you have also accept that Valve, Ubisoft, Bethesda, Nintendo, Sega, Sony, and Microsoft are all equally evil. You don’t get to pick and choose who’s evil for wanting money.
Not to mention the simple fact that as it turns out, EA is very good at making money. Despite claims that the publisher is the prime evil of the game industry, the company makes money on a routine basis. This is where we get into the “you are why we look like idiots” territory. Despite railing about how this company is pure evil, they’re still selling games. If you’re ranting and raving about how EA is evil as you’re getting out your wallet, the lesson is that EA has no reason to listen to you in the first place, because you’re still buying the game, aren’t you?
“Oh, well, I’ll just pirate it!” No. That makes you evil. It means that you’ve decided that you want something and you don’t care what you have to do to get it. It means you are, functionally, a spoiled child who wants to have the security of moral high ground without the actual sacrifice involved in it.
Others have pointed out that publishers serve a pretty valuable role in the process of making video games, something that people are starting to find out firsthand with a series of failed Kickstarters. It’s not just about the money, it’s about looking at a studio, looking at a budget, and deciding whether or not a project will work and deliver the right sort of product that people will buy. Brian Green makes a compelling argument that Broken Age was a victim of success without a publisher – instead of delivering the game that was advertised, the studio tried to scale the game up to account for new funding, resulting in producing strictly less game than backers wanted. He goes on to state that publishing still has a part in the overall methodology, and the lack of one hurt Double Fine’s overall ability to deliver.
As gamers, we have a romantic ideal of studios as the source of all creativity and publishers as ogres. That doesn’t match up with reality. I’ve gone on the record in the past saying that you need people in your organization obsessed with money rather than with Art For Art’s Sake, because having someone there to force you to get things done? That’s important.
EA does that. Hell, mostly it just lets the studios do what they’re going to do and expects them to justify the cost. That feature that got removed? Probably not at EA’s behest. The microtransactions? Same deal. Studio produced a bad game? They did that on their own, not from corporate meddling.
In fact, the one real feather that the “EA is evil!” crowd has in its cap is the infamous EA Spouse account… which was really about the industry as a whole, rather than just one publisher. And yes, it’s pretty atrocious, but it’s also been stated multiple times that EA is a spectacular place for LGBT people. Hell, the publisher is one of the few that makes an overall effort to actually include LGBT characters and support, period. It’s not always flawless, but EA hasn’t gone the Ubisoft route of claiming it’s just too complex to animate a lady. BioWare and Maxis make a genuine effort to be inclusive, something that’s unusual in the industry and very, very welcome.
At the end of the day, it’s a lot more seductive to think that the weak games were the result of executive meddling, but the fact is that EA buys up studios because, well, those studios know what they’re doing. It’s in EA’s best interests not to meddle more than necessary. Not that it’s comforting to say that a studio you love produced a bad game, but it’s a lot closer to the truth.
Realistically? Their worst crime is pushing some releases a little earlier than they should, and even that comes down to the studio using a big chunk of budget that needs to start seeing returns. Again, it’s enough rope to hang yourself. Cut features are more often a result of taking on too much at once and having to scale back, not a result of someone cackling madly in a boardroom with the thought that you’ll have to pay more later. (That’s another myth of development which can die any time now, but it’s a topic for another day that others have handled nicely.)
What we’re talking about here is a publisher, plain and simple. No more or less evil than any other. And when you spend a whole bunch of your time blaming it for every ill in the industry? You make the rest of us look like idiots.
I don’t think EA is a villain, but I don’t think they’re necessarily great for the games industry either. They know how to make money, and they do put out some top quality titles, but they aren’t really doing much to push the industry ahead either.
And even if they really didn’t have anything to do with Bioware beyond writing checks, Bioware’s post-EA titles were still not of the caliber of their pre-EA games. They were technically great, of course, (and saying they weren’t of the same caliber doesn’t mean they haven’t been very good games), but they lacked the depth and story of their earlier games. I’m not sure what they mean by selling to EA let them take more chances, though. It felt like they got more conservative in their presentation than less.
Anyway, great article. Hope you didn’t get any hate mail over it.