Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Why EA Is Not The Worst Company In America

You may have read that, for the second year in a row, Electronic Arts was recently named the "Worst Company In America" by Consumerist. I am here to tell you why that is not the case.

First off, EA was up against companies like Bank of America, AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. So you're trying to tell me that EA are worse than two cellphone companies fleecing you for 4G, one media conglomerate fleecing you for cable TV and Internet, and a bank that's fleecing you for, well, pretty much just being alive? Sorry, I'm not buying that.

I'm not giving EA a pass here, either. They have serious issues right now and have made some major mistakes over the past few years, but I simply don't subscribe to the theory that that somehow makes them the "Worst Company In America".

Let's be honest, EA have been on a downward spiral for quite some time.

To start off with, and probably the one that's top of my personal list, was the mediocre ending to the Mass Effect trilogy. The three games, perhaps one of the strongest RPG franchises in recent history (the original Mass Effect hit the XBox 360 in 2007 and made the transition to PC in 2008), built a relationship with you over the first two games by giving you plenty of decisions to make and promising that those decisions would matter in the final resolution. Well that didn't happen, and the ending to Mass Effect 3 boiled down to an A, B, or C ending, that was later expanded by 33% to an A, B, C, or D ending following the (justified) outcry. Put simply, the games wrote a bunch of cheques that in the end BioWare could not cash.

Unfortunately, the writing had been on the wall with regards to Mass Effect 3 for a while. The lead writer of the first two games (and essentially most / all of the Mass Effect universe lore), Drew Karpshyn, was instead writing Star Wars: The Old Republic at the time, and so had next to no involvement in the conclusion. The average-at-best ending was a tremendous letdown, and turned what should have been one of BioWare's crowning achievements into the whimper heard around the world, as people figured out that the emperor was not wearing clothes so fine that your eye couldn't see them, but was simply butt naked.

And then we've got the more recent issues with SimCity's always-on DRM system in Origin, that most game companies seem to actually be moving away from except for Blizzard and EA. It was exactly the same problem that Blizzard had dealt with a year earlier (in that case with Diablo III), in that so many people were trying to connect to Origin to play their (legitimately-purchased) game, that a great number of people were just not able to authenticate and so could not play until EA added additional server capacity and disabled some game features to free up even further capacity. It was the height of arrogance for EA to decide that what people wanted was an experience similar to the previous SimCity games, but without any of that, you know, being able to play without being connected to the Internet, nonsense. For several days many people simply could not play the game, or when they could, found that their newly-created city did not save (and EA, in their infinite wisdom, created no local save option, only cloud saves through Origin). Since Origin is wholly owned by EA then they knew precisely how many pre-orders of the game they had sold and should been easily able to account for that with the requisite server capacity. Even if they had budgeted the correct amount of hardware, this wouldn't mean that this type of always-on DRM is not anti-consumer, because it clearly is; the SimCity issues (and Diablo III issues) just highlighted it for all to see.

Next up, we've got the nonsense over EA thinking it's ok to bring in microtransactions for a game you've already paid full price for. I'm of course talking about Dead Space 3, the latest game in the franchise, that EA seem to be doing their level best to run into the ground. "Hey, microtransactions seem to work really well for mobile games, so why don't we throw them into a $60 retail game and see what happens?" You can well imagine that this conversation took place at EA Towers a year or so ago. You know what the biggest difference between retail and mobile games is though? Mobile games are often completely free or sold at a minimal cost, which is exactly part of the reason that people have less of a problem dropping a few dollars here and there in the first place. EA are already having their cake and eating it too by charging $60 instead of the usual $50 for PC games (they and Activision led the charge on that), but now want to start nickel-and-diming you for better weapons? Of course you don't have to buy them - and I hope most people won't - but it represents a worrying development in EA's thinking that they believe they can directly migrate features from mobile gaming to traditional gaming. Bottom line - if I've already given you $60 for a game then I am not going to be giving you an extra few bucks for some weapons, either. This is blatant moneygrabbing of the highest order.

Finally, I come to The Old Republic. I'm not even talking about the game itself here (but beyond the single player story it wasn't much to write home about, which is a problem when you're talking about an MMO) but BioWare's implementation of the free-to-play model which TOR transitioned to in November 2012, almost a year after its retail release. Calling TOR's current model free-to-play is being somewhat generous though, as it has so many restrictions it's more like an endless demo rather than something like League of Legends, PlanetSide 2 or The Lord of the Rings Online, all free-to-play games which do not have contempt for their players as TOR seems to. Take a look at the comparison table on TOR's site and you will see just how bad their free-to-play system really is. Want bank access on a free account? You have to pay real money for it. Want to run some Operations (TOR's version of raids)? You have to pay real money for it. Want to do some PvP Warzones? You're capped at five per week unless you pay for more. Free accounts cannot equip most purple items (the highest quality) without paying for the privilege. Oh, and I hope you aren't attached to hotbars, because free users in TOR only get two of them and have to pay for more (although you should be grateful since they used to only get one). Locking off parts of the UI and charging money for them? I think that might actually be one of the more despicable things I have seen in any game, and I voluntarily bought Brink.

So yes, whilst technically TOR is "free-to-play", it's perhaps the worst implementation of a free-to-play system I have seen in any game to date. Ironically, perhaps TOR's best feature, the single-player story, is completely free with no restrictions whatsoever. That would be the only reason that I would ever recommend that anyone should try TOR out, because the story (at least for the Warrior, which I completed) is truly exceptional. Beyond that, forget TOR ever existed. I could not be more disgusted with BioWare's tentacles oozing out from TOR and making a direct run for your wallet. I guess the meeting for TOR's free-to-play conversion went a little something like, "Hey, let's consider everything that every successful free-to-play game has done with regards to monetisation and then toss that out of the window. Time for lunch!"

Ugh. The more I write the more I think that maybe EA deserves that award. But no, while I think they have done a lot of crappy things recently (and apparently their board agrees, since John Riccitiello was recently ousted as its CEO) and has lost its way significantly, I still don't think they're worse than the likes of AT&T and Bank of America. Let's be honest though, it isn't a complete wash for EA. They were still willing to take risks over something like Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, which they published under their EA Partners label (and the sad news is that EA are apparently ending that program). Whilst no one could say what happened with KOA was a success (with it ultimately leading to the implosion of 38 Studios), that was hardly EA's fault. By all accounts KOA was a solid initial title (that I recently picked up on sale for $8, so will be trying it out myself) that suffered from significant financial mismanagement behind the scenes. So anyway, at least EA's soul isn't completely beyond saving. As it stands though, even Angel would find himself hard-pressed to see where to start here.

I truly hope that EA turns it around.  The forthcoming appointment of their new CEO will do much to indicate in what direction they wish to go. Personally, I hope they move away from the flagrant pennypinching and "pay for everything" attitude that has been so pervasive in EA's culture these past few years, and that they actually make a return to treating their customers with respect and trying to earn your money, rather than believing that they have a god-given right to it.

The ball's in your court EA...

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