EA: Probably the worst company in the USA?

Fellow gamers, we are living in interesting times. Despite sales of games heading up year on year, the traditional AAA/ publisher-developer model is looking increasingly creaky. Making a AAA game is an expensive, risky process and the feedback I’m seeing from the industry is that they’re often not getting the (vast) sales they need to justify the risk. So we end up with games that seem successful to consumers being judged unsuccessful by the publisher because 1m/ 2m/ 3m/ etc. sales just isn’t enough.

This all has very little to do with Electronic Arts being voted worst company in the USA for the second year running on a consumerist.com poll. The likelihood of them actually being the worst company in the USA is pretty low, but it’s clearly something people feel strongly about. Also there’s a sense in which a lot of people have made up their minds to hate EA and will just assign any bad decision made by any developer under the publisher’s umbrella to feed their hatred. For example, it’s really unlikely that EA had much say in the ME3 ending (that was a purely Bioware decision), but it’s all grist to the mill.

I have no interest in defending EA, no doubt they deserve a lot of the flak. Plus you have to assume that gamers will a) be online a lot and thus able to vote in online polls and b) interested in gaming any voting system.

But as a non-US person, the surprising thing to me is that US consumers don’t hate the same sorts of companies that I think would win the poll here: energy companies, banks, railways/ airlines, tax evaders, any other annoying company that is generally a hassle to deal with or sets unduly high prices. The businessinsider post I linked above notes the same thing:

Usually, utilities, cable companies, and airlines come at the bottom of customer satisfaction ratings because the interactions people remember are paying bills, delayed flights, or dealing with outages.

EA’s a company that is supposed to entertain people. The fact that it’s won this poll twice in a row shows how much it needs to alter its priorities.

I just don’t think UK consumers would vote a gaming company top of the hate list. Then again, looking at the reactions to Mrs Thatcher’s death, maybe some organisations or iconic figures have just become acceptable figures of hate. (NB. without getting into the politics of it, I think people who disliked Mrs Thatcher have more grounds than the EA haters.)

Peter Moore (EA COO) touches on this in his statement, and tries to address some of the criticisms, pointing out that for many of them there are many more players who are happy with the state of things than are complaining. (Although I think he should have left SimCity off the list: too soon, Peter, too soon.) This definitely won’t do anything to satisfy the people who hate his company, a bit more humbleness might have gone further. But I’m not sure anything would stop people from hating on EA except being given a different hate target.

Maybe next year.

Games, Guns, Politics and EA Earnings Call

“… there has been an  enormous amount of research done in the entertainment field about looking for linkages between entertainment content and actual violence, and they haven’t found any.  And I could give you long stories about how people in Denmark or the UK or Ireland or Canada consume as much or more violent games and violent media as they do  in the United States, and yet they have an infinitely smaller incidence of gun violence.”

- John Riccitello, EA Earnings Call, 31st Jan 2013

Like many non-Americans, I watch the current round of discussion in the aftermath of the (latest) tragic school shootings with mild bemusement. To me it reads as though the NRA blames computer games and basically anything and everything else they can think of except guns. And whilst the various industries and groups picked out rebutt the claims, they don’t seem able to respond in kind. Like:  It’s not the games, it’s the everything else including the guns. (I know how playground arguments go, that’s what you do.)

The part where the government then runs around consulting everyone and tries to think of some kind of quick fix doesn’t induce mild bemusement, that’s business as usual – except that the US government is more competent than our homegrown omnishambles.

Riccitello isn’t politically able to take a poke at the NRA  (too many US gamers and investors don’t want to hear that argument), but it is his job to defend his corner of the gaming industry, which is an uphill struggle when you can’t use one of your best arguments. As soon as he starts citing countries like Canada, the UK, Denmark, and Ireland (as per the above quote), it’s kind of implicit that:

  • Gamers are gamers. People are people.  So you can compare like with like in different countries.
  • One of the big differences between all of those places and the US is that they all have strict gun control, which may be relevant if we’re talking about gun crime.

In any case, EA are shuttering the Medal of Honor series for awhile, because the last game was a critical disaster that vastly underperformed in sales.   This is a purely business decision and nothing at all to do with the political climate. They’re enthusiastic about other shooters like Battlefield and again, they’re too reliant on selling shooters to criticise them or stop making them anyway.

So again, a bit of dancing on eggshells to put this across while backing the government’s call for research into video game violence and also asserting that there’s no connection between gaming and RL violence.

Gaming <—> Violence? Who knows?

We take tremendous joy in virtual violence. We squeal with glee when life-giving liquid squirts out of men’s necks. Does that cause violence? Probably not. I don’t have any concrete reason to believe so, anyway. But it gives violence an active, constant role in our day-to-day lives. We can’t just ignore that. We shouldn’t ignore that. It’d be outright irresponsible to do so.

– Nathan Grayson, Rock Paper Shotgun

Personally, I’m all for more research being done on links between gaming and violence. I doubt that gaming has much to do with violence, it’s as likely to be a substitute (i.e. people who might otherwise have gone out and got into fights may play games instead) as a normaliser. But I could be wrong, and it would be good to know more if we can.

And if it becomes less politically fashionable for devs to make ultra-realistic ultra-violent shmups then I won’t be complaining, since it increases the chance that more games will be made that I personally like. John Walker (also in RPS) argues that EA should not have canned Medal of Honor but instead use it to springboard a series of FPS games that challenges the players preconceptions and portrays the experience of soldiers with more choice (and therefore taking responsibility for the consequences of those choices) and less railroaded “kill X enemies” scenarios.

And I think “yes, that sounds interesting”, I’m playing through The Walking Dead at the moment and loving how it carefully explores its genre. I could imagine a war game that took a similar approach. But I don’t like FPS games, and that’s the problem in a nutshell. Your average FPS player may not be your average story-loving RPG fan. EA probably did the right thing to shoot MoH in the head.

In which EA does a good deed

It hasn’t been a good week for Zynga, what with their stock going through the floor, their veteran COO (chief operations officer) having been ‘restructured’ away from creative duties, and now they’ve been hit by a lawsuit from Electronic Arts around copyright infringement.

I predict EA will win this case, if it gets as far as court. The formal complaint document is very thorough, very readable, and pretty much sums up every accusation everyone has ever made about Zynga and copying games, as well as specific claims about how The Ville ripped off Sims Social, including poaching EA executives who had inside information about the game pre-launch.

There is one thing you need to know about patent suits. (This is also true of other lawsuits but sometimes people do it anyway to make a point.)

1. There is no point pursuing a defendent who doesn’t have much money with which to pay large fines.

Zynga is now a large public company. They have assets. That makes them worth suing. EA has genuine commercial interest in protecting The Sims, one of their tentpole IPs, and they’ve clearly decided to make some solid PR out of the whole affair.

Much as EA garners a lot of hate from gamers – they are after all an investment company whose main goals are to monetise their games into the ground – I always felt that Riccitello was speaking from the heart when he talked about promoting new IPs, even if he does close studios down swiftly when they underperform. They have also shown some desire to foster the independent gaming ecosphere, some of which fell wide of the mark, and others may have shown genuine appreciation for crowd sourcing and indie developers who can grow their own fanbase.

So yeah, I think this is a positive development and I wouldn’t be too quick to cry doom or foresee EA and Activision suing all and sundry for games with similar looks and feels if this is successful. Zynga will deserve what comes from this. Indie and social gaming devs will only benefit from the protection against having their ideas stolen by more unscrupulous dev houses.

Nimblebit (the devs who made Tiny Towers, which Zynga then notoriously ripped off) seem to agree.

Electronic Arts redefines ‘Indie’ for marketing purposes, or do they?

An indie development company is one which creates games without the support of a publisher. This could include one person teams working in their spare time, or small groups of developers. But the criterion for indie-ness is ‘not owned by a publisher.’

So it’s a bit odd to say the least that EA are releasing an ‘indie bundle’ on Steam. Given that they’re a publisher, and the defining criterion for indie games is that they produce their games independent of a publisher. However, it’s a good deal and the amount of press generated from journalists noting the irony in EA attaching its name to an ‘indie bundle’ may make this the PR coup of the year. (Because every article also notes, as I have, that it’s a pretty good deal if you like the games.)

But this isn’t an indie bundle in the sense of punters supporting tiny studios who let you pay what you want, have some donation to charity involved, no corporations involved, and so forth, which is the type of deal players have previously come to identify with an ‘indie bundle.’

Thing is, they are actually technically all indie games, or at least they do ride the line of the definition. EA distributes them, but didn’t fund the studios. The devs still own the IPs. EA is supporting independent studios (and vice versa) by getting involved, to some extent.

It’s just like the Indie music scene all over again …

So, was the EA anti-gay campaign for real or was it astroturf?

If you interact with any kind of social media about gaming then you probably saw the story last week about EA and the homophobic lobby, and the white knights of the internet rallying to defeat the hatred via … a petition!

The story goes like this:

  • EA claims to have been inundated by thousands of letters complaining about same sex/ LGBT content in its games, specifically Mass Effect 3 and SWTOR. Apparently the letters had been directed to lots of high level managers.
  • Various US based hate groups are suspected of having been involved. Gamesindustry.biz (see above link) picks out a couple as having ‘calls to action’ (presumably to send spam to EA).
  • EA (who never had any intention of doing anything about this) issued a press release saying that they never had any intention of making any changes as a result of this.
  • Then there was a huge internet campaign/ petition involving e-celebs such as Stephen Fry encouraging people to sign a petition in favour of the gay romances.

Maybe I’m just of a cynical nature, but bearing in mind that EA has in the past sponsored advertising campaigns who set up astroturf campaigns against one of their games for publicity, I wouldn’t bet against them having done it again.

For us non-US folk, we’d easily believe that nutty US semi-political groups will campaign against /anything/ because we see it in the news all the time.

Also, who told these wacky US campaigning groups that there were gay relationships in SWTOR? Because there aren’t. I get that they’re politically out there, but do they really not check what they’re campaigning about at all? All Bioware have done with SWTOR is said that there will be gay relationships in the future (due to player feedback/ demand). That hardly seems worth mentioning when they could have picked out Dragon Age which actually does feature LGBT characters and relationships.

Good publicity for EA, Bioware, and SWTOR though.

Gaming News: Red Shirt Guy immortalised in WoW, Kinect Launches, EA halves losses, Lego Universe, Genetic Algorithms beat SC2

EA held an investor call this week and although I have summarised the main points of note below, it is instructive as to how most mainstream news blogs deal with new stories. A single investor call from the CEO was chopped up and served as multiple different news stories, one point in each. But they’re mostly based on various points made in the same presentation.

It’s really very different from the way the regular news is shown (I think I’d kick the BBC if they tried to report news this way) where usually there’s one main news stories and then some associated commentary to fill up the extra slots.

Compare mmo-champion to WoW Insider to see an example of comprehensive news vs chopped up news. (Not wishing to diss WoW Insider who do provide some added value via commentary and analysis on their news items rather than just posting a stream of single paragraphs.)

This week’s prophet of doom for SWTOR is BigPoint boss, speaking at the London Games Conference, who said:

“If you look at Star Wars from EA and BioWare, they estimated a development budget of over $100m,” he explained.

“This is an online game for many million of subscribers, so the publisher does not understand that a subscription model is not the future. With micro-transactions maybe I see the game having a chance but I don’t think that EA or BioWare will ever be profitable with this game.”

(Feel free to send me links to any blog posts, forum posts or news items about anyone being dubious about SWTOR’s future. Maybe I can make this a regular weekly item.)

And speaking of Star Wars: The Old Republic you’d like to vote on the new name for the Jedi Wizard, place your mark here.

The Story of Red Shirt Guy

It’s a fairytale story of geek meets geek king, impresses king with knowledge of obscure law, and wins a kingdom. OK, not a fairytale story although you wouldn’t really know that from the way people are spinning it.

Red Shirt guy distinguished himself by showing up at the Q&A session at Blizzcon (in a red shirt, yes) and asking a lore question that caught out Chris Metzen, Blizzard’s lore supremo.

I haven’t followed the story to a great extent after that but there were some videos on youtube, and Blizzard fixed the lore problem and also included a red shirt dwarf guy NPC in Cataclysm as a nod to the guy. Blacksen and his guild also decided that they’d like to do something nice for him so invited him to come raid with them and pick up a very nice and very lore-inspired mount in ICC.

Oh, and he also has Aspergers.

Kinect launches

This week also saw the launch of the Xbox Kinect controller, which allows a user to control a game by gesturing and moving around, rather than by using a manual controller.

Destructoid review Kinect, with answers to all your questions about ‘how much room do you actually need.’ I have also seen a report that Kinect has some issues with face recognition on dark skinned users (but I’d be astounded if they hadn’t tested that thoroughly before going live, because the PR would be pretty awful if that’s true.) It does highlight one of the difficulties with testing face recognition and voice recognition software – you need to test against a very wide range of faces, accents etc. so as not to be accidentally racist.

Kotaku review a bunch of launch titles here.

In an interview with Gamasutra, a spokesman claims that Kinect is going to outsell the iPad, and Microsoft commented elsewhere that they are forecasting 5 million sales this year.

EA halves losses

EA announced this week that they had a strong quarter and halved their losses compared with Q2 last year. Of course, they had a lot fewer sales as well and this is likely due to their current strategy of releasing fewer but ‘stronger’ games.

Recently released Medal of Honor also apparently picked up 2 million sales in the first two weeks. There’s also a slightly mismatched message coming out of EA about that game. One of their VPs said that MoH didn’t meet their quality expectations. Riccitello on the other hand said that it was a clear success and likely to become another franchise.

2 million sales is hardly a failure in anyone’s book, but still the game will likely be blown away by Black Ops which is due for release next week.

In F2P FPS news, EA also announced that they plan a PC Battlefield game that will be free to play. It is to be gritty and realistic. It sounds as though there will be some progression elements (learn skills, buy equipment and weapons) as well as the usual battleground gameplay. If you think it sounds a bit MMOish, so do they.

This is more about you jumping in with 32 players, maybe playing against strangers, a bit more of an RPG experience, more of an MMO way of approaching things.

If you like the sound of that, you can sign up for the beta here.

Other EA related news this week is that they apparently now have an agreement with Facebook to use Facebook Credits for virtual transactions in their FB games for the next 5 years.

Lego Universe

There was a time a few months ago when people were actually excited about a Lego Universe MMO. Then Minecraft came out and players realised that it provided all the building block related gameplay anyone would want without the annoying MMO Conventions. Right?

In any case, Lego Universe MMO went live a couple of weeks ago and the reviews are trickling in, it doesn’t sound as though it’s quite there yet.

I do very much suspect that Minecraft has sucked in many of the adult players who were intrigued by the idea of a building block world.

Genetic Algorithms applied to Starcraft 2

This is a story to warm the cockles of any computer scientist’s heart.  It came from slashdot, which linked to Louis Brandy, a compsci blogger who explains how someone else was able to use a genetic algorithm to calculate optimal SC2 build orders for the zerg.

If you’d rather read this in English, RPS have a summary here.

It’s pretty cool that the game strategy in SC2 is deep enough that this type of approach throws up some interesting new ideas. I don’t in any way think that knowing some great build orders makes the game faceroll, that’s crazy. Chess Grand Masters still beat chess computers too … for now at least.

Stories of the Week

I thought it might be fun to experiment for a month or so by summarising some main gaming related stories of the week on Sundays, with some links and comments.

Warhammer Online takes your lunch money

Another nail in the coffin of the subscription based MMO was placed this week, as Mythic Entertainment made one of the worst possible customer relations faux-pas and billed many of their playerbase several times by mistake. i.e. to the tune of several hundred dollars (plus any bank related expenses if the account went overdrawn). Charges are being reversed, but it’s likely that the PR damage has already been done. wasdstomp gives his personal experience of being charged 16 times.

Now, if you engage in a lot of online commerce, then it’s quite likely that you’ve had to deal with mistaken payments on at least one occasion. This happens more frequently than anyone likes to admit. Arkenor relates a billing error from STO, for example, although this isn’t anywhere near the same scale as Mythic’s screwup.

But still, there’s an element of trust in passing credit/ debit card details around online and although the system is only as secure as users can make it (and it is a good idea to check through your monthly statements regularly, just to keep an eye on these things), this kind of breach of trust is the sort of thing which persuades players not to bother with MMOs at all.

Having said that, old timers are used to all sorts of wacky game-related screwups and as long as the company turn it around, fix the problem and reimburses everyone speedily, many of the playerbase will give them a second chance. Especially if EA (Mythic’s parent company) could sweeten the deal with … say  … beta spots for a certain upcoming MMO which really could use some good word of mouth.

It always makes me sad to report bad news about WAR. There were so many things to like about that game, it feels like kicking a puppy.

Anyhow, if you were affected, Chris at Game By Night has some advice on practical advice on how to sort out your refund and complaint, from a banking insider.

Apparently WoW has an expansion coming out

No dates yet for Cataclysm but various press outlets report that they’ve had emails about registering for the press beta.

And in case you somehow missed it, Blizzard have been coming out with some class previews for Cataclysm, including wide ranging changes and new abilities. None of this is yet set in stone, but is a useful pointer to where they are heading.

One of the early reviews was for priests, who will get an ability to pull a raid/group member to their location (Leap of Faith). This received a lot of kneejerk reaction, including a stern shake of the head from Tobold, and epic QQ from Tamarind.

Personally I think it sounds like fun and I hope that this does make it into the game in some form. But the fact that I could think of at least three ways to grief people with it before figuring out even one legitimate use doesn’t bode well.  I think something a little more subtle (maybe a spell to wipe threat from a friendly player) would have been more priestlike, but then that has different issues in PvP.

What I like about the idea is that it shows that Blizzard understand that standing passively at the back is one reason that healing isn’t as fun as it could be. So giving priests more power to affect a fight directly, rather than at one step removed, is one of the ways they are exploring to make heals more fun.

Other high(?)lights of the preview:

  • Bye bye tree form (Will try to comment more on this next week since I do also play a resto druid – basically I’m really happy with the proposed changes.)
  • Bye Bye blood dps and unholy/ frost tanking builds. (I guess the great DK flexibility experiment either failed or was too much effort. DK tanks are my prediction for more overpowered tank next expansion.)
  • Mages get the bloodlust/ heroism analogue. (I wonder if they should have just removed that buff from the game or toned it the hell down, it makes way too much difference in 5 man instances and I’m still not sure whether 10 mans are balanced around it – Blizzard claims not but is that really possible?)

And there were also announcements about the rage normalisation changes and hunters using focus instead of mana, neither of which was unexpected although they’ll both be sweeping change.

Over the next few weeks, a lot of current players will be analysing these previews and trying to decide which class to play in Cataclysm. The classes with the sexier updates will attract more people. I didn’t really see anything which made me wonder ‘why the hell are they doing THAT?’ Well, except maybe leap of faith …

One thing is for sure, that’s a hell of a lot of balancing for Blizzard to try to get right.

And if you were wondering about the paladin update, that isn’t due out until next Friday (16th). For the class which has most epitomised Blizzard’s Wrath ethos,  will it be more buffs, the nerfbat, or a complete redesign? Paladins have certainly rocketed in popularity over the course of the expansion, and they were never an unpopular class. But has Blizzard decided to call time?  Personally I’ll call it a win if they can make it impossible for low level tankadins to forget Righteous Fury (their tanking buff).


It’s that ‘Gouge the UK’ time of the year again

Apparently games in the UK are due to get a price hike this Christmas. I can’t see this going down well, £50 is a huge amount to pay for a game where an equivalent would have been £40 last year. And to add insult to injury, although they’re happy to put prices up when the pound is weak, we didn’t see them rushing to lower prices back when the pound was strong.

Either way, we lose.

As a PC gamer, none of this affects me overly (yet). MMOs seem like comparatively better value than ever, and there are plenty of good indie/ downloadable games to keep a player occupied while waiting for the prices of the new releases to come down after the first couple of months. (I blame RPS for turning me on to Bookworm Adventures which is my latest timewaster of choice. It’s like a scrabble RPG!)

I’ll be curious to see how these price rises affect sales. Or in technical terms, what’s the price elasticity of games for hardcore gamers in the UK these days? We’ve been hit as hard by the recession as anyone.

Interestingly, EA responded to Activision’s price rises (which will no doubt include Diablo III and Starcraft II, if anyone hadn’t twigged yet) with a thunderous,

“There has been no change in our trade pricing policy and there will be no change in RRP.

It will be interesting to look at the sales charts next January and see who made the smartest call.