June 14, 2012
Why do people hate EA? When I say 'people,' I mean 'some people,' some of the time -- a minority. And when I say 'hate' I mean mostly the writing of mean things on the internet.
This brand, this company, this group of people, creates some of the best and biggest games in the world with an average Metacritic rating that’s high and rising. It is profitable, but not outrageously so, and is under-valued by the stock market. So how has it managed to create enough ill-will to be voted the worst company in America? And even if it wasnt, even if we put that down to a temporary 'Mass Effect ending' negative blip that everyone has already forgotten about, there’s no doubt that ‘EA Hate’ is a thing.
I wanted to talk about this with Peter Moore, EA’s COO and he was big enough to tackle the uncomfortable question head on. It’s obvious that the whole issue bugs the hell out of him, and other people who work at EA and who care about EA as an entity. “It's painful when you read that commentary. The vitriol is hard on the teams. They read this stuff, their neighbors ask them about it. You probably saw the video, EA in a Nutshell. It portrays us as a money-grubbing monolith, gouging. And you just want to say... really...we are The Man? Unfortunately, I've always learned that the tallest trees catch the most wind.”
Of course, there’s no doubt that EA does silly things and makes dumb mistakes, as do all large companies. The point of this question isn’t really to exonerate EA for every foolish or greedy thing it’s ever done, but to investigate the depth of emotion that the company attracts -- to try to understand why.
EA is a Corporation
Let’s be clear. EA is a corporation and its primary concern is making money.
We are supposed to accept the fiction that corporations are people, so let me suggest an alternative, equally ludicrous fiction. Corporations are actually dogs. They exist to eat and grow and reproduce and occasionally they make people feel good. But if you leave the pantry door open, they’ll make away with the sausages. They just can’t help themselves.
The best you can hope is that the corporation is managed by people who don’t let them poop on the pavement, or bite small children.
As companies go, EA is not as cuddly and nice as, say Valve. But then, Valve isn’t publicly traded. Valve isn’t owned by banks. EA isn’t exactly Dogtanian or Lady or Lassie. But nor is it Kujo. And the world is full of Kujos. You are probably touching something right now that was conceived, manufactured, funded, or distributed by Kujo.
So the question is valid. Why EA? Probably because EA makes games and people care about games in ways that they don’t about gasoline or shopping bags or laptop accessories. Games are products, but they are also special.
Moore says, “There is this underlying belief in a lot of gamers that games shouldn't be profitable enterprises. I try and sit down with people as much as I can and explain what it takes to make a video game and how much capital investment it takes. We employ over 9,000 people. We invest over a billion dollars a year in R&D, most of which doesn't see revenue until the following year, or in some instances, the year after that. And so you've constantly got to be making money to reinvest money to make great games.”
EA and Your Money
Judging by the forums and articles on this subject, EA’s most grievous error seems to be in its attempts to get more money out of its customers. Its tinkering with DLC models has enraged many people who believe the firm is gouging the most loyal fans of the great games it makes.
It is undoubtedly true that tricks like Day One DLC and extra downloadable content is an area where EA and other games companies are toying with our emotions, our loyalties, and our wallets.
If EA was the only company in gaming trying to figure this stuff out, in a way that suits its shareholders and its customers, and sometimes getting it badly wrong, then there would be an easy explanation for the hate. But it’s not. Every company is trying to figure it out, because if they don’t they’ll go broke. And most of them, at some level, are getting it wrong. They are feeling their way through the dark and they are afraid. Sure, the people making these decisions want to get it wrong in a way that doesn’t get them fired, in a way that sucks in money as opposed to blowing money out.
The $60 game is dying. The mid-range game is no longer profitable. EA has to focus its energies elsewhere in order to meet those quarterly targets. Otherwise its share price will be in an even crappier place than it currently is, and it’ll get eaten up by Kujo. You think the system is flawed? Me too. But I’m not about to move to Cuba.
Moore says, “We have to try things, because we are facing the spectre of the stuff that we've enjoyed selling at a decent gross revenue line, that in the future we'll have to go and give away for free. It's no different from you and I having to go to work and not get paid, but then at the end of the day, we've found a way to make a hundred bucks through five dollars here and ten dollars there. That is the future of what we as a company have to figure out. Otherwise we're gone.”
EA and its Beloved Games
I am not one of those free-market fundamentalists who shrugs and says ‘if you don’t like it, don’t buy it’. In my view, brands have a hard-wired moral responsibility towards their fans to behave in a way that is respectful.
But it is useful that your dollar has power. Brands that fail to align with our expectations, sooner or later, lose customers. I used to buy products from certain manufacturers of computers, clothing, cars. Now I don’t. At some point, they annoyed me off by gouging, employing small children, or attempting to destroy the planet. It’s probable that the brands I currently use will one day tick me off sufficiently that I choose something different.
Unfortunately EA is slightly different, and this is the second reason for the hate. EA is the only company where you can buy Madden. Mass Effect, Battlefield, Need For Speed. Those games all have competitors, but you are invested in these particular games because they have stories and characters and modes that you care about. So the ‘don’t buy it’ mantra makes way less sense. This is a phenomenon that works equally well with, say, George Lucas. If you want a different sort of Star Wars movie, you’re kind of powerless.
Your recourse to things you don’t like is, of course, to withhold your money and to go online and make your feelings known, sometimes articulately and sometimes less so. But we’re not talking here about ‘criticism’. We’re talking about hate, that mindset where whatever EA does, however harmless its motives, it’s going to get flak.
When EA attempts, absolutely necessarily, to get into the digital distribution business, it becomes the focus of ire because it makes use of its best brands to create an exclusive advantage in a sector where it is a long way behind the established market-leader. Good business? Maybe. Good PR? Probably not. EA has done some very smart things with Origin. And its done some very stupid things, like banning accounts for no good reason or failing to invest sufficiently in customer support.
If it has an ounce of wit, it’ll listen to the criticism and Moore says that EA is genuinely interested in what customers have to say, even in the most heated forums. “There are enough gems of well-written responses out there that it makes it worth picking through all the other drivel that you read. Read ten and then the eleventh guy comes in and says, ‘wait a second, let's think this through’...”
EA and its History
And then there’s the past. Famously, EA was founded with noble ideals, to “make software worthy of the minds that use it” and to create “a language of dreams”. No-one is going to seriously accuse EA of being on a moral or intellectual mission, but there still seems to be people who believe that’s exactly what companies should be doing, and they may be right.
Back in the real world of grubby commerce, EA has a history of less-than-ideal behavior. EA Spouse, for example, showed the company tolerating a culture where work-life balances were out of kilter. This was in the middle part of the last decade and, thankfully, it was addressed.
My guess is that EA is probably no worse a place to work than anywhere else, probably better. If the focus of your hate is working conditions at EA, I want to gently suggest you also consider clothing factories in southeast Asia or diamond mines in southern Africa, or fast food outlets in the mid-west.
Then there were all those awesome developers that EA bought, back in the day, and neutered and destroyed through overbearing centralized management or neglect. All those things happened. Talk to, say, Bioware today, and it becomes evident that they were not merely horrible mistakes, but also expensive lessons. EA learns, because it must. Mistakes are made and new dictates come down. We change. Or else.
EA and the Future
I know that I place myself in the firing line by daring to suggest that EA is flawed, imperfect, sometimes idiotic, but not hateful. I know it’s uncool to side with a corporation and say ‘well, they have good reason to behave in this way’. And I also know that EA’s phalanx of PRs will not thank me for bringing this whole subject up again.
But EA makes many of the biggest and best games that we play. And it employs some of the smartest people in gaming. So although EA deserves to be analyzed and scrutinized and criticized, it’s weird and it’s unjust that -- so often -- we see this company portrayed as something that’s purely malevolent.
Peter Moore says, “In gaming the highway of innovation is littered with roadkill, developers and publishers that just couldn't figure it out, couldn't find ways to bring money in so they could pay their employees and pay their rent and keep the electricity on and everything else you need to do. That's why we try different things. We don't gouge. We don’t sit around a boardroom and say, ‘okay, how can we can squeeze five dollars out of this guy because he won't realize what we're doing’. It's none of that. None of that. It's a very small minority [haters]. I think the average gamer enjoys what we do and gets what needs to happen for a business to exist and evolve and grow.”
Source: IGN (why doesn't this surprise me )
ps. here the video mentioned in the article
Edited by DrJoske, 17 June 2012 - 02:20 AM.