March 3, 2008 4:00 PM | Simon Carless
Electronic Arts is the world's biggest publisher, and sure, to many industry observers and even regular developers, they're handily categorized as 'The Man' - the billions-grossing, franchise-owning 'suits' of the game business.
But following John Riccitiello's return to the company as CEO, it's all got a lot more complicated than that. Sure, Electronic Arts is still the game publisher that grosses over $3 billion a year in revenues, and has 7,900 employees. And it's swallowing the competition swiftly, with the BioWare/Pandemic deal and its attempts to grab Take-Two.
But what has Riccitiello's return augured for EA? And how is the behemoth adapting to the rapid rise of the Web, social gaming, and the plethora of other factors that make the game industry an extremely interesting place to be right now? Can EA be an innovator even despite its mass? And what just isn't working
So, with apologies for slight hyperbole, here's five reasons why Electronic Arts 'rocks', and five reasons why it 'sucks' (with understanding that, in aggregate, the company does neither) in 2008:
Why EA Rocks
1. The Silo-ization Of What Makes EA Great
The re-organization of Electronic Arts away from a centralized structure in June 2007 was an extremely smart move. It separated out the company into EA Games (the 'core' AAA titles), EA Casual (to capitalize on the 'mainstreaming' of games), The Sims (looking to extend their signature casual franchise - more on this later), and EA Sports (a vital mainstay for the company).
These divisions, which are based around vertical slices rather than geographies, have inspired focus in the firm, and I think they've put EA ahead of the competition in terms of focus beyond the 'obvious' AAA game.
2. The Possibilities Of EA Blueprint
Of course, we don't quite know what this 'mysterious' Bay Area-based stealth EA division is yet. Variety's Ben Fritz tried to extract the facts, revealing that the Neil Young-headed division is "focused on developing, at low cost, original intellectual property that can spread across multiple media". It's overseeing the Spielberg games at EALA, as well as projects at Maxis.
But what it really represents is Electronic Arts' attempt to birth new IP across consoles, handhelds, the Web, and even non-game media simultaneously. Let's not forget Young's work on Majestic, a cross-media project that was definitely ahead of its time. So what EA Blueprint appears to be is Electronic Arts' skunkworks, and the fact that they have one is another reason to believe EA is trying to innovate.
3. EA's Small Team Innovation
As part of the Independent Games Summit this year, the 'Tale Of Two Kyles' lecture had, as one half, EA Tiburon's Kyle Gray discussing his experiences making a small-team DS title commissioned internally by EA Casual, after only a modicum of complex Powerpoint presentations to the 'suits'.
As part of the presentation, Gray showed the Nintendo DS platformer that resulted, with dual-screen gameplay featuring hilarious British stereotypes twinned with a clever puzzle game twist, and even a opera-singing boss. He quipped in questions: "It's this weird new face of EA... they're actually looking to do new things now." And, you know - I think they are.
4. EA Partners & Game Distribution
Part of the changing game paradigm is the understanding that some game creators are powerful enough to fund and creatively control their own games, but still need help getting them out to the public.
The EA Partners division of the company is probably the most high-profile entity in the game business that 'gets' this right now in terms of retail distribution - taking a smaller cut in exchange for accomplishing a simpler distribution task.
Thus, 2007's fruits were in the form of both Valve's Orange Box and Harmonix/MTV's Rock Band - both massive titles. Of course, digital distribution isn't quite such a hot spot for EA, but the power of retail for AAA games means EA Partners is a hidden gem in the company's output.
5. Rod Humble & The Sims
One of the least-discussed but most interesting announcements at GDC was Rod Humble's lecture announcing The Sims Carnival. Humble is important in art-game circles for his games such as The Marriage, and his role as the head of The Sims Studio is allowing some startlingly interesting concepts to make it into the expansion of that franchise.
In particular, as it's explained of TheSimsCarnival.com: "The site uses a wizard interface to allow people to configure pre-made components for integration into a game.... EA provides a tool called the AGC or Advanced Game Creator, which users can download and use to make more advanced games from scratch in a custom development environment." While, sure, the meat and potatoes of The Sims is still the iterative expansion packs and so on, things like this are taking the franchise in new and innovative directions.
Why EA Sucks
1. The Failure Of RenderWare
Next-generation tools and pipeline are one of the key things you can get right when building AAA games - and Electronic Arts, by and large, did not. We covered this in a remarkably honest Bing Gordon interview in early 2007, in which the EA CCO admitted: "Renderware didn't get the next-gen parts that we needed. We actually underestimated Epic early on... We had a couple of teams that were waiting on Renderware. We probably stuck with it too long."
As a result, it appears that some of EA's key next-gen titles had to practically restart development on the (also still in-progress) Unreal Engine 3 - titles such as EALA's Medal Of Honor Airborne, which semi-buried the franchise with mediocre reviews.
And EA is lacking engine technology of its own, reliant on Epic for some of its top titles - not unique, of course, but still unfortunate given the Criterion/RenderWare purchase. This has all definitely put a crimp in EA's next-gen style.
2. Electronic Arts, Licenses, & Misfires
As everyone knows, licensed games are not that easy to execute on. But some people are getting it right nowadays - from Ubisoft with King Kong through Vivendi's soon to be updated Chronicles Of Riddick games.
Yet EA, of recent, has struck out both in terms of critical reception - Superman Returns, for example, and in terms of sales - notable if you compare The Simpsons Game's reception and sales with that of the movie. Do license restrictions make good gameplay impossible? If it's going to pay out big bucks again, EA has to work this out.
3. Gaps In The Studio System
While some of Electronic Arts' massive campuses do indeed excel at iterating on franchises, some of the public posturing in recent years about how applying Will Wright's 'cell/pod structure' to teams at, say, Electronic Arts Los Angeles don't seem to have really resulted in markedly higher quality games.
In fact, weak points such as the non-Criterion parts of Electronic Arts' UK operation and the much-hyped EALA office - which hasn't really produced an outstanding game yet, despite the massive expenditure - have been letting EA down and giving doubt to their claim that large regional studios can work for innovation.
It'll be interesting to see how the 'silo-ization' affects the studio output over the next couple of years. We now have a situation where one regional studio can be producing games for three or four internal EA 'labels' - and that may lead to different 'flavors' of developer even within single real-world locations. Or added confusion.
4. The Painful Birth Of Spore
Let's face it, folks, Will Wright's Spore has been the 'next big thing' for too long, and its horribly distended development schedule has taken its toll. This title won several 'Best Of Show' awards in E3 2005, for pity's sake.
While it's not reaching Duke Nukem-levels of backlash, the more we understand about its beautifully Maxis-designed but pretty darn abstract concept, the more we understand that an originally PC-centric game has been stretched onto console and handheld to justify its profile and budget. The game could well be a masterpiece, but its public birth has stretched patiences and may yet embarrass EA.
5. The Silos Don't Quite Line Up
One last side-effect of the new (and generally promising) silo structure at Electronic Arts - there's a lot of possible crossover, sometimes in some messy ways. For example, there's EA Casual, and then The Sims Studio, and some might argue that The Sims is simply a casual-oriented franchise - albeit a gigantic one.
All this twisting and turning can lead to some odd choices - like the branding of The Sims On Stage, which just doesn't work at all for me - or even Pogo Island for DS being produced by EA Games, a colleague was claiming to me last week. The bottom line - while this organizational change is a vertical slice, and a step in the right directional, it's not an entirely neat one.