John Riccitiello and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Year

Today is Electronic Arts’ CEO John Riccitiello’s last day with the company.  His resignation from the company was announced a few weeks ago, probably due to the whole SimCity clusterfuck.  His resignation shouldn’t be surprising news.  If anything, that resignation should have been tendered last year.  EA’s reputation as a company is fairly infamous amongst the gamer community but people don’t have a sense of just how much stupid crap the company’s put out the past year and a half.  Let’s put that crap in perspective.  For the past year, Electronic Arts managed to do everything wrong with its major titles and the bungling of those games cost John Riccitiello his job.

Star Wars:  The Old Republic

While Star Wars:  The Old Republic was released in December 2011, most of its failings came to light throughout 2012.  It’s odd to begin the tale of EA’s downfall here, considering Old Republic was very profitable at the outset.  It was the fastest growing MMO ever, with nearly 2 million subscribers only three months after launch.  The game reviewed well and was critically acclaimed.  People who had concerns of a new MMO (even one with the Star Wars label) requiring a $15/month subscription fee in a depressed economy looked to be wrong.

The game’s listed for a reason, though.  By July 2012, a good portion of those subscribers were gone.  EA stated in a report that the game needed 500,000 subscribers to remain profitable.  Well, the subscriber base fell close enough to that number to prompt a switch to a free to play model.  When a game needs to switch business models not even a year after launch, it’s safe to say the game was a bust.  Old Republic went free to play in November 2012.

The Old Republic isn’t a bad game itself but it is an overrated one.  For a game that cost $200 million to make, it didn’t do anything to be worthy of such a cost.  The game broke no new ground in the MMO genre (aside perhaps from killing off the subscription business model for unestablished titles).  The gameplay is functional but not noteworthy.  Personally, the story itself isn’t terribly great.  Playing it during one of the free weekends back in early 2012, the game did nothing to justify its astronomical price tag.

The Old Republic will be remembered as the Chinese Democracy of video games:  something widely anticipated that took too long and cost too much to make so that the hype got the better of it.  When a game costs over $200 million to develop, it better rewrite the genre or be remembered positively for years to come.  Instead, we got an MMO that decided to play it safe, take no risks and was ultimately not worth the investment.  To put Old Republic’s follies in another manner, think of it this way:  How much time, effort and money would a single-player Knights of the Old Republic III have taken?

Kingdoms of Amalur:  Reckoning

The second notable sin EA committed during this period was with Kingdoms of Amalur:  Reckoning.  Amalur has a lot of parallels with Old Republic, with both games having a long development cycle and costing a ton of money to make.  Both were also released outside the past year’s timeframe but the issues that arose from them definitely came to light during the past year.  Amalur also had a lot of talent behind it:  Todd McFarlane (comic artist noted for the creation of Venom and Spawn), R.A. Salvatore (respected D&D fantasy author), Curt Schilling (renowned baseball player providing financial backing) and Ken Rolston (lead designer for the Elder Scrolls III:  Morrowind).

As with The Old Republic, Amalur was not a bad game.  However, it was not a memorable one either.  The game only sold 330,000 copies a month post-launch.  That’s a rather disappointing number when a game has so much talent behind it.  38 Studios, an EA subsidiary company that was responsible for the game’s development, shut down a few months later.  38 Studio then got sued by the state of Rhode Island for missing loan payments and is, in short, all kinds of legal trouble.

Now, EA isn’t really responsible for all the failings of 38 Studios.  It’s not really responsible for Amalur’s lackluster performance either.  That said, the phrase “guilty by association” is apt for this situation.  It’s just interesting that in the same time span the controversies surrounding Old Republic and Mass Effect 3, Amalur under-performs and 38 Studios goes bankrupt.  It doesn’t help a company’s reputation when a title they helped publish undersells and a studio affiliated with that game gets involved in loan payment disputes.

Mass Effect 3

What’s remarkable about Old Republic, Amalur and Mass Effect 3 is that they were all released within a few months of each other.  Mass Effect 3 might seem an odd choice to include among EA’s failings the past year.  The game sold well and was critically acclaimed.  If this sounds familiar, it’s because Old Republic had a similar beginning:  game sells well, there’s initial critical praise until people turn on the game for whatever reason.

It didn’t take people a few months to change their opinion on Mass Effect 3, though.  Instead, all someone needed to do was just finish the game (so, about 15-20 hours).  A comprehensive list of Mass Effect 3’s ending failures has already been done elsewhere and, in addition to being redundant, my take would require a seperate post in and of itself.  For brevity’s sake, let’s just say a three game series that a player invested 60 hours (approximately) should not have a color coded ending.

The fan outrage for Mass Effect 3’s ending was so severe that BioWare released free DLC to address most of the complaints.  Only one other game had to release DLC to accommodate for its shoddy ending:  Fallout 3 (which was also critically acclaimed so that says something about the games journalism/review industry).  This is not godo company to keep!  Sure, Mass Effect 3 sold well but think about how many people are going to anticipate Mass Effect 4 after getting burned by 3’s ending…  The controversy also shredded BioWare’s reputation as a developer, a positive reputation that had been built up since Baldur’s Gate in the late 90’s.

When a triple A franchise outrages fans and destroys the credibility of one of your company’s best assets, some heads need to roll.  John Riccitiello’s resignation should have been tendered around this time.  The Mass Effect 3 uncut DLC and The Old Republic announcing it was going free to play up to level 15, June/July/August would have been the best time.  Instead, Riccitiello hung around long enough to get even more egg on his face…

SimCity

The rest of 2012 had EA releasing some stinkers but nothing on par with the controversies associated with the titles above.  Personally, I didn’t like the changes made to Madden NFL 13 because they got rid of most of the features that made the previous year’s so great but Madden will continue to sell because NFL fans don’t really have an alternative.  Medal of Honor:  Warfighter was also released to a tepid response.  The game was critically panned and sold poorly enough that it could be safe to assume the franchise is dead.  Otherwise, EA’s release list for 2012 is sports sequels and Sims expansions.  No matter what anyone feels about those games, nothing compares to the controversy that has arisen with SimCity.

SimCity’s failings are many.  Did the series really need to be rebooted?  Was it really necessary to require to a single-player game to require an Internet connection all so you can play multiplayer because of digital rights management?  Requiring an online connection raised a slew of problems that no one seems to have learned from the Diablo 3 launch. Both Diablo 3 and SimCity are follow-ups in a widely acclaimed series yet their servers were not able to keep up with player demand and thus resulted in a slow, unplayable mess.  None of this prevented piracy and all it did was screw people who paid $60 out of experiencing a game.

SimCity and the issues surrounding it warranted someone losing their job but really, it should have been a sum of failures over the past year.  The Old Republic was one of the (if not, the most) expensive game ever developed…and its business model failed it a few months later.  The game itself was nothing to write home about and didn’t revolutionize the MMO landscape the way World of Warcraft did.  Kingdoms of Amalur’s under-performance and 38 Studio’s subsequent legal troubles weren’t good for EA’s image either.  Mass Effect 3’s ending controversy damaged developer BioWare’s good-will reputation beyond repair and any sales/money the game made resulted in one less buyer for Mass Effect 4.  The always-online DRM included with SimCity was completely unnecessary and made the game unplayable.  John Riccitiello’s firing probably won’t change anything at EA but at the very least, they’re acknowledging someone had to be held accountable for the fuck-ups of the past year.  Hopefully, his successor was taking notes…