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November 20, 2017

What Should We Do About EA?

Well, I was going to do another post on Sonic the Hedgehog, but it feels like that’s slightly inappropriate right now.  I appreciate the irony of the situation, though; who would have guessed that the company with exclusive rights to the Star Wars franchise (for now) would willingly and eagerly become the villainous empire the canon’s heroes have clashed with for decades? 

I mean, besides everyone.  Because this is EA we’re talking about.  But at least now, it seems like every gamer on the planet is giving Electronic Arts -- an increasingly ill-fitting name -- dirty looks and glares fierce enough to pierce through a steel wall.

So.  Let’s talk about EA.  And not Sonic, unfortunately.

If anybody -- anybody -- wants to try unpacking that, be my guest.

All right.  If you’re reading this post, then you probably know the score by now.  EA’s been trying to push Star Wars Battlefront 2 for a while now, but it’s doing so with some unwanted guests in tow -- microtransactions, lootboxes, and pretty much every trick in the book to try and score some extra cash from willing players.  This, of course, is on top of the base $60 price tag (probably more for special and/or deluxe editions).  And while the folks in charge of the game and company have tried to reassure gamers that they’ll be respected -- that they can play their way even without busting out the credit card -- the math up to this point has implied that, no, you’re not gonna be able to play your way unless you torpedo dozens of hours at a time.  Or, alternatively, you spend as much as two grand to unlock everything.  Via gambling, no less.

Saying that EA has taken heat is like saying the sun is a little warm.  Whenever I go to Reddit, the homepage barely finishes loading before I’m bombarded with EA news or anti-EA jokes.  I don’t know how many memes have taken root at this point, but I’ll bet it’s not a small amount.  And now the pressure’s coming from all angles, whether it’s from game journalists across the board, stocks that have seen a slight (though far from conclusive) drop, and even Disney execs who are about ready to remind EA that you don’t mess with the House of Mouse.

It’s beginning to look a lot like Judgment Day.  Okay, sure, there’s still a strong chance that this controversy will blow over and we’ll go back to the usual routine, with everyone taking shots at EA while begrudgingly accepting and shrugging off its practices.  On the other hand, maybe this time -- this time, finally -- things will be different.  EA has weathered many storms before, but by going all in with one of history’s most beloved franchises, they may have crossed a line.  Granted it doesn’t help that they’ve already earned plenty of ire in a one- or two-month span by brazenly declaring plans to move away from single-player content, and shuttering Visceral to prove it (which also served as a reminder of that time EA ruined Dead Space), buuuuuuuuuuuuuut Battlefront 2 is the current hate vortex, so there you go.  One thing at a time.

If we try to trace the company’s logic here -- if we try to understand why it’s pushed for what it has with this new game -- then there’s one primary conclusion we can draw: EA wants more money.  Why?  I mean, sure, having more money is better than having less money, but their actions so far reek of desperation rather than simple greed.  I’m not saying that greed isn’t a factor here, but the point is that this company acts like it needs to willingly distort the game’s flow and economy in order to make it to the next sunrise.  Has game development in the AAA space become so horribly managed and overwrought that the big companies like Activision, Ubisoft, Square-Enix, Capcom, and the like have to do this?  Isn’t it enough to just make a good game and leave it at that?

I guess not.  Shame on me for even thinking it.

The only saving grace for Battlefront 2 -- the only thing that could even begin to pardon its money-grab tactics -- was the actual quality of the game.  Overwatch has lootboxes and microtransactions, too, but I can accept them (however reluctantly) because there’s still a solid, stylish game to shove those unsavory bits into a corner.  Meanwhile, Battlefront 2 -- at least if Jim Sterling’s account of it is to be believed -- is a bug-riddled mess of a thing whose multiplayer suite is going to be utterly corrupted by willing buyers buying in-game advantages.  The campaign seems disposable, as well, which is probably to be expected when you hound a company to add single-player content they can’t or don’t want to do.  (See: Marvel vs. Capcom: Infinite.)  I guess it looks pretty, but that’s the one thing AAA games can be counted on to provide, and even then they’ve been getting diminishing returns since 2012.

Fortunately for them, it seems like it’s doing okay-ish in terms of the Metacritic score.  Still, this situation is forcing me to ask a question with an unclear, variable answer.  So I’ll go ahead and ask upfront: guys, why would you think that EA could make a good game?  It’s EA.  They don’t.

That’s an exaggeration, I admit.  But think about it.  This is one of the biggest companies in the industry -- a company with enough clout to earn a spot on the main stage at E3 for some reason -- and what have they pushed the hardest over the years?  Minor iterations of sports games?  Disposable multiplayer shooters chasing after Call of DutyReboots and revivals of games that completely miss the point?  Guys, why is this 2017 game the last straw?  EA hasn’t just run out of straws; it’s run out of the finger bones of sick orphans it’s been using as straws.

But to be clear, I’m saying this because it comes from a personal place.  I’ve been trying to think of the last EA game I legitimately enjoyed, but couldn’t -- only to realize that it’s been literal years since the last time I played an EA game.  The last one I played was Battlefield 4, but only so I could try and get a grasp on what makes shooters tick.  I tapped out at the 30-minute mark.  Beyond that, the last EA game I played extensively was Dragon Age: Inquisition, and gave up on it because it was an aggressively boring morass of sidequests and delusions of grandeur.  And you know what?  Setting those two aside, I’m legitimately shocked that so many EA games have flown past me.

I actually went to Wikipedia so I could find a list of EA games, because I was sure I was missing some.  There’s no way that a company’s output over the last half-decade -- or at least since I started this blog -- could turn me off so easily, right?  Well, as it turns out, I found one game that A I’ve played since I started blogging, and B) I actually thought was pretty all right.  It’s Plants vs. Zombies: Garden Warfare 2.  Granted I only played it because of my brother’s impulse buy, and I only touched it one time (as did he), but it seemed fine.  Everything else?  Wholly uninteresting at best, and downright repulsive at worst.

Though to be fair, they did put out Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst and Titanfall 2.  Those are good, right?  I wouldn’t know.  But I hope they’re good.

Here, just have a look at EA’s catalog since roughly 2012.  So many sports games (Madden chief among them, naturally).  So many Need for Speed games.  So many “let’s chase after those Cod bucks” shooters -- Battlefield, and Battlefield, and Battlefield again.  I neither want to talk nor think about their mobile output, because given Dungeon Keeper I’m sure the answer is depressing.  And to be sure, these games have an audience with somebody.  Just because I’m not interested doesn’t mean that no one else in the world is allowed to be.  But with that said?  Christ.  With the exception of Unravel and the two I mentioned in the paragraph above, this is the most anodyne lineup in history.  You could knock out a stampeding elephant just by showing it that list.

And I’m just sitting here wondering: how did this happen?  How did EA become one of the most influential companies in the industry?  I remember the GameCube days, when it seemed like the most “artistic” thing they could do was put out licensed games of varying quality -- 007, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter well among them.  (“Thirty Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans!”)  I know they had a hand in other games, for sure -- if the song is to be believed, they killed Ultima -- but still.  I would’ve thought that you could become a success by consistently and willingly putting out top-notch work.  Innovation.  Execution.  Vision.  Apparently, it’s as easy as plugging every orifice with cold gruel.

I guess what I’m getting at here is that, outside of a few outliers, EA’s output for years now has been limp-wristed (to put it mildly) and downright corrosive (to put it honestly).  Even if that’s from my perspective, I get the feeling that others would argue just as quickly that they’re not doing much to push the medium forward unless it involves finding ways to hurt customers and companies alike.  And on that note: I wonder why we even tolerate EA’s presence, let alone give the nexus of avarice chance to walk on stage and try to sell you the next minor iteration of a franchise.

Even if the list is long and ever-growing, we can’t forget the list of companies EA has shuttered on its path to fleeting fortune.  (The loss of Maxis still makes me wince.)  And for what?  For the next disposable shooter?  For the next installment in a stale franchise?  For money that won’t go toward the development of games that could stand to use it?  I mean, Mass Effect Andromeda came out this year and took a beating for its then-current state; rather than fix it (or take steps to prevent those problems in the first place), EA has moved on to push its seeming Destiny clone, Anthem.  So in the worst case scenario, one of the most beloved new IPs of the past decade is in dire straits because of…well, to be fair, a multitude of factors.  But it’s cathartic to blame EA, so I’ll do exactly that.

It still doesn’t fix the situation, though.  Even if this controversy has taken a hit -- to the point where it’s getting mainstream news attention -- EA might still pull through this unscathed.  It has before, albeit by using its victims as bullet shields.  If that happens, what next?  What are we supposed to do about EA?  What should we do?  What can we do?  AAA companies wouldn’t be pushing these microtransactions if they didn’t work, so now guys like EA are trying to warp their games around microtransactions so we can buy more.  EA won’t stop as long as it can pull two grand from an easy mark, unless a bigger organization cracks down hard.  So on one hand, it seems like anything the average gamer tries is a lesson in futility. 

On the other hand?  That’s no reason not to try.

EA’s facing pushback because those with access to the game -- to the information at hand -- decided to speak out.  Because of that spread of information, others were able to get riled up and lash out.  The anger and resentment that’s bubbled below the surface has busted out; now, maybe conclusively, EA is playing the defensive harder than it ever thought they would have to.  And I’m okay with that.  We should all be.  We have to be critical about the media we consume, and that extends to the creators of our precious content.  If we’re not holding EA to the proper standards -- and they should be HIGH standards, because they’re swinging the big bucks like a battle axe -- then we’re in danger of letting one company that’s gotten too big for its britches dictate what a game should be.

I ain’t havin’ that.  None of us are.

I don’t know what’s in store for EA.  I don’t know what’s in store for us.  But at the very least?  I think that something has to change, and soon.  We’re at a pivotal point, where it seems like the fate of the (gaming) world is at stake.  If that’s really true, then we can’t let EA or anyone who dares get away with it.  We have to show them that their money-grubbing ways won’t work.  And while that may not be enough to wipe EA out of sight, I hope that a concentrated effort -- or if not that, then at least an awareness -- by gamers will set every last one of the bigwigs straight.

That’s a tall order, I know.  But if EA really does want to become the Empire -- if it hasn’t already -- then it should’ve known better than to mess with us rebels.

And that’ll do it for now.  As thanks for reading, please enjoy this additional Sonic clip.

Now, I’m not saying that thanks to a botched birthday gift I own the first four episodes of this show on DVD, buuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuut…

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