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In Defence of. . Electronic Arts!?

Electronic Arts, eh. Why does everyone hate them so much?

Ok, that’s a bit of an easy one to answer if I’m honest: Shutting popular studios,  unleashing Origin, the legacy of the Ea Spouse stuff, the revolving door of controversies surrounding their Downloadable Content Policies. . . I think it can safely be said that they’ve done enough over the years to upset absolutely everyone.

Perhaps a better question, then, is when did things get so bad?

Personally, I first encountered the prolific publisher on the day I purchased my original  Megadrive, around the Easter 1992. The bundle that we’d chosen included both Sega’s speedy blue mascot and – even better – the option to pick a secondary title as well. I’m not sure why I opted for James Pond 2: Robocod, but there was presumably something about Electronic Arts chunky premier-looking packaging that made the game look so much more appealing than the rabble of titles surrounding it.

EA’s history went back much further than our chance meeting in a local games shop, of course. Formed originally back in 1982, one of the notable aspects of early EA was the way they treated their games designers. The name “Electronic Arts” wasn’t a moniker chosen at random: Their name included “Arts” because founder Trip Hawkins viewed games designers as artists, and wanted games to be treated as a worthwhile medium.

 

 

Oh look, It’s the original Electronic Arts logo

 

 

Indeed, by the time James Pond 2 had been selected to become the second game in our Megadrive library, Electronic Arts had already established an impressive array of classic titles that spanned a surprisingly large collection of genres: from the internet-meme generating Skate or Die through to vital, genre-defining titles like The Bard’s Tale, Chuck Yeager’s Advanced Flight Trainer and Populous, this was a company not yet dedicated to quantity over quality.

Over the next few years, our Megadrive would be treated to a good number of bonafide classics from the folks at EA. Perhaps best known at the time for trailblazing combat-based motorcycle racer Road Rash and isometric blaster Desert Strike, EA also published a number of bolder and more conceptually challenging titles that we also enjoyed immensely. F22 Interceptor was a surprisingly ambitious polygon-based flight sim, for example,  and strategy title General Chaos offered a unique bland of madcap multiplayer mayhem that wasn’t really matched by anything else on the system.

Yes, while it might be true that during this period a lot of the titles EA published were ports from other systems,  this wasn’t actually a bad thing at all. When it came from titles lifted from the Amiga, games like Zool arguably worked better within the environment of a console than they did a computer. Meanwhile, a number of early DOS titles were completely rebuilt for their console debut. Space exploraion-based RPG Star Flight, for example, featured redrawn art, nicer sound effects, gravity modelling and a whole raft of impressive gameplay enhancements.

 

 

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The original is a cult classic, but there can be no denying that Megadrive Starflight is a huge improvement.

 

 

Now, I’m not going to pretend that every game Electronic Arts released in this period was a classic – Dark Castle is mostly likely the worst game released for the Megadrive – but i think it’s fair to say that EA in this period was an incredibly varied publisher with an interesting mix of amazing, awful, safe and daring titles in its roster.

The big question then, is what changed?  Well at a management level 1991 was a definite a turning point of sorts. Not only did the visionary Trip Hawkins step away from the day-to-day running of the business (in favour of more business-centric Larry Probst;) but 1991 was the year in which the sports side of the EA business released their first annual update to a license (John Madden Football ’92, don’t you know,)  spawning a new business model that was to be as lucrative as it was cynical.

The only problem with this is that 1991 is difficult to sustain as a meaningful turning point from the perspective of the games. From EA’s 16-bit publishing activities, we can see that 1994’s oddball title Haunting was an unusual game that would have had much of its development work completed after this 1991 water shed. Though its true that EA’s more successful titles did receive a number of sequels, these were generally far from poorly-made cash grabs, and often added a number of bold and impressive features to the original games (Such as the run and gun sections found in Urban Strike.) Indeed, even EA’s sports updates were received warmly at this time (for the first couple of generations at least.)

 

 

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Desert Strike probably wasn’t as controversial as it should have been. . .

 

 

In fact, as we move into the 32-bit era, EA’s  model seems to have been reasonably consistent. As the stars of the Strikes and Rashes faded in favour of new cash cows like Need For Speed and Medal of Honour (which, we should remember, had no guarantees of success at the time they were published,) EA continued to also publish its fair share of left-field titles, such as the odd-ball firstperson strategy game based on the Games Workshop’s Space Hulk board game.

Though the modern era has arguably  been a trickier one for the prolific publisher, we should also acknowledge that they’ve still published some quality work over the last decade. Though it’s easy to get bogged down with some of the cheap and nasty cash-in material they’ve produced (such as the PS2 Bond titles,) it’s worth remembering that they have nurtured some quality as well. Bioware have flourished under EA, for example, and it’s worth remembering again, that at the time of its original release, there was no indication that Battlefield would be the immense behemoth it is today.

 

 

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Space Hulk’s fancy pre-rendered close combat sections still look pretty good now (when they aren’t moving)

 

 

Indeed, in keeping with its heritage of publishing games like Space Hulk and General Chaos, it’s worth remembering that modern EA has  put out its own fair share of unusual titles this side of the millennium. Aliens vs Predator, for example, wasn’t the most  obvious license to construct a RTS game around. It was also impressive of EA (if somewhat misguided) to release a 360 game based on a the Divine Comedy, and commendable to persevere with DICE’s Mirror’s Edge even after the original had failed to really establish itself as a franchise.

To discover what’s so bad about EA, then, we need to look beyond the games they’ve put out. When we do this one obvious issue sticks out like a soar thumb: EA has a habit of buying and closing down game studios. This is definitely a fair enough charge (i mean just look at that list!) but it isn’t quite telling the whole story. At this point it is perhaps useful to look at another historical industry pariah: Activision.

Ideologically, the foundation of Activision was similar to that of EA. Just as Trip Hawkins wanted games design seen as an art form, the gang of four who founded Activision were Atari employees who broke away because they believed that games designers should be allowed, like musicians, to take credit for their work and receive appropriate royalties (it should be noted that in this period Atari’s games were unaccredited.)

 

 

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Road Rash didn’t pull its punches. (I’ll get my coat)

 

 

As with the early EA titles, Activision’s first efforts also easily stood out from the pack. In fact, Activision had so much confidence in the quality of their games that they were one of the first companies to always put a screen shot of the gameplay on the front of the box. With classics like Pitfall and River Raid to offer it’s easy to see why.

So what went wrong? As with many companies stateside, the US videogame market crash took its toll. With the Atari market rapidly being buried beneath a mountain of poor quality titles, the company decided to diversify into the PC market. This was supposed  to resulting in a happy marriage with the struggling adventure game maker Infocom, but actually resulted in Activision becoming the archetype of the bad publisher.

You see, the deal with Infocom was set up by Activision’s founding CEO Jim Levy, who had proposed the merger out of respect for Infocom’s work.  However just as the deal was being signed, the Activision board replaced Levy with a new CEO, Bruce Davis, who wasn’t in favour of the merger. Consequently, the post-Activision history of Infocom is a familiar story: bought for their ground-breaking text adventures, Davis’ Activision forced Infocom to produce more visual efforts. When these failed to meet expectations, Infocom was shuttered, with the remaining staff being shunted over to Activision HQ. To add insult to injury, Activision went on to release a CD ROM of the studio’s greatest works a couple of years after the closure.

 

 

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I’m stil not sure who was clamouring for a beat ’em up based on the divine comedy…

 

 

Consequently, EA’s strategy of buying and subsequently closing successful software houses wasn’t an entirely surprising one when EA started doing it in the 90’s, and it can’t be said that it’s anything out of the ordinary now (As this handy Kotaku list from 2012 demonstrates.) Indeed, Sony seem to be a relative golden child of the industry at the time of writing, but they’ve closed an impressively large list of studios in recent years – including big names like the latest iteration of Psygnosis and outposts of Guerilla. (The former made all the more galling by the use of  “classic” artwork on the boxed edition of the latest Wipeout title.)

None of this changes the fact that closing studios is bit of a rubbish thing to do, but it doesn’t set Ea apart from the wider industry either.

Of course, there is also the very serious issue of how EA treated its staff. To an extent this is cut and dried, considering the shitty conditions that were revealed by the EA spouse postings, EA deserved every last bit of the flak they came in for.

But, with that having been said, the games industry has never been one where employees are treated particularly well. All the way back in 1988, for example,  games journalist Mel Croucher (he of Deus Ex Machina fame) produced an expose on the conditions in the UK video games industry. Croucher’s article contained not only harrowing interviews with abused programmers but also a surprisingly reveal from the other side of the fence. Regarding his plans to launch his own studio, jaded veteran programmer Dave Wainwright told Croucher:

DW – . . . After I went to Martech I started abusing schoolchildren for
myself.

MC – I know you’ve not had any sleep for a few days, but you don’t want me
to put that into print do you?

DW – Why not, it’s the truth. I think I’ve ripped off every programmer in
Portsmouth, but I’ve changed now that my business has expanded. I’m
ripping them off all over the country! I’ve got five offices nationwide, thirty
programmers, and a tame lawyer. I learned early on that payments don’t
lead to good programs. Programmers have to learn from their own mistakes,
it’s the only way. To get anywhere in software you’ve got to get ripped off
before you learn anything.

MC – That really is an incredible attitude, why are you telling me this?

DW – Because it’s true. Look. I’m still being exploited today, by ******** it’s
the same with all the big companies. They don’t give a toss about
programmers, if we’ve got any food inside us, if our eyesight is short
because of permanently staring into monitors, about anything. I’ve been on four hours sleep for the past few days now and they couldn’t care less.

MC – OK. how do you get out of this situation?

DW – I’m going into publishing on my own. ‘Wicked Software’, something
like that. Others produce crappy little games and tens of thousands of kids
buy them.

MC – And you are not going to do that? You’ve learned from your
experience?

DW – You’ve got me wrong. Mel. That’s exactly what I’m going to do.

That’s not to say it’s a historical problem mind you: As late as December last year, Polygon published an article about the worrying industry practice of increasingly classifying its workers as contractors in order to avoid having to provide benefits. On top of that, when it comes to the controversial subject of extra unpaid ‘crunch time’ over time,  Nintendo planner Motoi Okamoto, revealed that even the big N had been at it: “it’s Mario Time” was Shigeru Myomoto’s code phrase for triggering design sessions that would often go on into the early hours of the morning.

 

 

It’s Good that Dice got another chance to produce a Mirror’s Edge title.

 

 

Again, this doesn’t excuse EA by any stretch of the imagination – lets not forget that if there was a company big enough to question prevailing industry practices, it would be them – but at the same time it seems a bit weird to hold them responsible for practices that are common across the tech sector as a whole. Around the same time as Polygon wrote their article about the classification of those working in the games industry, we should bare in mind that Uber were launching an appeal through the UK court system in order to try and prevent their drivers from being legible for employment benefits and a minimum wage. 

If we’re looking for why EA were voted the worst company in the US then, its difficult to pinpoint a precise reason why. Though EA have their faults, those faults are generally shared by the industry as a whole. Indeed, the whole affair has the same feel as the criticisms that were aimed at Apple over the conditions in their contractors’ factories, even though many of the critics would have been using devices that had been built by Apple’s competitors using those same contractors.

EA is an interesting company then. They’ve produced  some of the best games on the market, and also some of the worst. They’ve been representative of a major force for good in the industry, and more later acted  as a figure head of its’ worst excesses. I definitely don’t want anyone coming away from this article thinking they shouldn’t criticise EA for the bad things they’ve done, but when doing so we should consider their place within the industry as a whole. Especially when, at the time of writing, the folks over at IO interactive sadly seem to be the next ones on the (non-EA) chopping block.

 

 

 

Fatnick
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