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I Hate Myself For Loving You – EA

by on April 15, 2013
 

first-world-problems

Let’s have an adult talk really quick.

For those of us at the legal drinking age, drinking’s kinda nice, right? You know that good feeling you get after a few drinks? That little buzz you feel where the tequila’s gone down, the cranberry and the vodka are swishing together, and suddenly everything is groovy and right with the world? It’s a fun feeling, right? We hand our keys to the designated driver, and just enjoy that peaceful, mellow buzz with friends and other revelers.

But with alcohol comes a need for handling it responsibly. Going from “a little buzz” to “plastered,” as the older and wiser among us know, is not fun, and more often than not causes us to spend long hours hovering over a toilet bowl, clearing our digestive system of everything we’ve ever ate in our lifetime after a long night of inappropriate comments and highly-questionable decisions. And if you’re one of the responsible ones at the party, you know that means someone’s going to have to sacrifice the rest of their night to make sure Drunky McPukeshoes doesn’t get arrested or set the house on fire or get eaten by zombies or something.

Gamers, we’re going to have to be the responsible ones around here. Having EA at our big Video Game Party was fun for a while, but they’re quickly spinning out of control, and any moment now things are going to get real. Like, Very Special Episode of Blossom real.

Ironically, the same face I made when I heard it was going to be a "Very Special Episode" of Blossom.

Ironically, the same face I made when I heard it was going to be a “Very Special Episode” of Blossom.

 

Remember when Electronic Arts first came to the party? We can all remember some of EA’s earlier hits. Remember Wing Commander? Holy crap! So realistic (for ’90s graphics). We were all into that, and the Sid Meier games, and the early horror first person shooters like Alone in the Dark 2, and so many great games. Granted, they had a few bombs like Shaq Fu, but hey, everyone makes mistakes, so we gave them a pass.

Then, in the new millennium, EA really hit their stride – they began taking over whole series and IPs. Holy crap, did they ever. The Harry Potter series? All the official games done by EA. Command & Conquer? That was EA as well. Then they really scored with Medal of Honor and The Sims. By the end of the 2000s, gamers were convinced that they could do no wrong.

And those successes don’t even include the powerhouse that was EA Sports in the 2000s. You name the sport, EA Sports had a game for it and it was good. Great even. Basketball, football, baseball, hockey, soccer, boxing… EA Sports had a series for you, and it involved real leagues, real athletes, real brands and real people paying loads of real money for them.

And everyone associated with EA seemed so happy. And why not? They were making games that gamers loved and bought in droves. Employees (some) were making scads of money.

That’s when, much like the college freshman at their first frat party, EA drank too much of the Happy Juice. You see, those employees that were making scads of money, they wanted more. Lots more. And those people making scads of money were now also making scads of decisions. Not only were they going to take that money, they were going to do it in a way that made gamers thank them for the pillaging after the fact.

It started with expansion packs. Now, expansion packs were around already, so EA obviously didn’t create them, and they were primarily found on PC games, so console players weren’t too worried, but what made EA’s position unique is that they had a mega-powerhouse in their possession of The Sims, which had a fan base that liked having that unique cyber-thing and setting themselves apart from the other SimCommoners. Because why just have the stuff from The Sims, when you can have it from The Sims: Livin’ Large as well? Then, just a year later in 2001, there was Hot Date and House Party. You wanted to have a kick-ass house party, right? Then there was Unleashed and VacationMakin’ Magic and Superstar… then there was The Sims 2, a sequel to the original Sims.

Sims_2_covers

SimCrap costs RealBucks. I wonder if the Ikea Stuff pack had Swedish Meatballs with questionable ingredients as well… mmmm….

 

A sequel where none of your SimCrap worked, and you had to buy it all over again in Sims 2‘s EIGHT expansion packs and NINE stuff packs. Then in 2009, you had to buy everything again The Sims 3, but now were there not only NINE expansion packs (as of this publishing) but there was also – oh goodie – a Sims 3 Store, which has exclusive items you can’t get in ANY of the expansion packs.

This was right around the time when EA started discovering the micro-transaction. Not everyone was willing to plunk down $20-$40 for an expansion pack full of crap. They were fine with the game and what it had to offer. But, would they, perhaps, pay $4 for a cool town statue? Yes, yes they would. Would they pay, say, $10 for a new city to explore? Sure they would.

And unlike expansion packs, micro-transactions could be use much more widely, especially in their sports games. Sure, your team’s uniforms in NHL 13 look lifelike and authentic… but wouldn’t you want to have their throwback jerseys too? Sure, the other cars in Need for Speed: Most Wanted are pretty cool, but don’t you want to ride around in James Bond’s original Astin Martin DB5? EA even went so far as to re-sell us things via micro-transaction – the great Manny Pacquiao was featured as a middleweight, but if you really want to re-create his career, don’t you want to get the downloadable content of him as a featherweight and a lightweight too?

In retrospect, Manny's probably glad Juan Manuel Marquez wasn't in the downloadable content.

In retrospect, Manny’s probably glad Juan Manuel Marquez wasn’t in the downloadable content.

 

“Downloadable content,” or DLC, is a term that PC gamers would quickly grow a love/hate relationship with; console gamers, however, remained relatively unscathed from this frenemy. Then, in 2005, Microsoft rebooted their XBox LIVE service and Sony launched the PlayStation Network in 2006. Just recently, Nintendo launched the Nintendo Network and Miiverse, and have also entered into the online console fracas. Now EA can focus their micro-transaction efforts not just on PC gamers, but gamers on every platform. For every gun, every sword, every health kit, every boxing glove, and every single piece of clothing a character could ever wear, there was a newer, different, and possibly better version for sale at the low, low price of when-the-hell-did-we-start-paying-for-this-crap.

But that was just the problem… we paid for it. We wanted that town statue, that new map, those throwback jerseys. We wanted to drive James Bond’s car. We wanted three Manny Pacquiaos. And for a few extra bucks, we were down for it. And EA took notice, as did other studios, and before we knew it, we were being bled dry not all at once, but via the ol’ nickel-and-dime game.

EAMakesMarioAndZelda

And while many companies stuck their hands in the proverbial cookie jar, EA became notorious for it. If it was an EA game, you could almost rest assured there would be DLC, and you would be paying for it. If you turned it down, at the best you wouldn’t be one of the cool kids. At the worst… you could find yourself at a disadvantage or even unable to attain a 100% run.

So picture it: you’re in a lower-class or lower-middle class family, economically. You save and save your allowance, work your butt off, just to save up the $60 + tax to buy Mass Effect 3. It takes you a while, but finally, you own a copy of the end of one of the most popular series in gaming today. Between then and now, you would be faced with the prospect of fourteen downloadable packs, all reinforced through in-game advertising. EA claims to be a progressive-minded company, but in actuality, they’re reinforcing class division.

The damage is done, however, and at this point, downloadable content is never going away. But the damage is not only to our wallets. EA has recently been synonymous with “rush job.” Critics have pointed to recent releases Dragon Age 2 and Mass Effect 3 as feeling rushed and inferior to prior games in the series. Conspiracy theorists argue that they were racing to put a product out without care to quality, assuming that people would buy the DLC that should have been included in the actual game.

That doesn’t fly with gamers these days though. Before, gamers would talk amongst themselves and express disappointment; now, thanks to the ol’ InterT00Bz, they can congregate and take forceful actions, especially when so much gameplay investment and dollars spent amounts to this in a series like Mass Effect that touts itself as a mythos that hinges on a player’s decisions:

 

 

And that’s when the bourgeoisie finally snapped. Gamers angry as the pathetic ending to Mass Effect 3 picked up their proverbial pitchforks and took to the net, where they found there were many more like them, feeling jilted and angry after their investment of time and money. One story tells of a group who raised $1,000 to make and ship 402 cupcakes to BioWare’s office. (BioWare is a division of EA.) The cupcakes came in three flavors, corresponding to the three endings of Mass Effect 3: “red” cupcakes (vanilla), “green” cupcakes (vanilla), and “blue” cupcakes (vanilla). Others took their battles to the legal system, getting both the Better Business Bureau and the Federal Trade Commission involved. BioWare/EA originally responded by deleting negative comments and refusing to honor requests for comments or interviews from gaming journalists. Eventually, they buckled to player pressure, announcing in April 2012 they would be releasing an “Extended Cut,” but not replacing the ending.

Refusal, denial, and haughty (and occasionally flat-out demeaning) responses have been EA’s modus operandus as of late. Their debacle with the reboot of SimCity drew ire not only for their pre- and post-release planning, but their handling of player criticisms.

Having been a lifelong fan of SimCity (the SNES port was one of my first Super Nintendo games I owned), I sat in the demo room at E3 2012 watching one of my favorite games in high-definition, bigger and better than I could ever imagine. But before it’s release in early 2013, EA made the decision to require an “always-on” connection, even to play the game solo. Some of us scrunched up our noses, smelling the BS behind their claims for an always optimum, fully interactive experience, knowing full well it was a cheap stab at digital rights management. But hey, it was EA. Maybe they biffed it with Star Wars: The Old Republic and Mass Effect 3. But surely they wouldn’t lead us wrong with our beloved SimCity, right? I mean, really, how do you mess that up.

Well, here’s one way:

 

SimCity Error

 

Reports started flooding news sites of people waiting hours, days, even up to a full week just to play the game in solo mode. That’s right… no multi-player, no downloading… just for their very own game. So this time, not only did they pay $60 + tax for a game, they couldn’t even play it at all.

The most egregious thing of all was EA’s response of the massive server overload. They could have apologized, outlined in detail what they were doing to attack the problem, any number of things. Instead, they looked players square in the eye, plastered on their most brilliant beauty-pageant smile, and told them this was all their fault.

“This has been an exciting and challenging week for the team here at Maxis,” senior producer Kip Katsarelis said in a March 2013 statement. “We have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and enthusiasm from our fans which has made it even more upsetting for us that technical issues have become more prominent in the last 24 hours.”

“Overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and enthusiasm from our fans.” Sounds great, but in essence it was just a passive-aggressive, backhanded way of shifting the blame. With the media and online viral blitz EA outlaid for the reboot of the franchise, you expected people not to buy it? Treat gamers like adults, EA. You were underprepared for whatever reason.

Again, gamers took to the World Wide Web and demanded answers. EA rebuffed everyone at every turn, assuring people things were under control. Interviews were nigh impossible as EA went up behind a Berlin-esque Wall of denial and damage control. There were even rumors that those who demanded refunds may face repercussions once SimCity finally began to function. Finally, in a statement, Lucy Bradshaw, General Manager of the Maxis label of which SimCity is under, replied in EA’s characteristically smarmy manner:

Almost all of our players play with connected cities. But some chose to play alone – running the cities themselves. But whether they play solo or multi-player, they are drawn to the connected city experience. And Always-Connected provides a platform for future social features that will play out over regions and servers.

 

The game we launched is only the beginning for us – it’s not final and it never will be. In many ways, we built an MMO.

 

So, could we have built a subset offline mode? Yes. But we rejected that idea because it didn’t fit with our vision. We did not focus on the “single city in isolation” that we have delivered in past SimCities. We recognize that there are fans – people who love the original SimCity – who want that. But we’re also hearing from thousands of people who are playing across regions, trading, communicating and loving the Always-Connected functionality. The SimCity we delivered captures the magic of its heritage but catches up with ever-improving technology.

TL; DR? Most people didn’t sit though EA’s corporatespeak, but it sums up to, “Yeah, we could have avoided most of this and put in a solo offline mode. But the fans don’t matter to us, because we’re doing things our way and FAWK YOU THAT’S WHY.

WhoseSimCityIsItAnyway

With heinous failures in Mass Effect 3, SimCity, and their nickel-and-diming antics with DLC, EA overtook notoriously bad companies such as Spirit Airlines, Ticketmaster, Carnival Cruise Lines, and even topped Bank of America for The Consumerist‘s Golden Poo Award for 2013, given to the Worst Company in America.

Even more disturbing is the fact that EA won this same award in 2012.

eagoldenpoowcia2013

The Consumerist acknowledges that, much like the anti-Oscar award The Razzies, most people quietly ignore the Golden Poo or try to brush it under the rug. Oh, but not EA. EA went on the attack. In a circulated statement, Senior Director of Corporate Communications John Reesburg snarkily said:

We’re sure that British Petroleum, AIG, Philip Morris, and Halliburton are all relieved they weren’t nominated this year. We’re going to continue making award-winning games and services played by more than 300 million people worldwide.

News flash: All four of those companies have been nominated in years past. None of them were in this year’s bracket. And three of those four – AIG, British Petroleum, and Halliburton – have won the Golden Poo.

None of them have won it twice in a row. In fact, in The Consumerist‘s history, no company has won it twice, back-to-back or otherwise.

As a Gaymer, despite all of EA’s troubles, I always stood by their progressive motives, including their stance on legalizing same-sex marriages. Which is why when I read this statement from Chief Operating Officer Peter Moore, one of the biggest big-wigs at EA, I, along with many other gaymers, felt borderline-violated:

“In the past year, we have received thousands of emails and postcards protesting against EA for allowing players to create LGBT characters in our games. This week, we’re seeing posts on conservative web sites urging people to protest our LGBT policy by voting EA the Worst Company in America.”

Not even Peach's lesbian cousin Daisy buys that. (You know she is!)

Not even Peach’s lesbian cousin Daisy buys that. (You know she is!)

 

I doubt Mr. Moore takes time to read gaming news, considering how much credence he puts into the opinion of the gamer. However, if he happens to read this, I have a question for him: How dare you throw me and my fellow gay, bisexual, lesbian, and transgender gamers and our allies under the bus, and use them as a scapegoat for your companies problems? Do you think we, along with the gaming and gayming society, are simply pawns? Unless you want to win a third time in a row, you had better seriously examine the true issues plaguing a once-thriving EA – give us full, complete games that don’t require expansion packs. We’ll buy them, but don’t force it upon us. Don’t rush your crap onto the market; we’ll wait for quality. Pre-orders never die. And start manning and womaning up and admit your faults. Take some responsibility.

But gamers, if EA is to blame, then we must accept fault as enablers. I am an enabler too. There are still good people working for EA whose main goals are simply to put out great games for gamers to enjoy. And great games, more often than not, make profit. Maybe not Madden size profit, but profit nonetheless. And we gamers know that, and we gamers appreciate the need to watch “the bottom line,” but we gamers will also happily buy good, quality games, and we’ll do so in droves.

Why have I spent so much time focusing on this, you may ask? If you’ve gotten this far it’s for one reason: games are important to you. Probably your secondary reason is because you believe on fair practices in the consumer market. And if there’s a third reason, maybe you’re just looking for more smack on the SimDebacle. For whatever reason, gaming is part of your life. It’s a part of mine. And it’s a part of nearly half of the American population – according to the ESA, 49% of American households own a dedicated gaming device, with most owning on average two. The average age of gamers is now 30. We’re not kids anymore. We’re adults. We’re your neighbor, your co-worker, your friend. We grew up with Mario, Link, Samus Aran, and Mega Man, and never once did we have to pay to download Luigi, extra Heart Containers, the Spin Jump, or any Rush attachments.

It’s too bad EA doesn’t see its core base the same way, according to EA’s Chief Creative Officer (another very big big-wig) Richard Hilleman:

“We have to make sure that game companies know what a mass market really is. We’re not one yet,” Hilleman said. “The closest thing we’ve had to a mass market, frankly, has been the social and mobile spaces.

 

“From my perspective, television is the mass market and we’re the fringe,” he added. “The challenge in front of us is does the customer think about it that way? Do they see us as so distinct we can’t merge those two experiences?”

Gamers, it is imperative that you do your homework. Research the games, and refuse to give money to any company that doesn’t actively fight for your needs. Only by attacking their bank accounts can we tell EA, and other companies in gaming (and any field, for that matter) that we are not characters in their games, but people with hard-earned dollars in a tough economy.

The happy little buzz that EA once brought to the Video Game Party is now bordering on poisoning, and if we let it go unchecked, much like a wild bar night, all we will have to show for it is broken promises, bad decisions, a maxed-out credit card and a thumping headache.

IShouldGo

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