Experienced Points: How EA Can Regain Trust on the PC

By Shamus
on Feb 1, 2016
Filed under:
Column

While we already discussed it on the Diecast, my column this week is a response to the story last week where EA said they were looking to improve relations with the PC market.

While I don’t actually expect the EA leadership will read my column, I wrote it as if they were going to. Which means I left out some points that – while major sticking points for many consumers – are simply beyond the scope of the sorts of changes they can make. That is to say, I left out advice that required a major shift in corporate priorities or company culture.

Obviously the brute-force monetization is a big complaint that people have with EA. There are some things that clearly shouldn’t be chopped out of the core game and sold as DLC. (Like the final boss.) There are other things that are clearly great for DLC that won’t offend anyone. (Alternate costumes for your character, original soundtrack.) But the line between these two extremes can get really blurry if you like. EA likes to mess around in that blurry area and see just how much they can get away with.

I think this is foolhardy. I think there’s more money to be made with a focus on the user experience. But this is a different mindset. Compare:

“I think we should screw and harass our customers until we find the optimal spot where their desire for the product is just high enough to overcome their disgust and frustration with the transaction itself.”

versus:

“If we release quality products and build our brand around positive experiences, we can build a rabidly loyal fanbase that will always show up to give us their $60.”

The latter is a sort of Disney / Nintendo mentality. (And maybe you can make the case this applies to Apple as well, but I’m not an Apple customer so I’m not in a position to judge.) It’s a patient, long-term approach to developing a company. Moreover, it’s not one you can pursue unless you’re an avid gamer yourself, because you need to be able to look at a game and judge for yourself if it meets your company standards for quality.

But I don’t think there’s a good way to articulate this to an EA exec. This requires not just a change in company policy, but a philosophical change in how the business works. Even if EA was interested, a transformation like that could take a decade.

I still don’t have a really good suggestion for why they’re making this move now. Maybe they don’t like how this console generation is shaking out. Maybe the PC market is growing, simply because it’s so much easier to acquire and maintain a gaming rig these days. (Because machines last longer.) Maybe they really love being able to sell games through Origin and not paying the 30% Steam / Sony / Microsoft taxI don’t actually know what the platform fees are for Playstation and Xbox. It’s just a guess.. Maybe EA is worried the bad press and consumer outrage might be a drag on their stock price.

It’s impossible to know. But I do wonder.

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Footnotes:

[1] I don’t actually know what the platform fees are for Playstation and Xbox. It’s just a guess.



20201555 comments. It's getting crowded in here.

From the Archives:

  1. Dennis says:

    “The latter is a sort of Disney / Nintendo mentality.”

    Maybe it used to be, but Nintendo games are filled with DLC now. Loads of content locked behind Amiibos. What’s worse than $14 on-disk DLC? $14 on-disk DLC that requires is out of stock everywhere except ebay where it’s being resold at 300% MSRP.

    • Ilseroth says:

      I was pretty much about to say that. both Disney(with Infinity) and Nintendo (with Amiibos) are still nickle and dime-ing, except they also provide engineered supply limits which cause the demand to be awkward and make a 3rd party overpriced market of these little figures all too common.

      Thankfully most of Nintendo’s stuff isn’t particularly integral to gameplay really, so far, with exception to games specifically dedicated to amiibos (which they have yet to produce one I care about thankfully)

      • Jean says:

        The only one that’s kinda bad is the Splatoon 3-pack with the exclusive Squid, since the Amiibos are used to unlock challenge levels where you can get clothes and weapons you can’t get anywhere else. Most of the rewards for other games are of the microtransaction variety (ie Hyrule Warriors either give you a random weapon or crafting materials, and the upcoming Zelda: Twilight Princess HD will restore your Hearts or Arrows)

        • Ventus says:

          Also, the Shovel Knight Amiibo which locks off the Couch Co-Op mode. Kiiinda bull, if you ask me, but thankfully, I’m not a Wii-U owner, so it’s not really affecting me.

    • Trix2000 says:

      The thing is, a lot of people like the figures. That and a lot of the ‘locked content’ isn’t all that critical to the main experience… at least, I’ve not heard of or played a game using them that really needed the Amiibo. So far, it seems perfectly fine to skip them.

      As for other DLC, most of what I’ve seen seems in line with conventional “more content” DLC to me… though there may be some exceptions to this. I’ll admit that some parts of Nintendo’s strategy nowadays, particularly with digital content, doesn’t sit as well as it used to. You could say the sheen’s rubbed off a fair bit.

    • Xeorm says:

      Strangely enough, I think some people like that sort of thing. Collector items are strong, and people pay good money for it. It really only gets bad when neat content is locked behind it, and so far, I don’t think most locked content is all that big.

  2. Hector says:

    How much external factors drive EA’s decision making versus internal ones? This is always an interesting question with very large organizations.

  3. Trevel says:

    Amen to the Origin name thing. I can’t believe that nobody pointed out how that was a horrible idea.

    • Zak McKracken says:

      I’d be surprised if there weren’t at least a few dozen employees shouting “I told you so!” every time something goes hilariously wrong. EA is a game company, so there must be people working there who care. Seeing what ends up happening I think that EA first and foremost should listen to its own employees, even before the prospective customers, because there must be (have been?) people in the company who knew all along that things were wrong, who tried to say something but were never heard.

      And it’s not just that cultural advice must have been ignored by management, but given stories as the “EA spouse” I think employees could contribute way more if they let them — but you can’t milk quality rainbows from half-starved, sleep-deprived unicorns who’re chained to the ground … they’re unicorns and all but if you don’t let them run free and play in pixie dust sometimes, it’s just not working.

      I mean … of course making multi-million-Dollar games is an industry. Games lose direction if every polygon-pusher forces their own creative vision into the game — but something like SimCity could not have happened if any of the people in charge had either had a heart for the game or knew where to find someone who does. No project lead can know everything, but the good ones know when to get advice and how to get constructive criticism from the people they work with. If they can’t so that (as must have happened so often), then that’s a problem with corporate culture. Apparently, EA doesn’t only not understand potential customers but also the very people they depend on to make their products.

      • Richard says:

        I suspect that a lot of the problems have come from somebody panicking.

        I keep seeing this – the project is a bit behind – or even is basically fine – and suddenly OH MY GOD WE’RE ALL GONNA DIE!!!! CANCEL THAT BIT!!!! DO THIS OTHER THING RIGHT NOW!!!!!

        For no apparent reason, and in many cases it’s exactly the wrong thing to do.

        It sometimes seems like the project manager has completely forgotten what’s being made – even when they wrote the actual specification.

  4. MichaelGC says:

    I wonder if one of the reasons for ‘why now?’ is as Josh said on the Diecast: they’ve not been doing so horribly badly recently. Obviously if you’re going to say stuff like this (whatever the hell they actually mean by it) you’d want to avoid the bitter irony of it coming immediately after some clodhopping misstep.

    Also what Campster said.

  5. Zak McKracken says:

    I bet the whole statement is just a general appeasement thing. I don’t expect there’s anything behind it. That would at least be in line with most other press statements from them I’ve come across in recent years…

  6. AileTheAlien says:

    The thing I’d do if I was king of EA, would be basically what Campster said on the Diecast, but even more-so:
    1. Get the old games running in modern OSs without any DRM. The old games should be run-able in emulators without too much work. The newer ones…hope to hell the source code still exists. Just get them running.
    2. Get some multiplayer servers for the games. Run the old code in emulators in the cloud if needed. Just get them running.
    3. Dirt-cheap prices for all of those games on Origin. The oldest for free; The next-oldest, $5 per game; The newest, $10 per game. Any game that doesn’t have a server as in #2 above, is bumped down a price bracket.

    After that, I’d give an A- or AA-budget to a team/subsidiary studio, to immediately start work on a new CnC / Generals / Red Alert game. Hell, they can make up a new IP, where the Tiberium mixed with the Chronosphere, and made an alternate universe. Every single B-movie trope is in play. Lasers, robots, giant ants, giant spiders, Godzilla-knockoffs, 50-foot women, radioactive stuff, time-travel, force-fields, teleporters, flamethrowers. Just make a new RTS, with lots of fun units, and hand-wave everything in the name of schlock / fun!

    • Eric says:

      The last Command & Conquer game bombed hard, and outside of StarCraft, and a few tiny games like Grey Goo, Act of Aggression, and Planetary Annihilation, RTS is more or less dead on the PC right now.

      Even if EA brought back C&C and did everything right, it seems there isn’t a ton of demand for the genre (at least in its current form… and EA has never shown itself to be very interested in innovation).

      • AileTheAlien says:

        There was enough demand to fund Planetary Annihilation, and it’s stand-alone sequel-expansion-pack thing. There’s enough demand for people to be making open-source RTS engines*, that are capable of using the old Westwood art assets. There’s enough demand for people to make an RTS engine for games like Total Annihilation. There’s plenty enough demand for another RTS, as long as EA budgets it appropriately.

        * OpenRA is the most feature-rich. There’s also another website dedicated to running the old code as-is, in Wine or an emulator or whatever. I don’t actually remember or care what it is – it just works.

    • 4th Dimension says:

      They tried to do something like that with Red Alert 3, and it was fun watching and reading about units untill the game came out and I realized it simply did not have that something in itself. It was trying waaaayyy too much to be weird and random without being able to set down on a style for factions. And they nerfed my Apocalipse tanks making them unable to shoot air.

      And on top of it all both campaigns (and probably all three of them) have the same god damned structure. Ten missions. In mission 3? you play with a fellow commander against the AI. By 5? that fellow will turn on you and attack you. Mission 8 is against one of the rulers on your side. Particulary painfull was the Allied campaign where for no reason at all they decided to cast the President in the role of someone needing to be killed in Mis 8.

  7. Neko says:

    The thing is, EA probably has many employees who have their finger on the pulse of the gaming industry, who are well aware of some of the policies that are Bad Ideas. My suspicion is that the sort of game devs who haven’t yet had their souls crushed by the corporate machine would probably be able to provide some pretty accurate feedback about what would work and what wouldn’t, because they may well be gamers themselves.

    Except… and I’m just speculating here… EA’s chain of command probably prohibits keyboard monkeys from voicing an original thought up to management. So maybe they could hire a dedicated “Gamer Community Representative” to tell them what’s broken, but they could also probably listen to a few of their minions once in a while, too.

    • AileTheAlien says:

      We can always hope that they think their employees play games. I mean, they could always send out a company-wide email asking for advice, and sort through the huge number of responses…

      • Anonymous Coward says:

        That only works if the corporate culture is that everyone has useful opinions, and all the managers are secure enough in their own minds to accept this culture.

        I’ve been on the receiving end of the ire of three managers who did not accept this idea.
        It ended very badly – I ended up with a warning, one of the managers was fired but the others suffered no consequences – except for the drastic loss of respect from their team, which probably makes them more dangerous.

        It is terrifying, and shuts you up for a very long time, if not forever, to the point where you have to leave the company or at least switch departments.

        From what I see of them, I do not believe that EA is the type of place where managers accept any form of criticism from underlings.

  8. Da Mage says:

    Wasn’t it Ubisoft just a year or so ago saying the same thing? That they were going to reconnect with the PC audience and whatnot….before changing nothing about their business practices and basically showing that their PR speak is worthless. And didn’t Microsoft do the same thing before the launch of Windows 10? And since then have done nothing either.

    Seems to me that it’s just the PR tend to appeal to the PC gamers at the moment, and that it actually means very little.

    On that note, even my most Origin hateful friends are starting to come around to it, so EA are doing something right there by picking up in customer support features that Valve aren’t doing.

    • Sleeping Dragon says:

      I’ll be honest, at this point I’ve been staying away from Origin mostly by reflex/force of habit and it probably wouldn’t take that much to make me give the platform a chance. The free games came pretty close though, they just haven’t hit a title that I would really want and didn’t have yet. Similarly, for their major titles, so far I’ve been taking advantage of my console owning friends and nothing that EA released recently gave me that “must own it” push.

  9. Eric says:

    EA isn’t stupid, and there’s got to be some very smart people working there. A company run by idiots doesn’t last that long. But, there is always a push-pull between “doing the right thing” and “needing to make money”, and as is the case in large companies, typically making money wins out.

    I sincerely doubt anyone working at EA wakes up in the morning thinking “alright, how can we fleece these idiots some more?” The grim reality may be that doing the right thing, like building amazing PC ports or supporting games well past their product life cycle, or bringing back all those old titles everyone loved, just isn’t worth it for a company like EA.

    The dirty little secret of many companies is that doing those nice things for customers actually *does* lose money, and it’s not always a benefit. As a private company, you can often afford to take those risks and even if they fail, nobody needs to hear about it. When you go public, it becomes a lot harder to justify going after niche markets, dropping the DLC, or bringing back a long-dead franchise.

    • Xeorm says:

      I think that argument would matter more if we considered EA to be a company that earned a good amount of money. Jerk tactics are acceptable in some cases if they at least benefit the jerk. In this case though, EA isn’t making money. It’s been doing steadily worse for awhile now. EA is being a jerk not because it makes money, but just to be a jerk.

      (Or more likely because they don’t know how to do anything but be a jerk)

      • Sleeping Dragon says:

        It could be in part that they have no feel for their audience, at least a large chunk of it. In their communication they tend to think like a home appliances or car manufacturer. Unless layoffs make news or a blender kills someone most people won’t even be aware of the company’s public statements. This is also definitely true for a lot of gamers, doubly so in case of non-narrative (and non-engineering) games, like the sports series that probably earned EA the bulk of its worth.

        SimCity had a lot of problems, but the issue was further compounded by EA handling the situation as if it were dealing with tech-ignorant customers. When people were worried about serverloads EA offered empty reassurances. When they questioned forced online they gave us nonsense about “calculations that user computers couldn’t handle”. When they got caught red handed they attempted to obfuscate it by stating that those who figured the thing out did some arcane, and possibly at least borderline illegal, technical trick to achieve the results…

        For comparison Assassin’s Creed: Unity had lag, pop-up and collision issues (in a game that’s all about freedom and fluidity of movement), far as I know non-obligatory but very “in your face” microtransactions and online (or at least companion app?) component, and the characters couldn’t even keep their faces on! The technical issues were so bad Ubi eventually gave up on fixing the game, scrapped DLCs giving the first one away for consolation and moved on to AC:Syndicate.

        I’m not saying that the SimCity thing is overblown. I’m saying that in both cases the state of the product was scandalous but Ubi somehow gets away with it whereas people are ready to go and form a lynch mob in front of EA HQ.

        • Cilvre says:

          UBI didn’t get away with it for me, they and EA are both on my “ignore all games from this company” list.

        • Kalil says:

          I’m not sure Ubi /does/ get away with it. People are at least very wary of Ubi purchases. I think the big difference is that Ubi still occasionally makes some really good games, and they publish some excellent ones. EA.. Not so much.

      • Eric says:

        Oh, to clarify, I agree wholeheartedly that EA has been responsible for an absurd number of bad decisions and has ruined once-great games and developers by trying to take niche games that have already hit their saturation point and pushing them to “go triple-A”, only to both fail at that as well as alienate the fans that made the games successful in the first place.

        That is like, *the* story of EA and just about every single third party which has been acquired by it.

        I’m just saying that maybe at least from EA’s perspective, there’s good reasons why it is doing those things other than “because we’re evil!”

        A lot of other publishers are carried by the sales of a few big products. It’s true of Blizzard and Activision with World of Warcraft, Call of Duty and Destiny, and it’s true of Ubisoft with Far Cry, Assassin’s Creed, and intermittently, Splinter Cell and Rainbow Six. It’s true of EA and sports games as well.

        But EA has rarely managed to crack the same sales as its competitors outside of sports titles, and I think a lot of that is a result of its long history of playing things safe. You will never be a market leader or innovator without trying new things. Instead EA is usually playing catch-up to last holiday’s trends. And it’s a lot easier to buy up something with an existing fanbase than to come up with your own ideas – the problem is EA never seems to learn from its own history that it rarely ends well.

    • Sabrdance (MatthewH) says:

      “How can we fleece the players” might actually be an improvement. Proper fleecing does, after all, require properly feeding and caring for the sheep.

      I believe our host’s complaint is that EA is currently under the impression that fleecing your players requires a trip to the butcher.

    • NotSteve says:

      I’m not sure we can assume that any given tactic a big company like EA uses is necessarily a good one. For what I understand of economics, we should expect companies in a given industry to range the whole spectrum from “not quite incompetent enough to go out of business” to “super-efficient moneymaking machine”.

      So if we see a company doing something that looks stupid to us, it might be that it’s actually discovered that the cold equations of profit maximalization make it better to be a jerk to its customers. But it might also be that the company is just bumbling along and hasn’t hit a big enough pratfall to go bust. Size or previous successes or free market capitalism aren’t sufficient arguments to justify any given strategy.

      So I don’t think we can say that it makes monetary sense for EA to act the way it does, at least not without more evidence then we have. Sometimes the emperor has no clothes; sometimes the giant company really does have no idea what it’s doing and is just fumbling after a lucky break, or burning up the seed corn left by previous management.

    • ehlijen says:

      A company being big doesn’t mean it is being run well. It means it was run well in the past and became big.
      Once you are big and have a few brands/IPs to your name , staying big is a lot easier than getting big to begin with.

      Yes, they are supposed to find ways to make money and that money has to come from the customers. But the customers are supposed to not hand out their money unless they believe they’re getting value for it. That value doesn’t need to be real (eg valve hats), but it needs to appear so at least. And EA hasn’t demonstrated that they are interested in learning how to do that.

      Where valve offers sales and easily acquired hats, EA offers day 1/on disk DLC.

      EA isn’t doing a good job at even appearing as though they aren’t gouging for money, and that’s the big difference. It’s like they aren’t even paying attention to their competitors and learning from their mistakes, or even their own.

  10. Mephane says:

    Hey EA, let’s start with stopping Origin exclusivity. Release the games on Steam. Even the ones that already are Origin exclusive. It’s not as if you wouldn’t get any money from us if we buy from a different service. And even if Origin were a carbon copy of Steam, feature by feature, I would still not want it. Because why should I have the same thing twice? Manage two accounts, have two gaming platforms installed, updated, etc. From a costumer standpoint, it is clearly preferrable to have that one platform that does it all; I guess you hoped to become exactly that, and underestimated Steam’s benefit of simply having been there first.

    You probably wish you had been the ones to be in the position Steam is in right now, but that’s simply not possible. It’s an established thing now just like Amazon. Or Paypal. Or Wal-Mart. Or Google. These are companies and services to which there all exist some form of alternative which sometimes is only slightly worse, but the very hassle of using two services of the same type is too much for the minor benefit that in some cases, the other service may have the better feature or deal (or not and we tried it out in vain).

    And just imagine you’d need to install multiple different web browsers because some sites were “Safari Exlusive” or, *shudder*, “Internet Explorer Exclusive” (in before someone links something that only works in IE… but you get the idea). Also, consider what it means that someone just compared Origin to Internet Explorer.

    • Tektotherriggen says:

      EA probably think being compared to IE is a compliment. After all, millions of people have IE installed, and Microsoft make loads of profit, so IE *must* be succesful. Right?

    • Mephane says:

      Another idea, albeit even less realistic:

      Destroy uPlay. Demolish it. Make it disappear from the face of the Earth. Buy out Ubisoft if you have to. Convert all uPlay games into Origin games. It’s really the best way to make Origin look good, because compared to uPlay, Origin is a fantastic masterpiece of engineering and customer relationship.

      • Zekiel says:

        I don’t really understand the logic here – Origin looks good compared to UPlay… so let’s try to get rid of UPlay… so then the only major comparison left for to Origin will be Steam which everyone agrees is better*. ??Profit??

        *Actually they don’t – personally from what I recall reading, it looks like Origin as a service is probably better than Steam, but its hugely lacking in titles by comparison which makes the contest over before its begun.

    • Artur CalDazar says:

      I recall that Steam doesn’t like the way EA handles in-game transactions, they can sidestep valves cut by not actually selling it through valve but though the game itself, something like that. It is possible Valve has changed how they view that kind of thing though.

      • Mephane says:

        Normally the game dev/publisher can do purchases in the game or even on their own homepage, so long as Steam gets their cut from these, too. I know because this has been confirmed to be the case for Elite Dangerous, if you buy it on Steam (or buy directly from the devs’ own store and then link your game account to your Steam account) then also all future purchases in the cosmetic store, which only goes through the website, still have to give the 30% cut to Valve.

    • Attercap says:

      I really don’t find Origin to be a problem these days. And given that I also use GoG Galaxy for some games, the idea of needing multiple similar platforms is a minor quibble at most. Much like streaming TV/movies, there’s no one single source anymore–it’s more frustrating with Netflix/HBO Now/Hulu/Amazon Prime, as each is its own subscription service.

      The overall usage for Origin’s been cleaned up pretty well and is stable and no longer is near a mess like GFWL (was) or uPlay (is). Frankly, for what they are, none of the 3 game platforms are that great it one has a large enough library, so my issues with EA aren’t in its game management platform.

      Admittedly, Origin also won me over by offering a classic game for free every couple months. I’ve gotten the original Syndicate, Sims 2, Jade Empire, Sim City 2000, and a few others just by checking the service even when I’m not playing an EA game.

    • Shoeboxjeddy says:

      @Mephane No… this is a terrible idea. Let’s look at this as a business. Steam and Origin are basically the same thing. What could be the source of EA’s competitive advantage? EA’s own games! This is very much one of those things where what some gamers want (to just use Steam out of laziness/inertia) runs precisely counter to what EA wants (to get regular customers for Origin). And give EA some credit, they didn’t just lock their games down and then say good and leave the store stagnant. They’ve created feature competition with Steam and offer free games like the consoles do.

  11. Primogenitor says:

    I would really like to watch a “back to the shop floor” type show where the EA board have to be playtesters for a week without anyone else knowing they are senior management.

  12. Tektotherriggen says:

    I’m amazed you didn’t include, “Give paying customers a game as good as the pirates get” in your list. Somehow I salute your self-restraint ;-) . Although I suppose DRM is included with stick vs. carrot.

  13. tmtvl says:

    Apple thrives on Stockholm syndrome. I’ve been using an iMac for the past year and I still find it’s infuriatingly limited garbage.

  14. Kaspar says:

    It is far too late for EA to regain any trust. The most EA can do at this point is regain its honor by committing seppuku.

  15. Cilvre says:

    EA broke the trust and burned all bridges already. There is no way I would buy another game from them. Origin needs to die as well.

  16. TehShrike says:

    I read Apple’s goal more as “If we make something that is clearly the best, enough people will pay us that we can thrive.”

    I think many small-to-medium-sized game developers work this way too, one game at a time.

    It’s only the publishers and AAA conglomerates that have the exposure and branding to worry about the reputation they build with the games they pump out each year.

    (Please don’t reply to this with your opinion as to whether or not Apple does or doesn’t accomplish their goal).

    • Robyrt says:

      Yeah, Apple’s branding is clearly targeted at the top end of the market, where EA’s is not. If anyone is the Apple of the game industry, it’s Blizzard: release a small stable of products with phenomenal production values and strong interconnections, then continue to support them for several years to hold value past release week. EA, by contrast, is using a movie studio model: make a bunch of games without spending too much money on each one, then turn the successful ones into giant franchises.

  17. Tizzy says:

    If the decision truly came from the top, I could see EA turning around in a couple of years, three tops. Game development would become a lot easier if all the studio need to worry about is good customer experience rather than finding angles to nickel and dime players. Studios would gladly and easily follow the suits lead.

    Of course, the real problem is that it’s hard to overstate how welcoming to sociopaths corporate America can be. Utter contempt for the customers is still thriving in some corners.

  18. Decus says:

    I think EA has been already moving in a decent-ish direction with Origin. They have games that are always available for X playtime hours for free trials versus steam’s x days randomly. They have no questions asked refunds that existed before steam’s more limited refunds–with steam the refund period is still such that you might not get out of the tutorial before finding that the game doesn’t work for real or that you “no questions asked” do not enjoy it. With DA:I they even stopped using biobucks for their bioware games. Their new subscription service doesn’t seem terrible either.

    But even with all of that I and many others will stick with steam. We already have libraries built up and EA would be hard-pressed to make a switch easy on anybody. EA could be the GFY to steam’s GIF, but people are still going to stick with their large GIF libraries and in this case every time they access that library they also see more sales on other GIF to buy up. Unless EA can somehow, for no to minimal cost, offer to convert all of our GIF libraries to their new GFY format and offer their own, competitive GFY sales? The situation will not change.

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