Sunday, February 22, 2009

EA: So misunderstood

People like to hate on EA. The gaming media stuck a target on their back some time in the last generation and the public have been taking shots ever since. "They're taking over the world!" "They're amassing an unstoppable gaming army!" "They're gonna release a console!" We've all heard these ludicrous claims from gamers we know and love, and I'm sure we've all nodded along without really thinking about it; why would we? Everyone else agrees - EA are the devil.

Here's a thought - what if they're not? What if EA have actually been kicking ass all over this generation?

Here's another thought - if it wasn't for the tireless perfection of Rockstar's development teams, Electronic Arts, with all their labels and studios, would be my favourite gaming company of all time. And I'll explain why; but first, the hate. The needless hate. Let's think where it all began.
I'd like to state at this point that I'm not an employee of EA, nor is this advertising, I'm merely explaining how I, as a dedicated hardcore gamer, have come to love EA.

It's hard to disagree that EA are primarily known amongst gamers both hardcore and casual as a producer. They've produced big titles for developers such as Crytek Studios, Harmonix, Valve and many more, gaining notoriety for essentially sticking their logos over other people's games. Or so people think. I stayed away from using Black Box, Criterion, or DICE as examples, as these are a few of the many studios which EA have bought but not absorbed. Assumedly as part of the deal when buying these companies, sometimes they will keep their original names, as Criterion have, sometimes they will be partially changed, as Digital Illusions CE became EA Digital Illusions CE, and sometimes they will be entirely renamed, seeing DreamWorks Interactive become EA Los Angeles. The example of the latter sets a precedent for the others; when EA absorbs a studio, they become EA. Whether it's them being kind enough to allow them to keep their name or a stipulation in the contracts that allows for the confusion, it seems to be irrelevant to the fact that EA mostly publishes their own games. This clears up what tends to be the #1 gripe people have with EA; sticking their logos and advertising all over other companies' games, because more often than not, they're publishing games they themselves developed.

What seems to spawn from this, however, is the idea that EA are taking over; more specifically, that they're running previously successful companies into the ground. This is a point I can understand and sympathise with, though it's not objectively true. The most common example is the spiraling downfall of the Need for Speed series, with people criticising that EA are churning them out year after year with an attitude of quantity over quality. In a nutshell, this gripe is with EA functioning like a business and it's something the hardcore gaming community aren't used to. We're used to developers spending years perfectly crafting their games like artwork, to be released to high acclaim, thriving sales and eternal love from the fans; this is rapidly changing. Perhaps thanks to Nintendo's efforts, the casual market has become increasingly more financially appealing since the very start of this generation and hardcore gamers are being neglected. We don't like how Wii Sports outsells No More Heroes, how Nintendogs sees more play than Ouendan, or how the call for gimmicky, pick-up-and-play gameplay is now more popular than an engrossing story, but what we forget is that we are now the minority, and we're just no longer the primary interest of the big, big businesses. I can't hold it against EA that they should seek to exploit the casual market, because it's simply the evolution of gaming, and I feel I have to step aside and think, okay, we've lost a couple of good franchises, but we're gaining force as an entertainment medium, we're being taken more seriously, and companies are getting more funding for future projects. The way I see it, EA has killed Need for Speed to allow for the growth of Skate; they've killed The Sims to allow for Spore, and I believe this to be the correct way to do things, as opposed to, for example, picking on Nintendo again, using the collective money from killing their core market to produce a third DS SKU costing 50% more with 50% less functionality (though this may be a topic for another time). EA's armada of studios strengthens the company as a whole, and we have to remember they have more fans than just those who want to see a stream of original IPs or generally detailed projects; there are millions of people who are blindly screaming "MORE!" and throwing their money around, which EA will take advantage of, and we'd be hypocrites to claim we'd act any different.

Before moving onto my justification of the good points, I will say I'm not a blinkered fan. I share a hate with many of you who enjoy a good anti-EA rant; I'll be countering your points until you bring up EA Trax, where I just have to concede. For a company with such experience in entertainment to create such irksome soundtracks confounds me. Burnout Paradise's selection of music is perhaps the one shining example amongst the quagmire of coarse, grating nonsense the Black Box studio seems to think is appropriate for a Need for Speed audience, though it's far from perfect; it's simply beyond me why they saw fit to include one emo track and one pop-punk track, and one single example from other genres just to pathetically pander to their respective audiences who have to wade through a 90+ list of mostly culturally-irrelevant music for a 4 minute respite of enjoyable tunes, which is then likely to either have DJ Atomica talking over it, be susceptible to various volume drop-outs due to crashes, or accidentally be skipped with an unintentional hit of the R1/RB button. EA's confidence in the Trax system is perhaps the most blind arrogance in the business these days, in that they don't provide a custom soundtrack option. 360 gamers at least have the option to mute the music and play some HDD tracks through the dashboard, but spare a thought for the poor PS3 gamers who have no choice but to rush through the streets of Paradise City with Avril Lavigne and Killswitch Engage blaring. And this was the most favourable example.

Claiming that EA are one of the world's greatest developers is not something that can be backed up by simply discrediting the negative points - I'm very well aware I have to bring something to the table. Exhibit 1: EA Sports. "Really?" I hear you say, "the ace up your sleeve is their sports games?!" Well, yes, it is, with very good reason. EA Sports is a label of EA dedicated, believe it or not, to developing and producing sports games. Their company motto is, "If it's in the game, it's in the game." EA Sports games are of the sports simulation genre, which is a very critical point: these games are developed for sports fans. The Fifa series is for football fans, the NHL series is for hockey fans, the NBA series is for basketball fans. They're not casual games for casual gamers, nor are they hardcore games for hardcore gamers; they're simulation games for sports gamers. The majority of criticisms over the label are due to them releasing games each year with, and I quote, "nothing but an updated list of players." To gamers, this is a valid point, we're used to sequels really adding to games, perhaps even changing the gameplay or engines and adding a brand new story to keep us hooked. For sports fans, this is an absurd idea. Between NFL 07 and NFL 08, the league didn't change the gameplay, they didn't decide to use bats and dress the players in leotards, it's still the same sport the fans have loved for years; all they need is the new players, the new subtle rule changes and the slight changes that are made to improve gameplay, usually in the form of more customisation and management options, or a more realistic AI, for next year's game to be worth a purchase. Up to the 08 series of the EA Sports franchises, this was perhaps an understandable gripe from the gaming community. Now, with the introduction of the 09 series, the point is simply moot. The gameplay mechanics of every sport have been significantly overhauled to provide the most realistic simulation to date, along with intelligent AI systems installed to have the opponent teams learn from your own personal gameplay style. Extensive new modes, top-of-the-line graphics and in-depth online play with individual player control has seen the entire genre improve more than any other over the course of this generation. The best example of this, certainly for me personally, is NHL 09; IGN voted it the best Xbox 360 sports game of 2008, Gamespot, GameTrailers and Spike TV voted it the best overall sports game of 2008, and it currently sits on Metacritic in the #1 and #2 spots for best sports game of this generation. Interestingly enough, the top 10 (and possibly more) sports games of this generation are all EA Sports titles, the top 4 of which are 09 series franchises, the other being Fifa 09 sitting just below NHL, and NHL 08 featuring twice in 7th and 10th. Now while some of that information is more generally regarding their success this generation, it's plain to see that EA's latest series of sports games have revolutionised a genre in a way that not many other developers have ever managed to achieve; Polyphony Digital did it with Gran Turismo, Epic Games with Unreal Tournament and with fanboy alarms ringing, Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto. I would class the new level of immersive realism and true simulation that EA Sports have provided sports fans across the world above and beyond these feats of revolutionisation, to a level where I can but urge, nay dare any naysayers to play NFL 08, then NFL 09 and tell me it's not one giant leap for gaming-kind, whether the hardcore gamers out there are willing to admit it or not.

EA are more than just their sports franchises of course. Their other major company label, EA Games,  invites you to challenge everything - well, challenged we were in 2008, bringing me nicely to Exhibit 2: EA's exceptional fourth quarter, 2008. The last few months before 2009 came rolling around brought a veritable avalanche of games, with the majority of killer titles coming from EA. To drop some names, here is what we saw, amongst plentiful offerings from Ubisoft and Activision-Blizzard, in such a short space of time: Skate It, Need for Speed Undercover, Command and Conquer: Red Alert 3, Mirror's Edge, Dead Space, BioShock (PS3) and Spore. Three brand new IPs, two continuations of series', one spin-off and one port, all in the space of 3 to 4 months. If this is the result of EA buying out companies around the world, then I hope they buy them all, because this cluster of concentrated Christmas awesome was an absolute gaming paradise. This isn't at all to say they burned out in time for the present-giving masses, as 2009 has so far seen the release of Lord of the Rings: Conquest, Skate 2, SimAnimals and the Burnout Paradise Ultimate Box, with plenty more to come. What we see here is a company so perfectly structured and organised, that we have studios within labels releasing games at such a quick-fire rate, without having to be rushed, due to the sheer number of people working on each project. This driving force of raw talent spearheaded by one financial body is intent on serving the public with what they want; what we wanted in 2008 was a body of quality gaming on which to sail into the new year with the knowledge that all is well in the industry, after months of accusations of dumbing down and pandering to casual markets, and this is exactly what EA gave us.

Now, not only are EA continuing their current output, and not only are they constantly throwing brand new IPs at us, but they're offering a level of online support unparalleled by any other developer. Exhibit 3: EA Online. Aside from the initial frameworks of the Playstation Network and Xbox Live, EA's online community is the brightest-shining example of exactly how to tackle console<->internet connectivity. A gamer playing a skating game can pull off an insane trick they never even thought possible and be astounded for as long as the memory remains. A gamer playing Skate can pull off the same trick, pause the game, check the replay, edit the video, save it to the HD, upload it to an online community where other players can comment on and rate your skills. Is this not exactly what we want from our consoles being online during our single player escapades? This level of connectivity is not as common as it should be, but EA is setting the standard with the skate.reel, the name given to the aforementioned community. Likewise with EA Sports, they have managed to create an environment wherein a sports gamer who may own NHL 09, NFL 09 and NBA 09 can check their overall statistics, season records, game summaries and so on, for each individual game in one single space, as the game uploads your results on-the-fly as you play. This is surely the pinnacle of seamless interactivity between one single player and the gaming community; it adds an entirely new dimension to the games when you're able to look through your virtual sports career recorded to fine detail. It enhances the simulation to a point where, when combined with the Be A Pro mode modelled to your face and statistics, you become one with the games. It's a level of interactivity so far unparalleled in the industry. As if this wasn't enough, EA continue to be one of the most active developers in terms of offering patches and downloadable content, bridging the gap between the developers and their fans. If we shout loud enough, they listen and they change. The best example is most definitely Burnout Paradise. It was criticised for being a bit too small, with the likes of GTA and Saints Row offering detailed environments on much larger scales; they respond with upcoming DLC of a brand new island. Criticisms of "samey" cars being too much alike rang out after release; they respond by constantly offering diverse new cars, including the recently released Legendary Pack featuring famous cars from films. People said it's too dark, they brighten it; people said they want a restart option, they put in a restart option. Evidence enough that EA care not only about their games but also the people who play them, they want to make sure we're satisfied. They don't release a groundbreaking game such as Paradise and stand arrogantly proud when the stellar reviews roll in, they continue to look for improvements and tweaks to make it that much better. EA's service to the fans is an incredibly commendable trait, particularly for such a huge company.

Which brings me to my conclusion really. I can see how aspects of what I've talked about come across as simple advertising, or apparent fanboyism, but honestly, if you told me this time last year I'd be praising EA's work I'd never have believed you. Their tireless efforts to provide gamers with some serious quality over 2008 caused me to look very closely at what they'd done; beyond the press' ideas, beyond the lies and beyond the cheap shots, what I've discovered is an undeniable truth. Even amongst EA haters, surely the releases of Spore, Dead Space and Mirror's Edge, three Game of the Year contenders that won many awards between them; the endless online support, both in terms of community projects and continued DLC; the torrent of this generation's quality sports simulations constantly being tweaked to perfection, all correct past wrongs. Whatever EA may or may not have done in the past, they have more than made up for it now and shown themselves to be a company for everyone, dedicated equally to casual, hardcore and sports gamers alike. They have bought themselves not power, not international fame, but a platform from which to serve gamers till the end of time. I'll be challenging everything 'till the day I die, because, well, it really is in the game.


Steven O'Dell said...

There is so much that you discuss in this post, so much that I could respond to that really, it's nuts! Very nice post and a very nice return to the blog, so welcome back. Now to respond to the things I can remember off the top of my head.

I'm with you with regards to their sports division and that was before they made the vast improvements to the latest versions; People have spoken of the yearly updates as something negative and as you point out in the post, it is understandable to 'hardcore' gamers who expect more than subtle updates, but as you also point out these very gamers never considered the context with which these games were being released. You mention the context, explain it and outline exactly what I think of the whole concept that EA have created for themselves. I never had to play a sports game to know that they were created for fans of that particular sport, which in turn immediately made me aware that the subtle updates and improvements would be appreciated by those the games were created for. Perhaps I have an 'accepting' approach to it based on the fact that I love Motorsport and the games that (may) come with it but it doesn't matter what defines my perspective, what matters is that EA were copping flak for something they shouldn't have and that is disappointing.

You mention EA Trax and again, I see myself agreeing for the most part. As someone who plays both the Burnout and Need For Speed (though not the last two) franchises, I have seen my fair share of tunes selected for EA Trax and it has been baffling. It's like they want to appeal to a broad audience but also want to keep the soundtrack suited to the game and because the two desires conflict, they hurt the overall product and produce a disappointing and dare I say it, boring soundtrack. My eclectic tastes means that I have enjoyed some of the soundtracks though, with Need For Speed: Most Wanted's coming to mind. Perhaps you and I are just spoiled by the brilliant soundtracks that generally feature in Rockstar's games, though. Oh and there is nothing wrong with Killswitch Engage! :P

I really appreciate that EA released some big name games that were new IPs last year, though I fear that they didn't sell as well as they could (or should?) have because of the time period in which they were released. That holiday rush is both a blessing and a curse (for gamers and developers/publishers) and something just tells me that Mirror's Edge and Dead Space suffered a little because of it. Kudos for trying though EA and please continue. Don't let the possibility of worse than expected sales define the future steps you take; continue releasing both tried and true franchises while also attempting new things with new property.

As for Burnout Paradise and the flood of support the game has had, I feel that is more Criterion's doing than EA's though obviously none of it would occur without EA's permission or financial support so it's an interesting thing to consider. Especially when you compare it to say, Need For Speed: Carbon and the non-existent support that game had. It had a glitched Achievement (not too important but still) and they didn't even acknowledge it let alone patch it or attempt to - that contrast confuses of support/lack thereof confuses me actually, but that is something to ponder another time.

Epic comment for an epic return, again, welcome back man. More of that in the future please! ;)

Steven O'Dell said...

"that contrast confuses of support/lack thereof confuses me actually, but that is something to ponder another time."

Should be:

"that contrast of support/lack thereof confuses me, but that is something to ponder another time."

Chris Blake said...

^ I didn't know that about that Carbon glitch, it's quite surprising. I think it's something to do with the degree of attention EA will pay to each series; I mentioned it in some capacity, but with NFS now being a more casual series I honestly think EA, as the publisher and therefore QA team, don't pay as much attention to it. The 'masses' won't care about the odd bug, or this general kind of mentality. Compare it to Burnout, easily the most hardcore of arcade racers and a total bitch to the casual market; they're marketing it at us and so they care what we think.

Whether this is a good thing or not is debatable, but as a hardcore gamer, I'd prefer that EA as a publisher paid more money and attention towards Criterion than Black Box.

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