I’m going to do something most writers don’t do and spoil the rest of my writing by linking to someone else who has more or less said the same thing I’m about to. Therefore, if you’ve already read Ben Kuchera’s article explaining why people should be “afraid” of this move, you’ll read a lot of the same stuff here. On a related note, thanks for at least clicking through for my advertisers’ sake!
For the six of you still here, I’ve actually been a defender of Riccitiello in the past. People don’t quite realize what he brought to the company when he came on in 2007. EA at that time was *the* preeminent industry bad guy back then, putting out substandard licensed stuff while getting rocked by the ea_spouse controversy, which put the spotlight on how the company treated its developers. For people accusing EA of being franchise happy now, it was way worse in those days. Riccitiello came on, and one of the first things he did was clean up the corporate culture, reducing overtime and improving morale at both the publisher and its developers. He also bemoaned the company’s past practices of purchasing and subsequently destroying in-house developers, such as Bullfrog, like the spoiled child from the first Toy Story destroying his toys. He even made cursory statements about dropping the then-novel $60 price point for AAA games. Lastly, during his tenure, Riccitiello, along with Zynga, has been the industry leader in lobbying for full rights to the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered community.
Most notably, he was at the helm of an experimentation with new ideas and new intellectual properties. Mirror’s Edge wasn’t a good game, but it was a brilliant idea that I would love to see cooked better. Dead Space was a very good horror game until the company intentionally took it in a more generic direction in an attempt to drive mainstream sales. EA Sports also did a lot of amazing things, including allowing for full 11 on 11 football matches, the logistics of which are often lost on the casual fan. Many other EA-published products, such as the little-known Create, were outstanding ideas. For all the stick the company gets lately, most of it justified, John Riccitiello was the CEO at a time when EA was legitimately making inroads to address their previously atrocious reputation.
The previous two paragraphs are why this one is going to be so painful to write: eventually, Riccitiello had to adjust to what the market – the NASDAQ, literally the only one that matters – wanted. Jim Sterling of Destructoid held Riccitiello responsible for all of the anti-consumer practices that EA has been stepped in the past few years, but in all honesty, if he didn’t go forward with them, this would have happened years ago. The shift to freemium in the mobile market, the proliferation of microtransactions, Origin’s existence and the ornerous DRM that comes with it, all of that wasn’t chosen by EA so much as foisted upon him by investors that want their stock price up by hell or high water. A recurring theme of my writing is that public ownership is never good for a creative endeavor, and EA is patient zero in this debate. No developer designs games with these hooks in mind; they’re put in there because business suits reacting to investors want them there. Riccitiello pulling back on his initial positions from 2007 wasn’t a case of him being dishonest, it was a case of trying to keep his job.
Riccitiello’s dismissal – and let’s call a spade a spade, Humpty Dumpty was pushed – is a further indictment of just where the video game industry is in a business sense. New IPs and games that challenge the gamer’s thought process and try to advance AAA gaming as a medium are out, plain and simple. it’s not about making a profit, it’s about making fuck-you money and increasing that stock price. Games can’t just be good anymore; Resident Evil 6 and Dead Space 3 were considered commercial failures for not selling 5 million copies, a number that would have been considered astronomical just a few years back. The name of the game, at least in the heavily corporate, publicly traded part of the industry, is wringing literally every dollar out of gamers that can be wrung, to the point where playing the game is secondary to being hit with sales pitches to buy even more of the game. Virtually every AAA game exists with the sole purpose of being a $60 hook into a further $30 – $50.
That’s going to get ten times worse at Electronic Arts – already voted the worst company in America in a heavily astroturfed vote – now that they’ve essentially thrown their CEO overboard. Whoever Larry Probst – a man, I remind everyone again, who essentially oversaw the video game equivalent of a sweat shop – decides will be the next CEO will be under a mandate to increase shareholder value, by any means necessary. The name of the new CEO, be it Peter Moore, Eric Brown, Bing Gordon or Flash Gordon, is irrelevant. The mandate is clear, and whoever’s selected will be selected for their ability to do just that.
If you’re a fan of games, this is horrible news. It’s especially troublesome if you’re a sports fan. Horror fans angry at what EA did to Dead Space 3 can just as easily turn to Lone Survivor, Amnesia or Corpse Party to get their horror fix. Anyone who thought SimCity was a disaster can always play Ciivlization to get similar gameplay. Battlefield haters are overflowing with choice. Sports gamers? Madden has an exclusive license, NHL might as well, and the only game in their sports lineup that has shown any kind of improvement in the past few years is FIFA (who has competition from Pro Evolution). If you’re dissatisfied with any of these, you have no choice. For people like me, this is depressing.
A lot of gamers are giving Riccitiello stick because of the things that have been in the news, but if they want to direct their ire, they should direct it at themselves. With their dollars, they have proven that they will buy the very things they dislike, and that they will not take risks on anything that isn’t safe and familiar. Because of this, the most progressive AAA CEO we could have asked for is gone, likely to return to venture capital, and the resulting changes are going to make the past couple of years seem like a pleasant dream.