Online gaming is the most popular and profitable entertainment medium in the world. It generated $120 million across all its sectors in 2019 and shows no signs of stopping.
The console brands that operate at the top echelons command millions-strong player bases and these customers mobilise whenever they release a new title.
You would think, then, with this overwhelming financial backing, that the big names would have a lot of goodwill with their fans.
However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Gamers have frequently clashed with their favourite developers; Electronic Arts (EA) manage to frustrate consumers whilst maintaining massive profits year on year.
Servers, Security, and Quality
EA are one of the biggest online game developers in the world, heading the most played franchises today. Even if you’re not a gamer, you’re probably familiar with some of their titles.
Whether it’s licensed sports games such as FIFA, or galactic adventures like Star Wars, the brand has a hand in virtually every genre.
With the breadth and scope of the products they offer, there is sure to be some difficulties. Still, EA finds themselves swept up in controversy on a near-weekly basis.
The most common cause of downtime is servers. Online gaming behemoths like EA have placed an emphasis on multiplayer elements in their games. These tend to have a much longer life span and more options for monetisation.
To play online, though, you don’t just need a stable internet connection: servers must be able to handle traffic from millions of players. However, EA’s are notoriously unreliable, with outages and delays a regular occurrence.
The connections have been so bad, in fact, that one of EA’s recent professional competitions had to be decided by a game of rock, paper, scissors.
This has been exemplified this week by the actions of LizardSquad. The hacking group targets brands by shutting down services through crippling DDOS attacks. They have repeatedly overloaded EA’s servers, leading to mass connectivity issues across all EA games.
Their reasoning? To show how poor EA’s systems are. You would expect players being prevented from accessing their games to focus their anger on the hackers. But they’re not.
Instead, they are being celebrated by EA’s own customers, as many see their actions as merely highlighting an existing problem.
Other brands, like Virgin, have even capitalised on EA’s failings by cheekily offering their help to alleviate customers’ connection woes. This trend of their users rallying against the company is something we’ve seen multiple times before.
Esports Players Speak Out
Recently, Donavon ‘Tekkz’ Hunt – officially the best FIFA player in the world – went on camera to criticise the developer. After progressing through the FUT 20 Champions Cup, he claimed ‘nobody enjoys playing’ the game and that the latest instalment was the worst ever.
Another prominent player in the online gaming and esports community is Kurt0411. He was recently banned from accessing any EA services for comments he made regarding the development team.
The decision was met with intense incredulity by many for the sheer severity of the punishment. While there are often two sides to a story, it is telling that, in nearly every instance, users aren’t backing the brand.
Surprise Loot Mechanics
Easily one of the most controversial aspects of EA’s development strategy in recent years is the introduction of microtransactions. These are, essentially, extra items or in-game bonuses you can purchase for real money.
The issue isn’t with the concept; developers have offered optional downloadable content (DLC) for years now. Candy Crush has built an empire on it.
The problem is the transparent purchase aspect, i.e. you spend a certain amount for a predetermined set of tools.
EA has made a big change to this formula, offering what they call ‘surprise loot mechanics’. What form this takes depends on the specific game, but there’s a general formula they tend to follow.
Let’s have a look at FIFA’s system as an example. One of the modes in the footballing franchise is called Ultimate Team. In this mode, you assemble a squad of real players and pit them against other people’s ‘Ultimate Teams’.
It’s an interesting concept, fusing the mass appeal of FIFA with classic trading cards, like Shoot Outs or Match Attax. The trouble arises in the process of procuring them.
Why Are Micro-transactions Controversial?
While you can win these cards by playing the game normally and purchasing them with in-game currency, there is a shortcut.
Like the trading card games they’re emulating, this is offered through packs, which contain random players and items to improve your squad. On the surface, this may seem harmless, but delve deeper and you’ll find some near-predatory practices.
EA periodically releases new, limited cards with better stats than the normal variants and, if you’re an avid player, these are undeniably appealing.
They’re the rewards you’re competing for and almost exist as a status symbol in-game. Owning a Team of the Year Messi is the equivalent of a Bentley (the car, not former footballer, David).
However, these are incredibly difficult to obtain through normal means, especially if you can’t devote some serious hours to playtime.
Pay To Win
The packs present an alternative: to simply pay for them. The more expensive a pack is, the greater chance of it containing a really good card and, therefore, the better your team is likely to be – making it easier for you to do well.
The problem is that this is still incredibly rare, yet people will still spend lots of money chasing them. This is because it’s vastly easier and quicker than playing for tens of hours to earn just one.
This has led to many critics labelling the practice as exploitative and damaging to the quality of the game, commonly referred to as ‘pay to win’.
For example, the release of Star Wars Battlefront II’s featured content was unlockable through loot boxes only. This made the game and EA, in general, the poster boy for the micro-transactions scandal.
Ultimately, they suspended the payment systems in the game to squash the furore over their implementation. It’s not just limited to voices in online gaming though.
Micro-transactions Deemed A Form Of Gambling
Belgium has already banned loot mechanics, with UK MPs looking to implement similar measures. The argument is that whilst technically optional, they can be obstructive and should be regulated as a form of gambling.
Of course, EA is strongly against this and has rejected accusations of exploiting players. It’s not hard to see why, either: they made $993 million from ‘Live Services’ in the last quarter. This is just EA’s roundabout way of trying to shed the label micro-transactions.
Yet, with mounting pressure from governments and fans alike, who knows whether this lucrative system will stick around?
It’s another example of the company making huge profits from something generally regarded as a negative by its audience.
The Bogeyman of Gaming
The online gamer is intensely passionate and this impacts brands both positively and negatively. EA’s public image is at an all-time low now and they have even broken records on this front.
In September 2019, they received the dubious Guinness World Record for the most downvoted comment on Reddit. A fairly damning indictment given the site’s proximity to gaming culture.
The developer’s infamous persona has deeper roots than just server issues and much-maligned mechanics. Large sections of the community think EA are directly responsible for the collapse of many beloved IPs and studios.
This is due to the company’s history of buying out successful franchises and teams. Whilst the acquisitions might promise greater resources, studios are quickly forced them to adhere to EA’s development strategy. More often than not, these strategies didn’t fit with the aspects that made the originals so successful.
A high-profile example would be Visceral Games who made the popular Dead Space series. After the first instalment’s success, Visceral was asked to make the game more action-orientated and add microtransactions in later on.
This was received poorly by fans and the series’ final entry in didn’t perform, contributing to the studio’s eventual downfall. Many fear BioWare could go the same way too, with the quality of their games showing a steep decline in recent years.
It’s not as if EA is the sole reason for these closures, but they’ve certainly had a hand in many, if not the final say. It’s now at a point where they are perceived as an almost tyrannical presence in the gaming industry and, essentially, a meme at this point.
Games As A Service
Yet, in the face of overwhelming negativity, EA still rakes in more than virtually every other company in the industry. One of the biggest reasons for this is the ‘games as a service’ format.
This is, essentially, a continuing revenue business model, with developer’s supporting a game beyond its launch date, adding more features and content over time.
This way, the purchasing potential doesn’t end once you’ve bought the game. They’re constantly looking for ways to keep you investing, extend the customer lifespan and, hopefully, improve the overall user journey.
The tactic has brought ire to the community, resulted in numerous exposés and even prompted governments to question the legality. However, it’s also one that has been immensely profitable.
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