Online gaming is the most popular and profitable entertainment medium in the world, generating $120 million across all its sectors in 2019. The console brands that operate at the top echelons of the industry 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 could not be further from the truth, as gamers have frequently clashed with the higher-ups of their favourite developers. Here, we’ll see how one of these modern titans, Electronic Arts (EA), manage to frustrate its consumers and still sustain massive profits year on year.
Servers, Security, and Quality
For those who don’t know, Electronic Arts are one of the biggest online game developers in the world, heading the most played franchises available. Even if you’re not a gamer, you’ll have probably seen at least one of their titles. Whether it’s licensed sports games such as FIFA, or galactic adventures based on existing properties like Star Wars, the brand has a hand in virtually every genre available. Such is the breadth and scope of the products they offer that there is sure to be some difficulties. However, EA finds themselves swept up in controversy on a near-weekly basis.
The most common cause of downtime is due to its servers. Online gaming behemoths like EA have placed a massive emphasis on multiplayer elements in their games since 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 yourself; the provider’s servers have to be able to handle traffic from millions of players. However, EA’s are notoriously unreliable, with outages and delays a regular occurrence. One of EA’s professional competitions had to be decided by Rock, Paper, Scissors recently, due to the competitors being unable to connect.
This has been exemplified this week by the actions of LizardSquad, a hacking group that targets brands, shutting down their live services through 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. Now, you would expect that the players, who are being prevented from accessing their games by the group, to focus their anger on the hackers. Instead, though, they are being celebrated by EA’s own customers, as many see their actions as merely highlighting an existing problem. Other brands have even capitalised on EA’s failings, such as Virgin, who cheekily offered its help to alleviate EA customers’ connection woes. This trend of their users rallying against the company is something we’ve seen multiple times before.
Recently Donavon ‘Tekkz’ Hunt, officially the best FIFA player in the world, went on camera after progressing through the FUT 20 Champions Cup to claim ‘nobody enjoys playing’ the game and that the latest instalment was the worst ever. Another prominent player in the e-sports community, Kurt0411, was banned from accessing any EA services for comments he made regarding the development team, a decision that was met with incredulity by many for the sheer severity of the punishment. While there are two sides to all of the issues EA has had, 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, which 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 for years now. Candy Crush has built an empire on it. However, this has typically taken the form of a transparent purchase i.e. you spend a certain amount of money and you receive 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 and tasks players with assembling a squad of real players, before pitting them against other teams. It’s an interesting concept, fusing the mass appeal of FIFA with trading card elements that mirror things like Match Attax. It’s the latter where trouble arises as, while you can win these cards through playing the game normally, you can also spend real money on them. Like the trading card games they’re emulating, this is offered through packs, which will contain a set number of random players and items to better your squad with. On the surface, it might seem like there’s nothing wrong with this, yet delve deeper and you’ll find some near-predatory practices.
EA periodically releases new, limited cards that have better stats than the normal variants and, if you’re an avid player, these have an undeniable appeal. 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 something like a Bentley (car, not former footballer David) or Rolex in real life. However, these are incredibly difficult to obtain through normal means, especially if you’re not devoting hours to playtime. So the packs present an alternative to win- the more expensive the pack, the greater chance it has of containing a really good card. The problem is that that this is still incredibly rare, yet people will still spend the money chasing them because it’s easier than playing tens of hours to earn one.
This has led to many critics labelling the practice as exploitative and also damaging to the quality of the game itself. For example, the release of Star Wars Battlefront 2 featured a lot of content that could only be unlocked through loot boxes. Ultimately, they suspendes the payment systems in the game to squash the furore over their implementation. It’s not just limited to voices in online gaming either, Belgium has already banned loot mechanics and MPs in the UK are looking to implement similar measures, arguing that it 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, as they made $993 million from ‘Live Services’ in the last quarter, which is one of EA’s ways of saying microtransactions. Yet, with mounting pressure from both governments and fans alike, it’s anyone’s guess as to whether this lucrative system will stick around. This is yet another example of the company making huge profits from something that is generally regarded as quite negative to the audience.
The Bogeyman of Gaming
The online gaming player is intensely passionate, and this impacts brands both positively and negatively. EA’s public image is just about as bad it could be and they have even broken records on this front, having the Guinness World Record for the most downvoted comment on the popular social media platform Reddit. The maligned developer’s persona has its roots seeded much deep than server issues and hated mechanics, as there is a large section of the gaming audience that think EA are directly responsible for the collapse of many beloved independent properties and studios.
This is due to the company’s history of buying out successful franchises or teams, then forcing them to adhere to EA’s development strategies. 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. The former made the popular Dead Space series and, after the first instalment’s success, Visceral was asked to make the game more action-orientated and add microtransactions in later on. These moves were received poorly by fans and the final entry in the series didn’t hit its targets, which contributed to the studio’s downfall a few years later. There are signs beloved developer BioWare could be going the same way, with quality of its games showing a steep decline in recent years.
It’s not as if EA’s involvement is the sole reason for these closures, but it has had a hand in many of them, if not the final say. It has got to a point where they are perceived as an almost tyrannical presence in the online gaming industry; they are essentially a meme at this point. And 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 model. The purchasing potential doesn’t end once you’ve bought the game, as they’re constantly looking for ways to keep you investing. It’s a tactic that has brought the ire of the community they’ve built, had numerous exposes written about and even prompted governments to question the legality. But it’s also one that has been immensely profitable.
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