For the past two years, Electronic Arts has been named the “Worst Company in America” by Consumerist readers… and it stands a damn good chance of winning the award again this year. Every time this happens, it sparks a round of self-righteous, finger-wagging lectures about how EA doesn’t deserve to be named America’s worst company since it hasn’t, say, caused a calamitous environmental disaster or aided and abetted massive financial fraud. But while it’s literally true that EA’s alleged crimes against consumers aren’t on par with those of BP or JPMorgan, it also undersells EA’s remarkable achievement: That is, it’s managed to make people incredibly angry by selling them video games.
I mean, really think about that. Video games are a form of fun entertainment that are designed to give us a thrilling sense of escapism from our daily lives. The fact that a video game developer could treat its customers so poorly that they’d flock en masse to name it America’s worst is impressive no matter which way you slice it. I’m trying to imagine a craft brewery or a nightclub eliciting similar hatred from customers and I just can’t see it.
The latest EA controversy, in case you haven’t been following, has been the recent release of classic game Dungeon Keeper for mobile devices. While the game is billed as “free-to-play,” many gamers have complained that it is essentially unplayable unless you make several in-app purchases.
Essentially, the game involves assigning a group of worker imps to dig out a given area to create a dungeon that is populated with monsters. However, gamers have found that it can take hours or even a full day for the imps to prepare an area unless they buy several gems that will help the imps speed up. For a comparison, imagine that you’re playing StarCraft and it took 2 hours for your SCVs to build one single supply depot unless you sent Blizzard $5 to make it happen in a fraction of the time.
In defending his company’s use of microtransactions, EA Mythic game designer Jeff Skalski actually told TabTimes that Dungeon Keeper wasn’t a “pay to play” game because it is “designed as a free-to-play title where players can commit time or money towards their play experience, and every piece of content in the game is accessible without having to spend a dime.”
This is some pretty patently absurd logic on EA’s part. It’s the equivalent of telling people that you’re putting on a free movie night and then playing the movie at only one-sixteenth of the actual speed unless they fork over $5… at which point you’ll crank it up to one-eighth of the original speed. To get it up to normal speed, they’ll all have to give you $30 a pop.
“OK,” you say. “So EA is cynically using sleazy microtransactions to extract more money from gamers. Lots of mobile games do this. Why is it so particularly evil?”
Well that’s where the real, awe-inspiring genius of EA comes in. The original Dungeon Keeper was a beloved classic game from the 1990s that is near and dear to many gamers’ hearts. You know what other classic game was near and dear to many gamers’ hearts? SimCity. And EA ruined that too through its always-online DRM requirements.
Ever hear of a company called Bioware, a Canadian developer that made such classic RPGs as Baldur’s Gate and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic? Well right after EA bought them the quality of their games took a significant downward turn and the ending of the final Mass Effect game was so clearly rushed that the company literally had to write a new ending that it offered to gamers as free downloadable content.
And that, I think, is what EA does so well: It takes things that used to be cool and ruins them. This not only makes your current gaming experience terrible but it retroactively poisons the fun memories you used to have playing these classic games. That’s a rare gift and it’s something that I haven’t seen done with such brutal effectiveness since Jar Jar Binks gleefully stomped on everything we loved about Star Wars.
In a way, we should be thankful that EA’s senior executives are held back by the fact that they’re making video games. If the same team were in charge of, say, an oil company, a hedge fund or a private mercenary group, then I shudder to think of what they’d accomplish.