The Ultimate EA Retrospective: In-Depth on Riccitiello’s Legacy
Building a Colossus
Electronic Arts has been a staple of the video game industry since its formation in the 1980s by former Apple executive Trip Hawkins. Over the years, the company grew from a development house into a major publisher through the acquisition of successful developers, including Maxis, Origin and Bullfrog.
These acquisitions were directed by the company’s current executive chairman, Larry Probst, who served as CEO after Hawkins’ departure in 1991. To understand the context of EA’s present, it’s possible to pick out three major developments that defined Probst’s reign in the 1990s and the 2000s: First, EA struck gold with several series of yearly games based on popular sports franchises, which include Madden NFL, FIFA, NHL and Tiger Woods. Second, the company became notorious for its numerous corporate acquisitions, and the subsequent shutterings of those game studios it had taken over (via Slashdot). And third, John Riccitiello was appointed to the position of chief operations officer in 1997. In that role, Riccitiello, who had no experience in the gaming industry prior to the appointment (he formerly took on executive positions at Clorox, PepsiCo and Sara Lee, among others), would oversee much of what happened at EA during this period.
The success of EA’s sports games, particularly Madden, flooded company coffers and helped turn EA into the then-largest publisher of video games. But that success encouraged it to take a heavy-handed approach to development that directly contributed to the company’s handling of its corporate acquisitions. Games that didn’t fit the sports model of yearly iterations and big profits were increasingly treated as though they should, leading to fiascoes such as the rushed completion of Magic Carpet 2: The Netherworlds in order to make a release that would garner holiday sales.
The Magic Carpet 2 situation is notable because it happened despite objections from its developers. “I have a feeling that development went on so long,” said Jon Rennie, one of the game’s developers, “that EA insisted on a quick sequel just to make more money while the stock was still high.”
Magic Carpet 2 was a failure and soon after, creator Peter Molyneux left EA to found Lionhead Studios. A third Magic Carpet game was never made, and Bullfrog Productions was shut down. It wasn’t the only studio shuttered; other acquired companies that also became casualties were Command & Conquer developers Westwood Studios and Wing Commander and Ultima developer Origin Systems.
Electronic Arts gained further notoriety in 2004 when it became subjected to criticism over the EA Spouse blog, which exposed the severity of the company’s practices and its treatment of employees, who were reported to work long hours with no overtime. By then, some gamers had begun referring to the company as the “evil empire.” (1 | 2) That same year, Riccitiello left EA to co-found Elevation Partners with U2 frontman Bono, Fred Anderson and a few other investors from Silver Lake Partners.
In 2005, Elevation Partners invested $300 million in both Pandemic Studios and BioWare and merged the two to create the largest independent developer in the world. That partnership would last fewer than two years — in October 2007, Elevation Partners agreed to sell the two studios to Electronic Arts for a staggering $860 million; as the deal was concluded, Riccitiello quit Elevation Partners and was appointed CEO of Electronic Arts by Probst, who retained his role as chairman of the board.