The Ultimate EA Retrospective: In-Depth on Riccitiello’s Legacy
The Great SimCity Debacle
The final nail in Riccitiello’s coffin, it seems, was the disastrous release of SimCity.
Maxis’ PC-only SimCity franchise had always been popular, but never wildly so in terms of sales. The reboot was hotly anticipated, but fundamental changes to the franchise’s formula — it required the game to be connected to the Internet at all times, and turned what was a single-player experience into a social, somewhat multiplayer one — met with criticism months before the game’s launch.
SimCity still sold more than a million copies on its launch day, however, outpacing every title in the franchise to date. But it turns out that critics’ warnings about the persistent Internet requirement were dead-on: Maxis apparently wasn’t ready for so many players, and the always-on requirement suddenly turned into a noose. More than a week passed before players could reliably connect to the game, and server requirements and overloading caused saved game data to disappear.
Modders exploring the game’s code quickly discovered that the always-online requirement, repeatedly emphasized by Maxis as being completely necessary to gameplay, was limited only to facilitating digital rights management and the game’s social components — it wasn’t vital to playing SimCity, as Maxis claimed. Once again, EA meddling was blamed among players, and the debacle became yet another symbol of the perceived rot at the top of the company.
It wasn’t just consumers who piled on, but critics too. Pre-launch reviews of SimCity were conducted on a version of the game hosted on dedicated press servers at an invitation-only event. The press outlets that played this version of the game came away largely pleased, and Metacritic review scores started out strong in the region of 80 and 90. After launch and the horrendous technical problems led to negative word of mouth and a rash of bad reviews, SimCity’s review average plummeted to around 65. That happens frequently on Metacritic, but what makes this somewhat unique is that some critics who had loved the game during the press-only period rethought their opinion after seeing SimCity in the wild. Polygon famously revised its review of the game downward from 8.0 to 4.0 as a direct result of the abysmal consumer experience (although Metacritic rules mean that Polygon’s first, extremely high score will remain the score of record in the average).
While EA is famously cagey about actual sales figures, anecdotal evidence suggests sales of SimCity also have plummeted. As the dust began to settle surrounding SimCity, EA acknowledged that it would miss profit projections yet again, and Riccitiello’s fate seemed sealed. He resigned — or was removed — as CEO, effective at the end of March 2013.
Riccitiello leaves behind a mixed legacy at Electronic Arts. His contributions include an emphasis, at least in his early years, on big budget risks with unproven properties and new game genres. It’s difficult to imagine Activision letting a BioWare deliver something like Mass Effect, much less promoting it enough to push it to 6 million copies sold.
He also led a push towards making games social, interconnected experiences, something for which he will likely be seen as an innovator. More notably, under his direction, EA went from being regarded as one of the worst places to work to one of the most inclusive and generous workplaces in the industry. EA’s support for LGBT equality earned it a spot on the Human Rights Campaign’s “Best Places to Work for LGBT Equality” list once in 2008 and again in 2010.
But Riccitiello’s tenure also enjoys the dubious distinction of seeing EA voted Consumerist’s Worst Company in America in 2012. The company under his direction has seen several bitter controversies that have split fans and damaged subsidiary brands again and again. EA’s business practices, with focuses on always-online digital rights management, Day One DLC and online passes, are widely seen as anti-consumer and, in some cases, as outwardly hostile to the customers who purchase its products.
As Riccitiello exits, EA’s reputation is perhaps the worst it has ever been. And despite the fact that the larger economic downturn has affected all businesses, Electronic Arts has consistently missed quarterly earnings projections, suggesting either a failure to accurately assess the business, or to manage it.
Whoever takes over the post of CEO at EA is going to have to deal with those challenges head-on without undermining the successes the company has enjoyed with the direction Riccitiello turned the company toward in 2008. But where the company goes from here will largely be determined by the man or woman Electronic Arts hires to steer going forward, and whether EA continues down the path Riccitiello helped blaze is, at this point, anyone’s guess.
Ross Lincoln and Phil Hornshaw contributed to this report. Read more of Ian Miles Cheong’s work here, Ross Lincoln’s work here and Phil Hornshaw’s work here. Follow Cheong, Hornshaw, Lincoln and Game Front on Twitter: @stillgray, @rossalincoln, @philhornshaw and @gamefrontcom.