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.

Exit Riccitiello

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.

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14 Comments on The Ultimate EA Retrospective: In-Depth on Riccitiello’s Legacy

R.J.

On March 24, 2013 at 3:41 pm

It’s true, there was a time where I really thought that EA had figured out why so many regarded them with disdain and was making genuine efforts to change that. New IPs, less interference, etc. all seemed like steps in the right direction. It’s quite sad to see that this attitude didn’t last, and EA slipped right back to pushing for more iterations of a franchise, and adding aspects like MP for the sake of more revenue, even when nobody asked for it. It’s very strange to think that a person who actually acknowledged the problems that EA had and pushed to change them would allow largely the same practices to return.

I would say that I hope that the next CEO learns from this, but EA has a tendency to see what it wants in a situation. More importantly, the damage has been done to any series that I care about, so it’s probably a moot issue for me.

Aedelric

On March 25, 2013 at 6:33 am

This is the bit that bothers me the most;

“it was no longer smart for developers and publishers to take years to develop their main IPs”

Rome was not built in a day, great works take time. To make an exceptional AAA game it takes a proportionally long time to create. Proof of concept is Dragon Age Origins and Dragon Age 2, shortage of time was one of the major points of why the squeal was so lacking and to read that short development time was the intentional plan of the CEO is quite disheartening.

Dragon Age 2 should have released last year, Mass Effect 3 two years from now.

I am not optimistic for EA’s future, not that I would shed a tear if the company folded. Good article Ian!

Dave Benson-Phillips

On March 25, 2013 at 7:35 am

Soulless, production line crap. Same as Activision. Neither company will be around for more than ten years if they don’t change their ways. Their base of ‘casual’ customers will eventually find another hobby and leave them trying desperately to get back in the good graces of those with longer memories and more morals.

Freedonadd

On March 25, 2013 at 8:53 am

Recently I have come to a realisation: Games are not supposed to be democratic.

Games are not supposed to be shaped to the majority. There are myriads of gamers within different genres and tastes, it is impossible to make the game everyone wants to play. If games seriously want to be viewed as an art form, they damn well shouldn’t cater the whims and desires of the crowd. But the likes of EA have constantly attempted it and the industry suffers for it. It needs to stop.

EA has become the epithet of this democratization of games. And they will tank for it.

Aedelric

On March 25, 2013 at 1:19 pm

You really are full of it Freedonadd.

Democracy has nothing to do with bad games. Bad games are created due to lack of innovation and more importantly corporate greed.

Horrid DRM caused by publisher greed, their fear of piracy, day one and micro DLC milking consumers due to publisher greed. Poorly made incomplete games created due to time restraints by publishers, time restraints due to greed, why fund a developer for four years when you can do it for 2 and cut costs in half.

To put it in language you can understand, capitalism is to blame.

Quim

On March 25, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Freedonadd – if that was true, EA would have forced BioWare to retcon the ending of Mass Effect 3, since the overwhelming majority hated it. If anything, there needs to be a lot more democracy – or at least diplomacy – in the industry than there is right now.

Roy Batty

On March 25, 2013 at 5:56 pm

I still contend that EA has fundamental management issues. Riccitiello does not seem to be a gamer nor is he cognizant of the technicals of the development (except possible in general terms…trends etc.). He had to rely on the management below him (yes it is his fault for hiring them) to deal with the day to day technical issues.

SimCity is a classic example of management failure – where was the management asking how many users can we handle? What’s the worst case scenario? What is the contingency plan? Do you have prepared statements from PR if there is a failure? These questions are something the subordinate managers and or project leads are supposed to be dealing with but there is clear incompetence.

Dan

On March 25, 2013 at 7:50 pm

Why is the creation and taking a bet on the Mass Effect franchise credited to EA? It was originally an Xbox 360 exclusive commissioned and published by Microsoft, before BioWare ended up in EA’s hands.

Able

On March 26, 2013 at 6:57 am

Dan – I guess some would argue that it was a risk for EA to buy the franchise. However, it was already massively popular, and EA of course forced significant changes to it for its sequels to make it ‘more marketable.’ Because, you know, a galactic rescue story involving dozens of diverse species fighting two-kilometre cybernetic holocaustal behemoths was clearly a niche premise.

Foehunter82

On March 26, 2013 at 8:02 am

@Freedonadd: I think I see what you’re driving at, but I have to agree with others that it wasn’t a democratization thing. I think what you’re trying to say is that there are developers (the ones that take deliberate steps to make a quality product, anyway) and fans that want to see games be accepted and respected as an art form. However, due to the capitalization of many studios and publishers, there enters this mindset of “more releases, more quickly, more money.” This inevitably leads to lower quality and situations where the people at the top (who are not necessarily the most knowledgeable about what their company makes) pushing things onto the studios for things that were not asked for in an attempt at making it as profitable as possible. This of course goes back to the artistic cliche: “If you want to do art (or music, films, games, whatever), do it because you love it, not to make money.” Once money becomes the driving factor of a creative endeavor, the soul of the endeavor leaves, and you inevitably end up with poor, mass-produced products.

@Dave Benson-Phillips: Aye, but just a few short years ago, there was this whole debate among gamers about whether or not the “casual” crowd was actually good for the industry or not. On the one hand, the extreme hardcore gamers insisted that “casual” meant “dumbed-down” (which is true in at least some cases), but on the other you had other, more open-minded hardcore gamers saying, “If we can get more casual gamers involved, they’ll become hardcore gamers.” Sadly, it seems that this last one (which I tended to agree with), didn’t really pan out. So now, we’ve got developers making games “casual-friendly” so players don’t really have to play and work for their progress, they just have to have enough money to buy their progress.

@Roy Batty: I agree completely. EA probably will never change as long as the people at the top keep being people that have no idea what it takes to actually make a game. They seem to be dragging the mass production mindset from other industries into the games industry.

LaughterJones

On March 26, 2013 at 8:35 am

Gamefront – continually showing why I visit this site, great article.

On topic – as previously stated, it seems that there aren’t gamers in EA making the critical choices. Day 1 DLC, ME3 ending, etc, these are prime examples of non-gamers directing creativity. Yes, there has to be balance between profitability and creative design, but that balance must exist.

Gamers, especially PC gamers, are finicky and have a long-memory. We can’t be betrayed and then soften the blow with a free game.

Phil Hornshaw

On March 26, 2013 at 10:29 am

@Dan

It’s not that EA gets credit for Mass Effect, but heavy funding for what was essentially an RPG series (in fact, two of them, if you want to talk about Dragon Age) could be seen as something of a gamble. So we’re talking about Mass Effect 2 and beyond, which EA backed financially and in that way, helped make happen.

Freedonadd

On March 26, 2013 at 4:07 pm

Ok, let me first apologise for my earlier words. I feel they were poorly chosen. I tend to get a little worked up when it’s about EA and game industry in general. But I do want to engage in a educated and sophisticated debate so, having the time to put my thoughts together, bear with me and let me try again:

The point I was trying to make earlier is that games have been trying to appeal to a broader audience with each generation. The thing is, for games to grow alongside the gamer base, it required insane amounts of money as gaming became a more and more popular hobby and the gamer base turned into this huge market that companies are faced with.

That’s my point of contention here. The Market for games grew way too fast, popular games in the past became genres today, coupled with a whole lot of rabid fans demanding ever more. And faced with this huge crowd, what did companies like EA did? Paraphrasing the words from Mr. Sterling “It was like giving infinite ice cream to a toddler, it just gobled and gobled and gobled until it could take no more”.

Do you seriously think when EA states that “Gamers want more and more interaction and social features” they’re pulling this completely out of their asses? Most of it yes, but the gamer demographic are so huge, one won’t need to look very deep to find any crowd that validates any kind of belief you have about “what gamers want”. This, I think, is how EA kept pulling the wool over their own eyes to this day.

A typical example of this, that doesn’t even come from EA specifically, is the recent Game Cover Shenanigans (Yeah I like to name these little events, who knows it might end up on a history of gaming book or something). Companies claim that woman on covers don’t sell, Irrational Games went to ask frat boys, who wasn’t even aware that bioshock was a thing, for opinions on what the Bioshock Infinite front cover should look like. They didn’t ask me, or you, or anyone in this comment session if I can venture a guess m’self. They asked frakking frat boys. Why? Because they’re a potential consumer base. Today, frat boys are considered “gamers” too.

So when publishers think of their consumer base, they have those frat boys in mind too, as well as any soccer mom who does the game shopping for their kids. They consider not only their game niche. They don’t go looking for input on the many forums dedicated to one game genre or another. They’re taking the whole into account. Yes that means if a COD player says he loves multiplayer and microtransactions and shooting his friends in the face and then bugging the everloving crap out of everyone unfortunate enough to be in his Facebook list, that is going to be factored in the next Mass Effect game design.

So no. Mass Effect didn’t and still don’t need “gamer democracy”. In fact, if ME3 have multiplayer and it’s ending needs fixing, you have that sort of “democracy” to blame. Cover blunder aside, Bioshock Infinite discarded those misconceptions of the larger crowd, and instead focused on the opinions and needs of the few who are in love with the franchise and – look at that!! – It’s a critical success already!!!

sorry for the long rant.

Foehunter82

On March 26, 2013 at 10:38 pm

@Freedonadd: Hey, man, I understand and respect your point of view. Thanks for clarifying, btw. Yeah, I agree with you completely. The older game companies (which have merged into mass production conglomerates) have essentially abandoned their old way of doing things. It used to be you could turn to a game company here and there for a certain kind of game, like each company specialized in what it did best. As we all know, historically Bioware has been known as an RPG-specialist developer that brought some shooter elements into the mix when they made Mass Effect. Now, I don’t mind this sort of genre-merging. I think it’s good for the growth of the games industry in general. However, I agree that there are times when this sort of genre-merging brings in players that traditionally were not fans of either genre. So, returning to the Mass Effect example above (the one I can think of off the top of my head), you end up with people wanting more action in the game. When Mass Effect 2 was released it was more of a 25%RPG/75%FPS, clearly pulling away from the RPG elements that Bioware was known for. Progressing further, you end up with some CEO getting it into their head that all games should be a “service” rather than a product so the average gamer can keep paying to play on some level. I buy games to avoid the Facebook-style microtransaction crap required to advance. I don’t mind replaying the game a few times to unlock things through normal play, but I don’t like the idea of having to purchase some software key to unlock something in order to advance in a certain way.

In short, I believe that game companies need to specialize in one or two genres of games and focus their efforts on making games for those genres. If they take the time to make good, quality games from their chosen genre they WILL be profitable. Trying to be everything to everybody is something that the games industry, and technology companies in general, seem to be suffering from nowadays. Take Microsoft, for instance. Not content to make operating systems, they want to branch out into consoles, phones, search engines. It’s almost like these companies are those sorts of people that go after the “get rich quick schemes” only to realize after a while that it was a bad idea. This is the impression I get from the game and technology companies these days, anyway.