Posted by Josh Townsend on June 6, 2017.
In early May reports surfaced that Bioware Montreal, a division of the long-established game studio acquired by EA in 2007, has been relegated to a ‘support’ studio following the fairly disastrous release of Mass Effect Andromeda earlier in 2017. This has caused some concern that Bioware’s days are numbered, due to EA’s established pattern of closing down smaller studios. While Bioware as a whole is still operational, Bioware Montreal is the latest of EA’s acquisitions to be reorganised or relegated in some way after a botched game release – and most if not all other EA-owned studios in the same situation have later gone on to be shut down completely.
It is clear that Mass Effect Andromeda did not have enough time in development to meet all the hopes of the publisher and consumers; Jonathan Cooper, a former animator at Bioware, provided some insight into just how time consuming such aspects as facial animations (one of Andromeda’s most notorious shortcomings) can be for a studio, even taking time away from other aspects of development as the game designers have to do much of the basic work to synchronise a character’s facial movements with dialogue, rather than the whole process being handled by the animation team. While Cooper is careful not to place any blame on EA, his Twitter thread does point out that a five-year cycle is too short a time to give a game with the scope of Mass Effect Andromeda the level of polish it requires, and EA is notorious for holding its developers to restrictive, harsh deadlines that often negatively impact the quality of the final product.
Anyone who’s been following the game industry, and EA in particular, might see this as a red flag for Bioware’s future. EA has been buying successful, smaller developers only to later relegate or rebrand them, then finally shut them down completely with alarming regularity. This ‘EA Pattern’ even conforms to a standard formula: the studio is bought by EA, allowed to produce games relatively autonomously under its own branding; the first few games are generally more successful, thanks to the resources and publishing power of EA; as a franchise or brand grows in recognisability and selling power, EA begins to exert more direct control, often making stricter release dates and reorganising the development team to best capitalise on the studio’s marketability; eventually, either through executive interference or time constraints, a project will ‘fail’ critically or commercially, leading to an almost immediate relegation of the studio to being absorbed or reshuffled into EA’s structure; this is eventually followed by the full termination of that brand, often with accompanying job losses. Origin Systems, Bullfrog Productions, Maxis, Westwood Studios, Mythic Entertainment and Pandemic studios are just some of the most recognisable developers that have fallen victim to the EA Pattern.
While it would be tedious to analyse every EA-bought developer’s conformity to this pattern, it’s shocking how completely both Bioware and Origin fit the model, despite Origin being EA’s first gaming acquisition, 15 years before the purchase of Bioware. In Origin’s case, its demise began with the critically panned Ultima VIII, and was ultimately sealed with the release of Ultima IX, a title now held as a benchmark for botched development. While it’s common, especially in modern game design, for a project to undergo several pre-alpha iterations and drafts which can be wildly different from each other, Ultima IX’s early changes and redesigns did not play well with EA’s tendency towards strict release schedules. Despite this, production of Ultima IX did begin to pick up pace, but was interrupted just before the alpha testing phase when EA moved a large portion of the team abruptly to a different project – Ultima Online. Unanticipated success during UO’s testing phase prompted EA to reshuffle Origin’s teams in order to accelerate the online game’s release, thus causing Ultima IX’s development to flounder.
Although production did resume after Ultima Online’s completion, Ultima IX suffered from its limited remaining production time and having its team moved back and forth. This coupled with the difficulty of adapting to graphical and technological advances led to an unfinished product being shipped, and EA’s marketing strategy alienated many fans of the Ultima series in general. With poor reception and disappointing sales, Ultima IX’s release ended the series and ultimately Origin as well. Although not formally dissolved until five years later in 2004, Origin was never able to complete another project, and Ultima IX was their final game.
It may seem unfair to single out Electronic Arts over this; EA picks up enough criticism in the gaming industry, having been voted the worst company in America two years in a row. While some of its reputation might not be completely justified, its handling of the smaller studios it acquires is uniquely bad among other large developers. Ubisoft, Activision and Warner Brothers – three other studios with somewhat tarnished reputations over their consumer practices – all have much better track records, at least in this area.
Activision has made 14 acquisitions, of which five have been shut down since their purchase; Ubisoft has made nine acquisitions only one of which has been shut down, and Warner Brothers has acquired five gaming companies and shut down two of them. While EA is certainly not the only company to have closed down its acquisitions, it is significantly ahead of the competition with at least 12 of their 37 acquisitions have been made defunct in some way or another. Bioware’s demise is not guaranteed, but if the EA Pattern holds true the total will be brought up to 13.
In 2008, EA’s then-CEO John Riccitiello accepted that the company was responsible for the smaller studios’ closures, rather than putting the blame on developers for failing to meet deadlines or polish their games. However, as the closure of Maxis Emeryville in 2013 and the new situation with Bioware show, EA is still far from changing its behaviour.
Although the sector for non-gaming software and technological companies shares many similarities with the gaming industry, the EA Pattern is much less prevalent outside of gaming. If any company has a reputation for something similar, the only real candidate is Yahoo. Yahoo’s record for closing down the companies it acquires puts EA to shame – as of 2014, Yahoo had bought nearly 40 start-ups, more than 30 of which have since been closed down. What distinguishes Yahoo from EA, however, is that when Yahoo closes a studio or a start-up, as it did with Blink in 2014, it tends to absorb the personnel, putting them to use on Yahoo projects rather than severing them completely. Usually when an EA-owned studio gets the axe, the employees and their jobs go along with it.
It’s very difficult to tell how much the closures of its sub-studios play in to EA’s frequent layoffs, since the company’s habit of ‘restructuring’ can hide former small-studio employees in the corporate structure. However, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t direct job losses from smaller studio closures; over April and May 2013, EA closed the Vancouver division of its Popcap brand, as well as EA Partners, a division intended specifically to be an umbrella for smaller studios and brands, causing a spate of layoffs aimed at reducing its 9,000-strong workforce by 10%.
EA has had a reputation for stifling innovation, favouring mostly ‘safe’ projects with a heavy emphasis on first person shooters, annual sports games and sequels to popular franchises. By contrast, many of the studios bought and later killed by EA are (or at least, were) known for creating unique, innovative games – Populous, Theme Park and Theme Hospital from Bullfrog; the Ultima series from Origin; The Sims and SimCity games from Maxis and the Command & Conquer series from Westwood have all been considered landmarks of the gaming industry on their release.
The video-game industry is still in a healthy state, and can withstand harmful practices like the EA Pattern, but the damage being done is visible. Heavy-handed layoffs of designers, artists and programmers when the studios are shut down, create stagnation in the field and make it harder for talented game creators to find work. What amounts to a systematic dismantling of innovative or unique studios homogenises the marketplace, preventing gaming in general from expanding its audience or growing more inclusive. It’s too simplistic to paint Electronic Arts as ‘the bad guy’ of the gaming industry, but EA needs to address some of its worst practices. While its sheer size and power within the industry make it seem invincible, actively harming your own market cannot make good business sense.Submitted in: Expert Views, Josh Townsend |