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Game On: Electronic Arts’ business is to make money, appease investors, stockholders

UPDATED: Thu., April 29, 2021

By Riordan Zentler For The Spokesman-Review

Electronic Arts is the second-largest game publisher in the Americas and Europe, a veritable video game giant. The company is perhaps best-known for churning out annual sports games such as “Madden” and “FIFA,” but the company has its hands in everything from “Dead Space” to “Bejeweled.”

As with other entertainment industries, video game publishers act as the middleman between developers and gamers. This means publishers are responsible for getting game discs and cartridges created and shipped to stores, but they also control the advertising that goes into a game’s release.

I still remember being utterly baffled by the sheer randomness of a “Titanfall’’ and 5 Hour Energy advertising partnership in 2013, and we have EA to thank for it. Because publishers play such an important role in grabbing the attention and cash of consumers, they often hold a significant amount of sway over what developers can and can’t put in their games.

Making a title a touch more marketable is often a good move, but it can be a slippery slope. In a way, EA is really good at what it does. The company has a penchant for acquiring studios and trimming all the fat until nothing but pure profit remains.

Studios like Bullfrog Entertainment and Westwood Studios ended up acquired and liquidated, while others such as Maxis have become faced with ever-dwindling creative input with their products.

Maxis once created “Spore” and every single offshoot of the popular “SimCity” franchise such as “SimTower” and “SimEarth.” The studio was acquired by EA in 1997, and, since 2013, the publisher has relegated Maxis to creating an endless pipeline of purchasable add-ons for “The Sims,” a dollhouse-esque series that has changed very little across four titles and 21 years.

Much of the original visionary talent of Maxis has moved on, but there remains a number of talented individuals whose skills and creativity are being stunted in the interest of maintaining steady revenue. Most of the add-ons for “The Sims” are purely cosmetic – new outfits, furniture, etc.

Now imagine toiling away for years at this while other developers are crafting entire worlds like CD Projekt Red with “Cyberpunk 2077,” innovating virtual reality like Valve with “Half-Life: Alyx” or exploring new ways to tell stories like Naughty Dog with “The Last of Us: Part II.”

It’s not for lack of resources, either. Maxis has competent developers, and the overlords at EA have boatloads of cash. Besides stifling the creative freedom of many of the development teams, EA has also come under fire for several years for increasingly predatory microtransactions.

Across games like “Star Wars: Battlefront,” “FIFA” and “Battlefield,” they’ve locked more and more content behind paywalls. It’s not enough to pay for the game, you also have to plunk down more cash for the full experience. That includes cosmetic items as well as earlier access to more powerful weapons and characters.

On April 26, CBC News reported on a leaked internal company document from EA’s sports division in British Columbia, the team responsible for “FIFA.” The documents detail the primary game mode of the upcoming “FIFA 21,” which reportedly has a heavy focus on “loot boxes.”

Purchasable via real-life cash, loot boxes will increase a gamer’s chances of winning games, for instance, by adding a better player to the roster. It’s worth noting that all EA games can be played without purchasing extra content or loot boxes, but players are either locked out of certain features or else the path to unlocking such add-ons is a formidable grind.

I sunk more than 300 hours into “Apex Legends” to unlock every character. Luckily, I enjoyed every second. At the end of the day, the goal of EA’s business is to make money and appease investors and stockholders. They’ve run a successful company since 1982, but, in recent years, the gains have been immense.

According to annual reports from Niko Partners, EA has earned $1.49 billion in 2020 from loot boxes in sports titles alone, almost tripling the $587 million generated in 2015. While EA has its hands in many things besides loot boxes, the extra $1 billion sure can’t hurt. For better or worse, this isn’t a company that’s going to be going under any time soon.

And while EA has stifled the efforts of developers like Maxis, it has given loads of creative freedom and resources to Respawn Entertainment, the team responsible for “Titanfall,” “Apex Legends” and “Jedi: Fallen Order.” I hope the publisher sees fit to extend similar trust to other teams in the near future.

Riordan Zentler can be reached at riordanzentler@gmail.com.

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