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Smith: A Premature Burial of Electronic Arts

EA Sports

As the late Catholic historian John Dalberg-Acton said, “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Look no further than video game publisher Electronic Arts for a modern day example. The company (and others like it) have been under fire for their use of randomized loot boxes players pay real money for (i.e. gambling), and has now attracted the attention of Congress.

Hawaii state representative Chris Lee condemned what he describes as “predatory practices” in video games last week, and made a specific example of the recently released Electronic Arts title “Star Wars Battlefront 2.”

The game itself is an abomination of game design forcing players to spend money on random rewards if they hope to compete against the online hordes. The game itself is $60, but to get everything you need in terms of in-game supplies, you can spend upwards of $1,500.

Or you can get rewarded by grinding through the repetitive multi-player mode. Electronic Arts made some panicked, last-minute changes to the progression system to appease consumers, but before then, it would have taken more than 4,000 hours to unlock everything.

That high barrier, and pretty much every other system in the game, encourages players to skip the artificial grind of leveling up by spending real money — like you would in a mobile game. Most mobile games are free until you start paying, though.

Rep. Lee is one year younger than me, and is likely one of the few congressman who understand (or care) about Electronic Arts’ shady business practices. He described ”’Star Wars Battlefront 2″ as a “Star Wars-themed online casino designed to lure kids into spending money.”

I couldn’t have said it any better. I’m tempted to move to Hawaii just to vote for him. Fellow state reps have already heard Lee’s cry of “monolith game publisher pushes gambling to children,” and it’s a rallying cry that knows no partisanship bounds.

Most hardcore gamers saw this coming. And you think someone at EA would have warned the clueless company executives. But when you live in a bubble of greed and disdain for your customers, it’s easy to sell yourself on the idea that gamers would grumble a bit before coughing up the dough.

Odds are, “Star Wars Battlefront II” will still make a lot of money, and EA suspended the loot boxes when their partner, Big Daddy Disney, intervened. That was before multiple countries like Belgium and Australia launched investigations into loot boxes to determine if they should be made illegal.

I can hear the scraping sounds of Big Daddy Disney sharpening his blade, getting ready to ax at least a few clueless executives for the bad press. Disney came awfully close to tainting their own brand a few decades ago when artists snuck in hidden sexual references in movies such as “Aladdin” and “The Lion King.”

I’m probably letting my paranoid gaming activism show, but there’s the minute chance that Disney could buy and shutter EA altogether to avoid the bad press. When it comes to video games, Electronic Arts is one of the two biggest game publishers in the industry, along with Activision. But they’re nothing more than a crumb on billion dollar table set by Disney, and protecting the “Star Wars” franchise is of utmost importance to them.

Rise of power, descent of decency

I’m old enough to remember when Electronic Arts was a small, ambitious studio that earned the respect of gamers through unique, off-the-wall action and adventure games. Their early sports games greatly outpaced their competitors, and adding a name like John Madden helped immensely with that.

Electronic Arts were the cool kids of the video game world. They didn’t make games for the Nintendo Entertainment System, because Nintendo demanded exclusivity. They instead made their name on the Sega Genesis console.

My personal favorite was the Genesis port of “Populous.” Considered to be the first “God game,” “Populous” (which was released the same year as the original Sim City) let the player decided the fate of a planet by building structures, changing the shape of the land and guiding followers. The more your followers worshiped you, the more power you had to unleash natural disasters on non-believers.

“Populous” was relatively unknown when it came out, and I could only find it at the long-defunct Video Warehouse (which now houses the Mississippi Valley Regional Blood Center). The cartridges Electronic Arts put out were quite different from other games, featuring a plastic yellow tab on the right side for no particular reason.

That’s part of what made Electronic Arts so cool. It didn’t follow the crowd. The company considered their games works of art, and would sometimes credit the game’s creators on the front of the box in a “Steven Spielberg presents” kind of way. Money seemed secondary, even if it wasn’t. It was a benefit of good, original work.

But then EA started to grow, swallowing every company in their wake. First it was the “Populous” developer Bullfrog and Origin Systems, responsible for the “Wing Commander” series. These days, Electronic Arts shuts down every developer it buys, watering down the developer’s unique games to the point of faceless homogenization. Electronic Arts recently closed down Pandemic Studio, which was in the middle of making a single-player, story-driven “Star Wars” game. The idea from now on is to focus on cheaper multiplayer games that can make millions through micro-transactions and loot boxes.

It would have worked, if millennial gamers hadn’t caused such a stink. I’ve said it before, but Millennials don’t take any crap. I wish I was more like them.

Hopefully we can dance on the grave of Electronic Arts in the near future. It has finally been exposed for the greedy corporate dinosaur it is, and competing companies are piling on, advertising their games as quality works untainted by sleazy gambling mechanics.

They’re the cool kids now.

Smith: A Premature Burial of Electronic Arts | Clay & Milk
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