Electronic Arts (EA) is one of the biggest and most successful video game companies in the world. It is the publisher/developer for some of the most iconic game series ever released: “FIFA,” “Madden,” “Battlefield,” “The Sims” and “Mass Effect.” Even if you’ve never heard of EA, chances are you have played at least one of their games. But apparently all this success in the industry comes at a price: EA is universally despised by gamers. It was voted for the worst company in America in both 2012 and 2013 and remains to be the number one bad guy in terms of public perception. How did a company with so many great games under its belt manage to piss everyone off? When did EA become the villain we all know and hate today?
I personally believe that turning point to be 2010, when EA introduced their Project Ten Dollar (PTD). It was then-CEO John Riccitiello’s plan to reduce second-hand sales, which the company makes no money from. The idea of PTD was to include a coupon or redeemable in every new game that would give the buyer the ability to unlock “extra” content, which is really just original content locked behind a code so that second hand buyers would have to pay an extra $10 to get access to that same content. This good-for-business but anti-consumer practice marked the precedent of EA’s increasingly egregious monetization schemes.
Then, there was the Day-One Downloadable Content (DLC) in “Mass Effect 3” (ME3). The whole idea behind DLC is to provide extra content to a “feature complete” a game if it sells well, and there’s a demand for more. But having a DLC on the day the game launches meant that the “extra” content is really part of the original game that has been stripped away and locked behind a paywall so that consumers have to fork over extra cash to get the complete experience. In ME3’s case, that DLC was $20. EA loved this scheme.
The company’s then COO Peter Moore was quoted in an interview with “Gamasutra,” saying, “The other key thing is selling digital content on the day of launch…When we sold ‘Mass Effect 3’ back in March, we saw a 40 percent attach rate that first week to DLC at GameStop in the United States. Not only are you selling a $60 game…you’re selling $20 DLC, so the sale becomes $80.”
But compared to what comes next, this DLC nonsense is just child’s play. This decade saw the dangerous rise of micro-transactions and loot-boxes in gaming. EA was among the first of big publishers to inject these practices into $60 AAA titles. In 2009, EA introduced a new mode into their beloved sports series FIFA called Ultimate Team, where you collect players through opening card packs and try to assemble the titular ultimate team, and you can spend real-life money to buy more packs. This mode was included in every release since. This year’s Ultimate Team not only out sold the base game with pack sales, but also makes up 28 percent of EA’s revenue, which is utterly ridiculous. There was even a story of a man spending $16,000 on packs in UT, which he only learned after he requested EA disclose his customer data. People have spent so much money because the odds of getting the rarest players, the “Ones to Watch” (as it’s called in-game), is less than one percent, as revealed by EA, which is raking in a ludicrous amount by putting glorified gambling in their games and exploiting consumers.
Surprisingly, FIFA did not garner much controversy. The real wave of backlash really hit when EA released “Star Wars: Battlefront II” in 2017. Not only did the game feature loot-boxes at launch, they were several pay-to-win. Unlocking content was also incredibly costly, both in time and money. According to Soeren Kamper on “Star Wars Gaming,” it would take 4,528 hours of gameplay (or $2,100) to unlock all base-game content. When asked about this, the EA community team responded on Reddit by saying that “The intent is to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking different heroes.” This response instantly became a meme and remains to be the most downvoted comment in Reddit history.
The fact that “Star Wars” is a hugely popular franchise meant that there was widespread outrage over “Battlefront II.” Mainstream media started covering it. “Star Wars” parent company Disney noticed and expressed concern about what EA was doing with the brand. The backlash extended to other EA games like “Ultimate Team.” The situation got so out of hand that it prompted government intervention across Europe and the United States. Belgium out-right banned loot-boxes, and a U.S. senator is now introducing a bill to ban loot-boxes and pay-to-win micro-transactions, which has garnered bi-partisan support. More research is also being done in the meantime to determine whether purchasing loot-boxes constitutes gambling.
Despite all this, CEO Andrew Wilson said the company is “pushing forward” with loot-boxes despite regulations, saying that packs in Ultimate Team is not gambling and that “We’re always thinking about our players. We’re always thinking about how to deliver these types of experiences in a transparent, fun, fair and balanced way for our players.” In a recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) hearing, an EA representative said that they do not consider loot-boxes to be loot-boxes. They countered that they are “surprise mechanics” like kinder eggs and are “quite ethical.” This absurd defense of loot-boxes sparked further outrage and ridicule and the term “surprise mechanics” became a joke overnight.
EA’s recent release, “Apex Legends,” just generated a huge controversy regarding its new event items, which can only be obtained through event-specific loot-boxes (though there are no duplicate drops). Only two of these loot-boxes can be earned in game, while players would have no other option than to spend money to get the remaining 22 items. Each loot-box costs $7, so that’s $154 total if you want to get all the items. But this isn’t even the worst part. There is another item called the Raven’s Bite that can only be obtained when the player has all 24 event items. And here’s the catch. It costs an additional $35 dollars. That’s $189 worth of micro-transactions. Players literally have to pay to play.
You’d think with EA’s shady business practices netting them billions every year, they would at least be making good games every year. But that’s not the case at all. Instead, there’s been a decline in quality of games in recent years. The games aren’t terrible per se, but they all suffer from a lack of content. “Battlefield 5,” for example, had so many “coming soon” sections at launch, it looked like it wasn’t even a finished product. The same goes with “Star Wars: Battlefront I” and “Star Wars: Battlefront II.” They looked and played great, sure, but there aren’t enough maps and modes. There was no single player campaign in the first and only a short campaign with a nonsensical story in the second. Each annual release of “FIFA” and “Madden” sees little to no improvement from the last. It’s clear that EA doesn’t care about making a feature complete and enjoyable experience for consumers. As of writing this article, EA just announced former “FIFA” producer David Rutter, the guy that brought us Ultimate Team, has taken on the role of General Group Manager and will now be leading studios behind the “Battlefield” series, the “Star Wars: Battlefront series” and the “Need for Speed” series. The company has its priority set: squeeze as much money out of the consumer as possible.
Of course, EA isn’t the only AAA gaming publisher to engage in operation milking the customer dry. But it’s their dishonesty, deflections and a general sense of contempt, or at least indifference toward the consumers, that gets people so riled up. For example, regarding mircro-transactions in “Battlefront II,” design director Niklas Fegraeus assured fans that the game wouldn’t be pay-to-win: “No, it’s not about buying the winning item,” he said. “That’s not how it works. No one can say, ‘I’m going to spend my zillion dollars, and then I’m going to dominate.’ That’s not how it works.”
EA’s descent into villainy and infamy started with “Ultimate Team” in 2009 and “Project Ten Dollar” in 2010 and has become the number one big bad in the gaming industry since, with no signs of redeeming itself. With so many highly questionable business practices and so many insincere and disheartening comments, the accurate image of EA emerges: an embodiment of absolute corporate greed, with no regard for the consumer. It’s all about money. EA wasn’t always the worst, but now it will forever be remembered as probably the lowest video game company to have ever existed. When it eventually goes away, I think celebrations will be in order.