EA Games: How to Succeed in Being the Worst Business Without Really Trying

The company culture of EA Games has changed noticeably since its inception. In the early years of the company, Electronic Arts Games, now commonly known as EA Games, did live up to their name. The founder of the company, Trip Hawkins, took a pro-designer approach in running the company (Underberg-Goode). For example, he would go to trade shows to recruit designers (Ibid). In addition to this, the way EA marketed their games at this time was unique. Unlike companies like Atari, EA put an emphasis on the artistry of game design, which is seen in how they packaged their games (Ibid). The boxes, or “album covers”, that games came in were custom made and prominently featured the game designers’ names (Ibid). By 2004 though, EA’s culture had become something far from this.

In 2004 a spouse of an EA employee started an online journal which detailed the harsh working conditions their significant other faced. Some of these conditions included 12-hour work days that lasted for several months, unpaid overtime, and 6 day work weeks (Williams). On top of that, these conditions would only get worse once the deadline for a game approached (Ibid). Granted, at the time such conditions were not novel for those working in the game industry and EA Games was not the only studio utilizing such practices (Ibid). However, this did not stop backlash and controversy from occurring. Due in part to the information shared by this EA spouse, there began to be a push for better working conditions for game designers and others in the game industry (Ibid). Unfortunately, 10 years after the EA spouse controversy things were only slightly better. A study found that while crunch and other harsh working conditions had slightly decreased (19% of respondents in 2014 had not crunched in two years, compared to 2.4% in 2004), they were still widely present and even considered by some in the industry to be a necessary evil (Ibid).

Contemporary EA games are generally not as well regarded as their previous titles. This is because more recent EA games have heavily utilized paid DLC, sometimes to the point where most of a game’s features are unavailable unless the player purchases DLC. An example of this is the Sims 4. Unlike previous titles in the Sims series, upon its release the Sims 4 was a noticeable step backward from its predecessors. Multiple gameplay features that were staples of the series were absent.  This understandably upset many fans. Things got slightly better when eventually some of these features were added to the game. However, the way EA went about adding them created more controversy. For example, the life stage of toddlers, which was present in the base game for the Sims 2 and 3, was part of a DLC that came out several months after the Sims 4 release (though technically they were part of a free patch). In addition to this, some of the features that are packaged as DLC for the Sims 4 are noticeably less dynamic compared to earlier versions (The Red Plumbob). Not to mention EA releasing a Sims 4 DLC that was explicitly not asked for by the community, such as the Star Wars themed Journey to Batuu (Lee).

The disdain for EA’s reliance on DLC is evident in the plethora of memes about the company.

While EA continues to be panned by many gamers, this has not gone unnoticed. After being voted the worst company in America for two years, in 2013 EA CEO Larry Probst vowed “This will not happen again” (Sherr). While it is nice to see a company show some semblance of self-awareness, I cannot say that they have been successful. In addition to the controversy with the Sims 4’s (which came out a year after Probst’s made his statement), other games like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order did not go over well with some fans, who while happy with the combat viewed it’s story as shallow and too short (Personal communication). While EA might eventually redeem its reputation as a major game studio, it seems they are uninterested in returning to a company culture focused on artistry and respect for game designers.

Sources

Bush, Benjamin. Personal communication. 6 Mar. 2020.

Lee, Jess. “The Sims 4 poll: What packs would you like to see in 2020?.” Digital Spy, 1 Feb. 2020, https://www.digitalspy.com/tech/a30380958/sims-4-2020-packs-poll/.

Sherr, Ian. “How Electronic Arts stopped being the worst company in America.” CNET, 2 Jun. 2015, cnet.com/news/how-electronic-arts-stopped-being-the-worst-company-in-america/.

 “Sims 2 vs Sims 3 vs Sims 4: Aliens.” YouTube, uploaded by The Red Plumbob, 12 April 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhzY-P2OVR4.

“Sims 1 – Sims 2 – Sims 3 – Sims 4: Magic Spells.” YouTube, uploaded by The Red Plumbob, 28 October 2019, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mVFbw8UDsAU.

“Sims 2 vs Sims 3 vs Sims 4: PlantSims.” YouTube, uploaded by The Red Plumbob, 24 May 2017, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F-sE16g7Nhw.

This is worthless EA DLC meme. MEME, me.me/i/ea-game-without-the-paid-dlc-woah-u-sneon-thi-s-48986dd6a5c2475dbe1d295e84579c98

Underberg-Goode, Natalie. “Chapter 3: Early Arcade Games and Consoles.” The Evolution of Video Games. Great River Learning, 2018. ucf.grtep.com/index.cfm/videogameevolution/page/chapter3videogameconsoles.

Williams, Ian G. “Crunched: has the games industry really stopped exploiting its workforce?” The Guardian, 18 Feb. 2015, theguardian.com/technology/2015/feb/18/crunched-games-industry-exploiting-workforce-ea-spouse-software.

Goals & Feedback

For this post I chose three games and examined their goals and feedback. I believe the examples I chose show how a game’s goals influence how effective its feedback is.

GameGoalFeedback
Beat SaberCorrectly hit as many incoming blocks for
the entirety of a song
Display system showing when a player
misses or incorrectly hits a block
Civilization VI Become the most dominant civilization in
science, culture, religion, or military
Ranking system, reactions from NPCs
The Sims 4Simulate lifePositive and negative emotional states

In Beat Saber the feedback is more physical than in the other examples. When the player successfully strikes the incoming blocks a satisfying buzzing is felt in the hand controls. The controls also buzz when the player strikes the blocks in an incorrect way, but the sensation is different and not as satisfying. In addition to this physical feedback, there is also a counter that keeps track of combos and misses. At least according to screenshots and gameplay. Truth be told, I was unable to see anything other than the incoming blocks while playing Beat Saber. Granted part of this is due to me being nearsighted (the Oculus Rift can pose challenges to those of us with poor vision), but my unlucky genetics and/or long time screen usage is not totally to blame. The numbers are small and placed near the center of the screen. Considering players are focused on hitting the blocks, which are coming at them from the center of the screen, it is easy to not notice the counters.  And as I learned within my first 10 seconds of playing, it is important to keep track of misses. Should the player miss a certain number of blocks the game will end. If the counters were moved to the corners and enlarged it would be easier to notice them, which would allow them to serve as better feedback.

When you’re beating boxes with sabers there’s not much time to look for numbers.

The main feedback source for Civilization VI, a leaderboard, is standard and effective. However, while it is a minor feedback feature, the player’s relationship with other leaders (which can reflect ranking in the leaderboard) and how it is tracked is interesting. While leaders’ current disposition towards the player is indicated by icons on their portraits, figuring out what their feelings will be as the game progresses is not as clear. There is no visible bar showing where on the ally-enemy spectrum leaders lie. In gameplay, this means that after doing trades or giving gifts to a leader who hates me, there is no way to see how much (if at all) it improved our relationship. Some may see this as a feedback drawback, but I’d argue it adds to gameplay. By not giving too much detail of leaders’ feelings, Civilization VI forces the player to keep track of their previous interactions and rely on what they know about that historical figure in regards to what will please or displease them. For example, Gandhi is easily triggered by a military focused playstyle (fun fact: I once had Gandhi denounce me after I built two warrior units in a row, even though at the time those two units made up my entire armed forces). (Note: there is a DLC that adds an option for a diplomacy victory that I assume relies more on alliances and relationships than the base game, but I have not played it myself and was unable to determine via research if it adds anything to the feedback system).

Several trade agreements later, Catherine De Medici is still mad at me for conquering Dijon.

The feedback in Sims 4 at first doesn’t seem like it’s that bad, but like many aspects of that game it falls short. While there is a UI element that displays sims goals and wants (referred to in-game as “whims”), there is little indicating what will make sims unhappy besides the obvious (lack of sleep, food, etc.). In previous Sims games the UI featured fears as well as wishes and goals. I would argue this was a better feedback system as it clearly indicated what would make sims unhappy. This is significant because not all players want to make their sims happy. The goal of the game is to simulate life, and life is not always pleasant. Many a time while playing Sims 2 I intentionally made my sims fears come true to create more drama and realism. By foregoing the display of fears, Sims 4 gives less feedback to players making it harder for them to achieve the game’s goal of simulating life, whatever that might mean for the player.

In Sims 2 you can want and be afraid to have a baby. If that’s not an accurate simulation of life, I don’t know what is.

This post is based on Exercise 4.4: Goals and Feedback (“Pick three games and list the types of feedback generated in each. Then describe how the feedback relates to the ultimate goal of each game.”) from Chapter 4 of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games by Tracy Fullerton (quote taken from pg. 100).

Sources

Beat Saber. Prague: Beat Games, 2019.

Fullerton, Tracy. “Chapter 4: Working with Dramatic Elements” Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2019. PDF.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. New York, NY: 2K Games, 2016. Video Game.

The Sims 4. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts, 2014. Video Game.

Images

Beat Saber screenshot – “How To Download And Install New Custom Songs On Beat Saber – Summer 2020 Update.” UploadVr, https://uploadvr.com/download-install-new-custom-songs-beat-saber/.

Civilization VI screenshot – taken by the author.

The Sims 2 screenshot – “When you want to have a baby but it is also your fear” Reddit, https://www.reddit.com/r/thesims/comments/6egcx3/when_you_want_to_have_a_baby_but_it_is_also_your/.

10 Games & Their Objectives

I have always thought of myself as a gamer with a diverse taste. So when I came across an exercise in Tracy Fullerton’s Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games that challenged readers to define the types of games they like by objective, it seemed like a chance to test this perception of myself. Before I made a list of the games I like and their objectives, I speculated that there would be some similarities, but the biggest thing that would stand out would the differences between games. The following table shows 10 games I enjoy, a description of their main objectives, and the categories those objectives fall into.

GameMain ObjectiveObjective Type
The Elder Scrolls V: SkyrimFinish quests, clear dungeons, and explore the open worldCapture, Exploration
MinecraftBuild using resources gathered from exploring the worldConstruction, Exploration
Cards Against HumanityCollect the most black cards by coming up with the funniest card combinationOutwit
The Sims 4Simulate life and create buildingsConstruction
Lego Indiana Jones: The Original AdventuresComplete levels by defeating enemies and solving puzzlesCapture, Solution
Sid Meier’s Civilization VIBecome the most powerful civilization via culture, religion, science, or militaryCapture, Construction
Mahjong MasterClear the board by matching tilesAlignment
Assassin’s Creed IIComplete levels and missions using stealth and combatCapture
TennisWhen the ball is hit to you, hit it back at your opponentForbidden Act
Bar TriviaWork with a team to correctly answer questions about pop cultureOutwit

One of the things that struck me when compiling this list was the difficulty in narrowing down objective type. Many of the games have minor objectives or gameplay elements that could be classified as a sperate objective type. For example, in Minecraft there are monsters players can combat (i.e. capture objective), and in Assassin’s Creed II there are side missions involving chasing targets (i.e. chase objective). I also found it difficult for some of the games to pinpoint what objective category they fall into. With tennis I originally thought it fell into the capture objective, but after reviewing Fullerton’s descriptions of objective types I decided it was more in line with forbidden act. This is because the rules of tennis impose physical limitations that players must follow (e.g. don’t go into the opponents area or go over foul lines, hit the ball towards you opponent, etc.), which I felt made it more akin to the examples Fullerton gives for forbidden act objectives (e.g. Twister, Don’t Break the Ice) and her description of them as “involving stamina or flexibility, and sometimes just plain chance.” (Fullerton 71)

Based on the results of this exercise I feel that although the games I choose are diverse in their objectives, as was expected. However, upon reflecting as to why I gravitate towards these games, I found that it was not because of my desire to play a diverse range of games. Instead, I’m drawn to each of these games because of my desire to be creative, explore, and use my intelligence to solve problems. Even when I play a physical activity based game like tennis, my strategy to beat my opponent is to study their body language and moves to find a weak spot I can exploit. I take a similar approach when playing games that are primarily capture based, like Assassin’s Creed II and Skyrim. Another similarity I noticed was that most of the games have more than one type of main objective, as well as minor objectives of various types. My preference for games that are not unanimous in their objective I think reflects a larger trend in gaming, by both players and game designers, towards more dynamic and diverse gameplay by way of multiple different objectives.

This post is based on Exercise 3.4: Objectives (“List ten of your favorite games and name the objective for each. Do you see any similarities in these games? Try to define the type or types of games that appeal to you.”) from Chapter 3 of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games by Tracy Fullerton (quote taken from pg. 73).

Sources

Assassin’s Creed II. Montreal: Ubisoft, 2009. Video Game.

Dillon, Josh et al. Cards Against Humanity. Chicago, IL: Cards Against Humanity LLC, 2011. Card Game.

Fullerton, Tracy. “Chapter 3: Working with Formal Game Elements” Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2019. PDF.

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Bethesda, MD: Bethesda Game Studios, 2011. Video Game.

Lego Indiana Jones: The Original Adventures. San Francisco, CA: LucasArts, 2008. Video Game.

Mahjong Master. GB Games, 2013. Android App.

Minecraft. Stockholm: Mojang Studios, 2011. Video Game.

Sid Meier’s Civilization VI. New York, NY: 2K Games, 2016. Video Game.

The Sims 4. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts, 2014. Video Game.

Games & Their Challenges

The Sims 4 – Challenge: Being a Simulation

As the name implies, the objective of The Sims 4 is to simulate life. However, this can become challenging when I’m not able to do everyday things like drive a car, go to a hotel, or go grocery shopping. These are just some of the features that are present in previous Sims titles but are not in Sims 4. What I find interesting is these challenging features of Sims 4 don’t appear to be intentional, but rather a consequence of poor game design. Since players were not expecting to encounter this type of conflict in Sims 4 due to precedents set by previous games, the challenge was not welcome.

Harry Potter Hogwarts Mystery – Challenge: Time Management

Unlike players of The Sims 4, players of Harry Potter Hogwarts Mystery were somewhat aware of the type of challenge the game might contain. Being a mobile game, microtransactions are inevitable. However, upon release players were not happy to learn that most missions were practically impossible unless they purchased energy via microtransactions. The other way to get energy is waiting, and since missions have a time limit this often means they could not be successfully completed. My technique for dealing with this was to set a timer on my phone to notify me when I would have enough energy as well as enough mission time left. The actions performed in the game were not challenging, but I found the added burden of re-organizing my real-life schedule to accommodate the game’s energy system to be challenging and ultimately not worth it.

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag – Challenge: Don’t Get Caught

Multiple times while playing Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag I rage quite because I couldn’t get into a fortress undetected, or kept getting caught while tailing an enemy, among other frustrating incidents. However, unlike the previous games discussed, I was OK with this. There are several factors that made the challenges in Black Flag more palatable than those in Harry Potter Hogwarts Mystery or The Sims 4. For me, the biggest factors that made the challenges in Black Flag enjoyable were their expected presence, cause, and solution. Black Flag is not a casual game, and I knew going into it that I would be faced with potentially difficult levels and missions.  When gameplay became challenging, it was due to me not knowing what to do, how to do it, or just fumbling the controls. Finally, with time and effort, I was able to beat the game’s challenges. This last aspect I believe is the most important. Challenges in games are not bad, as long as it’s possible for players to overcome them while remaining immersed in the game’s world.

Reflection

The games that I choose for this entry are ones I enjoy playing, but also find challenging. Upon writing and reflecting, I found the challenges in these games stemmed from different sources. Although not something I consciously had in mind when selecting the games, this diversity ended up offering more insight than if the challenges had been uniform. I believe this diversity better illustrates how challenge can be done right, and how it can go wrong.

This post is based on Exercise 2.6: Challenge (“Name three games that you find particularly challenging and describe why.”) from Chapter 2 of Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games by Tracy Fullerton (quote taken from pg. 39).

Sources

Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. Montreal, QC: Ubisoft, 2013.

Fullerton, Tracy. “Chapter 2: The Structure of Games.” Game Design Workshop: A Playcentric Approach to Creating Innovative Games. 4th ed., Taylor & Francis Group LLC, 2019. PDF.

Harry Potter: Hogwarts Mystery. Culver City, CA: Jam City Inc., 2018.

The Sims 4. Redwood City, CA: Electronic Arts, 2014.

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