As most of you (and by ‘you’ I mean the two people reading this article) may have already noticed, The Consumerist has, by popular vote, declared Electronic Arts to be the worst company in America for the second year in a row. Now whether EA actually deserves that title or not is a matter for debate – a particularly heated debate at that and one in which I refuse to indulge myself for fear of having to form an opinion on this convoluted mess of a matter. Suffice it to say that with competition like Blackwater and The Bank of America, I am left mildly sceptical.
Now the ‘popular vote’ bit from the previous paragraph plays an important part in this, as it raises two interesting points. First, video games have a surprisingly vocal following these days, for better or worse. Second, to be this hated by the player community, EA has to have some serious PR issues. Oh, they have their other problems, to be sure. Massive-ass problems looming over them like the butt cheeks of Damocles, in fact. No matter how you look at it, from the way they treat their paying customers to the questionable financial decisions surrounding their every product, EA couldn’t be called a ‘good company’ by any stretch of those words. But in spite of all this, one has to wonder whether the sheer amount of hatred EA receives from players isn’t at least a bit disproportional. You see, the greatest issue with EA isn’t their liberal use of DRM, nor is it the way they homogenise franchises to the point where the only way you can tell Medal of Honor from Dead Space is that the enemies in Dead Space have more limbs. No. The most severe of all the problems EA has to deal with is their image. They might not be the worst company in America but they certainly are the most hated one. The public perception of EA is now slightly better than the public perception of Nazi Germany and they have no one to blame but themselves. But is spite of all this, EA aren’t necessarily evil, as many a player would have you believe. To paraphrase an industry expert, it is doubtful that EA are motivated by greed, nor are they led by a twisted desire to destroy all that is good in this world. They just seem to have no understanding of the games industry whatsoever. And considering their job descriptions, you can see how that could pose a bit of an issue. As it stands, it should be a priority for EA to get their PR in order and start working towards calming the pitchfork-wielding mobs before they get publicly crucified (or go bankrupt -one of those two things). And since, as we have already established, EA seem to have no clue as to what they are supposed to do, I have decided to outline the simplest and most logical steps they can take toward improving their public image.
I’m going to speak directly to you now, EA. First of all, you need to stop with the excuses and accusations. This is just about the most difficult step of the ones listed but is also the most crucial. You need to learn how to admit that you botched up without shifting the blame onto genres, developers and players. Making up weak rationalisations does not help either. No Peter, the fact that you forced 45 million people to register with that Origin thing just so that they could play the games they bought from you, that does not speak of Origin’s good qualities. Now it’s true that simply admitting your mistakes will not automatically fix anything. It will not make the customers you have been abusing for years any less sceptical, not with all the promises you have repeatedly made and subsequently broke in the past. But that’s the thing. EA, you don’t even need to publicly announce that you fucked up. You do not need to call in a press conference and beg for forgiveness. You do not need to fire employees en masse and make tearful promises about how this time, you will definitely behave. But before you are able to admit that that some of the cockups may have been caused by specific decisions you had taken, and before you are willing to be honest with yourself, take responsibility for and learn from said cockups rather than endlessly repeat the same mistakes over and over again, you can never even start to improve in the eyes of your customers.
Speaking of learning from your own mistakes, it wouldn’t hurt if you tried to learn from the slips of other companies as well, EA. You need to pay attention to what’s happening around you and act accordingly. That entire SimCity debacle could have been avoided if you’d just read the news once in a while. Ubisoft did the same thing before you did and it did not end well. Blizzard did the same thing before you did and it did not end well. Ubisoft had even issued a press release, talking about how their always online DRM was a mistake. And yet you still went ahead and made SimCity always online. And no, I’m not buying your ‘but it’s an MMO’ post-release backpedalling crap. We talked about being honest with yourself in the last paragraph. EA, you have been struggling to keep up for a while, and it shows. Every single decision you take reflects a lack of interest on your part, evoking the image of a blind old man dead set on crossing the street to reach a bakery which has been closed for years now. Or rather, an old man with perfectly functional eyesight, stubbornly covering his eyes because he thinks he does not need them.
I have mentioned Origin before. There’s a reason why your online distribution platform hasn’t been accepted with much enthusiasm so far. Origin has been launched into a strongly competitive market sector where it’s forced to go up against the likes of Valve’s Steam and CDProjekt’s GOG, both of which are infinitely stronger platforms and both of which have a reputation for their respectful treatment of customers and reasonable business practices – the exact opposite of your own reputation. The fact that the Origin requirement has been shoehorned into most of EA’s new releases does not do it any favours either, on account of Origin generally not being very good (among other things). Therefore the next logical step would be to try and improve it.
First, fix the user interface so that a purchase will become less of an adrenaline-fueled wait to see if the game I bought appears in my library or not. While you’re at it, fix the regional issues so that I don’t have to learn a new language just for browsing the Origin store when visiting my parents in Moscow. Next, publish Mass Effect 3 and Dead Space 3 on Steam – or at the very least, allow players to redeem Origin versions of these games if they had already bought them elsewhere. You are not going to lose any money on this – we are talking about digital copies of games these people have already bought from you and are not very likely to buy again. You see, if there is something that you can do for your customer and you know is not going to cost you anything; even if it’s a minor convenience, it is generally worth doing. And people are going to want to have games of the same series stacked nicely together in one library, be it Steam, Origin or just their shelf. After you do that, lower the prices of all games to a level below the prices of their boxed retail versions. It does not matter by how much, the important part is that it is now cheaper to buy your games from Origin, which serves as motivation enough for people to use it. Give players a reason to feel they want to use Origin as opposed to making them feel forced to use it and they will love you for it. Or at the very least they won’t hate you as much for it.
Last but not least, just bloody play games! Nothing gets you into a player’s mindset better than becoming one yourself. It’s fun, it helps your understand your consumer base, which in turn helps your business. And if you really, really can’t get into videogames, if you feel unable to engage with them and can’t understand their appeal at all … well then maybe you should reconsider being in the games industry in the first place.
If there’s one thing to take away from this, it’s that you should never treat PR as an afterthought. If you look after your customers well, they will be happy to buy your products – if nothing else then to support you. This has been proven time and time again with companies like CDprojekt – it is, however, a concept EA has yet to grasp. When faced with issues presented by their paying customers, EA shows either open contempt or utter indifference – and the customers quite understandably hate them for it. In fact they loathe them to the point when it’s almost worrying. They despise them so much that even if a bolt of magical lightning struck and EA started to follow all the points I have listed here, they may already be beyond help. That is not to say it’s not worth a try – adhering to their traditional policies is not going to lead them anywhere (except maybe bankruptcy proceedings). Perhaps this is the last chance for EA to redeem itself. Or perhaps I’m just taking the entire ‘worst company in America’ thing way too seriously.