Monday, 13 May 2013

Editorial: Raving Rant - Dragging the Offline

This is Dutch Uncle Axel talking to you, EA COO Peter Moore: sit down, shut up, and pay attention.

This is important, because this is why you’re getting a second “Worst Company In America” award  from The Consumerist. I’d apologize for being brusque, but it would be an utter lie, and you need to hear this in as plain a language as possible. It will offend you. It will make you angry. I won’t spout the whole “anger leads to the Dark Side” nonsense because you’re already there. But anger does have value as a psychological motivator for survival. And you do want to survive, right?

Recently, my cable Internet service became unavailable for a prolonged period. Not a couple of hours, but a couple of weeks. During this interim, would you care to take a guess how many hours I spent trying to catch up on Mass Effect 3? Or Kingdoms of Amalur? Or maybe trying to beat a high score on Gatling Gears? The answer is zero, Peter.
And why is it zero? Because your vaunted “Steam killer” Origin is too stupid to realize there’s no Internet connection, for one thing. I could have been doing battle with the Reapers. I could have been exploring the very lovely but flawed product of 38 Studios. Instead, I was catching up with Skyrim. I was beating my head against the wall with Dungeon Defenders, trying desperately to defend the Etherium Crystals. I spent nine straight hours taking the Carthaginians from cavemen to spacemen in Civ V. Why? Because Steam didn’t hassle me when it picked up on the lack of Internet connectivity. It gave me a simple and clearly labeled “Start in Offline Mode” button, which I clicked, and I was off to the races.

Of course, once I actually logged in to Origin (or at least passed the authentication check on the registry key value I suspect is sitting in my system) and tried launching a game like ME3, I ran into the second reason why your company has earned its disgrace.

Your idiotic insistence that all DLC has to be “verified” by your servers. Every. Single. Freaking. Time.

And if, Heavens forfend, the DLC can’t be verified, then you just don’t get to use the DLC. Nevermind that this might cause undesirable results in the basic performance of the game. Or negatively impact that “high quality customer experience” that you’ve been chasing like a heroin addict chases his dragon. Or even engender feelings of resentment from your customers that, having paid for the DLC, we can’t actually enjoy it. Such pettifogging considerations are clearly beneath your concern, or apparently your perceptive threshold. Compare that with Steam. When one downloads DLC for their game, the DLC is downloaded, integrated, and playable. It is not subjected to infinite verifications. It is not withheld
from the player because he doesn’t have an Internet connection. It just works.

You don’t want to hear about Steam, I expect. You don’t want to hear how “it just works.” You don’t want to hear anything except how good Origin is and how it’s making EA money. And maybe, if you believe hard enough, the Great Pumpkin will rise up out of the pumpkin patch and shower presents on you. Because if you’re competing against Steam, then a realistic appraisal of the situation is required.

Whatever rosy projections you had were just that: projections. Which is a fancy way of saying “unfounded assumptions.” Now that the program is out there, the time for projections has passed, and the time for a brutally honest analysis has begun. Mr. Moore, after careful consideration, the gaming community has come to the conclusion that your new storefront system sucks. Just from my own experience, I don’t like using it unless I absolutely have to, and half the titles in there are review copies I’ve been sent. The other half, all three of them, have been games that I had wanted to play and which I resent the hell out having to go through Origin to play. I’ve persistently tried to avoid buying the PC versions of EA titles because that’s the only way I know for sure I can avoid Origin in the bargain. I’m pretty sure that I probably won’t be able to avoid the next Dragon Age on Origin, and it pisses me off immensely. Maybe not quite as much as the guys who got screwed by the whole SimCity debacle, but probably pretty close.

And while we’re on the subject of debacles, let’s take a good hard look at those “free-to-play and social” games that you have crowned as the next great--oh, what’s that? You just killed a bunch of your social games? But I thought that this was the grand direction that EA would be taking into the future of gaming.

Of course, it might be that you had a rare moment of clarity and finally figured out what a lot of us have been expecting for ages: the bubble has burst. The bottom has dropped out. Trying to out-Zynga Zynga is a losing proposition. F2P social, like so many other would-be emperors, is stark naked. Only three players in a hundred actually pay money on anything resembling a regular basis. And you think that this is how the company will survive? By a small percentage of people constantly buying virtual goods which the rest of us don’t feel the need to use? Or were you planning on forcing everything to be microtransaction based at some point? Because I gotta tell you, if you think the customer base is bitching about “always on,” you will see torches and pitchforks if you decide to go that route.

Of course, it doesn’t have to be this way, but any hope of realistic change has to start with an admission of reality. The real reality, not the reality that appears in your quarterly reports. And the real reality is this: “always on” may sound like a great monetization opportunity from your perspective, but it’s anathema from your customers’ perspective. Adam Orth over at Microsoft found that out the hard way just recently. Why should the lesson be any different for you?

I think Kevin Smith (through Ben Affleck) put it best in Chasing Amy: “Can I explain the audience principle to you? If you insult and accost them, then we have no audience!” In much the same way, if you insult and accost your customers, whether it’s locked down DLC, “always on” connection requirements, online passes, compulsory microtransactions, or any one of a number of idiotic ideas that have been or will at some point in the future be implemented, then you will have no customers.

The second step towards making substantive changes is to get boots on the ground and start understanding how your customers actually live and play. And no, that doesn’t mean using online connections to slurp data and crunch numbers. Those model how customers behave. They’re an abstraction, and abstractions are useful only up to a point. You need to behave as your customers behave. Here’s a great little experiment for you, just to give you an idea of what can happen in the worst case scenario. Unplug the coax cable behind your cable modems and set-top boxes for 72 hours, 6AM Friday morning to 6AM Monday morning, and then see how long you last trying to use your own products. No cheating, you understand. Work Internet at work, but no home Internet. My guess is you’ll make it to Saturday afternoon before you reach the point of tearing your hair out and screaming. And what is the point of this little exercise? To demonstrate to you in a fashion that you cannot possibly ignore why “always on” is a losing proposition.

The third step is to take stock of the initiatives which people are complaining about and determine if these are something that your customers really want or something that your shareholders really want. Why? Again, the audience principle. Your audience wants accessibility.

They want the games and the DLC to just work without hassles. Your shareholders want maximum profitability. They want every last cent they can squeeze out of the audience. And if you squeeze your audience too much and too often, you will have no audience. And if you have no audience, then your shareholders won’t make a single red cent, because nobody will be buying your products. If you wish to fulfill your fiduciary responsibility to your shareholders, you have to maintain your audience, and you cannot do that if you accost the audience. Slash-and-burn tactics might make Wall Street happy in the short term, but it’s a losing proposition for the long term. Prioritize based on what makes the audience happy and the shareholders will follow.

Finally, and this is probably the most important step of all, you have to take a hard look at your reputation in the market and correct it. You got voted “Worst Company In America” for a legitimate reason. It wasn’t a grand conspiracy of right wing gamers, or left wing gamers, or anarchist gamers. It wasn’t an insidious plot by the Electronic Freedom Foundation to embarrass you. Hell, even the anti-gay community feels ashamed that you’d link them to getting the Golden Turd a second time. Nobody is disregarding the environmental damage in the Gulf caused by the BP oil spill. Nobody can possibly ignore the degree of economic damage caused by Bank of America, Lehman Brothers, or Bear Sterns. But for all of that, efforts at remediation and contrition have been made. Arguably, the economy is still untangling itself, and there’s no denying that they got away with wrist slaps from the Feds. And for all of BP’s bumbling, they are trying to fix things in the Gulf. But you? Bullshit conspiracy theories and the overpowering reek of scumbag entitlement. You may believe that just because you sell games, you are somehow unimportant in the larger economic landscape, that you are immune from criticism because you “just make games.”

You are in error.

You may not be a toxic polluter like BP. You will likely never cause the sort of cratering that Countrywide and BofA caused. But your antics have been so egregious that you’ve actually managed to pull attention away from them. Think about that a moment: you have made yourself look worse than the principal engineers of the mortgage collapse and the worst oil spill in American territory since the Exxon Valdez. If I was hearing something like that, I’d be wanting to find out what I’d done to deserve the hate. Really trying to find out, not focus grouping, not cherry picking forum posts, but serious investigation and a prolonged period of intense self-reflection as a company.

Me, I got my cable Internet back, but I didn’t spend much time playing EA games once it was on. And that should scare the living piss out of you. What I couldn’t do by circumstance, I didn’t do by choice after the circumstances improved. Think about that real hard. Then do something to fix it.

- Axel Cushing