Unbranding the Sheep: Missing The Forest For The Trees

UK site gamesindustry.biz recently released a story about how gaming industry analyst Michael Patcher broke the seal on EA’s next step in Project Ten Dollar, by stating that the company is going to charge for premium DLC before release. Picture the demo for Battlefield: Bad Company 2 and imagine it costs money, and you essentially have what Mr. Patcher’s talking about. Of course, everyone went off without reading the entire article. “They’re going to charge us for demos! Those snakes! Those whores! Those whore snakes!” This is going to come as a mild surprise for those who have been reading me for over four years now, but I’m not too concerned about this as of yet. EA has stated that these won’t interfere with their normal demos, and anything beyond that is pure speculation. Granted, it’s possible that EA’s lying about this the way they lied about Command & Conquer 4 having “NO DRM. Zip, zero, zilch, none,” and though I could hazard a guesstimate as to what this “could” mean later, that’s where we’re at: “could”. In short, for most of the commentary I’ve read, it’s much ado about not much.

For anyone that truly cares about this industry, especially the people that make games in it, it should be the last part of that article that is cringe-worthy:

“We’ve been wrong about this stock for almost five years,” wrote Pachter. “Either we’re stupid, stubborn, or unlucky, but we’ve been wrong. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, each time hoping for a different result.

“This time, while we are again hoping for a different result, we see evidence that the company is not doing the same things over and over again: lower headcount, fewer facilities, fewer games, a greater use of outsourcing, innovative combinations of digital and packaged goods content, a better greenlight process and a growing digital business. This time, we think that EA is on the right path,” he concluded.

At first glance, it just sounds like a happy stock analyst. That’s a good thing, right? After all, if analysts are happy, investors are buying stock, which allows companies like EA who are publicly traded to make more and better games. That’s a win-win for everyone involved!

Unfortunately, it’s not. Let’s look at the reasons WHY this is a bad thing, and a bad harbinger for where the industry – and really, if you want to look farther ahead, the entire American economy – is headed.

Lower headcount – Remember the days when EA was having to pay settlements over their working conditions? Unpaid overtime, horrible working conditions, clueless upper managers that treated their workers like cattle… in all actuality, it’s even worse in Japan, if anonymous entries at 2ch are to be believed, which put programmers at living well below the poverty line. Everyone who reads stories like this that has a heart cringes, and says either a prayer or well wishes for people under this kind of work environment, on either shore.

After a couple of fiscal years where EA disappointed investors to the point where they called for John Riccitiello’s head, they are finally “wisening” up to the point that playing nice – or at least not treating your workers like shit – is for losers. In November, during a quarterly earnings call, they announced that by April of this year – which, as of this writing, is less than a week away – they would layoff 1,500 workers. This layoff is unrelated to an announcement a few weeks ago that the team responsible for Boom Blox was let go. One thousand, five hundred and fourteen people, and that’s just what we’re able to count. That’s more than streamlining, maximizing synergies or whatever horrible corporate talk these people use that makes your skin crawl. That’s a lot of headcount. That also means that anyone left behind now has a lot more on their already stuffed plates, a lot more work to get done before deadline, and a lot more stress on what is already an overworked, underpaid, and under-appreciated job.

Fewer facilities – So not only do these people have to do the work of themselves and the fortunate souls who were released with “severence packages and outplacement assistance”, but chances are good that their local studio was shuttered as well. That’s OK, relocation isn’t an annoyance, it’s an ADVENTURE, right? Moving your family to a different area just so you can continue to bring home bread is something everyone should have to do at least once! We have to keep the investors happy!

“Tough shit, Chris. People in all careers have to relocate. You were in the military, you should know all about it.” It doesn’t make it suck less. Especially when you have some outsider gleefully ejaculating on the misfortune of others because of how it affects the stock.

Fewer games – Oh, don’t worry! Madden’s not going anywhere! You WILL get your Madden fix right around NFL pre-season time! It might not be AS good as people would expect due to the fact that EA Tiburon is one of the places being hit with the coming layoffs, but it’s not like most gamers are going to notice anyway. You’ll also get your other big name releases. Battlefield’s not going away, nor is Mass Effect, Skate or the Tiger Woods series, though the reason Tiger’s sticking around has a lot more to do with their target demographic not giving a shit about his infidelity than it does with them “standing by” their pitchman.

So what is going away? As established above, I think we can kiss Boom Blox – a high-quality puzzle game that made the mistake of not being “casual” (read: cheap) enough for the average Wii moro–er, consumer – goodbye. It’s also been established that NCAA Basketball is in its final year, leaving college basketball fans with no college basketball options after this year short of either continuing with ’09 or buying the three year old College Hoops 2K8. The NASCAR series was also discontinued, leaving NASCAR fans to have to wait until Gran Turismo 5’s release sometime in 2043. But these are just known properties. With a focus on streamlining to keep risk-averse investors happy, will we see EA take risks such as Mirror’s Edge or Dark Space in the near future? Just what is going to come out of the Playfish acquisition? Where is the line on whether a franchise sees continued support or gets dumped? Are we going to start approaching the days where EA was what Activision has since become? That question alone should make most people who care about quality gaming shudder.

A greater use of outsourcing – As an IT professional, the word “outsourced” automatically gives me the creeps. Just what we need: more of our jobs going to places like India and the Philippines. While that’s not really the case with the videogame industry – most of the code work for console-based games is so specific that it can’t really be moved to non-Western countries – it’s still not good for the people doing the work or, arguably, the quality of the end product.

Tech companies – both in and out of the gaming industry – are moving their work out of California at an alarming rate. A lot of that has to do with the financial crisis going on in that state, but most of that work is going to places in Canada and the UK. While this is good for companies in those regions, it’s bad for companies here, especially EA employees. Furthermore, an argument could be made that it’s bad for the game too, as someone did two years ago. I don’t care how good videoconferencing technology is, or how easy it is to connect to someone across the world; working with a team that’s in another location, much less another company, is a pain in the ass, and not conducive to efficiently getting anything done, much less making a video game. It could be argued that outsourcing is necessary in today’s environment because specific work needs to be done on specific parts of a game’s engine in order to get it working right. But if the budget of a game has gotten that large that you have to bring outsiders into work on parts of it, and this becomes normal, then the industry is about to collapse from it’s own weight.

Let’s review this: EA – after five years of Patcher being down on the stock – is now a good stock to own because they’re overworking whatever workers they keep, making less games, doing so in fewer facilities, and bringing in outsiders, often from outside the United States. This is the reality of making video games in the year 2010. The only way to make people like Michael Patcher – who’s job is to determine the worth of video game related stocks – happy is to cut as many corners as possible, cut as much workforce as possible, and generally treat the people that make the games you and I love like commodities. It’s true that this is a reality in just about every major industry in every capitalist market. However, it should still be shocking to anyone that truly cares about this industry, and more importantly, for the people that truly make it what it is: not CEOs like John Riccitiello, blowhards like Robert Kotick or outsiders like Michael Patcher, but programmers, designers, motion capture techs and everyone else involved in making your games who’s names you’ll never know, and who’s jobs and livelihoods are constantly in peril due to shit like this.

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Christopher Bowen is the Associate Editor at Diehard GameFAN, and was previously a columnist at Not A True Ending. Having worked in the IT industry as a network security engineer for over five years before coming to DHGF, Christopher brings a unique, pro-consumer perspective to his work. His thoughts on how the gaming industry works behind the scenes, and how it affects the everyday consumer, can be read every weekend at Diehard GameFAN. In addition, he writes DHGF’s weekly Nintendo and Playstation Network download wrap-ups every Tuesday and Friday, respectively. Follow Chris on Twitter, or email him with questions and feedback.

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