Let's say something right off the bat — we expect a number of readers will have read that headline and scoffed audibly, confidently saying that this article is deranged and already wrong. EA isn't exactly flavour of the month, and is at the time of writing a semi-final candidate to once again be crowned as the "worst company in America", the headline grabbing poll by consumerist.com — the developer/publisher won the accolade in 2012 after a quarter of a million votes were cast.
In reality, that poll arguably gets more attention than it deserves — it was widely reported in the mainstream gaming media last year — as it's not exactly a reasoned, sensible result. Yes, it's a public vote, but online votes are often hijacked by tech-savvy, social network-connected groups with various agendas keen to make some kind of point; any serious analysis of the "worst" companies in the U.S. in terms of moral and ethical failures wouldn't be led by a video game company. The title that it dishes out has little basis in the real world.
That said, EA continues to anger the gaming community in various ways; as one of the biggest publishers in the world it's under a lot of scrutiny with every move, and some of its actions have undoubtedly represented greed and cack-handed strategic missteps. PC gamers were frustrated by the disastrous launch days of the always-online SimCity, where servers were barely functional for days and a free game was given as appeasement. The company's Origin platform is unpopular with many — particularly in cases where registration is needed to enjoy a game properly — while its attitudes to DRM (digital rights management) and DLC (downloadable content) can sometimes be regarded bluntly as cynical cash-grabs. Then there's the list of small developers arguably ruined or shutdown by EA takeovers, or acquired franchises that dive off in new directions, disappointing fans in the process.
A large number of these gamer grievances are entirely relevant and fair, and EA has paid the price with bad PR and disappointing financial results. EA isn't exactly unique in this, either, with other publishing behemoths like Ubisoft and Activision also being open to accusations of cynical practices or a disrespect for gamers. Big companies strive to make big money, and they often play dirty to do just that.
A key difference with Ubisoft and Activision, from a Nintendo perspective, is that they are still relatively active on the Wii U; Ubisoft is bringing multi-platform blockbusters such as Watch_Dogs and Assassin's Creed IV Black Flag to the system, while Activision is yet to visibly back away (admittedly with some games not brought to Australia), though the reveal of its latest Call of Duty title will be telling. Both are the keepers of some of gaming's biggest selling franchises, and have so far followed up launch day support with additional titles, despite sharing their disappointment at Wii U's sales performance so far.
EA, in a number of respects, have been making different noises. The now-former CEO John Riccitello said the following at the start of February.
Having said that, I wouldn't say that we see a correlation between the results that Nintendo has shown with their console début of the Wii U and what we see coming. We see a pretty sharp distinction, and unfortunately I'm unable to go any further than that.
Ours is an industry where a lot of devices come in and represent themselves as the next generation, or the next generation after that. In many ways we would argue that the what we're describing as "gen 4" is yet to come. It's that that we're excited about, and that's what we're investing in. And frankly, we've been quite consistent with that for some time, while recognizing the frustration our inability to articulate precisely why causes for you.
In more recent times, Chief Operating Officer Peter Moore outlined the company's home console development priorities, with his word-choice leading some to believe that Wii U is almost entirely off the table.
The console business is still a core part of our business; it's the majority of our business. The demise of console gaming is very premature as far as we're concerned.
We still have thousands of people focused on developing current-generation Xbox 360 and PS3 games, as well as people focused now on the next generation when that finally arrives. And so, people still want core games. People want to sit back in their living rooms, take advantage of their HD TVs, and and play fully immersive games like [Battlefield 4].
Of course, Battlefield 4 isn't coming to Wii U, and we're yet to see whether the next entries in major franchises such as FIFA and Madden will come to the system; both seem likely based on past history, and yet pre-orders for Madden 25 are currently only open for Xbox 360 and PS3. Combine the Wii U absence with the comments coming from the very highest level within EA, and these are worrying signs. The concern is that Criterion's Need for Speed Most Wanted U could be the extent of major post-launch EA support for the platform.
Of course, we should acknowledge that the company has often given Nintendo gamers the short end of the stick; FIFA 13 on Wii U was more like FIFA 12.5, and the less said about the shameful yearly FIFA clones on Wii the better. But if EA does back away from Wii U in a comprehensive way, Nintendo loses market share of some of the industry's highest grossing products. Below are the top 10 selling games in the UK and US for 2012, sourced from metro.co.uk and The Guardian respectively; those from EA are in bold.
US top 10 sellers of 2012:
1. Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii U)
2. Madden NFL 13 (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Vita, Wii U)
3. Halo 4 (Xbox 360)
4. Assassin's Creed 3 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC, Wii U)
5. Just Dance 4 (Xbox 360, Wii, Wii U, PS3)
6. NBA 2K13 (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PSP, Wii U, PC)
7. Borderlands 2 (Xbox 360, PS3, PC)
8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, PC)
9. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (Wii, Xbox 360, NDS, PS3, 3DS, Vita, PC)
10. FIFA 13 (Xbox 360, PS3, Wii, Vita, 3DS, Wii U, PSP)
UK top 10 sellers of 2012:
1 Call Of Duty: Black Ops II (Activision)
2 FIFA 13 (Electronic Arts)
3 Assassin’s Creed III (Ubisoft)
4 Halo 4 (Microsoft)
5 Hitman: Absolution (Square Enix)
6 Just Dance 4 (Ubisoft)
7 Far Cry 3 (Ubisoft)
8 FIFA 12 (Electronic Arts)
9 The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda)
10 Borderlands 2 (2K Games)
In fact, if you go down to the top 20 in the UK, EA has a further four titles in 11th, 13th, 14th and 17th places. EA isn't the dominant force that it once was, as this analysis of "generation" sales by Gamasutra demonstrates, but it's undeniably still a significant power in the industry. Even with its questionable behaviours, mistakes and actions to irritate a lot of gaming enthusiasts, it's performing strongly with its key franchises in the mainstream market.
We're unlikely to ever know how relations deteriorated from EA appearing on Nintendo's stage at E3 2011 and promising an "unprecedented partnership", to the current scenario where it appears to be walking away from Wii U entirely. Whatever the reasons, we suggest that it's important for Nintendo to explore its options to ensure, as a minimum, that the biggest selling EA franchises arrive on Wii U in some form. That also applies to other big players such as Activision, Ubisoft and Square Enix.
We've argued on this site that the Wii U's greatest strength may be in attracting and encouraging innovative, unique content from the indie-community up to medium-sized publishers, especially as it faces a tough challenge attracting gamers to play major third-party blockbusters on the system. It does have a fight on its hands in that area, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't compete, with a big test coming with the Wii U performance of aforementioned titles such as Watch_Dogs.
Nintendo's system has plenty going for it and it's anticipated that big first-party games could give it the major boost in momentum it needs, but casually dismissing the loss of titles from the likes of EA would be a mistake. A lot of us love playing the latest Zelda epic or something entirely different from the eShop, but perhaps a number of gamers will also want the chance to play decent Wii U versions of FIFA, Madden and other EA franchises that routinely sell millions of copies around the world. Their loss wouldn't be anyone's gain.