I love video games but I’m also fascinated by the industry itself. How can something as gorgeous and unique as Cuphead be created by a team of four people? Isn’t it incredible their game then sold over 3 million copies in a year, and landed in some “best of the year” lists alongside something like Horizon Zero Dawn – a game that cost nearly $50m dollars to make and employed up to 350 people?

And how about the people behind the games, like Ed Boon who’s been working on basically the Mortal Kombat series for nearly 30 years?  Or a developer like 343 Games – taking on something as immense as The Master Chief Collection, kind of screwing it up and then being given the time and support to spend over four years making things right?

And it’s because of this industry side of things, that I’ve been thinking a lot about Electronic Arts over the past few weeks. Because, with less than three months gone in to the year, 2019 has been a bit of a roller-coaster for one of gaming’s biggest and longest-running brands.

They’ve obviously had incredible success with Apex Legends but we’ve also learnt they’ll be ditching their E3 press conference entirely this year. They’ve demonstrated again that they still can’t help but compete with their own products. They’ve been subject to a criminal investigation (just in Belgium, for now) forcing them to disable Fifa Ultimate Team’s highly lucrative loot boxes. They’ve cancelled yet another Star Wars game and seemed to bungle the launch of their next big thing in Anthem. That’s quite a start to anyone’s year!

But first, let’s backtrack a little to slightly calmer times. Being a huge and successful company, EA always struck me as a bit of an easy target. There was always a corporate dullness about them, embodied by a name that sounds like it was made by a committee and the occasional but predictable phases of “the same as the last one but with a new roster” for their sports titles.

With the exception of a Battlefield 4 launch that was plagued with technical issues and felt rushed in order to launch with the new consoles, EA seemed particularly reliable and comfortable at the start of this generation. However, they were also pretty much the definition of bland. If they were a colour it would surely be “magnolia” – used everywhere despite the fact that no-one actually seems to have a positive word to say about it.

But people don’t tend to hate magnolia, whereas EA have regularly polled among America’s Most Hated Companies. Sure, it’s not exactly an objective or scientific study but it’s got to be worrying when you “improve” your way up to 5th and still come out more hated than The Trump Organisation given the times in which we live. It certainly feels to me like things have changed over the past few years and that opinion has hardened from one of general indifference to active dislike. Why is that and is it deserved? Well, it’s fair to say it’s not exactly been a vintage few years.

Their handling of the Star Wars licence certainly hasn’t helped matters. My first impression of 2015’s Star Wars: Battlefront was pure fanboy – it looked and sounded incredible and brought back a series that had given me a lot of fun and provided my first tentative steps into the world of online gaming. The chance to battle on locations like Hoth and alongside characters and vehicles from my childhood was one that I could not have been more excited about.

The lack of a single player game was a shame but not a deal-killer for me – I knew what I was buying and enjoyed it for what it was before moving on to the next thing on my list pretty quickly. I sounds like I was not alone. When the sequel arrived, it looked like it would build on the positives and address gamer’s complaints about the first title. Personally, I played the trial quickly on EA Access and decided I could wait for it to enter The Vault.

And then the controversy kicked in and I decided to keep well clear. Battlefront 2 wasn’t the first or last game to have loot boxes but it was one of the most high-profile and had one of the more aggressive implementations we’ve seen. It was a full price game that also pushed its microtransactions heavily. This model, accepted and highly lucrative in games like Fifa, was not welcome here.

And that’s probably down to the progression system being so strongly linked to the loot boxes that it was basically “pay to win”. Access to popular characters was also effectively locked behind a paywall, given the amount of grinding necessary to buy them using earned credits. By the time the developers made adjustments the game had become toxic and the damage was done. I have EA Access and still haven’t played it, it’s odd.

But at least Battlefront and its sequel got released. Because, six years into an apparent 10-year exclusive Star Wars license and we have currently only got those two games (plus a mobile title) to show for it. A single-player story-driven adventure from the creative director of Uncharted? Hell yeah! An open world project from the producer of Assassin’s Creed? Yes please!

Instead, we’ve had more cancellations than games and the clock is now ticking. Gamers are left wondering what could have been. Disney, according to rumours in January 2019, is not exactly happy about it either. And what about EA’s investors? They must have expected more from such a potentially lucrative licence even if Fifa Ultimate Team and Apex Legends money seem to be keeping them happy for now.

But Star Wars is not the only sci-fi franchise that’s had a rough few years at EA either – as the launch of Mass Effect Andromeda took a well-loved series and blasted it out the cargo doors. Meme-worthy facial animations and other technical issues were the sort of thing you would expect to have been squashed in playtesting. Combined with a derivative plot, it was “the most disappointing game of 2017” according to Giant Bomb. At best, it was another missed opportunity from a company that seem to have been specialising in them recently. At worst, it’s a fatal blow for another well-loved series.

Fast forward to Anthem in 2019 and it appears to be a disappointing but strangely predictable tale. My personal experience of the game has been limited so it’s hard for me to say too much – it consisted of waiting in frustration to access the demo and then playing a few hours of a fun but shallow looter-shooter with some near-silent human drones. That sort of grind is, to be fair, just “not quite my tempo”.

But even fans of the genre can’t have found much to love in a glitchy launch and a series of early patches that appeared to break as much as they fixed. The reviews have been pretty critical too, echoing those early hot takes that Bioware have built an intriguing world based around long-term potential but have seemed to forget that it would be judged on its day one content.

And it wasn’t just the game itself that made Anthem’s launch another frustrating own goal for EA – with a release strategy so complicated that it needed its own wallchart.

Seriously. 

It was also another example of EA’s baffling and self-defeating approach to scheduling – coming just a few weeks after the surprise release of Apex Legends.

OK, it’s true that (apart that from one guy on Reddit) we didn’t know that particular game was coming but they did! And maybe EA could not have predicted Apex’s incredible success but, was it ever wise to schedule Firestorm to drop just seven weeks later? It’s something you would have thought they’d learnt from October 2016 when they released Titanfall 2 sandwiched between the excellent Battlefield 1 and a little franchise called Call of Duty.

As a first-person shooter, and launching between the genre’s two heaviest-hitters it was basically thrown to the wolves. It’s a decision that would be stupid in any circumstances but it’s just incomprehensible given one of these competitors was EA’s own bloody franchise! Investors expressed concerns about cannibalising sales, EA was confident they “fulfil different gameplay motivations.” They were, quite predictably, wrong.

Although it was a sequel, Titanfall 2 was the first game of the franchise to hit PlayStation so it was really important for it to perform strongly for the franchise to continue. It was a genuinely great game with one of the most fun single player stories I’ve played. So, it’s a real shame more people didn’t get to play it because 1) it’s awesome 2) we may never get a third entry and 3) it never really got a fair crack. At least the tech and the universe live on in Apex Legends I guess.

And, speaking of shooters, it’s impossible not to mention the turbulent life of DICE’s Battlefield V. It was, according to Eurogamer, “the glitchiest, most technically troubled” entry in the series. The PS4 version currently has a user score of 2.1 on Metacritic (and it’s a lofty 2.6 on Xbox One). And, although physical sales numbers are becoming less and less relevant, they were apparently just half of Battlefield 1’s and this entry was the first title in the franchise not to crack the year’s top 10 bestsellers.

Sure, Firestorm certainly looks amazing and is apparently heaps of fun. But I wonder if anyone will care – nearly four months after the main game launched and as part of a full price package going up against two hugely-popular, free-to-play competitors. Once again, EA’s launch strategy seems like an odd one – providing a drip feed of modes and content that’s struggled to keep any buzz and, presumably, leaves the game not far from entering the EA Access Vault.

For me, this all makes EA a weird and frustrating company but not one I feel the need to hate. They feel surprisingly chaotic for such a large and established company but perhaps that’s just a part of making multiple video games a year in 2019. Their quality control would be more of a concern if my backlog wasn’t so bad that things are inevitably patched by the time I get to play them. The loot boxes were probably an exception but that’s really an industry problem for which they, perhaps deservingly, became a focus. They also seem to have addressed it.

And, on the other hand, something like EA Access is surprisingly good value, very forward looking and a great option for gamers like me who missed out of things like Dragon Age and Dead Space first time around. It’s also been a great place to discover some of the excellent, smaller titles they’ve published through the EA Originals brand like Unravel and Fe and, hopefully, A Way Out and the upcoming Sea of Solitude.

And then of course there is the little matter of the one announced Star Wars game that certainly hasn’t been cancelled – Respawn’s Jedi: Fallen Order. We don’t know much about it but it’s definitely one to watch, coming from the team behind both Titanfall and Apex Legends. And Respawn have certainly shown they can keep a secret. We’ll know soon enough, with news due at the upcoming Star Wars Celebration event in Chicago on April 13th.