I spent hundreds of millions on this?

 Bob Portrait


Everyone makes mistakes; the other day I bet heavy trying to draw an inside straight, only to be beat by a pair of deuces. I lost twenty bucks. Some of us bet even bigger. In 2001 Electronic Arts decided to gamble thirty to forty million on Massively Multiplayer Online Games. Well, time has passed and now Earth and Beyond is due to be dumped unceremoniously in the great Sargasso of failed games this summer, leaving Electronic Arts to wonder "what the hell happened?". It sure wasn't supposed to be like this. EA wanted to position itself as a dominate player in the field of subscription based gaming. Three years ago it seemed like a brilliant strategy; high priced consultants for EA saw a fortune waiting to be made. With the combined talents of Origin, Westwood and Maxis, matched with unprecedented capital for new expansion, the future was very, very bright.

Nobody could accuse EA of taking timid steps as it dove into the murky waters of online gaming. They purchased intellectual property like a crack whore collects five dollar bills on a Saturday night. They combed the internet looking for parties to throw money at. They spent millions acquiring Pogo, spent millions in advertising, and sent a team of Hollywood consultants into the development houses to bring about their vision of the perfect online space.

The strategy looked perfect on paper. The unexpected success of Ultima Online showed EA that there were gold in them thar hills. Plastic Gold! Texas Tea! The concept was basic. Give people a wide menu of different games to choose from. Make it easy for them to transition from one game to another. Get them hooked, let them form small communities of friends, and give them plenty of choices to fill their free time with for the next decade.

What a difference three years make.

Majestic was he first to fall. Innovative in its concept and scope, Majestic was the first game to pester and annoy a person in the real world. Majestic was a mystery puzzle game where the players searched for clues on the internet. Touted by Electronic Arts executives as a game with tremendous cross over appeal, it turned out that players don't like video games to treat them like an overbearing girlfriends. It's nice to get a call every once and a while, but do you really need to speak to them every day?

No matter. EA had another strong contender in the form of Motor City Online. How could it lose? People love cars. People love to race cars. Who doesn't love muscle cars with roaring V-8 engines? Who in their right mind wouldn't be playing this game? Turns out pretty much everyone. Within a year the streets were quiet. People never warmed to the idea of paying 10 dollars a month when Grand Turismo was free.

Well, Earth and Beyond would be a hit, wouldn't it? This was a game that was chosen to the premier online space sim. EA compared Earth and Beyond and Privateer Online and decided that the folks at Westwood had the plan to run with. The sales at the point of release, however, were tepid. The control scheme never clicked with players and like most space themed games, nobody really wants to sit for hours in front of a computer staring at a star field.

Where many companies might have worried, EA had an ace up their sleeves. The mighty power of the Sims would make the online world their bitch. All EA would have to do is to open the doors and let those samolians rain in. As a single player game, the Sims had sold millions, perhaps even tens of millions world wide. Only a small fraction of that player base could bring in revenue of millions each month. Sadly the numbers never matched up to the expectations. A near perfect track record for Maxis was broken, leaving the Sims Online on life support.

Well, that's all water under the bridge, and it's unfair just to pick on EA. There were many companies that invested heavily in subscription based online games only to be disappointed. Except for Star Wars Galaxies, there hasn't been a best selling title yet that hasn't involved chicks with elf ears. The list of failed games runs long. Some flopped on the market, others never saw the light of day. Years ago I insisted publicly that we were entering a new age of online gaming. Developers across the country were looking for the next big game. They would break the mold of the hack and slash fantasy theme. There were games based on pulp serials of the twenties, games based upon popular franchises, online war games, online strategy games and a number of concepts that could have changed the market for good.

EA thought that the world was ready for innovative games that didn't appeal to the D&D demographic. They were dismissive of the attitude that MMOGs were just for people who lived in their parents basement and smelled like cat-ass. They were also dismissive of the subscribers they had: one EA executive looked at pictures of players from the UO fan fest and remarked, "we don't need the kind of subscriber who wears tights". Well, with UO's subscription numbers fading, they may not have those for much longer either.

You can look at the fall of EA live in a number of different ways. Some will say "those games just weren't very good" and that was why they failed. Perhaps, but ones person tedium is another's pleasure. Many dislike the Civ series, for example, yet that doesn't make them bad games. Others might say EA simply backed the wrong horse. Perhaps sticking to fantasy was the best approach. Ultima Online 2 would have been a big hit, and the decisions were being made by executives without any real game experience but plenty of Hollywood credentials. Could they have just picked wrong?

We could debate these things endlessly, but one thing cannot be doubted. The failure of yet another non-elf MMOG means that the capital needed to develop a new game won't be available to developers. Online games are not cheap to produce, and anyone with the needed money will look and think "if EA couldn't do, why do I think I could?". For a developer interested in making a MMOG, the only way to sell it is by starting your pitch saying "it's like EQ, but shinier!"

Love or hate any of EA Live games, the closing of EB is worth noting with a bit of sadness. The developers spent years pouring their hearts into the project. Many will be moved on to make up the missing staff of UOX, a game whose future seems cloudy at best. Moral at EA can't be high right now, but that's only fitting. The future of online gaming is more dismal than it's been in a long time. If every game that gets released is another EQ clone, how much more can the market expand? How long will customers settle for the same ongoing treadmills with the same glaring design flaws?

EA may have made a mistake, but it's a mistake we as gamers will wind up paying for.


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