Electronic Arts is no stranger to the idea of acquiring other companies to embellish its portfolio of intellectual properties, and, given this history, it came as no surprise that, according to two anonymous sources talking to the New York Times, EA has “pursued” Valve’s acquisition, potentially valuing the company at over $1 billion. The question of interest here for the gaming community is not so much the business aspects of the potential merger, but rather its effects on the products that Valve produces. While there is nothing concrete that can be said about this – after all, for now the acquisition is little more than a counterfactual notion – a look at this history of the developers acquired by EA can help demonstrate that the change in corporate culture causes a decrease in the quality of output of the studios usually bought for their headline titles.
Maxis (acquired 4th June, 1997)
The acquisition of the company came between the releases of Sim City 2000 and Sim City 3000, and during the latter’s development. Though some reports claim the Will Wright (the father of the Sim games) was allowed to continue unmolested by EA in the development of the game, EA brought in one of their own designers for the game and essentially came to direct the development of the game, paring back the originally intended 3D perspective. Along with this came a certain change in tone of the SimCity series: they lost their humourous charm and became somewhat serious in their 3000 and 4 iterations. Gone were the satirical news items that prevailed in 2000 and in came more thorough-but-less-enjoyable city-crafting simulations.
Of course, it would be ridiculous to consider the acquisition of Maxis and subsequent commercial successes of the Sims and Spore as wholesale failures: a lot of people’s pockets were lined out of these titles. The way in which EA has managed these, however, is symptomatic of how EA treats a lot of its intellectual property: the same formula has been rehashed across three main titles, as well as the monetisation of new content for an old product being taken to an extreme in this generation of Sims games with the phenomenon of “Stuff Packs” which add no more to the game than more items, even if these are Katy Perry’s Sweet Treats. Things like this have served to make the series feel soulless: even if the Sims does have its funny moments, it is a more mainstream humour, and not nearly as dry as the humour in the early games.
Westwood Studios (acquired 17th August, 1998)
The case of Westwood is an unfortunate one: having been bought by EA at a time when Westwood had an estimated five-to-six per cent of the PC gaming market, it may have been reasonable to assume that they knew what they were doing and allow them to go about their business with a modicum of dignity and with minimum interference. This, however, was not to be the case and a large number of Westwood staff left either at the time of the acquisition or shortly after. This led to Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun being pushed out of the door by EA unfinished and several titles in development being cancelled due to EA feeling that they were not commercially viable titles.
As mentioned in the case of Maxis, EA has history of milking intellectual property for all its worth, to the point of absurdity. The case of Westwood’s Command and Conquer: Red Alert series provides another compelling example of this. The series has been turned from a farcical, aware of its own ridiculousness, compelling real-time strategy game to an overtly absurd adolescent masturbatory aid. By the time of Red Alert 3, the marketing had shifted from a focus on the gameplay and alternate history setting to the frankly appalling “Girls of Red Alert 3” campaign, the only virtue of which was creating work for a few actresses who had fallen on hard times. Again, EA have lost sight of what the intellectual property was actually about and just made it about what sells to the lowest common denominator, which is apparently tits.
Digital Illusions CE (acquired 2nd October, 2006)
EA supporting the release of DICE’s Mirror’s Edge is something to be lauded: that game is something that the core idea of which has not been replicated elsewhere and obtained a cult following. Of course, due to the “cult” nature of this following, it is pretty much ensured that a sequel will not be commissioned or that they will take risks with similar ideas from DICE. Indeed, the rest of their release history seems to bear this out: it is nothing but first-person shooters since EA’s acquisition of the company, when before it developed a wide range of titles, including the excellent PlayStation title Motorhead. Even within this genre, it seems that EA have pushed DICE to make concessions: Battlefield 3 feels distinctly more like the Call of Duty franchise than did Battlefield 2. Given that what characterised Battlefield on release was its divergence from tropes of the genre of the time, this is bad news for innovation in an oversubscribed genre.
The potential acquisition of Valve
Applying these potential lessons to the case of Valve does not paint an appealing picture for the future of Valve under EA rule. EA has a history of being incredibly hands-on with its acquired studios, something that would not play well at Valve, a company where there is no real hierarchy and employees who are encouraged to follow their heart when it comes to undertaking their work. Indeed, Valve’s Gabe Newell seems aware of this, stating that he would refrain from selling Valve as it would amount to “wait[ing] two or three years to have our employment agreements terminate.” It would be a tragedy for the evolution of games as a medium if we were to see another Maxis in Portal losing its humour and becoming a dry experience in puzzle solving; another Westwood in Half Life’s Alyx Vance being turned into a Playboy playmate, skin tone change and all, to provide the ignorant with lazy titillation; or Valve being told that they are only to make a certain type of game in a certain genre a la DICE.
The integrity of Valve in spite of large numbers being waved around it is quite admirable.