Following last year’s surprise Worst Company In America victory by Electronic Arts, there was hope that the video game giant would get the message: Stop treating your customers like human piggy banks, and don’t put out so many incomplete and/or broken games with the intent of getting your customers to pay extra for what they should have received in the first place. And yet, here we are again, with EA becoming the first company to ever win a second Golden Poo from Consumerist readers.
After an astounding number of votes, Consumerist readers once again chose EA over Bank of America, with the video game company taking nearly 78% of the vote.
What did EA do (or not do) that it managed to achieve what none of the previous WCIA champs — Comcast, AIG, BP, Halliburton, RIAA, Countrywide — have ever been able to?
Like many other competitors in the WCIA bracket, EA has repeatedly failed at three core requirements of running a consumer-friendly business:
1. Provide a Product People Want and Like
Yes, EA has games that sell in the millions, a number of which are well-reviewed and some of which are genuinely loved. But the company also has a history of pumping out products, or rushing games through development, in order to cash in on a brand name. Just in recent years, there have been several notable examples. Dragon Age 2, while it has its defenders, was seen by many as an inferior cash-in that would have benefited from a longer development schedule. Likewise, the sequels for Dead Space have been been similarly derided by some fans of the original.
The most obvious example was Mass Effect 3, which had the bad fortune of being released in the weeks leading up to the 2012 WCIA tournament. Fans of the first two games, who had invested large chunks of time and money, were left with an empty feeling after reaching the obviously rushed endgame. Detractors accused EA of pushing to game out too early and focusing too much of its energy on the new multiplayer side of the game, since that promised the company a revenue stream in the form of in-game microtransactions for users who want to acquire the many characters and upgrades. The reaction to ME 3 was so negative and so widely publicized, EA was compelled to release a slightly more satisfactory ending only a few months later.
Similarly, the recent release of SimCity 5 came with the news that users would need to be connected to the Internet in order to simply play by one’s self. The company claims it is not a form of anti-piracy digital rights management (though not many people believe that), but instead is about “realiz[ing] a vision of players connected in regions to create a SimCity that captured the dynamism of the world we live in; a global, ever-changing, social world.” Translated, that means EA wants you to always be online so you’ll be encouraged to buy things from the in-game store.
This ballsy decision on EA’s part sets a precedent that the company will surely follow in future games, meaning that consumers will have to choose between the game they want to play and the company that requires them to always be online, whether it’s to monitor their use or sell them new outfits for characters.
“EA has become a company that releases mediocre products created by faceless teams,” wrote Penny Arcade’s Ben Kuchera in a story about the WCIA finals. “There is no real vision at work, no grand design. Just the idea that free-to-play games and microtransactions are the wave of the future, or at least they better be, because none of the company’s $60 boxed releases are finding much success with either critics or gamers.”
2. Sell Your Product at a Reasonable Price
Like movies, video games require a large amount of money and the efforts of many talented individuals. And so games are going to cost an amount of money that will allow the publisher to make a profit. But the largest video game publishers, including EA, have been accused of refusing to compete on pricing, meaning that consumers pay $60 for a new game because that’s what the studios tells us it will cost. By the same token, EA’s deals with sports leagues like the NFL mean that no other competitor is free to offer a competing game that either offers more content for the same price, or similar content for a lower price.
Then there are the free-to-play games that EA makes such noise about. They may be “free” to play, but EA openly admits that the goal of creating these games is to nickel-and-dime users into paying for in-game purchases. The company’s CFO recently stated that EA intends to include these microtransactions in all its free-to-play games.
Beyond any possible price-fixing or consumer chiseling, EA is making money by allowing advertisers into its games — even the ones that people pay a lot of money for. Most recently, people who purchased SimCity 5 were treated to their first piece of extra content — a de facto ad for the Nissan Leaf. So EA gets paid, while its customers get to download an interactive advertisement.
3. Support the Products You Sell
EA made a royal mess of the SimCity release by failing to foresee that the people who would buy the game — and who would, per the game’s design, be required to connect to the EA servers — might actually want to play at some point in the week after making their purchase. But that’s just the latest in EA’s long history of annoying its customer base with bad support.
Customers who paid full price for games, or who spent or saved huge piles of in-game cash in EA’s online products, would suddenly find a problem with their accounts, but attempts to rectify the problem — or even get a response from EA — would go unheeded.
In the wake of last year’s WCIA win, EA’s head of customer service told CNET that big changes were coming for the company and that it would be improving how it responds to customers and adding call centers to better handle things. And yet, just the other day a Consumerist reader in Europe sent us his chat transcript with an EA rep that shows the company still has a long way to go.
The customer had a simple question about linking an Origin account to his Xbox gamer tag, but the EA rep could only tell the customer that nothing could be done over chat and that he would need to call a customer support number to discuss the problem. Making matters worse, though the customer was in Europe, the EA rep provided him with a phone number for EA’s U.S. support office.
The support issue is only going to become an even bigger concern as EA includes more ways of making in-game purchases and requires Internet access just to play games. Each transaction is a chance for an error, and one server crash could mean millions of people left with useless games until someone slaps a shoe against the side of the server.
SEALING THE DEAL
Perhaps EA is secretly of the school of thought that there is no such thing as bad publicity. That’s the only way to explain the decision by Peter Moore, the company’s chief operating officer, to release one of the most defensive, deflective, non-apology apologies we’ve ever seen.
In his misguided, misinformed missive, Moore says things like “we can do better,” while at the same time attempting to put the blame for its WCIA success on a mysterious, unseen cabal of homophobic right-wing blog commenters and people who don’t like whichever football player(s) are on the cover of Madden NFL.
“I have a feeling that a rather pronounced enthusiasm for nickel-and-diming might have caused a slightly more elevated level of dissatisfaction with customers,” writes CNET’s Chris Matyszczyk.
Moore’s note also marked the second time EA has tried to deflect criticism by pointing to previous winners of the Worst Company tournament, as if to mock consumers who dared to express their discontent with a mere video game publisher.
Make no mistake: Video games are big business. A company like EA — and Activision, Ubisoft, Nintendo, and Sony, etc. — merits just as much scrutiny as any other business that plays a leading role in a multibillion-dollar industry. It’s only a fractured, antiquated public perception that video games are somehow frivolous holdovers from childhood that allows gamers to be abused and taken advantage of by the very people who supply them the games they play.
“Until EA stops sucking the blood out of games in order to make uninspiring sequels, or at least until they begin caring about how much gamers hate their lack of respect for our money and intelligence, this is going to continue,” writes Penny Arcade’s Kuchera. “We don’t hate them because we’re homophobes, we hate them because they destroy companies we love. We hate them because they release poor games. We hate them because they claim our hate doesn’t matter as long as we give them our money.”
Instead of deflecting, we ask the higher-ups at EA to reflect on the following question:
When we live in an era marked by massive oil spills, faulty foreclosures by bad banks, and rampant consolidation in the airline and telecom industry, what does it say about EA’s business practices that so many people have — for the second year in a row — come out to hand it the title of Worst Company In America?