Top 5 Tech Turkeys of 2013 – 3) Electronic Arts

turkey_fryer_fire SimCity.

Thank you, and goodnight!

Seriously, it takes real ineptitude to take one of the first giants of PC gaming with mass market appeal an twist it into the broken mockery of code that was SimCity 2013. If you ever wondered exactly how bad “Designed by committee” could go, look no further. The core conceit of removing abstraction from the individuals of this city simulator meant reducing city sizes dramatically. Allowing players to track their tiny denizens revealed every flaw and cheat a simulation that was, quite simply, designed to run on the wrong scale. A questionable population model and schizophrenic advisor system only added to the mayhem. Interesting features like connected cities from Sim City 4 were broken and twisted to fit a more Farmville-esque mold. Online hooks where unattended cities can poison several people’s games forced dedicated gamers to go it alone rather than play together. If you could play at all. Even after a public beta test and months of examining pre-order numbers, SimCity greeted and enthusiastic public with a bevy of broken servers and crash prone local stability problems. It would stay that way for months. Even if you could connect, there was a very good chance that all of your progress had been erased.

Under a hailstorm of criticism regarding the always online requirement of the title, EA declared that SimCity could only be possible as an online game. Concieved and built from the ground up as a multiplayer game, online was essential to this title. Outspoken members of the development team at Maxis were quick to publicly refute this claim from their corporate masters. The publisher was forced to recant their statement. It was clear that SimCity’s flawed, online-only existence was not to fulfill some vision of the game’s design, but to enforce copy protection, social obligation amongst players, and control of content. Even now, eight months later, SimCity’s update notes still feature such entries as “Should no longer complain about the lack of shoppers and not enough places to shop at the same time.” Unsurprisingly, the one thing that has always worked in SimCity was the ability to buy more virtual decorations for your broken game. An expansion pack is scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2014.

SimCity was a disaster. Taken on its own, it would have been a black eye for one of the largest video game publishers in the world. Unfortunately for consumers, EA wasn’t done with catastrophic releases.

Electronic Arts elected to take advantage of the launch of the new generation of console to reboot their on-hiatus NBA basketball franchise. To fully appreciate the scope of this event, we need to set the wayback machine to 2010. EA’s basketball titles were already taking a beating at retail from competitor 2K’s releases. In 2010 the publisher announced that it was rebooting its NBA Live series into the newer, faster, better NBA Elite. The game would be canceled mere days before release over "concerns about gameplay polish.” A few leaked copies and an early demo confirmed that EA spoke the truth. NBA Elite was a train wreck. EA would not release another basketball game until November of 2013. So, how did three years in the oven help EA’s high profile next-gen sports game? The one star review on Giant Bomb calls NBA Live 14, “a mess made messier by a host of other small, nagging gameplay issues.”  It only looks worse compared to their rival 2Ks latest basketball game NBA2K14 which is one of the highest rated titles in the new console launch lineup. The executive producer of NBA Live 14 issued a public apology and claims that the team will patch in improvements to the game such as better graphics, animation, and tutorials. He also stated that the reason for the game’s shoddy release was the short 12 month development cycle.

SimCity and NBA Live 14 were disasters. Taken on their own, it would have blackened both eyes of one of the largest video game publishers in the world. Unfortunately for consumers, EA wasn’t done ruining Christmas.

2013 was the year EA had been waiting for. New game machines were out, people were open to change, and the Call of Duty juggernaut was starting to show signs of running out of steam. This was the chance they had been waiting for. This was the year for Battlefield to strike it big. How were they going to do it? By releasing and incremental upgrade to the two year-old Battlefield 3 that managed, almost miraculously, to be broken on every one of the five platforms it was released on. Learning nothing from the SimCity debacle in March, the EA server farm once again collapsed with a large sucking sound. The few who could connect discovered a whole new digital hell: Broken animations, broken reloading, broken server browsers, broken damage modeling, broken class progression, broken save files, broken party chat, a couple of broken cameras, and plenty of crashing to the desktop. One reproducible bug on the PS4 crashes not just the game, but the entire server every time a certain building is destroyed, one of the game’s most hyped features. How did EA respond to this particular catastrophe? By issuing a public apology with one hand and selling an expansion that broke the game even further with the other.

The Battlefield 4 fiasco may be the one to come back and bite EA the hardest. In December the law firm of Robbins Geller Rudman & Dowd LLP, the guys who handled the heavy lifting on the ENRON fraud case back in 2001, have filed a class-action suit on behalf of shareholders against Electronic Arts for "materially false and misleading statements" in the months leading up to the release of Battlefield 4 to raise the stock price in order for executives to sell off thousands of shares before the game’s release. EA has called the claim “meritless”. Legal documents showing EA executives selling large numbers of shares shortly before Battlefield 4’s holiday release tell a different story.

Tomorrow we examine the second largest turkey in the technical world of 2013. They once ruled the mobile world. Today… eh, not so much.

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