The Ryan Lambie Column: Have EA lost the plot?

Is the new Lord of the Rings game the latest example of an EA that has lost its way?

Mr Ryan Lambie's amazing joypad.

January is an odd month in the gaming calendar. People are generally broke and glum following the excesses of Christmas, and most companies don’t start putting out their quality titles until at least March – the very month Capcom are planning to release Resident Evil 5, in fact.

In light of the onslaught of excellent games released seemingly all at once in the month of December, January is, by contrast, like coming down from an intense sugar rush. Fallout 3, Left4Dead, Resistance 2 and LittleBigPlanet – all quality games – hit the shelves within a few days of one another. This month, there are few new titles to keep our thumbs busy.

The post-Christmas lull goes some way to explaining why Electronic Arts’ Lord of the Rings: Conquest is currently doing so well in the charts – despite the generally dreadful reviews, it’s still riding high, having peaked at the number three position last week.

I had the opportunity to play Conquest for myself the other day, and I’m happy to add my voice to the growing chorus of disgruntled customers and journalists; it really is complete and utter bilge. Not the worst game I’ve ever played, necessarily – others have been more boring (the unremitting tedium of Pro Cycling Manager immediately springs to mind), poorly programmed (witness the jittering travesty that was The Getaway 2: Black Monday) or just plain disappointing (Banjo Kazooie: Nuts & Bolts) – but Conquest deserves every ounce of our collective fury and vitriol for two reasons: one, it takes a much loved franchise and does absolutely nothing of value with it; and two, it’s one of the most cynical cash-ins ever released.

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Surely EA, and the game’s developer Pandemic, didn’t think they’d get away with it? Surely, somebody somewhere in quality control must have said, “This is clearly a badly reskinned version of Star Wars: Battlefront. The public are going to go berserk when they play this?”

Apparently not. Despite the repetitive, button-battering combat and the ranting, overwrought narrator who insists on yelling at you at every given moment (“IT’S SARUMAN!” he screams dementedly as an ill-looking simulacra of Christopher Lee shuffles into view), Conquest made it out of Pandemic HQ and onto the shelves.

In fairness, EA does appear to have been in a rather odd state of disarray for some time; never normally a company to miss out on a potentially lucrative tie-in, EA failed to release a game to cash in on the The Dark Knight movie’s success last year, when it was finally cancelled last December following several delays. Gaming website Kotaku have suggested that the hold-ups were due to Pandemic Brisbane’s inexperience with the open world format which EA had demanded; whatever the reason, The Dark Knight‘s no-show was undoubtedly a large factor in the two companies’ recent parting of the ways.

In fact, EA appear to be going through their entire roster of development studios with a red pen of late – jobs have been cut at Black Box, Tiburon and Mythic, and there are rumoured to be more on the way as the company looks to reduce its workforce by around ten per cent.

Look back over the events of 2008 – hardly EA’s best year – and the job losses don’t come as much of a surprise. The company’s stocks have lost around of a third of their value since last February, and several high-profile releases have sold rather less than expected – Mirror’s Edge, Mercenaries 2 and Steven Spielberg’s Boom Blox are just a few examples. The public relations disaster that arose from the Spore DRM debacle, and the rampant piracy that came as an indirect (and highly ironic) consequence, only added to EA’s woes.

Of course, it’s difficult to feel too much sympathy for the company that id’s John Carmack once described as “The Evil Empire”, who allegedly made their employees work 100 hour weeks (ultimately leading to a class action lawsuit in which a number of game designers successfully sued for ‘unpaid overtime’), and whose management practises – buying small studios and then shutting them down when a game fails to perform well, as it did with Origin back in 2004 – have often been criticised.

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Industry pundits have also picked fault with EA’s franchise-hungry approach to publishing; on his blog, veteran games marketer Bruce Everiss described the company as one that has “built itself on a formulaic dependency on other people’s IP,” and cites “Harry Potter, Madden, Lord of the Rings” as examples.

Even EA’s CEO  John Riccetiello, admits that the company often lacks innovation: “‘We’re boring people to death and making games that are harder and harder to play,” he said in a candid interview with the Wall Street Journal. “For the most part, the industry has been rinse-and-repeat.”

Elsewhere, Riccetiello has expressed his desire to improve the quality of EA’s releases; in an interview with The Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences, he emphasised the importance of “making games we can be proud of” and “pushing boundaries”.

Games like last year’s Dead Space certainly conform to Riccetiello’s statements, and at least prove that EA can produce some surprisingly good original material rather than the Harry Potter tie-ins or The Sims expansion packs that serve as their bread-and-butter.

And while Riccetiello may have high expectations for EA’s future output (even hoping for its games “to be recognised as the peer of the best of Hollywood movies”), lacklustre fare like Need for Speed: Undercover and the abominable Lord of the Rings: Conquest fall hugely wide of the mark.

Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.

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29 January 2009