We’ve all been waiting for this. It’s hard to say exactly when John Riccitello felt the clock was ticking, but so long as his company continued to tank, the knives became sharper with each loud brush. It seems like a fitting note that on the day his company announced compensation for issues related to their first major release of the year, Riccitello put forth his walking papers as CEO of Electronic Arts. To realize the blueprint of Riccitello’s demise, we need to go back to the end of Larry Probst’s tenure, who stepped down in April of 2007 having served sixteen years in the captain’s chair.
By the mid-aughts, Electronic Arts was doing everything it could to be a PR nightmare in the view of the gaming enthusiast crowd. Over his tenure, Probst had turned Electronic Arts into the monolithic, mass-appeal gaming machine that worked so hard to appeal to every possible gamer by toning down ambition, tact, or credibility. EA had spent a fortune locking down sporting franchise exclusives during the period, including the PGA, NASCAR, and most egregiously, the NFL, which eliminated 2K’s fan favorite NFL2K series. A large number of their SKUs were based on licensed properties like Harry Potter and the company began developing their main series, such as Need For Speed, in annual installments, giving developers barely a year to create a whole new variation of last year’s flavor. All of this came after the liquidation of the distinct developer units the company had acquired in the nineties, including Richard Garriott’s Origin and Peter Molyneux’s Bullfrog. EA epitomized what had become so wrong with commodifying game development – remember all those Sims expansions? – and over the course of a few passionate nights, I risked invoking Godwin’s Law putting together the hyper-dramatic movie above to string my sentiments of the time together.
It worked well for Larry, but as Apple’s Tim Cook is starting to see now, coming up with a winning recipe and taking a stance indistinguishable from resting on your laurels, even as the revenue continues to increase, doesn’t sit well with stockholders, which then doesn’t sit well with the board of directors, who then ask for your resignation. Enter Riccitello.
Riccitello had previously served as EA’s COO from 1997 to 2004, leaving to rub elbows with the likes of Bono to co-found Elevation Partners. Investing $300 million into Pandemic and Bioware, he merged them, creating a super developer responsible for hits like Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic and Mercenaries. When EA’s board needed a good figure to replace Larry in early 2007, they went with Riccitello, who served as a breath of fresh air the company desperately needed. At first apologizing for the errors of the company and subsequently making big moves like acquiring Bioware-Pandemic, the company he had just put together, and enlisting Microsoft’s Peter Moore to head up EA Sports, Riccitello seemed to find good company amongst those who had once derided the company. He weaned EA off of the licensed properties that padded the company’s pockets, invested in new IPs like Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, and made the bold move to split up Need for Speed‘s development amongst three different developers to let the brand breathe for once. All of these moves seemed like a pro-gamer stance at a time when Activision was consolidating its power behind Call of Duty and Guitar Hero to become the industry’s new Sauron.
But Riccitello’s new strategy only mitigated the company in a different way than his predecessor. Rather than commodify their franchises for the quickest buck possible, Riccitello relied on other studios to do the daring work first. An EA insider revealed to me the struggles of pitching a game a few years back, explaining that a Road Rash reboot – melee combat on motorcycles, for those not born yet – had repeatedly failed to be greenlit because the marketing department had no existing precedent to lean on. Many games were only given the go-ahead when they successfully aped another existing franchise. Some examples:
- Army of Two was a response to Gears of War.
- Dead Space was their Resident Evil 4.
- Their new, sim-styled Need for Speed: Shift was a take on Forza Motorsport.
- Dante’s Inferno was the company’s God of War.
- The company acquired Mythic and Warhammer Online to compete with World of Warcraft.
- EA partnered with Harmonix and MTV Games to publish Rock Band, the answer to Harmonix’s own Guitar Hero, now at Activision.
- The company’s modern take on military shooters with their latest Medal of Honor games was also a response to an Activision franchise: Call of Duty.
But this strategy couldn’t last as Riccitello’s experiments like Mirror’s Edge and The Saboteur failed, the latter capping a series of under-performing games that resulted in the closure of Pandemic in 2009. Even Bioware couldn’t escape scrutiny as the brand was diluted and sequels like Dragon’s Age II were forced out the door. From 2010 on, the failures seem more and more complete as many of EA’s headlining games debuted to either critical derision, poor sales, or poor management. Bioware’s doctors left the company late last year following Riccitello’s second, expensive stab at tackling World of Warcraft with Star Wars The Old Republic, a game that went free-to-play within a year. The Mass Effect 3 conclusion debacle, EA’s feud with Steam and unsatisfactory handling of their own service (ironically called Origin), their failure to make sense in the mobile game space, a vow to tuck in microtransactions into every game, their disastrous SimCity launch… when the rain came, it poured.
At this point, it makes sense why Riccitello is being shown the door (or rather, grabbing the knob before being pushed out) and why his successor now has a long, hard road in front of them. Riccitello tried so hard to win over gamers that in his own malaise, he brought EA to the same rut they were six years ago, only with more expensive games, aggressive and irritating online functionality, and nary a licensed title to speak of. It was a dream to think that Riccitello could have solved the company’s problems. It was a sweet one at that.