There’s some fuss being made about the recent announcement of John Riccitiello stepping down as the head of EA. Some of the people making this fuss, endearing and sweet as they are, are talking about it as if it’s somehow a karmic punishment for the mismanagement of EA making Simcity into an unplayable pile of arsecookies that it is. This narrative is very satisfying – it creates a causal link between the failures of SimCity and the punishment of Riccitiello, who I am sure everyone was aware of before it was announced he was stepping down.
Resist this narrative.
Chances are, based on popular opinion, what you think about SimCity is wrong. To give a real quick rundown, the game-breaking bugs, always-on DRM, bad server structure and poor game design choices had nothing to do with EA. That was fucking Maxis, the guys who made SimCity 2000, the one you like. And don’t act like the DRM scheme was too ridiculous – Diablo III may be a god-awful game, but we live in a world where awful games still make fantastic profits. Always-on is the way the future is going to move as soon as businesses can find some way to do it. Essentially, all those stupid-ass and asshole moves you attribute to EA, chances are they’re EA trying to cover Maxis’ ass. EA’s job, as publisher is mostly limited to distribution (no problems there), marketing (feelin’ fine) and customer support (Oh dear).
The other big problem is that CEOs don’t do nearly as much as you think. It’s not like Riccitiello sat in an office with a monitor displaying all the game products he has, and a huge dial that reads ‘Suck’ which he turns up when he feels dickish. Mostly, what a CEO does at the top tiers of things is approve things. They ask people to create things for them, then those people go away and tell other people what they were asked, and then those people tell other people and so on and so on until this game of Chinese whispers comes back to John and his options at that point are either thumbs up or thumbs down. It’s like holding an enormous lever – small effort from John creates big effects, but he can’t really be sure about what’s going on on the other end of the huge lever. Mostly, he gets to choose directions and talk about priorities, but the people whose hands make things happen are not the people who listen to him; rather, they’re the people who listen to the people who listen to the people who listen to him.
This isn’t to say ‘Poor CEO with his million dollar salary,’ not at all. I think that anyone at top level business organisation in this world is probably overpaid by a factor of ten, but since businesses are run by businessmen, those businesses are going to become fantastically oriented to the task of enriching businessmen. They will also ask businessmen to have business skills. What skill they don’t have is telepathy – and that’s where the position of CEO becomes near mystical.
See, business is complicated. It’s made up of lots of variables and intangibles, things that can’t be readily proven, and driven by the emotions of people involved. Investors can get spooked by any old thing – and they can also be confident based on nothing but other investors standing still. What this means is that for all that marketing and businesses are treated like they’re smart people doing smart things to make smart decisions that make our smart world, they’re mostly just headless, stumbling, misguided automata, clueless about what the fuck they’re doing. They can’t rewind time a year and see what would have happened if they hadn’t had that CEO, and try with another. This, incidentally, is why Bobby Kotick is bulletproof – because every single huge fuckup he’s been responsible for, and the boiling animus for him online, none of which really can be pointed at as being his fault. Activision is following its corporate culture, and since they can’t prove replacing Bobby would improve things, and any given replacement has about a 50%/50% chance of being worse, he remains, like one of the many polyps on this art form’s ballsac.
Essentially, Riccitiello stepped down most likely for the exact reason he said: EA was trying to reach certain financial goals this year, and he’d pledged to do it, and they didn’t. He was able to look at their current financial state, predict that nothing was going to improve things enough, and rather than get fired by the board of directors later, stepped down.
What’s really mindblowing is that if you look over the past few years, 2012 has been a year in which EA has somehow succesfully avoided doing anything too stupid too directly. Sure, Syndicate was a stupid idea, and The Old Republic, technically theirs, remains as a monument to everything Star Wars actually is. It’s not like we had anything like the Dante’s Inferno marketing crash – and this is a company which still has access to pockets deep enough to use some of its IPs for really good things.
If anything you can blame EA for, it’s for trying to make gamers into a singular market. They want PC gamers to behave like console gamers and then for both of them to behave like mobile phone gamers. They want those players to then buy games on the same schedule and with the same regularity as Madden gamers, and then they’d really appreciate it if we all responded to the same general marketing strategies as well. I wonder if this really is the byproduct of becoming a publishing giant; you lose the ability to differentiate between the tiny people.
Why is this relevant at all to the end user?
Because it’s not relevant at all. Nothing you did, no amount of criticism or vitriol or tantrums about SimCity did anything to Riccitiello. What killed his position was a full year of bad performance on a financial level. Therefore, the only way that Riccitiello and you have any contact through this is if you were planning on buying EA products multiple times throughout this year, and then chose not to, not because of the games at all, but because it was EA. If that happened, congratulations – you are one of the ten thousand pin pricks that finally pierced EA’s hull. Otherwise?
Business – and business, as usual.