Analysing E3 2016: EA – The Circle of Life

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E3 2016 Analysis: Electronic Arts | Bethesda | Microsoft | Ubisoft | Sony

EA has had its dalliances with mobile gaming and free-to-play but at E3 2016 they were very much an old fashioned video game publisher. This show was all about big games, both coming this year and far in the future, anchored to established franchises and their licensed properties.

It doesn’t appear this was always the plan for EA. In 2014 we could forgive EA for showing mostly concept art and sharing ideas over gameplay footage, the generation was young and cross-platform games were still viable. In 2016 we should be seeing more than developers rotating wireframe 3D models, but instead EA are only just getting started on their Star Wars games. What happened in these two years?

EA hasn’t forgotten free-to-play and mobile but it has certainly learned when it should be talked about and E3 showcases is not that time. You can milk the mobile market dry without ever letting console and PC gamers know the products exist; search for Electronic Arts in the App Store and you’ll recognise the franchises but probably not the games. EA has had great success bringing microtransaction economies to its sports games and that as much as unit sales will keep the train rolling, but the company that consistently earns the ire of gamers to the point it was voted “worst company in the world” has certainly learned some lessons about its public image and what it should keep quiet from gamers.

One lesson it hasn’t learned is how to avoid cannibalising its own audience. Why their tent-pole shooter releases Battlefield 1 and Titanfall 2 must release within a week of each other more marketing oriented minds than mine could probably explain, but to me it is ridiculous. I doubt this is just a case of development cycles lining up but so much is spent on making these games it baffles me that the “games must be released in Spring” mindset still dominates marketing pushes.

At one point in time games may have only sold during the lead-up to Thanksgiving and Christmas, but that time is long gone. Games sell all through the year and I think the bump in sales Titanfall 2 would get in say, March 2017 with the market all to itself would easily eclipse whatever logic is behind the belief that people only buy games in October.

EA Originals is EA’s next attempt at broadening their game and studio portfolio. Unlike the ill-fated EA Partners program, this is more focused on independent developers and as long as EA is supporting these guys instead of buying them and shutting them down I’m all for it. The sad reality of indie games right now is that you need more than just a great game, having the marketing might of EA behind you will be a big help in standing out in the increasingly crowded indie market. Fe was attempting to be this year’s Unravel but both the disappointment of what Unravel ended up being and a lack of cute factor in Fe saw a more tepid reaction than was probably expected, but the program has potential.

EA is listening and learning when it comes to the games themselves. Adding story modes to its sports games is something that worked a treat with Fight Night Champion and I can’t wait to see it in FIFA (and hopefully one day, Madden). Titanfall 2 deserves a full campaign mode, that it looks to be an interesting story focused as much on Titans as people is a bonus. Mass Effect Andromeda is still mysterious and the Star Wars games all seem to be narrative based, even the upcoming sequel to Battlefront.

Let’s hope this bet on Star Wars pays off for EA, if not it will prove an expensive mistake. All of the major EA studios are working on Star Wars and most of those games appear to be 2018 or later releases. It is a relatively safe wager, Star Wars (and Star Wars games) has endured for over 30 years and survived the prequel trilogy, it should stay popular for some time yet. Star Wars doesn’t preclude these developers from incorporating interesting ideas, I doubt Amy Hennig and Visceral are creating a paint-by-numbers adventure, but if you don’t like that universe I really hope you like Mass Effect, shooting or sports because that is all EA has on the cards for some time to come.