I see that Electronic Arts has gotten the exclusive rights to Star Wars video games. I remember another thing EA got exclusive rights to, and that didn’t work out so great… but we’ll see.
I’m not saying this is necessarily bad news–for one thing, if I understand correctly, EA can still publish games that other developers make. To my mind, it could be good or bad.
I’ve been thinking about the Mass Effect series again, and how weirdly uneven it was for a trilogy that was supposedly mapped out in advance. The first Mass Effect had a very interesting story, but the gameplay was a little wonky, at least to people like me who aren’t really familiar with RPG mechanics. Combat in ME1 feels very awkward.
Then Mass Effect 2 streamlined the combat, making it much more like the popular Gears of War series. The hardcore RPG people may disagree, but I think this made for a superior game, even if they had to mess with some established background information of the setting to make it work. ME 2 is still my favorite in the series, even though parts of the story don’t make sense. And I think it’s interesting that EA acquired BioWare between ME1 and 2, and in the latter, the game suddenly became much more accessible to the average gamer.
But then you have Mass Effect 3, which had many well-known problems with its infamously unsatisfying ending. BioWare insists that they had total creative control, so you can’t blame EA for the ending. (Then again, the Illusive Man insisted he had control of the Reapers, too…) But in addition to all the in-game problems, it was criticized for forcing players to buy a bunch of additional stuff in order to get the “full” ending. Again, it’s just interesting to me that there was no comparable marketing scheme for, say, BioWare’s Knights of the Old Republic (2003) or Jade Empire (2005) or even the first Mass Effect (2007).
So, I think we have a pretty good roadmap already for what is going to happen to a beloved science-fiction franchise whose video games department is now being run by EA. But wait! There’s more!
Everyone thinks that this means Star Wars game will become increasingly Call of Duty-like, and you will see a lot of polished but simplistic games. Pretty much everyone feels that the Battlefront series or something like it will be making a comeback. And why not? If EA can make something Star Wars themed that can compete with the highest-grossing game series in history, why wouldn’t they?
This isn’t so bad, really. Battlefront was a fun game. It’s just that I think everyone feels EA is just too big, and when a company gets that big, it’s hard for them to function the right way. They can keep making money off of AAA blockbuster games for a while yet, but they can’t really innovate, because that involves risk. Which means we probably won’t be seeing any deep, philosophical, Star Wars RPGs like the great Knights of the Old Republic II anytime soon.
But more than that, there are indications that EA is just generally mismanaged. As Shamus Young says in that article, they are not running their company as well as they might, just from a pure business point of view. However, I think their model is sustainable for the near-term future. Star Wars has been popular since the 1970s–people will continue to buy any heavily-hyped game that ties with that franchise for a few more years. This is where we see the similarity to EA’s NFL license monopoly–the NFL has been popular since the 1960s, and for those who play sports games, it’s the only show in town.
The difference, of course, is that the NFL, while not technically a monopoly is the only widely-watched pro football league in America. Star Wars is not the only major science-fiction franchise. There are still more of those to compete with Star Wars games.
That’s why I think the monopoly on Star Wars has a greater chance of blowing up in EA’s face than their NFL monopoly–the latter is essentially a monopoly on a near-monopoly, because the NFL controls a huge amount of market share in the market for football. EA is building off of that. But it’s different with the market for sci-fi games–it’s more of an oligopoly, with just a few competitors: Star Wars, Star Trek, and so on.
If we assume that consumers are indifferent as to which science-fiction franchise’s video games they choose to spend money on, this means there is still an element of competition in the market. But, of course, not all consumers are not indifferent–they have preferences for franchises. So, I want Star Wars to have the better video games, among other reasons, to show up the Trekkies. (Not that I dislike Star Trek, but still.) Branding is always very important in oligopolies.
The point is, this arrangement coupled with EA’s past problems with understanding different markets as mentioned in the Shamus Young article linked above and… well, the title of this post says it all.