Electronic Arts is one of a select few companies in the game industry with enough clout to push other publishers around. As the second-largest publisher, the largest being Activision Blizzard, EA has established itself as a force to be reckoned with, particularly during the past two console generations. In some instances, that size and success has worked against it, from fair labor controversies on the development side to “sequelitis” claims on the consumer side. But one thing has remained steady throughout it all: you don’t want to mess with EA.
Never was that more apparent than at EA’s E3 2008 press conference.
EA announced and discussed a host of games yesterday, not the least of which was The Sims 3, which will ship in 2009, and Dragon Age Origins, a “true sequel” to Baldur’s Gate. But in the span of five minutes, EA made two game-related announcements that did nothing short of serve notice to Microsoft and Activision, sending shots across both companies’ bow. And if either company has learned anything during the past few years, it will be wise to watch these developments carefully.
The first shot came against Microsoft, which has long touted and benefited from its Xbox Live service. Owners of the original Xbox and Xbox 360 have come to expect a single “Gamertag” ID that carries from game to game, providing a convenient way to find, make and connect with friends online. Although Sony has a similar setup with the PlayStation 3 (PS3), the system is undeniably smoother on Xbox Live, and Microsoft has earned plenty of fans because of it.
Well look out, Microsoft. EA is gunning for you. Yesterday EA announced “Nucleus,” its online ID system that essentially functions like a Gamertag. However, where Microsoft has largely flopped with its attempt to implement cross-platform ID via Xbox Live and Live for Windows, EA will likely succeed. EA’s online Nucleus ID will track achievements, online status, reputation and a universal friends list, and it will do so whether you’re playing on a PC, Mac or console. It has already been implemented in Spore and Battlefield Heroes, and EA plans to activate Nucleus in The Sims 3, as well. That’s one hell of a critical mass. The kicker? Nucleus will support microtransactions as well.
This is all well and good, as gamers have been clamoring for a seamless cross-platform friends list for years. But with EA treading into ground Microsoft has heretofore “owned,” the company that Windows built had better pay attention. EA, you’ll recall, was one of the last companies to support Xbox Live. It took Microsoft killing its sports games — and reportedly paying a hefty sum — to entice EA to the Live community. Even then, whereas most games don’t have dedicated servers and just rely on the Xbox Live interface, EA’s setup has always signed players into the EA servers to connect with friends. Technically the games are Live-enabled, but EA is always involved.
With EA’s Nucleus friends list, EA could very well be planting the seeds for a migration from Xbox Live completely, particularly with the inclusion of microtransactions. Where EA has been a participant in Microsoft’s pyramid-like model, Nucleus may in fact put EA at the top of its own ladder. Whether gamers would notice any difference remains to be seen, but the technology could very well put a dent in Microsoft’s online profits. Couple that with Rupture, a new Facebook-like system from EA that will tie into the Nucleus ID and let gamers create their own achievements and challenge their friends to beat them, and Microsoft should keep very close track of EA’s next move.
Microsoft wasn’t the only sniped company at EA’s E3 press conference, as EA also took a direct shot at Activision, the publisher it loves to hate. Although it didn’t have the same potential financial ramifications, EA’s announcement that id Software has signed-on to the EA Partners program was a slap across the face for a formerly Activision-friendly developer. RAGE, an action-adventure driving game based on id 5 technology, will appear exclusively under the EA Partners label. What could make this coup-like news even more insulting to Activision? How about John Carmack delivering it himself? Sure enough, there Carmack was, introducing the game to the EA faithful and showing in-game clips for the DOOM-meets-Mad-Max game. From a gamer’s perspective, the news from EA means very little. From a PR and posturing perspective, EA crapped on Activision’s portfolio.
Between the revelation of The Sims 3 coming in 2009, the coup of getting an id Software game to join Valve Software in appearing under an EA label, and the announcement of Nucleus and Rupture, EA had the most aggressive press conference we’ve seen since Reggie Fils-Aime’s Nintendo debut. Considering that press conference took place before E3 even officially began, we’re hoping it will set the stage for some other big announcements from Nintendo, Sony and others as E3 kicks off today.
— Jonas Allen