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Did EA beat Nintendo at its own game?

10 Years Ago This Month: A closer look at John Riccitiello's bold claim that EA would rival Nintendo's quality of software on the Wii, and a breakdown of a post-layoff pep talk

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

It's been fascinating for me to follow John Riccitiello's stint as CEO of Electronic Arts in this column. As a vocal executive overseeing one of the largest game publishers at the beginning of a seismic shift in the industry, there have been plenty of comments, strategies, and predictions for me to look back on and reassess a decade down the road.

Sometimes, Riccitiello winds up painted as a well-intentioned executive who regularly achieved a quality bar the company has failed to match in the years since his departure. Other times he's a ruthless serial killer of games, with dozens of bodies to his name. (He would likely tell you these things are not coincidental.) And someday soon, we'll have the chance to talk about Riccitiello overseeing the company's successful turn towards games-as-a-service.

But regardless of whether Riccitiello's various sound bites come off as wise, absurd, prophetic, or profit-obsessed, more often than not they've been deserving of a closer look.

"We are taking great advantage of their new hardware addition with the motion sensor. What that is going to give us is the kind of gameplay we think will rival Nintendo on their own platform"

John Riccitiello has a bold prediction for EA's Wii lineup

In February of 2009, the Wii was still a phenomenon. It had just finished its third consecutive holiday season since launch where demand for the hardware outstripped supply. 2008 had been another banner year for the system buoyed by Mario Kart Wii, Super Smash Bros. Brawl, and the Western launch of Wii Fit. With a larger installed base and lower development costs than the Xbox 360 and PS3, the system had considerable appeal to publishers looking to weather a turbulent economy.

EA was having a particularly tough time of it, reporting a $641 million loss for the holiday quarter, announcing that it would be closing a dozen offices, and bumping up its already-announced layoff plans to 1,000 people to 1,100 people. In the investor conference call following that dismal quarterly earnings report, Riccitiello laid out plans to make half its console output for the Wii.

"You will see we are taking great advantage of their new hardware addition with the motion sensor," Riccitiello said of the company's plans. "What that is going to give us is the kind of gameplay we think will rival Nintendo on their own platform, and we are bringing marketing together in such a way that we think we can get noticed in ways that no other third party will."

At first glance, it sounds outlandish. Nobody rivals Nintendo on its own platforms. And especially on the Wii, where Nintendo had unparalleled success with both the core and the casual (Wii Sports and Wii Fit) and the system's software library was often perceived as Nintendo games and a collection of cash-in casual shovelware. The suggestion that EA could rival Nintendo's games on the Wii is right up there with EA's claim of an unprecedented partnership with Nintendo to support the Wii U at the system's E3 2011 premiere, followed by three ports at launch, a fourth several months later, and public confirmation that it had dropped the system entirely less than six months after release.

But let's play devil's advocate for a minute. EA's sales numbers clearly didn't rival Nintendo's on Wii games, but how about its Metacritic scores? Well, still no. It's tough to consider oneself a plausible rival when Nintendo published the top five retail games on the system (both Mario Galaxys, Zelda Twilight Princess, Smash Bros. Brawl, and Zelda Skyward Sword, in that order) and seven of the top 10.

However, of the 106 Wii games to score at least an 80 Metacritic average, EA published or distributed (in the case of Rock Band games) 16 of them. That's not quite up to par with Nintendo's 23, but it's more than respectable, and it's hard to hold it against EA that the things it does well (licensed sports titles, for example) often don't get remembered as timeless classics ripe for re-release on later systems.

In 2009, EA had more Wii releases with an 80+ Metacritic average than Nintendo

EA's 80+ Wii lineup consisted of four Tiger Woods games, two EA Sports Actives, two Maddens, a FIFA, four Rock Band titles (two of which scored above a 90), the Steven Spielberg-attached Boom Blox and its sequel, and Dead Space: Extraction. It's not a bad lineup, but when Nintendo considers its Wii Classic lineup a couple decades from now, none of those would be a slam dunk selection. (Although by that criteria, there's always EA's NBA Jam reboot, which just missed our cut-off with a 79 Metacritic average).

Let's squint a little harder here, and suggest that Riccitiello's comment was inspired by EA's then-upcoming lineup, and made in comparison to Nintendo's. If we just consider the games from each company that came out that year, Nintendo had a total of five 2009 releases for the Wii that scored an 80 or higher average, led by the Metroid Prime Trilogy re-release (91 average) and New Super Mario Bros. Wii (87 average). EA had six, highlighted by The Beatles: Rock Band (90 average) and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 10 (88 average).

I'll be honest. When I was going through the old stories for this column and found that Riccitiello quote, I was expecting to direct a healthy amount of snark his way. But if you look at the situation from juuuust the right angle, it's not so outlandish a claim.

There's no "us" in team

Fortunately, I won't have to look very far to find a more deserving target of that snark. In the wake of the EA layoffs mentioned above, EA Redwood Shores boss Glen Schofield talked about addressing the remaining members of the studio after the cuts were made.

"I said, look, I can't tell you if this is the end or not, but we're making some great games here. If we continue to make great games, if we continue to push this, we're not going to lose our jobs. Because we're making great stuff."

He added, "People who aren't making great games are going to lose their jobs. But if you're making quality and we continue to push on that, and you're a quality person then you're going to keep your job."

"The implication is clearly that those who were laid off were not making great games, or were not quality people"

I'm not sure Schofield meant it this way, but the implication is clearly that those who were laid off--many of whom let's assume were close friends and colleagues of those remaining--were not making great games, or were not quality people.

That's not a happy message for developers to hear, and it seems to be clearly not consistent with reality, considering the Redwood Shores team had just shipped the critically acclaimed Dead Space four months earlier yet felt compelled to send a chunk of the people who made that great game to the unemployment line. (Also not a feel-great moment? Riccitiello saying the economic recession was a blessing in disguise, that publishers and EA in particular had become too fat, and "It seemed like anyone who could draw a guy with a gun with a crayon could get funded.")

"Morale seems to be... We're not hiding it; we're not being elusive about it," Schofield said, elusively avoiding an end to the sentence about how morale is.

Dead Space was a great game made by quality people plus fat that an economic recession thankfully gave EA an excuse to trim

Dead Space was a great game made by quality people plus fat that an economic recession thankfully gave EA an excuse to trim

"I think the fact that it's happening all over the world, and that it's happening in every industry, makes it a little easier because you say, look guys, we still have a job, EA's a big brand and it's a great company - we're going to survive this," he added. "We're looking to fix things. And they realise that: it's a big, big brand."

So yes, take heart, EA employees. You're in control of your own destiny, because if you make great games, you're not going to lose your job, even though a bunch of people who just made a great game just lost their jobs. Also, this should be easier because you're not in control of your own destiny; it's part of a global financial crisis you have no control over. Regardless, EA will survive because it's a big brand. It just might have to ditch you and your not-quality co-workers along the way.

Good pep talk, Glen.

People who were apparently not making great games

The late 2008 global economic downturn was brutal, and the effects were by no means limited to late 2008. So let's round-up the month's layoffs and shutdowns. We already mentioned EA closing offices and scaling up its layoffs, so let's just race through the rest. Pull the bandaid off quickly and it'll hurt less, right?

● Midway filed for bankruptcy.

● THQ closed its San Diego, Germany, and UK wireless offices, cutting 100 jobs in the process.

● THQ laid off 600 more people after reporting $192 million in quarterly losses.

● Brighter Minds, publisher of indie hit World of Goo, went bankrupt.

● Zavvi closed 17 more stores, laying off 242 people.

● Sega Sammy laid off 650 people and closed 110 arcades.

● NCsoft laid off 55 people as it trimmed its European operations

● Future US laid off 19 staffers.

● I just want to note that all of the above happened in the first two weeks of February. Feel free to take a breather and look at some cute dog pictures for a bit if you need.

● At least it wasn't all bad news. I mean, Capcom got a $31 billion investment from... oh wait, no, that was a clerical error because of course it was. False alarm. Didn't mean to get your hopes up.

● Ah, here we go. Rare went through a restructuring, which meant layoffs of around a dozen people from its art and engineering teams.

● Zavvi announced the closure of its remaining 31 stores, laying off the 446 people left in its work force .

● THQ shut down THQ International just one year after its formation, shutting down the Zurich office and laying off its 10 employees, who probably weren't surprised given the group's remit to work on expansion plans for a company that had been laying off people in bulk.

● And lest anyone harbor any illusions of hope, Microsoft's CFO Christopher Liddell was there to tell everyone the economy was going to suck for at least a year or two.

Good predictions

Liddell's prediction above turned out to be more or less accurate. The hemorrhaging didn't continue for a year or two, and it was clear that things were headed in the right direction later in 2009, but it would be about two more years for the stock market to return to its mid-2008 levels. And Liddell wasn't the only one with accurate soothsaying in February of 2009.

Nintendo's quarterly report that month put lifetime-to-date sales of DS systems at 96.22 million, and some investors were ready to see it wind down to obsolescence after a vibrant and profitable lifespan. However, Nintendo thought it could squeeze plenty more out of the handheld, with president Satoru Iwata predicting the DS could manage lifetime sales of 152.2 million. It turned out Iwata's estimation may have been slightly conservative; the system sold well for years, and Nintendo's official lifetime tally for the DS stands at 154.02 million.

Elsewhere in the industry, ThatGameCompany's Jenova Chen was essentially predicting a new golden age of indie games. There's some room for disagreement on whether that came to pass creatively or commercially. But it's undeniable that there are fewer barriers to entry to the development and distribution of indie games now than there ever have been in the past, and there's also no shortage of indie developers who feel their commercial prospects have been dimming since a peak that happened roughly between 2010 and 2013, depending on who you ask.

And perhaps most impressively, Gears of War writer Joshua Ortega promised fans that the franchise had a bright future, saying, "You will not be disappointed in the next ten years. It's a ten-year plan. Gears is long-term. The Lancer is the new Lightsaber." That plan seems to be right on schedule, ready to culminate this year with the debut of the Funko-branded Gears Pop on mobile devices.

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Latest comments (2)

Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University6 months ago
EA tried a little bit. But it's more like you put up with their quality because the core idea is one of a kind.
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DAVID FAHRENHOLZ Software Engineer/Game designer 6 months ago
I do not see the real comparison here. These are apple and orange analogies since Nintendo has hardware and EA has nearly double the employee count
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