The DeanBeat: Why can’t EA do more games with its big budget?

For me, the most inspirational parts of Electronic Arts’ EA Play 2020 event had little to do with games that are coming shortly. In his address, EA CEO Andrew Wilson expressed support for Black Lives Matter and first responders — a message that was refreshing to hear from a games industry leader on the eve of Juneteenth. Meanwhile, head of studios Laura Miele showed off cool graphics demos for games heading to next-generation consoles.

If I had made the usual trek to Los Angeles for the event I saw virtually yesterday, I would have been disappointed. Fortunately, I only had to drag my sorry butt out of bed to the home office in my non-air-conditioned garage. With no physical Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) this year to get fans excited, the malaise appears to have spread to EA, which didn’t present anything that could really be described as earth-shattering.

EA showed a bunch of its games in the works, but the event seemed more about what was missing. All told, EA talked about nine games, including four games that were already in the market and three games that were made by other companies. That adds up to just two brand new EA-made titles. That wasn’t much for a company that spends $1.5 billion on research and development and $700 million on marketing each year.

EA had already said it didn’t have a ton to show off this year, with only one previously unannounced game in the works. (Fans were disappointed EA didn’t show off UFC 4.). I wanted to get a glimpse of the next Battlefield game — and we did, sort of — but EA warned that game is really far off.

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The company is still performing well financially because it has live operations that keep fans spending money in titles like Madden NFL and FIFA. Call me grumpy, but I get bored hearing about staples that make so much money for EA that it isn’t as motivated to create brand new titles as it used to be.

To be fair

I don’t want to come off as a hater, so I know I should muster more enthusiasm. To be fair, there were new games that got people excited. I thought Star Wars: Squadrons looked beautiful, with amazing graphics and dogfights in space.

But its $40 discounted price suggested it isn’t as major an effort as we would hope for a Star Wars game. And it looks like EA is hoping fans will consider the 5v5 multiplayer the heart of the game, with a single-player campaign just sort of attached. It almost felt like an expansion for Star Wars: Battlefront II’s combat flight sections — after big games like Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order and Battlefront II, this one feels bite-sized.

Fans of the Skate franchise were rewarded for their faith as EA confirmed in its last segment that a new Skate game is in the works. It was heartwarming to see developers like Cuz Parry and Deran Chung get a chance to reveal the game in the works. But they also warned that the game wasn’t coming soon.

Apex Legends will be headed over to the Nintendo Switch, with full crossplay enabled. But I didn’t see anything about the gameplay updates that would get me to go back after enjoying the rival battle royale game Call of Duty: Warzone. It felt like this moment caught the Apex Legends team between big announcements. And this was after EA said in an earnings call that it was going to concentrate on Apex Legends as its shooter game for this year.

The most interesting part of the show (that wasn’t spoiled) was the EA Originals titles — the small titles from external developers like Hazelight’s It Takes Two, Zoink’s Lost in Random, and Final Strike Games’ Rocket Arena. As mentioned, these games were made by third-party developers.

Not enough surprises

Above: Maybe it’s Battlefield VI?

Image Credit: EA

GamesBeat’s Jeff Grubb gave us some great intelligence on what was coming, but we were still hoping for a few surprises. We prepped some stories on franchises that might be coming back, like the rumored remake of the Mass Effect trilogy. But that failed to materialize. BioWare is busy fixing Anthem and is working on Dragon Age 4, but those titles weren’t mentioned. Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, a big virtual reality title from Respawn, didn’t get a mention either.

Miele’s short spiel on tech demos for the next generation offered a glimpse of what we think was a Dragon Age 4 image, as well as an exploding building that looked like it was from a Battlefield game, but she didn’t call them out. That seemed like the most unexciting way to announce new games I could imagine.

Perhaps most disappointing of all was that EA didn’t even have any mobile games to talk about. Those games don’t take as long to make, and they generate a lot of revenue from in-app purchases. Star Wars: Galaxy of Heroes is a great example of a game that keeps on generating money. During this pandemic, it would have been great if EA had a game ready or decided to speed the release of a new mobile title to take advantage of the fact that games have record engagement now. Nope. Didn’t happen. In fact, recently EA gave up on the Scrabble franchise, handing it over to Scopely, rather than doing its own new version of the game.

Bioware's next gen project.Bioware's next gen project.

Above: Bioware’s next-gen project.

Image Credit: EA

I can understand why there wasn’t much to show. Back in 2008, EA would release 60 games a year. Now it releases maybe six to eight games as it’s taking its time and focusing on quality. It also generates far more revenue now ($5.5 billion in 2020, versus $3.6 billion in 2008) than it did back then. EA used to consistently lose money, and now it consistently makes billions in profits. So it is doing a lot right.

But games cost a lot more to make now — maybe $80 million to $150 million, before marketing costs. They take years to make. And next-generation game budgets are likely to get worse, if history teaches us anything. It felt like EA was either cooking its games for a long time or had decided long ago that 2020 was going to be a bad year to introduce big games, as it was the last year of a long console cycle. I don’t think that’s true, but the dearth of games coming out — at a time when gamers are hungrier than ever for new games — makes me wonder. I feel let down, as if the extraordinary amount of money pouring into the company has been generating less creative magic.

Back to the finest part

Above: EA’s next-generation graphics tech.

Image Credit: EA

Just to show this isn’t all whining, I’d like to go back to Miele’s role and Wilson’s message at the start. Miele said the generational shift is an opportunity to push technology beyond today’s boundaries. She briefly showed images like the one above that reveal what games will look like on the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X by next year. She called out images from worlds being created by EA’s Criterion, BioWare, DICE, and Motive studios as just a tiny sliver of what’s coming. She didn’t say much about them, but the images spoke for themselves. Good stuff is coming, even for impatient people like me.

And Wilson opened the show by thanking first responders, medical staff, and EA’s own employees for working at home and getting things done. He recognized billions of gamers for using games to come together during lockdown, calling gaming the greatest form of entertainment on Earth. EA showed a video that demonstrated the Sims could be used to foster understanding and stamp out hate.

Wilson emphatically declared that Black Lives Matter and said now is the time to drive meaningful change. He pledged that EA would not rest on this long-term commitment and would continue to build strong representation into its games, making its communities fun, inclusive, and positive places to play. He said EA would also make its company more diverse. He reiterated his message that games bring us together. They can make our lives better. They can teach us. They can provide escape and self-expression.

Amen to that. Now just give us more games.