For decades, Electronic Arts (EA) has been the largest, most impactful video game maker in the world. Their sales have grossed over a whopping $5 billion a year. That’s because they have been making some of the world’s most popular, best-selling video games such as The Sims, Need For Speed, Madden, and FIFA (EA Sports). If you like a sport and want to play a video game around it, chances are, EA has already made it.
Despite making bestselling games over the years, EA is not the most loved company in the world. Far from it.
In fact, they are commonly referred to as an ‘Evil Empire’ and that is just the tip of an iceberg of hate.
Consumerist was a popular website that ran an annual “Worst Company In America” contest with the winner determined by a series of reader polls.
In 2012, 250,000 people cast their votes for EA, making them the winner.
The bracket contained airlines, retail stores, banks, and yet, it was the video game developer that got the infamous title. They won the poll the following year as well. Further, 6 years later, EA were included in USA Today’s list of America’s 20 most hated companies, and the sentiment remains the same throughout the world.
But what is the reason behind such all-encompassing hatred?
Trip Hawkins founded Electronic Arts in the early days of home video games. Even before EA existed, Hawkins had an impressive resume. He graduated from Harvard, completed his MBA from Standford, and became one of Apple’s first 50 employees in the late 1970s. After 4 years at Apple, he left the company to start his own business from home, making and selling video games for home computers.
The venture’s original name was ‘Amazin’ Software,’ which was quickly changed to ‘Electronic Arts.’ The reason for that change is that he strongly believed that each video game was its own work of art. The developers were the artist, and the name should reflect that.
Within a year, he received $5 million from private investors. He used that money to hire a dozen employees, relocate the operations outside of his home, and put out some of their first video games. Early on, the ideas were famously from independent creators from outside of the company, and their names were featured on the cover of the games.
A notable game around this time was Dr. J and Larry Bird: Go One on One, which housed the early roots of EA Sports and established the practice of using sports personalities in the production and marketing of their games, most famously seen in the John Madden series starting five years later. They began distributing their own games straight to the retailers, and by the end of the 1980s, Electronic Arts was the leading producer of software containing computer games.
By this time, it was starting to look like consoles were becoming the more promising market. There were far more TVs than computers, and the NES, the most popular system in the market, took advantage of that fact. The issue for them was that Nintendo said EA could only make games for the NES if they weren’t made available on any other system. EA took a big risk by passing on those terms instead of focusing on the newly introduced SEGA Genesis.
In 1989, EA raised $84 million through an initial public stock offering, and a significant portion of the money was put towards producing games for the Genesis. Through the early 1990s, the pairing of SEGA and EA helped propel both of them forward. In 1992, their sale was pretty well-liked, but this is when they started to run into trouble. Which brings us to the first reason they are so hated: killing smaller developers.
Believe it or not, EA has an extended history of acquiring small, typically independent video game development companies and killing them. In 1992, when everything was starting to take off with their SEGA game, EA was looking to take that opportunity to grow their business. They were looking to expand internationally, and they were looking to expand their game production. Their second big acquisition was in 1992 when they bought the Origin Systems. They were video game developers going back to the 1980s, and the game they were most known for was their Ultima Series, considered to be the groundbreaking early RPG for computers.
When EA bought Origin Systems, they were in charge of developing the famous Ultima Series. Two years later, when making Ultima 8, it is widely believed that its production was rushed because EA set an unrealistic deadline.
A game that felt unfinished, that had all these plot holes. The same thing happened with Ultima 9, and because they weren’t as good, the reputation suffered, and the sales fell. Since the sales were down, EA discontinued the series and, in 2004, shut down Origin Systems altogether. Sure, it may not have been that simple, but from the public’s perception, EA took control of a perfectly good developer, forced them to put out some bad games, and then shut them down.
Another example is what happened to Bullfrog, a video game developer from the UK. Existing since the 80s, they were most known for strategy games like Populous. In 1995, they were bought by EA; they even put out a successful game called Dungeon Keeper under their control, but by 2001, Bullfrog no longer existed because they were merged into EA UK.
Again, there were stories about rushing games, but the biggest issue may have been the culture shock for Bullfrog. EA turned the whole thing into a professional operation, and the new environment may have hindered their creativity. Either way, the fact remains that EA bought a promising successful game developer, and six years later, they were effectively shut down. There are many more examples of this, but we can see the pattern here.
Do you know the story of mice and men? Lenny loved those rabbits, but he would accidentally kill them by hugging them and petting them too hard. That’s what I think was happening. EA wanted those developers to do so well that they would try to adapt them to their own proven system. It involved setting aggressive deadlines and introducing a comparatively more strict and more professional corporate culture. For all their endeavours, everything backfired. They stressed everyone out and hindered creativity. This is a stark contrast to how they started. They are called Electronic ‘Arts,’ yet they seem to undermine its artistic aspect.
That’s not all. There’s another reason for the hate, one which is more relevant today: Microtransactions and Loot Boxes.
Essentially you pay real money to unlock something within a game. EA has been infamous for including these in-game transactions all over the place. These are an effective way for EA to keep a stream of revenue coming in long after the game is sold, but players aren’t happy with being cash cows.
The biggest of that lot was Star Wars Battlefront 2. Back in 2017, before it was even officially released, it received unprecedented backlash from the gaming community because the loot box system within the game was designed to give players significant gameplay advantages, essentially making the game pay to win, ruining the fun of gameplay.
You would pay ‘x’ amount for the game upfront, and then if you refuse to pay more money, you would be at a disadvantage compared to the other players. On top of that, major desirable characters such as Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader had to be unlocked by either playing the game for at least 40 hours or by buying these loot boxes.
The whole thing felt very shady, and it seemed like EA was more concerned about extracting money from the players than delivering a fun experience. They claimed that all this was to provide players with a sense of pride and accomplishment for unlocking heroes, but that didn’t go over well. Disney, the owners of Star Wars, also took an issue with it. The necessity of those loot boxes to play the game promoted gambling to the players, and the whole backlash was turning into negative publicity for Star Wars. That may have been the final straw that made EA finally fix some of the issues with the game.
Over the years, these issues have piled up, and its been a slow-burn of hatred for EA as they’ve stopped looking at players as a community and started thinking of them as bags of cash.