PopCap – Now the Worst Company in America

The voters have spoken over at consumerist.com. Loud and clear they told me: We sold PopCap to the worst company in America (2012 edition). Wow. Of all the companies we could have sold our souls to, we picked the deplorable, evil, Electronic Arts. The company that has the gall to release a new football game every-single-year! The company that had the audacity to create a game which inspires anger with the ending! A corporation in America that has made hard business decisions and had to close studios! The company which has bought studios that didn’t work out! EA! You tricked me! You promised perfection and now I see the truth! YOU EVEN SELL DIGITAL GOODS! DIGITAL GOODS!!!!!!!

Every week I would check out Consumerist’s NCAA style bracket of evil companies and every week we won. We beat Sony, Best Buy, Comcast, AT&T and Bank of America to reign supreme as worst company. Why did EA win over other companies? Here are my thoughts:

  • The business of games is hard – Unlike movies the technology of games is constantly changing. Production values rise, new platforms come and go, sports games get outdated within days of shipping, acquisitions fail because of the acquirers, acquisitions fail because of the acquired, marketing costs are huge, customers are fickle, it’s tough
  • The art of games is harder – Come on. Make some fun games. Go ahead. Heck, just make one. Make a game that you have to update every year or customers complain. Make a game that has thousands of hours of dialog and story telling. Make a game that requires empathy. Make a game that excites, engages, and inspires. Now do it again. And again. For 30 years. In every genre. On every platform. I double dog dare you
  • Everyone makes mistakes – Yup. EA does not have a perfect past. It’s made HR mistakes. It’s made huge game design screw ups. It’s messed up studios, marketing campaigns and beloved franchises (sometimes all at once). It will do so again. There is no perfect company, and I won’t promise perfection from PopCap
I’m very glad EA acquired PopCap. I believe in EA’s leadership. John Riccitiello has a vision for EA that is important. Every year he’s been boss, the company has made fewer, better games than the year before. The transition to digital is a hard, difficult road, and John has been leading the company through since he started as CEO. Gamers may complain about paid DLC, but there has to be something that sits between Farmville and the $60 price point, EA has been relentlessly trying to find that balance. I’m proud to have my studio sit next to DICE, Visceral, Maxis, Tiburon, Black Box, BioWare and more.

It was a bit frustrating to read EA winning, but when I look at the list of companies, I only see one or two others that actually inspire any emotion or passion. Apple. Google maybe. I may rant or complain about DirectTV’s atrocious customer service, Comcast’s flakey connection speeds, Bank of America’s ATM fees, or ticketmaster charges, but do I really care? Naw. No matter how angry I’ve been at them, I ultimately don’t care.

But man… you miss my expectations on the ending of an epic three game space opera that I’ve spent hundreds of hours enjoying – go f yourself EA!

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    • kapowaz
    • April 5th, 2012

    Reading this kind of commentary is very frustrating to me. I haven’t played Mass Effect 3 (or 2, for that matter) so that issue is irrelevant to me. This doesn’t change the fact that in my eyes, EA’s reputation is dirt. I base this on the endless stream of conversation logs with EA support related to Origin and on how EA treats their own customers with contempt.

    I’m a big fan of PopCap games, and have owned Plants vs Zombies for iPhone since it was first released. I recently bought EA’s FIFA 12 game for iPhone, and in spite of this being a paid product I am regularly bombarded with adverts for other EA games, including (despite it being installed on the same phone) PvZ. Why, as a paying customer, should I be subjected to this? What does it say about the company’s attitudes towards their paying customers that they’d happily do this?

    What this survey says is not that the company has made a handful of mistakes which could be redressed or excused, but that they are an unrepentant company with a contemptuous attitude towards their customers. This may not be reflected universally, but it’s a prevailing theme that as gamers we see little or no attempt to rectify. As I’m sure you know, any mistake by a company is an opportunity to seize upon your customer’s loyalty by fixing it well. EA should try doing this a bit more and gamers will thank them for it.

    • Some great points.

      I think there’s a pretty big external vs. internal gap. Some of the things that are frustrating about EA( PvZ marketing through EA products when you already own PvZ) don’t do EA any good AND annoy good customers. That needs to change, but while easy to say, that technology investment is huge (and just wait for the customer backlash for privacy because we track what games customer’s own).

      I guess one of the things that is hard is that the attitude many people ascribe to EA (contemptuous attitude, unrepentant, only caring about bottom line) just isn’t true internally. We pitched BioWare on doing a PvZ DLC in Dragon Age. We thought it was funny, they thought that it broke the customer experience and the fans wouldn’t appreciate something external like that come into their world. That’s not an attitude of a company that doesn’t think about its fans (and it certainly would’ve made money).

      All in all though, I agree. We (EA) should use this as an opportunity to listen to customers. We should figure out how to change behaviors that aren’t great, fix problems, as well as learn to communicate that EA, both business and creative leadership, care about games and gamers deeply.

    • Glenn Drover
    • April 5th, 2012

    22 years ago I was a young gamer who thought that it would be cool to work in the new electronic gaming industry. And as long as I was dreaming, I thought that I might as well dream big, so I contacted the two best companies in the business: MicroProse (Publisher of some of the greatest games in gaming history, including Pirates!, Railroad Tycoon, Civilization, and a whole line of combat flight simulators), and Electronic Arts.

    MicroProse welcomed me and so I embarked upon a career that I loved, with a company that I loved. But a few years later, due to some bad decisions by management MicroProse fell by the wayside and I had to look for a new home. Meanwhile EA prospered developing great games for the emerging home consoles.

    I was lucky enough to find a spot at the creative powerhouse of Maxis just in time to help launch Sim City 2000. A short while later another opportunity tempted me away to Activision. Back in 1995 Activision was under new management and was still fairly small (about as big as PopCap was five years ago). We worked hard, and Activision grew and grew. Meanwhile EA acquired Maxis because they recognized the quality and creativity there.

    Fast forward five years and I decided to try my hand at founding my own small game publishing company. It was a great experience in almost every way, but after five years, it was time to move on. Meanwhile EA continued making some of the best games on the market, and their success measured in dollars spent by fans of their games was unequalled in the video game business.

    I was once again fortunate to have the opportunity to work for a creative powerhouse, and joined PopCap almost exactly five years ago. We worked hard, and grew and grew until last Summer EA honored us with a desire to add PopCap to the EA family.

    So after 22 years, my dream of working for the best and most successful company in the electronic entertainment business is finally a reality. It feels pretty darned good too. I mean these are the guys who not only pioneered computer and video gaming with titles like M.U.L.E., Seven Cities of Gold, and Archon, but who figured out a way to bring quality games to a mass audience while succeeding where so many others have failed.

    • Wow Glenn! I knew about a lot of this but it’s crazy to read the whole history of your awesome career laid out like this!

      The game industry for me feels so “center of it all” that I wonder what other industries are like. I can’t imagine that other industries don’t have their fare share of bad and good, among them companies that have hit both extremes.

      One thing that excites me about EA is I believe we’re about to enter the 2nd golden age of the company. We shall see!

    • rzekilupus
    • April 6th, 2012

    I feel like EA’s been a mixed bag as of late. The amount of criticism they’ve received on ME3’s ending seems unjust, and getting hammered in the user ratings because of it is absurd. The ending is a mere fraction of the game, and if you enjoyed the body of the story and play the multiplayer and have a good time, how dare you give it a 2 or a 3 out of 10? that’s a nice big **** you to the developer.

    EA and Bioware’s response to the situation is to appease fans by releasing free DLC with a fleshed out ending and more options. That’s SO evil. Listening to the fan’s unreasonably angry response and doing something about it when they didn’t have to at all.

    On the same token they’ve been facing criticism from political groups about their inclusion of same-sex relationships in games. I know this seems to be largely Bioware focused, but it’s what’s on the forefront in my mind at the moment. EA’s response was phenomenal. I can’t think of a less evil thing for a company to do when faced with a situation like that.

    On the other hand, I’ve watched them release things like “time savers” packs for large multiplayer titles, which really sends a nasty message to long-time players who sank the effort in to earn their ranks. They also tend to have certain business practices that can be questionable. (the verdict is still undecided in my mind over the whole West and Zampella thing, then again, Activision seems just as bad.)

    They’re a company. They do what’s best for themselves. Self-interested? Money-hungry? Yes. Worst company ever? Hell no. Look at how AT&T and Walmart do business. There’s plenty worse to complain about.

    • Thanks for posting a measured response. I was really trying to find a balance, and you did a great job elaborating some of both sides.

      I don’t think it’s worth standing up for EA with the argument that EA is actual evil, or engages in “evil” practices. Third world sweatshops, ultra competitive business practices that lead to monopolies, poisoning all of our food for profit, stuff like that is not even comparable to merely “being a corporation.”

    • lumzi23
    • April 7th, 2012

    I don’t hate EA nearly as much as I used too. In fact, I don’t hate them at all. I have been playing ME3 and so far it has been very successful (especially the first few hours). I don’t know how the ending with be, bit am happy so far. The Two Towers ending was so abrupt and premature that it was actually emotionally painful to me, but it is still my favorite film ever thanks to the rest of the film so we’ll see.

    • Yah. It’s tough though. I have been holding off on Mass Effects until the third one came out and am planning on playing them all the way through. Once I heard about the outcry and then heard BioWare’s response, I thought I’d hold off and wait.

      If BioWare hadn’t said they were going to do something different, then I would’ve stilled played them regardless what I thought of the ending.

      Still though. Best RPG ending:

      Fallout 1 and 2.

    • Rob
    • April 7th, 2012

    I confess that I came here expecting a suspect, but still fairly systematic, defence of EA against the complaints. I had to track down this blog because I’m a sucker for these sorts of things and I was sent a humourous screenshot (http://i.imgur.com/0rRH8.jpg). My curosity was piqued.

    I had to say though, while I expected something somewhat cookie-cutter, you’re not really addressing the issues at all. You recognise the digital goods issues and the poor response to Mass Effect 3, but you only brush over them. You are dodging the real issues here. The customer support, the behaviour of the Origin software as it sits on the PC, the purchasing problems with games like Battlefield 3. Mass Effect 3 was simply a lacklustre game in many regards, but it too highlightened practices that EA are fully behind (such as day one DLC).

    Also, while I would agree their are greater corporate evils out there, your choices were poor. The true ones you should have picked are things like the Bechtel Bolivian water privatisation disaster or the Pfizer travofloxin trials in Nigeria. Your examples are on the same level as EA’s wrongs in the greater scheme of things (though obviously, not quite the same, because they didn’t win that less-than-prestigious award and The Consumerist are good at being on the pulse of this sort of thing).

    It boils down to this: either EA learns a lesson from all this or it does not. If it does not, then it depends on the consumers and how much they are willing to galvinise that anger against EA.

    • Thank you for the comments Rob, and in fact, I don’t disagree with any of them**.

      I definitely did not do a systemic defense, that was not my intent. I probably should’ve made that clear in the beginning. My goal was merely a fair representation of the other side, and I was attempting to be measured about it (both in saying step off and yah, got problems).

      As for the extra issues they’re addressing, yah. All issues on some level that need to be fixed. I always have and always will have a laundry list of issues at PopCap of problems we have to work on, fortunately, we’ve never quite been at the scale of EA so they haven’t had as much of an impact.

      One anecdote for you, about Origin, is we spent years trying to develop our own download system for our games. We walked away because it’s actually really hard. There are so many trade offs to make and so few “right” answers. And again, this is at PopCap, with smaller games that all worked in pretty much the same way. I can’t imagine how hard of a job the Origin team must have, or the kind of trade offs they have to make. Doesn’t mean they don’t need to improve a lot, but it does mean I empathize with the challenges.

      How would / could EA handle speaking about issues that need to be improved better? Do you feel like they don’t listen about Origin software, purchasing problems, day one DLC? How can a big company with a passionate fan base do a better job communicating?

      As for your last point. EA does have a choice whether to learn a lesson and be a better company, to figure out how to improve, and provide better games and a better service to consumers. That is true regardless of the award, and should always hold true while the company is around. That’s the bar I set for PopCap and the bar I will hold my parent company to.

      Thanks again for your post. I appreciate you taking the time.

      **I do actually disagree with the ME: 3 Lacklustre comment, mostly because a judgement on a game is very difficult to be objective about

        • Rob
        • April 8th, 2012

        Your point about Origin again appears to be trying to veer away from the issues about it. In a free market, one does not make excuses for being unable to make the quality cut. Okay, let’s take you at your word: EA had difficulty making a content delivery that didn’t had such an intrusive EULA or a laissez-faire attitude to things such as double-charging customers, esoteric banning practices or the absolutely atrocious attitude and behaviour of customer support (though it stretches my suspension of disbelief). That is not a defence of Origin, however. It might be an explanation, but it doesn’t let them off the hook. There are better content delivery systems out there by smaller companies with less resources (any of them, in fact, given EA’s size compared to any other company that offered content delivery platforms). It was not unreasonable to expect EA to enter the market with a better offering and we should be expected to support a product that doesn’t compete adequately.

        And yes, the whole point of this consumer anger and the award was that EA doesn’t listen to its customers and that is where, contrary to what you say otherwise, the award is useful because it helps hit EA where it hurts. If you don’t believe me, look at the last year of EA’s stock on the Nasdaq 100. When was the last time it’s been as low as it currently is? All of this anger has contributed to the last nine months stock trends for the company. EA want this to change? It needs to change. I believe I’m speaking a language EA understands a bit better now. If EA won’t think of its consumers, please think of its stockholders. With a little luck, EA will realise those are not mutually exlusive.

        I’ll wrap it up. Despite the force of my response I’d like to thank you for your response nonetheless. On the topic of Mass Effect 3, while I would say than, as video games are entertainment first and foremost, there are no truly objective judgements about the overall gameplay (though I would grant that the artistic elements within a game might be different). At the end of all this, though, 3.8 based on 2700 reviewers on Metacritic at time of writing and the hoards of controversy and complaints add up to a decidedly lacklustre game. If someone enjoyed it, great for them, I’ll let a thousand flowers bloom. That’s just as true for the Atari 2600’s E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, though, and I wouldn’t hesitate to call that an awful game.

    • pepe
    • April 7th, 2012

    Bah. there’s so much more to EA’s evil stance over videogames than the POS ending they forced Bioware to put in ME3 so they could release it in time.

    OF COURSE you are glad EA bought your company. I would also be glad if I got so much dough.

    It doesn’t change the fact that EA is BY FAR the worst publisher out there, and the one that treats their customers worse. And that’s saying a lot with Activision and Ubi out there.

    EA can go to hell for all I care. They got this “prize” very deservedly. And I hate that they’re putting their subsidiaries to defend them like this. And if you are doing it out of your own will, then I pity you.

      • canofsand
      • April 7th, 2012

      So long as people with your level of bad attitude, views on what’s “evil”, and ignorance are out there, Mr. Vechey’s hardly the one to be pitied.

    • Thanks for taking the time Pepe to write post your thoughts. I don’t know if you’ll get this reply, but it would be helpful if you could clarify your thoughts in a way that was a bit more civil. I really want to have open discussions on my blog, and value the time everyone puts in, but much of your language is so charged, it’s hard to foster more discussion.

      I will clarify one of your points: EA did not ask me to defend them, I am doing it out of my own will because I believe in the things I write. You may disagree with them, but I do request that you not ascribe judgement nor intent on my actions and I have little need for your pity. :-)

      I would welcome a response, and if you’d like to email me to chat send me a DM on twitter (@johnvechey)

    • Mike
    • April 7th, 2012

    Why are you defending EA?

    You made your 600 mil. Go to bed and be happy

    • I’m defending EA because I believe in what I write, or I wouldn’t bother.

      While we may have sold PopCap for a lot of money, I assure you we didn’t sacrifice our integrity to do so. I care a lot about PopCap and feel that a civil discourse is important to help make EA (and PopCap) a better company. Things like “Worst Company in America” awards don’t foster that civil discourse, nor does not listening to your customers.

    • Rob
    • April 8th, 2012

    Rob :
    we should be expected to support a product that doesn’t compete adequately.

    That was meant as “shouldn’t be expected” my apologies.

    • kapowaz
    • April 13th, 2012

    John.

    I want to be wrong. But I feel duty binds me to at least report, potentially without remark, upon each new transgression EA commits. Maybe if I do this each time it will in the long term act as some sort of intervention.

    Today though, this: http://toucharcade.com/2012/04/12/tetris-loving-ipad-owners-just-got-ead-hard/

    • Well, I promise that I will listen to each post and comment, and do my best to enact change when warranted and when I can.

      I don’t presume to know the details on the decisions that led up to that release, so it’s hard for me to comment directly (especially publicly). I also don’t know the people who made those decisions. So consider this an official no comment for PR reasons. :-)

      I do appreciate you posting it though, as open communication and dialog is something that can help. And I do ask that if you see things like this about PopCap, please, please post them. While I don’t have control over PopCap, I can help affect change.

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