Electronic Arts is the largest game producer and distributor in the world. They produce games for every platform imaginable, from consoles to massive multi-players (MMO), EA has some of the biggest and hottest-selling games available. The one place they fail, though, is in casual gaming online – the market’s fastest-growing segment.
People love making fun of EA, mostly thanks to their size. We love seeing the failures of the behemoths and often imagine it’s to the benefit of the “little guy.” Witness the rise of one of the most-hyped MMO RPGs in history, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and it’s sudden drop to one knee as EA admitted that its flagship MMO was losing players like local weather patterns lose temperature whenever Al Gore comes to town.
EA (probably correctly) blamed casual players for this sudden loss of a big percentage of its newest game’s player base. Many who talked about this when it happened, including myself, said that EA was missing the boat. I specifically said that EA was blaming casual gamers for SWTOR’s failure and had failed to notice that the game’s appeal was mainly to.. casual players. Anyone who’s played SWTOR has to admit that amongst MMOs on the market, it’s one of the easier games to master. It is, after all, the latest in a long line of dumbed-down multi-players that aims for a more casual, less intense crowd of gamers – the bulk of the gaming audience today.
With each release and update of MMORPGs today, they seem to get simpler, less difficult, and (for gamers like me) more boring to play. Repetition is one problem in MMOs that has yet to be overcome for the most part, but repetition with over-simplified game play? That just highlights to you that you’re wasting time playing a game instead of enjoying playing a game while wasting time. That’s a big difference when you’re over the age of 12 and have a life (or, at least, what resembles one) offline.
So with this flagship MMO that EA has spent so much money on failing miserably, what is the gaming industry’s Titan to do?
Seem contradictory? Casual games aren’t exactly what would normally be equated with massive multi-player online games like World of Warcraft or SWTOR. These games require that you sit down and dedicate hours at a time to play them. Right?
Well.. yes and no. For those who are avid online gamers, you’ve probably noticed that the quests and sit-down time in general to play and master these games has gotten smaller and smaller over time.
As an example, when I first began playing Lord of the Rings Online a few years ago, it required game play of about 8-10 hours a week (usually all on the same day) for over 7 months to both get to level 50 (then the level cap) and become a Supreme-level (again, level cap) crafter with just one character. The last time I played, which admittedly has been more than a year ago now, I started a new toon and played almost entirely solo and got to level 50 in about three months at only two or three hours of play a week. Was it because I’m better at the game? Partly, but the reality is, it’s just easier to level in LOTRO now. You start out with more stuff, get more out of your quests, and the options for soloing are much bigger than they used to be.
Nearly every MMO I’ve played in the past couple of years has been this way. Everquest II is remarkably easy and I’d only played it for the first time a few months ago. SWTOR, WOW, FFXIV.. all pretty easy games when you objectively look at them. The general trend in MMOs is to become more casual.
So why not take that to the next level?
EA might be doing that. They’ve revealed a new plan, which they will roll out on their next connected console or PC game, most likely, called “Unified Gaming.” It’s a simple plan, when you look at it without considering the amount of technology change that may have to accompany it.
Here’s the plan: you begin playing a game on your console in front of the TV, but are interrupted by hunger, so you get to a safe spot and pause the game. An hour later, satiated and ready to play, you decide to sit in front of your PC to check email before playing. Rather than go back into the other room to resume play, you instead load the game on your PC and pick up where you left off. After a while, you have to get to bed for a day of work tomorrow, so you again find a spot and pause. The next morning, riding the train to work, you start up your tablet and begin playing again..
Yep, the idea is to make a game that is platform-independent or at least capable of being run on several platforms. This could combine the fun of a longer-term game (like a console, PC, or MMO game) and put it into a more casual package to get the benefits of casual games like those on Facebook or Google.
Sound really awesome?
No, I don’t own stock in Electronic Arts, but if you think about that headline statement logically, it makes sense. EA is a huge game maker that produces games on just about every platform there is. So if you have expertise in console, desktop, and online gaming; and if you are a huge company with a lot of research and development money you can tap into, then you are in a position to make something like Unified Gaming possible.
How many other companies, really, are in EA’s position? Sure, a smaller startup might work on the idea and even make it work, but chances are, that startup would either be funded by or bought out by a big gaming enterprise like EA anyway.
While EA has not officially said anything about Unified Gaming publicly, insiders in the industry say that the idea has been kicked around for a couple of years and has received development investment, so the company is almost definitely working on it.
Statements at their last quarterly conference for investors made it clear that they had something along these lines in the works as well.
In very obvious and in some less obvious ways, moving to Unified Gaming would fundamentally change MMOs. First, it would mean simplified graphics and/or multi-platform graphic support to maximize each playing device’s capabilities. It would also mean that storylines would have to be simple and most quests/instances would have to be made for a less involved audience.
That’s just for starters, of course.
But it’s possible that this vision for games in the future might also save the industry. Large-scale MMORPGs and similar games with big budgets that require a lot of play time in order for gaming companies to make money are struggling. The players just aren’t willing to show up in big numbers and stay put long enough for the games to pay off financially. So gaming companies are going to have to adapt to a more casual crowd that just wants to play once in a while and come and go as they please.
That’s where the industry is headed and it’s becoming obvious, with the rise of mobile hardware in consumer’s hands, that this will be where the future of gamine lies.