I personally hate DRM,” EA CEO John Riccitiello tells Gamasutra.
“I don’t like the whole concept; it can be a little bit cumbersome. But I don’t like locks on my door, and I don’t like to use keys in my car… I’d like to live in a world where there are no passports. Unfortunately, we don’t – and I think the vast majority of people voted with their wallets and went out and bought Spore.”
Earlier this year, it looked like EA was well on its way down the long, hard road back from being the core market’s most hated -- or at least, feared -- publisher.
The company’s E3 showing was practically inspiring, it surprised gamers with partnerships with renowned talent like Valve, id, Epic and Grasshopper Manufacture, its new re-commitment to quality was getting lots of buzz, and in some community circles, it had even begun to garner support for its bid to acquire Take-Two, which many analysts thought was quite likely to be a success.
All this in just a few months – suddenly, it seems like hating on EA might not be out of fashion after all. So what does Riccitiello have to say?
“I think that, in general, a year and a half ago EA was pretty well hated -- and I think for good reasons," he says. "Today, you’d be hard pressed to go to a forum and not see a lot of people defending EA and its products.”
Riccitiello points to recent quality boosts for the company’s sports portfolio -- quantified by Metacritic -- along with fan enthusiasm for Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge and the successful launch of Warhammer Online, which he calls “a legit competitor with WoW."
“And whether or not they like the DRM, Spore’s a good game,” Riccitiello adds. “You could not come up with a list that long for any other company, and I think a lot of people are buying into that.”
And a small community initiative against Spore on the basis of its DRM is only one part of the story, Riccitiello says.
Spore and the DRM Story
“So far, Spore has outsold Sims 2,” he notes. “Commercially, it’s doing very well.”
“Everyone gets that we need some level of protection, or we’re going to be in business for free,” Riccitiello says. But he sees a lack of understanding among “a minority of people that orchestrated a great PR program. They picked the highest-profile game they could find,” he says. “I respect them for the success of their movement.”
“‘I'm guessing that half of them were pirates, and the other half were people caught up in something that they didn’t understand,” he says. “If I’d had a chance to have a conversation with them, they’d have gotten it.”
He notes that the company will soon be rolling out newly-announced relaxations on the account restrictions any day now, allowing users to deactivate one registered machine in order to activate another one.
“There are different ways to do DRM; the most successful is what WoW does. They just charge you by the month,” Riccitiello says, noting that the subscription model means that even those who pirate the software itself can’t play without paying.
“We’re going to see an evolution of these things. I wish we didn’t live in a world where we had to do these types of things. I want it to be seamless and easy – but I also don’t want to have a bonfire of money.”
"If you want to put good food on the table and you’ve got chefs in the back, you give them better ingredients, better training -- and when you burn the omelet, you don’t serve it," says Riccitiello, discussing the recent cancellation of Electronic Arts Los Angeles' Command & Conquer franchise based shooter Tiberium.
Although one analyst pointed to the project cancellation as a cause for concern, Riccitiello disagrees. "This is a perfect example of EA investing in quality," he says.
"It’s a perverse notion – beyond perverse, bizarre, upside down, illogical, stupid to state that we’ve killed a project that wasn’t going to yield what we thought wasn't a high enough quality product as indicative of problems."
"When something's not meeting expectations... you can course correct by giving it more time, more money, changing the concept or killing the game. If you're committed to quality, you take one of those paths," Riccitiello adds. "If you preclude any one of those paths, quality will suffer."
"EA will kill a game or two a year. Forever."
Adds Riccitiello, "Any company that serves every dish that comes out of the oven whether it’s burned or not is not committed to quality... U2 made great albums, Steven Spielberg made great films. It doesn’t mean they don’t have their Tiberiums."
Going Head To Head With Zelnick
Some analysts -- both the professional and the armchair variety -- suggested that the battle between Riccitiello and Take-Two Board chairman Strauss Zelnick on Take-Two's value came down to an ego war.
"I've invested ego in a lot of things at EA," Riccitiello says. "In quality, in growth, in making it a place that people want to work, being able to embrace artists… I've invested zero ego in Take-Two."
Riccitiello, who often speaks highly of BioShock, says that while he has "a passion for a couple of products and teams at Take-Two on a personal level," notes that "I still get to play the games whether we own the company or not."
He says that there was a point in time during which the deal would have worked for EA, and when the period passed, the deal was no longer strategic for the company. "It didn't get us into new lines of business, or things that might ultimately have better legs toward the end of the cycle," he says.
And while Riccitiello says many in the media wanted to "impose their own personal narrative" on the dealings between Zelnick and himself, he says it was "surprisingly antiseptic."
"I don't remember ever getting angry, or any of that. Strauss and I remained civil... we honestly had a different point of view. He believed time was on his side... and we said we had a price and it was time-dependent."
Adds the CEO, "I don't get any more emotional about that than I do about my daughter's math homework -- which, actually, I occasionally get emotional about."