When it comes to shutting down games that players have spent money and time on, Electronic Arts is known for trying to do so quietly. Every now and then, the company will update its online service updates page, announcing which games it's decided to pull the plug on without fanfare. This week, the publisher updated the page with four new entries: Battlefield Heroes, Battlefield Play4Free, FIFA World, and Need for Speed World are all ending online service on July 14, 2015.
"In more than five years since most of these titles launched, how we play games has changed dramatically," wrote EA Games executive VP Patrick Soderlund in a statement. "These were pioneering experiences, and we're humbled that, over the years, so many of you joined us to enjoy the games and the community. While we say farewell to these free-to-play titles in the next few months, we are always exploring new concepts and ways to bring great games to more players around the world."
That's EA's entire premium free-to-play game lineup, minus Star Wars: The Old Republic and browser game Command & Conquer: Tiberium Alliances, which remain in service. Thus ends the publisher's grand experiment with free-to-play games, an experiment that began five years ago.
"We're aggressively investing in things that are very low cost like free-to-play," said then-EA Games label boss Frank Gibeau told GI.biz in June 2011. "The free-to-play group inside of EA Games is growing extremely fast - we've got 17 million users, 4-5 services stood up right now. And if you get a couple of those to scale they're as profitable as a console game."
"With Need for Speed World, Russia and Brazil are number one and two - the Ukraine is in there. I can't sell packaged goods in those territories. But I'm reaching an audience with Need for Speed content. It's an engine that's not as advanced as Frostbite 2 but it's certainly got great production values and great game designs, and it's free-to-play with micro transactions. It's a very exciting time from our perspective because it's not all about consoles. It's about smartphones, tablets, free-to-play, browser, social."
It was a beautiful dream for EA; one section of the company making AAA titles, while other divisions pursued low-cost development for mobile, social, and free-to-play markets. Unfortunately, things didn't quite shake out that way. There was growth, but the problem was EA wasn't well-versed in these markets; instead it just acquired companies or shifted existing talent towards these new niches. The publisher didn't know what really worked, it just tried to throw a lot of things out there and hoped they stuck.
The publisher's social offerings, developed by EA's Playfish subsidiary and the EA Sports division, began to wane in 2013. That's the year that EA closed Playfish and a number of its social games, including The Sims Social, SimCity Social, Pet Society, NFL Madden Superstars, NHL Superstars, and Jet Set Secrets. These changes were expected after the release of the company's Q3 2013 earning release in January 2013. At that time, the company suffered a net loss of $45 million, nonetheless propped up by the significant performance of mobile in that quarter. The Simpson: Tapped Out on iOS generated $23 million of mobile's $100 million in revenue during the quarter, an 18 percent year-over-year increase.
"What I would say is that we are huge believers in mobile and are excited about where it's going," EA All Play SVP Nick Earl told SocialTimes in 2013. (He later left the company to work free-to-play publisher Kabam.) "Social has been a little tricky, so we rethought our resources there and which franchises to get behind. We still believe that there's a market there, but it's a matter of doing the right game at the right time. You'll see a lot of energy and output on tablet and the iPhone side. We believe there's no ceiling on that market in the foreseeable future."
That same year, a heavy round of layoffs hit EA Montreal, where the company did a great deal of its mobile development. In 2014, the publisher closed Mythic Entertainment, which had tried to reboot Dungeon Keeper and Ultima for mobile platforms. EA Montreal suffered another round of layoffs earlier this year, though an EA spokesperson told Gamasutra that the layoffs would "not impact our current development plans." Despite that, it's been speculated that the final round of layoffs might mark the closure of EA's Mobile branch entirely. The company still has successful mobile releases like SimCity BuildIt, Madden NFL Mobile, and FIFA 15 Ultimate Team, so not everything is doom and gloom.
"EA Mobile had a breakout performance over the holiday period. Our EA Sports titles are drawing more sports fans into mobile games, averaging more than 45 million monthly active users during the quarter," said EA CEO Andrew Wilson in a conference call a month prior to the EA Montreal layoffs. "New games like Madden NFL Mobile, FIFA 15 Ultimate Team, and SimCity BuildIt, as well as perennial fan favorites like Real Racing 3, The Sims FreePlay and The Simpsons: Tapped Out, demonstrate one of our key opportunities in mobile: leveraging our IP and specifically designing experiences from the ground-up for players on mobile devices. We are listening and learning from the feedback in our mobile community, tuning the experiences based on testing and soft launch periods, then keeping players entertained with new content and challenges."
The truth is there's been a contraction at EA as Wilson looks to fix some of the mistakes of his predecessor, John Riccitiello. The publisher is becoming more conservative in what games it makes and how it leverages what it has. Battlefield is an annual franchise now and the Medal of Honor brand has been gone since 2010. Criterion has been hollowed out to keep Need for Speed rolling along. EA Sports has Madden, FIFA, NHL, NBA Live, and PGA Tour coming this year, with most of those titles featuring the microtransaction-heavy Ultimate Team game modes first pioneered in FIFA 13. Bioware is down to three core pillars: Mass Effect, Dragon Age, and Star Wars: The Old Republic. Everybody else seems to be working on games related to the Star Wars deal. In mobile, we're seeing the same plays: more SimCity, more Madden, more FIFA, more PopCap-related games. More of the same.
EA is in the business of doubling-down on what works these days and the Play4Free initiative was not on that list. Big business isn't in the market for experiments anymore, it's about what works. Go big, or go home, while realizing that executives only go big on proven products and brands. It's a shame because you can't have innovation without experiments and I think EA is in dire need of innovation.