Sacred Realm: To Wake the Sleeping Giant

Disclaimer: The proceeding article is editorial content. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Advanced Media Network.

There’s an adage in the video game industry. “As EA goes, so goes the console war.” By and large, whichever console EA throws the brunt of its support behind inevitably comes out ahead in the console race. Part of the reason (although far from the only one) that Nintendo fell behind in the N64/PlayStation generation was the loss of support from EA. How does EA wield such power over the industry, and what does their position for the next generation tell us about how the console market will look a year from now?

First, a brief history for those unfamiliar with EA. Electronic Arts was started by Trip Hawkins in the early 80s, and began developing and publishing games for the very first gaming machines: The Apple II and original Atari systems. Within a very short time, EA went from a small business into a multi-million dollar corporation. Today, EA is second only to Nintendo itself as the largest producer and distributor of video games worldwide.

However, EA more often achieved success through hard, efficient business tactics than strings of popular and successful games (although they do have those). The most notorious strategy EA employed was the use of aggressive attitudes towards small publishers. Many a gamer was dismayed after EA purchased such iconic studios as Origin, Maxis, and Westwood, and then proceeded to underutilize and subsequently close them as they failed to adequately meet EA’s often-unrealistic game deadlines. Cornerstones of early gaming such as the Ultima, SimCity, and Command and Conquer series all degraded into mediocrity after their parent companies fell under EA’s umbrella. (Editor’s Note: See the disclaimer at the top? Good! Let’s continue.)

Despite this (or perhaps because of it), EA possesses tremendous influence over the industry at large. The sheer volume of titles that the Electronic Arts machine cranks out assures that at least some of them will be bought. Game connoisseurs may not be interested in the latest movie-to-game tie-in to hit shelves, but casual gamers pick them up for months after their release. This plethora of sold games is often a determining factor of how many consoles are sold.

We all remember the N64. Or more specifically, how the N64 marked the downfall of Nintendo’s dominance in the home console business. Now the reasons for that could go on for days, but a key component in the N64’s lack of success in the market (at least compared to Sony’s new machine) can be tied directly to the loss of third-party support. The loss of such franchises as Final Fantasy, Castlevania, and Dragon Quest was a blow to Nintendo. But arguably the biggest blow in the west came with the quiet defection of EA to the PlayStation platform.

EA was far from the only company to jump ship from Nintendo, but losing EA undoubtedly hurt a bit more than the rest. The main reason for this was the “loss” of the EA Sports powerhouse franchises: Madden, NHL, and NBA. I use the quotes because although EA did produce iterations of those games for the N64, they were more often than not an afterthought from the PlayStation version. EA recognized that the PlayStation was becoming the console of choice due to a wider install base, cheaper development costs, and less draconian content regulations. As a result, EA shifted their emphasis away from the N64 console.

Now you may ask why this ancient history is relevant. Well, simply put, history may well be repeating itself. Earlier this month, EA’s head of development, David Gardner, announced that the company has shifted development resources away from the PSP and toward the DS. This may seem like a relatively innocuous statement at first. EA is simply following the market’s trends. The DS has undeniably out-sold the PSP worldwide, so it would make sense to create games that have a larger potential buying base. But this is a much bigger deal than you’d imagine.

EA is a behemoth, in the nicest sense of the word. EA has extraordinary amounts of resources, but they are still limited. In the beginnings of the DS/PSP rivalry, the company sung the praises of the powerful PSP. Early development showed a plethora of reasonably well-rounded titles for the PSP. EA’s developers are by now very familiar with the hardware and now know at least a few of the nuances of that specific platform. This announced shift is a major undertaking. Former PSP programmers need to learn how to adapt to the DS. In essence, retraining and learning a new console, and in essence abandoning what they had been working on before. To shift resources in that manner is no small endeavor, and a company as large as EA would not do so lightly.

Nintendo’s fall from dominance in the late 1990s was a massive paradigm shift in gaming that hadn’t been seen since Nintendo revived the market with the NES in the early 80s. The big developers went with the flow, and in essence helped that shift along. We may now be looking at a similar change in emphasis. The PSP used to be all that journalists and developers could talk about. With the DS’ runaway success, however, developers are beginning to take note of how the wind is blowing.

I don’t mean to suggest that the PSP is doomed to failure. The situation a year from now may be far different than how we find it now. The ramifications of this announcement, though, are astounding. It is an oblique warning to Sony that the PSP is not living up to its promise, and a vindication of Nintendo’s strategy with the DS. In EA’s mind, at least, the path to the next generation is paved with cheaper development costs, playability, and innovation. Their support of the Nintendo Wii with a development studio 100% dedicated to just that console is another example of this trend.

If the success of Nintendo’s strategy has been made apparent to game makers, as EA’s announcement seems to imply, then not only is the handheld rivalry being defined, but the faint echoes of the next home console war between Sony and Nintendo are starting to become audible. The loss of support for the PSP parallels the moment of pause that occurred after the underwhelming presence of the PS3 this year’s E3. Developers took a step back from the PS3 hype and began to evaluate it in objective terms. Whether or not this new attitude will persist is anyone’s guess. However, if developers follow EA’s example of prizing gameplay over graphics, the next console war may look very different than the Sony-dominated market of the past.

Time will tell. Thousands of analysts can come up with millions of scenarios about the next generation. To be honest, my opinions are just that: opinions. I’m not going to say that this is the way things are going to be. EA’s new direction, for as long as it lasts, is remarkable because it is one of the first concrete signs that Nintendo is doing what it has set out to do: change the market as we know it. They have already begun to redefine developers. Soon, gaming itself may be recast by the House that Mario Built.

Mike Kelly is an editorial columnist for Revolution Advanced, as well as a graduate of Colgate University and has been a gamer since birth. He has written for and other gaming sites. More often than not, he can be found in either Boston or Azeroth. Look for his insights on AMN Wii or AMN DS.

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