Wednesday, February 27, 2008

EA and Take-Two: What It Means (For Us)

I wanted to think about the acquisition for a couple of days before I wrote anything, because while it might be relatively simple at the corporate level, that's not what I care about.

What I care about is whether it's good for us, not them.

It's not as simple a question as it might sound, because your answer may be almost entirely created by your assumption.

Here's an example. This acquistion could be easily portrayed as a superior, more mature corporate culture subsuming an inferior, less mature culture. If the talent is retained, and the culture is better, that's a win for us, right?

In short: no.

For us, this is a terrible deal, and I think it's easy to explain why.

First off, let's imagine that the ideal situation for gamers was the highest level of dissimilarity between games as possible. In that case, if we imagine developers as all living on the same planet, then the ideal situation would be for them to each live on an island, separated by as much water as possible.

Wait a minute. That's not right, is it? Because even if people are living on snow-covered islands as opposed to tropical islands, there are still elements of similarity there (like, um, sea level). So let's say that the developers live in widely varying environments, but still all physically separated from each other.

Okay, that seems like a way to have maximum variation. Let's call that something really imposing and snotty, like World One.

Is that what we really want, though? If I find a game I really, really enjoy, then I look around to find other games in that genre, because I might enjoy them, too. And the developer environments and experiences are so varied that there might not be genres (I know, we could get into archetypes and all that, which would be interesting, but it doesn't apply in regards to EA or Take-Two, so let's do that another day).

Besides, I don't think a zero-interaction environment is necessarily the most creative environment. Just look at music in England in the 1960s, which may well have been the greatest musical explosion in history. Reading histories of that period, it's absolutely incredible to see how not only did almost everyone know everyone else, but at one point or another, almost everyone played with everyone else.

I'm sure there's an argument to be made that game development went through an analagous period, but I'm not making it today.

Once all of our isolated developers, over time, start finding each other (they're bright people, after all), it's likely that they'd start forming some kind of loose organizational units like towns. That would create games that were slightly less dissimilar, but I think they'd actually be more creative, as people who liked each other could learn from each other. In lots of ways, this really is the "band" environment. There are no real restrictions on creative output, but collaborations are possible.

So if the totally isolated environment is World One, let's call this town environment World Two.

You see what's going to happen, don't you?

World Three is going to be much larger--a city. Not everyone in the city actually create games. Now that could be a good thing, because non-developers could provide support functions, but most of those support functions are only necessary because of the city itself. Plus, developers need to charge just a bit more to generate enough revenue to pay for all those functions that weren't needed before.

Then there's World Four, which is comprised of states, and the cities all join states. No problem, says the state. We won't bother you people. Just keep doing doing whatever you do. Oh, as long as you pay those taxes. Plus, we have a few laws and stuff that everyone in the state has to be obey.

Even if you live in a city that is very, very independent, it will take on some of the characteristics of that state. This is true even in the real world. I live in Austin, which is an unbelievabably independent city compared to what the rest of the state believes and how it behaves. Seattle is probably much, much closer to Austin in terms of its demographics, its high-tech influence, and its beliefs, but Austin still, in the end, has this huge base of "Texas-ness" that will never change.

This is what's happening to the gaming industry now. Towns become cities. Cities join states. And those cities, no matter what they say, will take on some characteristics of the state. Less diversity in thought. More homogenization. More needs brought on by the size of the state itself, and those needs are entirely unrelated to creativity or fun.

I know--EA has been promoting that "enlightened" city-state model recently. Right. And how "hands-off" will they be when a game is six months late or twenty percent over budget or maybe just doesn't sell? Like I said, we just have a few laws and stuff to obey, but there are going to be a lot more laws and "stuff" if things don't go according to plan.

Plus, I don't think EA qualifies as a "state" anymore. I think that's really a misnomer, and purposely planted by EA. They're a giant nation. They absorb everything--cities, states, even other nations. And they're methodically reducing the competition, the "otherness" of games not made by EA, even if those games were made by companies that were in no way as successful as EA.

So if the gaming world is going the way of acquisition (in essense, "conquer") at the nation level, that's going to greatly reduce the differences between games. There will be a U.S. and a Soviet Union (Activision and EA, or vice versa), and a bunch of other countries that jockey to be in the security sphere of one or the other.

That's World Five, and we're heading there at extreme speed.

Interestingly, this is the exact opposite of the way the real world is trending, where the number of nations seems to be continually expanding.

Here's one other note about states and nations, and that concerns size. Once a governing entity reaches a certain critical mass in terms of size and resources, not only can they reduce creativity just by their structure, but they can also activity inhibit it by trying to eliminate competition through tactics entirely unrelated to the quality of the games.

The perfect example is how EA has largely destroyed the sports market through the acquistion of exclusive licenses. In this case, not only is EA not increasing creativity, they're actually killing it. This is so obviously counter to our best interests that it's infuriating.

So when you hear all this crap about the "new" EA, hey, maybe some of it is true internally, but EA is a huge nation that will do anything to defend its borders, so to speak, and many times, it will be to our serious detriment.

That's all kind of depressing, really, but maybe it shouldn't be. Sure, at the city level and above, the inevitable process looks increasingly grim, but don't forgot about the towns, and don't forget about the guy living on an island. Those would both represent indie developers, and as mass-market games have become increasingly homogenized, indie games are still incredibly vibrant and unbelievably diverse.

If anything, I think they've actually grown much stronger and much more interesting in the last few years, because while high-profile games cost far more to develop than ever before, indie games are probably cheaper to develop than ever before (as part of the general democratization of content creation that has been fostered by the Internet as well as all kinds of collateral technologies). And indie games have exponentially more publishing options than they had even five years ago.

So yes, EA acquiring Take-Two is a very bad deal for us, but we were already getting a bad deal.
All this "nation conquering," though, has a curious result, at least for me. I find that I spend far more time with the "town" and "island" developers, and the more time I spend there, the more I find that those guys are far more interesting, anyway.

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