What John Riccitiello Was Right AboutS

If you gave me five, seven or even 10 guesses about who outgoing EA CEO John Riccitiello's favorite character on HBO's acclaimed show The Wire was, I'd have gotten it wrong.

The Wire ran for five seasons. It was a show about class and crime. Its cast was an ensemble of cops, crooks and the everyday working people just trying to get by. Many viewers were drawn to the drug dealers, particularly the complex captains of the trade. If you watched, maybe you identified with the ambitious, icy Marlo, the crafty, ruthless Avon or the suave, educated Stringer Bell.

John Riccitiello's favorite Wire character wasn't any of those guys. Guess number four would have been wrong, too. It wasn't the seemingly invincible outlaw Omar either.

I can't remember why, two or three years ago, I was even asking Riccitiello this question. But one day, through an intermediary in EA public relations, I got an answer.

Wee-Bey.

Wee-Bey?

Who in the world watches The Wire and picks as their favorite the gravel-voiced hitman who rarely gets any screen time?

***

A day after Riccitiello's simultaneously surprising and unsurprising resignation from the gaming giant he led for seven years, it is not yet clear what the future holds for EA and EA's games. So strange was Riccitiello's tenure, that it's not even clear what EA's recent past truly held.

His standing—his legacy—is nearly as inscrutable to me as his choice of Wire characters. But I did interview the man several times during his tenure. I learned more about him than just his taste in TV. I also played the games that came out during his tenure. I tried squaring the EA I sense he wanted his company to be with the one it seemed to be at any moment we chatted.

I always left my meetings with Riccitiello optimistic for gaming and gamers.

That might strike you as odd, given EA's once and seemingly current rep as a rather cold, mechanical company. Before Riccitiello, EA was gaming's so-called evil empire, after all. They were a gaming factory, a place where Will Wright had to make The Sims on the sly since others in the studio weren't going to get it, where, instead of competing to make the best football game out there, the company made sure that no one other than them was even allowed to make an NFL video game.

But this was the Riccitiello I sat down with in December 2009:

"This industry is ultimately a small group of people with a creative idea that are allowed to express that idea through video game software in a way that is high art or, sometimes high and crass exploitation that can be fun. But it's some combination of those things."

That "crass" bit? If I recall correctly, it was his wink to me regarding some questions I'd asked him about some day-one downloadable content for a game called The Saboteur that made the women in the game's cabaret topless. It was an incentive for people to purchase the game new. It was also one of EA's weirder early experiments in putting online hooks in seemingly offline games, giving players reason to verify their copy of a game with EA's servers and maybe get some new content out of it.

What John Riccitiello Was Right AboutS

The Saboteur was a perfect game to encapsulate Riccitiello's tenure and to highlight the stresses EA faced. The game took too many years to make and was built, expensively out of studios headquartered in Los Angeles (Riccitiello shut them down). It was creatively ambitious, because instead of simply being an open-world clone of Grand Theft Auto or True Crime, it was a game that let the player assume the role of a freedom fighter in occupied France during World War II. It colored its world black, white and red, until the player liberated zones and restored color to the world. By the time it came out it suffered gameplay comparisons to the historical urban adventures of the Assassin's Creeds, but it was still like no other.

The Saboteur was not a game you'd expect from a factory or an evil empire. It was creative and fun. At worst, it was an interesting, refreshing underachiever. It also had no place where EA was going.

***

What it always seemed Riccitiello was right about was that he was convinced that games were services. He no longer wanted to talk about games as products that you get and are stuck with. I'd talk to top people at Nintendo, Sony, Microsoft, Activision.... you name it. And it was only Riccitiello and Valve's Gabe Newell who talked this way about keeping in touch with customers, about games evolving and adapting.

I thought I knew what was to come. I kept waiting to see Madden cease being a product, to cease being an annual release and to turn into an ever-evolving game. It hasn't happened.

But compare the Mass Effect that came out before that game's studio was part of EA to the third, by which time it was. The first came out, had some downloadable content within a few months, then didn't have more for more than a year. The third game had day-one DLC (that had to be paid for, many gamers grumbled) and then regular releases for a year after, expanding multiplayer and deepening single-player. Battlefield 3 was no single release. It was a year and a half's worth of content: the first game and then piles of DLC. As a gamer, I liked this. I liked my games adapting and growing. And though I get most of my games sent to me by publishers for free, I pay for most DLC and happily plunked down more Microsoft points whenever I wanted to play even more Mass Effect.

What John Riccitiello Was Right AboutS

When I'd meet with Riccitiello at E3s or in hotel lobbies in New York, I'd always have a litany of things to bug him about. He'd keep talking about taking some of the first-person shooter market away from Call of Duty, but EA's shooters weren't quite doing it. And what of that burst of non-shooter creativity that was Mirror's Edge? Why were the interesting-sounding games like Steven Spielberg's LMNO (North by Northwest with aliens??) being cancelled? Where were the hit games? And why did it seem that talented people were always leaving EA—Will Wright and the Henry Hatsworth guys, to name some?

Riccitiello would take it all in and then tell me what he thought was going right. And in 2010, he told me how he thought EA should and would function, and how different this was from how big companies used to make games:

"I used to buy a whole bunch of titles and play them for three weeks and move on and never look at them again," he said, before switching from what he does to what you or I might do - "Today, firstly everyone goes online" - and then settling on what his developers do - "five years ago, the standard at every game company was when the game goes gold [and is sent to manufacturing], the 60 people on the title or 160 people, depending on the title, all of them [would be done working on that game] except maybe one or two guys who were gonna take a phone call, when you find out there's a video card from some Taiwanese hardware manufacturer you didn't have ideal compatibility with. ... For the most part today, for most games, the entire team remains intact post-ship[ping of the game] for a combination of free and paid [downloadable content], services, server management, code patches, figuring out exactly where people are dying and bunching up in the map, fixing that and improving the experience."

This sounded like a company whose games I'd want to buy. This sounded modern. This sounded like the way games could or should be.

Not that Riccitiello always sounded like a proper prophet. I recall him telling me that Spielberg's Wii game would be gaming's long-selling equivalent of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon. Hey, points for optimism, right?

His idea that games would be services still seems astute and correct to me. The realization of that in the form of year-long, evolving Mass Effect and Battlefield experiences feels more good than bad. If that's the present and future that Riccitiello built, then I wouldn't be able to regard him as anything other than an overall success.

***

In the middle of Riccitiello's time at EA, the company ran a small pre-E3 press conference that brought in their top creators. They had Alex Rigopulos, head of the studio that had made Guitar Hero and then jumped to make Rock Band for EA. They had Gabe Newell, there to talk about The Orange Box. Under Riccitiello, EA had the good taste to put Criterion on the Need for Speed series and to convince the leaders of Infinity Ward and creators of Call of Duty to make their next game for them.

Riccitiello loved to talk about how EA was getting its games' review scores up. He'd tell me and anyone else who would listen that quality would sell.

He'd talk about having "lively debates" with the creators of Mirror's Edge about a possible sequel. And he'd admit that "cooler graphics" weren't what Command & Conquer needed. He killed a bad game at the last minute rather than wasting gamers' time with it.

His plans sounded awesome. And then there were the results.

EA's FIFA games unseated Konami's Pro Evolution as the best things in soccer/football.

But, in basketball, EA kept stumbling.

In even years, Need For Speeds were amazing. In odd years, they were not.

EA's biggest rival appeared to be Activision. EA and Riccitiello seemed desperately to want to displace Activision's success. An alternating annual release of Battlefield/Medal of Honor might take out Call of Duty. Star Wars: The Old Republic would out-wow World of Warcraft. Regarding the former, Riccitiello figured out the formula, perhaps based on what FIFA had accomplished: don't make just one terrific game, make two terrific shooters in a row. Well, Battlefield 3 in 2011 was, in terms of multiplayer, regarded as very good. Last year's Medal of Honor? A disaster. And as SW:TOR stumbled and switched from a subscription model to free-to-play, Activision took a left turn, picked the brain of one of their old hands and cooked up Skylanders, a juggernaut for which EA has no answer.

Activision played it safe, though. EA has been the more fun company to watch. EA chucked the James Bond license; Activision picked it up to make some bad licensed games. EA instead dove into making cell phone games and Facebook games, trying games on any platform they could think of. Activision stuck mostly to consoles, to licenses and to shooters.

EA tried to make games with the best big studios in America. They hooked up with Gears of War creators Epic for Bulletstorm, Tim Schafer's Activision-rejected crew to rescue Brutal Legend, and former Sony-only Insomniac for the upcoming Fuse. On Facebook they battled with Zynga, which kept hiring away their producers and developers. On mobile, EA tried some wilder stuff, bought Chillingo and worked with some of their indies. The Simpsons: Tapped Out was a hit, but more headlines went to the EA-published iterations of Flight Control and Real Racing, games that seemed designed to frustrate players enough to make them keep putting quarters in the machine, as it were. (It's no wonder that this audio snippet has become emblematic of what some gamers disliked about Riccitiello's tenure.)

What John Riccitiello Was Right AboutS

The overall impression I got from all this was that John Riccitiello's EA would try everything and that there was a logical argument for any piece of it. Of course they should be big on cell phones, big on tablets, big on Facebook, big on consoles, big on handhelds. Big everywhere. Who but them was going to be big in sports, in shooters, in role-playing games, in sci-fi, fantasy and racing? How could a company really pull all of this off? Under Riccitiello, they clearly tried like hell to do all of it. Maybe that's why it's unsurprising that they didn't seem to do any of it best of all. They were excellent at being good, not so good at being excellent.

***

Riccitiello's resignation comes at a bad time for EA. The company comes off a bummer of a year that saw Old Republic failing to catch fire and Medal of Honor collapse. More urgently, the new SimCity's launch debacle has undermined EA's chances of convincing anyone that it's ready to lead the way in games as services. The company's PC-download Origin service, while improving, is still a far cry from the quality of Valve's dominant, competing Steam.

The financial analyst Michael Pachter noted the odd timing in an e-mail he sent to investors this morning. He titled his note "Tackled at the 1-yard line" and built an argument that Riccitiello, who managed to keep EA profitable most of the time and invested heavily in the future, was painfully close to getting it all right.

In our view, Mr. Riccitiello's greatest achievement was in recognizing that the industry EA competes in was transitioning to digital, and in positioning the company to participate in mobile, social, casual, and PC downloads, while building a subscription MMO business and dramatically expanding the company's premium downloadable content. EA didn't hit many home runs during his tenure, but in an environment that saw bankruptcies of Midway Games, Atari and THQ, EA managed to gain market share and hit many solid singles.

We are perhaps most disappointed that Mr. Riccitiello's resignation comes when the company appears to be on the right track and about to capitalize on both the transition to digital and the emergence of next generation consoles. EA may have more work to do, but we believe that Mr. Riccitiello had the company on the right course, and believe that EA is better positioned to grow earnings than any

On Twitter, people, Kotaku staff included, snarked about the resignation in light of EA's current rep and business practices.

For example:

EA's number two, COO Peter Moore, who has been weary of public negativity about his company for some time, took umbrage. On Facebook, he called out our Twitter round-up of Riccitiello jokes a byproduct of our "self-smugness." I disagree, of course. What was Tweeted was, in part, an honest reaction from a lot of people who are uneasy about what EA seems to stand for. It's a relevant part of the conversation about Riccitiello's legacy. That said, I'll certainly miss interviewing Riccitiello. I'll miss hearing about his vision for EA. But his vision has, so far, brought EA to its current uncertain moment, what Pachter believes is one-yard from the touchdown Riccitiello was hustling to reach for six years.

What John Riccitiello Was Right AboutS

One of Riccitiello's other roles, of late, was as chairman of the Entertainment Software Association, the group that puts on E3 each year and lobbies politicians to treat the gaming industry well. That brought Riccitiello to a seat at the table with Vice President Joe Biden earlier this year. I'm glad a so-called suit who has actually finished BioShock and can talk about what didn't work in Mirror's Edge was the gaming exec sitting beside the VP while they were talking about whether video games have a role in mass shootings.

***

Back to Wee-Bey.

There is a scene in the first season of The Wire when one of the drug dealers in Avon Barksdale's crew goes for a car ride with Barksdale's hitman, Wee-Bey. The dealer, a conflicted man named D'Angelo, is convinced that he's being driven to his death. Wee-Bey lets him out of the car and has him enter a building. It's dark in there. It's clear this is the end.

D'Angelo gets ready for the worst. He waits for the gun and the shot.

Wee-Bey turns on the lights. The room has a big fish tank in it. Wee-Bey's going out of town and was hoping that maybe D'Angelo could feed his fish.

Wee-Bey wasn't the man in charge. He wasn't the boss. He was a man with a good side, despite his bad rep. You thought he was going to take that guy somewhere terrible. You thought he was going to ruin him. And then the lights were on and you realized you got it wrong. He was taking him somewhere good. All along.

Top pic: John Riccitiello at E3 2010, Credit: Michal Czerwonka/Getty; Lower: Riccitiello with Vice President Biden in the White House earlier this year. Credit: Susan Walsh, AP.