Theoretically, sports should be one of the safer gigs in video games today. These are series that come out every year, they're usually reliable sellers, the publishers have sunk a lot of money into a license, and often they're the only ones holding it. It isn't like taking a risk on a new concept that fails to catch on.
But EA Sports wasn't spared the pain and uncertainty of the across-the-board layoffs and cost-cutting moves that Electronic Arts made on Thursday, and had been making before then. It was a tough week for one of the sturdiest labels in games development, and the dominant force, by far, in sports video gaming.
Still, the changes show how pivotal the label will be as Electronic Arts tries to regain its footing before a new generation of gaming consoles hit shelves, and a new means of selling video games takes hold.
For if a series like Tiger Woods PGA Tour is put on hiatus, even for a year, then everything is on the table. I have learned, from persons with knowledge of the series' development, that Tiger Woods PGA Tour 15 is not happening. On any platform. EA's plan was to outsource that edition of the game, to give the in-house team two years to make Tiger Woods 16, taking advantage of all the PS4 and the next Xbox would have to offer. When CEO John Riccitiello gave his resignation last month, that plan was scrapped as a cost-saving move. The game hasn't been reassigned to the Tiger Woods team, either. Some of its personnel already have been sent to other teams in the EA Tiburon studio for the time being.
I went to an EA Sports spokesman with that rumor and was told they wouldn't comment on it, which is not surprising. The latest game came out only a month ago, and publicly traded video game companies have investor relations divisions that don't want people chattering about unannounced products, especially ones that have been unofficially canceled.
Tiger Woods PGA Tour is a 16-year-old annual series, one that presumably pays royalties to two parties—Augusta National Golf Club and Tiger Woods himself. It's admirable that the development team got a two-year window to put out a game that would be truly distinctive, rather than incrementally updating or porting over something after publishing three titles in 33 months. But if EA Sports really does put it the series on ice for a year, that is a remarkable decision.
Yes, NBA Live was abruptly withdrawn in 2010 and again last year, presumably with the forebearance of its licensing partners. But Tiger Woods PGA Tour doesn't face the kind of quality concerns dogging the basketball series, much less the behemoth (or any) competition of a game like NBA 2K.
Don't think that NBA Live's development staff was exempted, either. Among the layoffs it suffered was its creative director, Jason Barnes, a guy I profiled about a year ago in looking at the rebuilt game. No one on that team got their bonuses, either. Yes, when you don't ship a product, the idea of meriting a "bonus" is somewhat farfetched. But in Florida, with no state income tax, companies tend to pay you in sunshine. And customary bonuses of 10 to 15 percent are relied upon by development staff under crunch. In private conversations I had after the layoffs, the morale seemed to run from cynical, to worried, to aggrieved.
These are all short term developments, though. Tiger Woods PGA Tour will return. NBA Live will be made, come hell or high water, although for what console, who knows.
Long term, the biggest personnel change affecting the manufacture of sports video games, and how we consume them, figures to be EA Sports president Andrew Wilson now taking command of Origin, the company's digital distribution platform. Nothing Electronic Arts says or does, particularly in its unfortunate moments, goes unremarked upon, so it was surprising that none among the enthusiast press noted this or extrapolated its meaning when it happened.
Electronic Arts has made no secret that it sees its growth in selling software as a service. The annualized nature of sports video games and the spectrum of titles EA offers under that label make it a natural fit for such a model. Indeed, I've heard Wilson and his predecessor talk about both concepts for the past two or three years, and the two-year-old "Season Ticket" currently offered on the PS3 and the 360, though light on value to anyone but a big DLC spender, has always looked like the exploration of that strategy.
If the rumors about Electronic Arts demanding a massive, if not exclusive, Origin presence on the Wii U are true (at which Nintendo balked, which is why the Wii U is in sports purgatory), then it probably has similar designs on the Playstation 4 and the next Xbox. Freed from the costs of shipping, storing and stamping discs, we could see some creative subscription models—not to a single title and its DLC, but broader all-you-can-eat plans that lure a gamer to multiple titles and, of course, the add-ons they sell. You may not be buying just FIFA or NHL or Madden in the future. You may be, simply, buying EA Sports.
If EA's Partners label—responsible for Crysis 2 and 3 and Bulletstorm—is gone, then Battlefield, Need for Speed and Dragon Age are really their only console franchises with a consistent presence and a confirmed future. So under a subscription model, you can understand how pivotal EA Sports—publisher of six annual series—is to a debut on consoles designed to sell games over the Internet. "Season Ticket" shows that EA Sports is by nature a subscription to the future. These games depend on current stadia, current uniforms and, yes, current rosters. Buying an older version of the game means little.
It also means that EA Sports' personnel in Maitland, Fla., Burnaby, B.C., and Austin, Texas may have paid a price today—the rumor was a 10 percent reduction in workforce, across the board. But the fact their top boss is in charge of something that needs to monetize a gamer's loyalty—not to golden oldies, but current and future games, is why those who can ride out this storm should still be in one of the safer gigs in video games development. Comparatively speaking, anyway.
Stick Jockey is Kotaku's column on the intersection of sports and video games. It appears weekends.