Friday, October 2, 2009

Will Microsoft buy EA and cut the MMOs?

"...if you really look at the data there's basically one [MMO] that's successful and everything else wouldn't meet our level or definition of commercial success."
Shane Kim, head of Microsoft Games Studios in a February, 2008 interview with MTV Multiplayer.
Bruce On Games recently discussed the rumors about a possible acquisition in Microsoft to buy Electronic Arts? His main point is that the analysts are wrong to say that EA/Microsoft would be a bad fit.

He also examines how EA's current plight came to pass. Among the reasons:
"EA launched products onto the market that would not work because product quality made them uncompetitive. Warhammer Online is a prime example."
(I'd put Spore in this category as well.)

Another reason is mismanagement, as Bruce rather tactfully put it:
"Management of an organisation can be done efficiently at minimum cost. The British ran Imperial India with few civil servants, for instance. However it is also possible for management, because they have the power, to become self serving and overly expensive for what they do, with empire building, secretaries, bloated expenses and a pile of other ills. I think that perhaps EA are not quite the mean, lean management machine that they could be."
I'd had similar thoughts about EA's middle management after reading comments from developers in a couple of pieces at Gamasutra.

Bruce states that Microsoft (or any new owner) would fix the problems that have rendered EA unprofitible.

While Bruce doesn't discuss EA's RPG/MMO Group, returning to the Shane Kim quote above, Microsoft sees that beyond World of Warcraft in the MMO market, "everything else wouldn't meet our...definition of commercial success." This is borne out by Microsoft's history with MMOs:

December, 2003:
Asheron's Call repurchased by developer Turbine Entertainment Software.
February, 2004:
Mythica canceled.
June, 2004:
True Fantasy Live Online canceled.
December, 2005:
Asheron’s Call 2 closed.
May, 2006:
Vanguard repurchased by developer Sigil Games Online.
mid-late 2007:
Halo MMO canceled (under development by Ensemble Studios).
February, 2008:
Marvel Universe Online canceled. Cryptic Studios continued development as Champions Online.

If Microsoft acquires EA, it's likely that the MMOs will be closed, canceled, or spun off. Notwithstanding this hint that it was hiring for a 300,000-player game in May, Microsoft just isn't that into MMOs.

But what about BioWare, you say? They're awesome! Star Wars: The Old Republic is gonna be great!

It doesn't matter to the bean counters. Since it's still under development, Star Wars: The Old Republic is all cost and no revenue. The EA RPG/MMO Group's other titles, Warhammer Online, Dark Age of Camelot, and Ultima Online, all fall into Microsoft's category of not being commercially significant.

What will be the EA RPG/MMO Group's fate? Given its history with MMOs, and Microsoft's willingness to close such notable organizations as ACES Game Studio (Microsoft Flight Simulator, Microsoft Train Simulator) and Ensemble Studios, anything is possible. Even if the buyer isn't Microsoft the MMOs could still be at risk.

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