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The shady side of EA

Electronic Arts, or EA, is a video game publishing company known for putting out some of the most well-regarded games in the industry's history. EA's legacy stretches all the way back to the early 1980s, but the publisher didn't truly enter the public conscience until it started the Madden series of football games in 1988 — a series that continues to release new titles to this day. Since then, EA has been the publisher behind critically acclaimed series like the Mass Effect, Dragon AgeBattlefield, and more. And, keeping with its continued release of new Madden NFL games every year, EA publishes other annualized sports titles under its EA Sports brand.

But it hasn't been all sunshine and daisies for Electronic Arts. Being a large publisher comes with its share of hard knocks, and EA has been taken to task for numerous missteps with its video games and its business. For several years, in fact, EA was on the receiving end of The Consumerist's "Worst Company in America" award, with the blog noting EA's reputation for poor customer support and its over-reliance on DLC and microtransactions.

We hit on those complaints a bit in this list, but unfortunately, those two items alone aren't all EA's done to turn customers against them. Below, we'll tell you all about the shady practices that have earned EA two "Golden Poo" awards and the disdain of many gamers around the world.

It tried to lock users into its Origin platform

EA's Origin already had an uphill battle to fight against Steam when it launched in 2011. But the company certainly didn't make that fight any easier for itself once Origin users discovered the company's "entitlement clause," which, under certain circumstances, could find players losing access to the games they purchased through the service.

What were those circumstances? Failing to use Origin within two years. Yes, that's it. The original clause allowed EA to purge your account if you didn't log into Origin within a two-year span, which meant any games you purchased through Origin would disappear into the ether, as there'd be no account to tie them to.

As you can imagine, Origin gamers let EA have it.

Once the outrage reached a fever pitch, EA put out a statement claiming the clause was a mistake and was never meant to be included in Origin's terms of service. The "entitlement clause" was later clarified.

It filled Star Wars Battlefront II full of pay-to-win microtransactions

Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm and, along with it, the rights to the Star Wars franchise, opened the door to brand-new Star Wars movies and video games. Sure enough, 2015 brought both The Force Awakens to theaters and a reboot of EA's Star Wars: Battlefront franchise to game consoles. Battlefront's installment that year was lacking in some areas but, for the most part, was well received by fans and critics, whetting their appetites for what would undoubtedly be a more fleshed out and refined follow-up. In 2017, EA released Star Wars: Battlefront II.

Oh boy.

Battlefront II, to its credit, addressed much of what made its predecessor fall short of in the eyes of fans. But all the good the game did by adding a single-player story was wiped out by its heavy-handed implementation of microtransactions. EA committed a cardinal sin in the gaming world by working "pay-to-win" elements into these microtransactions, enabling players to spend real-world dollars to get ahead of others. The backlash was swift in the Battlefront community, and the more EA tried to explain its approach, the more angry fans became.

Once the Battlefront II pay-to-win scandal hit the news, it was curtains for the system. Disney reportedly placed a call to the publisher, and shortly after, EA pulled microtransactions from the game. Unfortunately, the damage was already done, and sales of the title fell well short of expectations.

It allegedly used a Madden designer's work without credit

You'll see a few entries for the Madden football franchise in this list; if anything, this shows just how important the games are to EA as a company. The very first title in the series was released on PC in 1988. And even that first game demonstrates that EA was a shady operator in the games industry.

When you boot up the original John Madden Football, you'll not only see the large, smiling mug of John Madden, but also the names of three designers on the game: Madden himself, Trip Hawkins (the founder of EA), and Robin Antonick. Antonick filed suit against EA in 2011, and in California federal court, a jury found for the former designer to the tune of $11 million in damages. The jury in that instance believed there was enough evidence to show EA was using Antonick's designs in later titles. However, EA appealed, and in 2016, a US district court tossed that ruling out. Why? Because Antonick was unable to produce source code to prove that EA had used his programming work, even though Antonick's claim had more to do with the design concepts he introduced, including playbooks he created. Antonick wound up winning nothing.

Antonick threw one last Hail Mary, appealing the US district court's decision to the US Supreme Court. That body, in the words of The National Constitution Center, "punted," allowing EA to escape without paying a dime.

It paid for an exclusive NFL license to shut out the popular 2K series of games...

When EA decided not to support the Sega Dreamcast all the way back in 1999, it created a monster. Since EA wasn't playing ball, Sega had to create a video game sports brand from scratch. That brand became Sega Sports, and it brought the NFL 2K series to the world.

The games were critical hits, and the Sega Sports series even outlived the Dreamcast's demiseNFL 2K2 was the first game in the series to reach multiple platforms, and it soon became abundantly clear that EA's Madden franchise now had serious competition for the first time in a while.

Madden and NFL 2K battled it out for several more years. But something changed in 2004 when Sega released NFL 2K5. The game received rave reviews, with some saying it had finally surpassed Madden. And Sega chose to price the game at just $19.99, undercutting Madden NFL 2005 by $30. The price had a negative impact on Madden sales and forced EA to drop its own price from $49.99 down to $29.99. For the first time, it seemed like Madden's hold on the football game throne was in jeopardy.

But that's nothing a little money can't fix.

NFL 2K5 wound up being the last NFL game ever released by Sega. EA negotiated a deal with the NFL to become the sole, exclusive publisher of NFL games, and just as quickly as the NFL 2K franchise came on, it vanished. EA had, essentially, paid to eliminate its competition from the market.

...and then pumped out barely updated Madden games every year after

According to many gamers, competition in the video game football space would have been welcome over the next several years. Once the ink had dried on the exclusive deal between EA and the NFL, EA was free to pump out a new Madden game every year without having to worry about outside threats.

Not only that, the absence of the NFL 2K franchise at a competitive price point meant EA could move Madden's price — which it had reduced to $29.99 in 2004 — back up to $49.99. The results over the next several years could be considered underwhelming.

GameSpot, in its review of Madden NFL 06, lamented, "Many of the nifty gameplay and game mode innovations that the Madden series has introduced in recent iterations are either gone or have been stripped down." Eurogamer's look at Madden NFL 07 noted, "As always, all you're paying for here are some minor updates, a couple of simplistic new modes, and that new season / franchise data. Unless you're an absolute addict, there's no need for this game." And that same outlet felt similarly about EA's follow-up, Madden 08, calling it a "mild, expensive improvement."

From fans of video game football, who are admittedly on the outside looking in when it comes to game development, it appeared EA was content to do the bare minimum with Madden once it didn't have any competition to worry about.

It tried to make "online game passes" a thing

If there's a dead horse that's been beaten by publishers in the video game industry, it's how much the used game market is hurting their sales – used games meaning, the resale of a previously owned title, either privately or by a retailer, such as GameStop. Since the dawn of console gaming, really, players have been able to lend games to friends, or pick up a used title at a store, a yard sale, or a flea market. And when they've popped that game into their console, it's worked with all features intact.

EA wasn't thrilled about that, as it meant someone could conceivably trade their copy of Madden in for cash, and someone else could come along and purchase that copy at a cheaper price instead of buying a new retail disc. And so we got EA's "Online Pass" initiative.

Online Pass was launched in 2010 as a way to ensure EA still got its money from used game sales. Instead of treating every gamer with a copy of an EA Sports title as a paying customer, it forced them to input a code to access online play. One code would be included in the retail copy of the game, but if the game was resold, the next buyer would have to pay EA a fee to get a brand new Online Pass — otherwise, they'd be shut out of EA's servers.

Gamers were understandably miffed by the Online Pass system, and after EA picked up its second "Worst Company in America" award in 2013, it removed Online Pass from all of its games.

It profited off of college athletes by using their likenesses without paying them

NCAA rules prevent student athletes from profiting off of the sports they're playing. This is true whether they play for the defending NCAA College Football champions or their school's celebrated bass fishing squad. It makes sense, then, that EA's college-focused games wouldn't go in-depth on the players themselves, as they're not paid athletes, have no players union, and are unable to license their likenesses out to game developers. EA understood that fact — that's why the publisher left player names, jersey numbers, and physical characteristics out of all of its NCAA games. Good job, EA!

Just kidding. EA definitely did all the bad things.

For the many years EA published its NCAA Football franchise, the developers behind the titles were painstakingly recreating college players to look just like their real-life counterparts. Not only that, developers gave each player their actual number and used their real names throughout the game. EA was essentially profiting from college athletes without them having any say in the matter, and worse, the players were unable to glean even a tiny bit of compensation out of the arrangement due to the NCAA rules mentioned above.

All that changed in 2009, when a former college basketball player sued the NCAA for damages related to use of his likeness without permission. EA got tangled up in the lawsuit thanks to its use of said likenesses in its NCAA Football series, and in 2014, the company settled its end of the suit for $20 million. Those funds, by the way, went to the players.

It has a history of subpar working conditions

Game development is known to be a pretty grueling process. There's a lot of planning involved in making a video game — a lot of moving parts that have to come together. And as with any project, there are deadlines, and sometimes, hitting those deadlines means putting in some extra time at work to get the job done.

Turn-of-the-century EA, however, seemed to have set its expectations a bit too high. How high? Like, work overtime without overtime pay high.

That all changed when word got around about a November 10, 2004 post on EA Spouse, a blog by someone who claimed to be married to an EA employee. The post, titled, "EA: The Human Story," laid bare everything that was happening inside EA with regard to the company's game development "crunch" culture, it's lack of overtime pay, and it's unwillingness to provide "comp" time for those who worked extra. The post showed just how ugly game development can be when expectations are unchecked and employees are run into the ground to get a project finished. The more attention the post got, the worse EA looked. It wasn't long before legal action followed.

Leander Hasty, a lead engineer at EA, filed suit against the company and won a settlement in 2006. With his victory, he helped secure $14.9 million in back overtime pay for all of EA's employees. But it was his fiance, Erin Hoffman — the "spouse" behind EA Spouse — who'd set off the entire chain of events by calling out EA on its poor work environment.

It purchased and eventually closed many beloved game studios

It's not uncommon for companies to come and go, and sometimes, that happens when a larger business shows up and buys a smaller business. The video game world itself has seen its fair share of acquisitions, and we've watched as those purchases have delivered both joy and heartache to the industry.

EA, for some reason, seems to be more drawn to the heartache side when it comes to buying up studios that make fan-favorite franchises.

There's Bullfrog Productions, which you might remember for the Theme Park franchise. EA gobbled up Bullfrog in 1995 and, after poor sales of Dungeon Keeper 2, closed it in 2001. Or you might remember Pandemic Studios, which handled the two original Star Wars: Battlefront titles. EA acquired that studio in 2008 and shut it down in 2009. And then there's Maxis, which created the popular SimCity and The Sims franchises. EA held onto Maxis from 1997 all the way until 2015. But that studio, too, felt the wrath of EA's propensity for closing studios.

And that's not all. EA's history of buying and subsequently shuttering studios extends to development houses like Mythic Entertainment, Westwood Studios, Black Box Games, Visceral (which, until 2017, was developing a new game in the Star Wars universe), BioWare Montreal, and many more. Simply put, EA has the money to buy a studio when it wants — but it seems to have a limited appetite when it comes to keeping those studios around.

It forced "always-online" DRM into SimCity 2013 and destroyed its launch

We mentioned Maxis above and how EA unceremoniously closed down the studio in 2015. One of the contributing factors to that closure was the nightmare launch of 2013's SimCity, a reboot EA hoped would introduce the series to a new generation of gamers.

The main issue with SimCity at launch was EA's insistence of an "always online" requirement for players jumping into the game. The requirement, a sort of built-in DRM (digital rights management) system, would help ensure those playing the game were running legitimate copies and not pirated versions downloaded from the Web. However, SimCity's servers at the game's release were slammed. Because users couldn't connect and have the game verified by EA's servers, they couldn't get into the game to play it. The legit copies were, essentially, just as functional as the pirated copies EA was hoping to shut out by using the system. And players were not happy.

EA eventually got that situation taken care of. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done, and those who were finally able to play SimCity for the first time found a title full of bugs and "dumbed-down" gameplay. Had EA simply left the online check out of the game's initial release, perhaps reviewers and fans of the series would have jumped in with a better taste in their mouths. As it stands, SimCity is seen as a huge disappointment.