It's kind of crazy when you think back to all of the hoopla that Microsoft put behind getting EA Sports signed onto Xbox Live back at E3 2004. Ironically, it was Don Mattrick representing EA Sports on the stage back then, and he's now the head honcho for Microsoft's interactive entertainment division. The fact that money was spent to coerce EA into putting their wares on Xbox Live is sort of comical, as EA was already doing their thing on the PS2 with minimal fanfare.
The main sticking point was that EA wanted control over their games, which they had on the “open” Playstation platform. Microsoft's “walled garden” approach was often cited by EA executives at the time, particularly Bing Gordon, as being a roadblock to getting their games on the service. Gordon even once joked: “Didn't you say the only way we'd get The Sims on Xbox Live is if we added guns?”
Even though Gordon was just making a silly comment to annoy executives like Peter Moore and Ed Fries, EA was actually deadly serious about their concern for Microsoft's management of Xbox Live. They wanted to be able to have their servers communicate directly with gamers. They wanted to manage stats, friends lists and matchmaking, but more importantly, they wanted control over marketing directly to their users with downloadable content and third-party promotions.
Of course, EA's change to sports gaming on the consoles back in 2004 was also created out of their fear of 2K Sports, which was pushing its successful basketball, football and hockey franchises over Xbox and Playstation 2, but it was doing so with an additional server layer as well. If the upstart 2K Sports was allowed to operate third-party servers on top of Xbox Live's interface (and directly on the Playstation), then there was no way EA would play ball unless they could have the same control.
What has all of this meant for us as sports gamers over the last seven years? Well, mainly its lead to a giant inconvenience to anyone who wants a consistent, stable and long-lasting online — and sometimes offline — game experience.
Most sports gamers these days have likely seen the “spinning wheel” in most EA Sports titles, requiring you to wait while EA Sports happily jams various marketing data and stats that you didn't ask for through your Internet pipe. Many games — NHL 12 and FIFA 12, specifically — even suffer from extended freezes and outright crashes because of the online umbilical cord that users are quite powerless to cut. The recent NBA JAM: On Fire Edition has demonstrated this, with server communication hang-ups slowing down basic menu navigation and making users wait to even set up offline games. The persistent connection to the EA servers, it seems, bring along a lot of baggage that most users don't care about all that much.
Then again, it's one thing to have small pauses in a menu while waiting for servers; it's another thing to have to wait minutes, hours and even days for online service to be restored. EA servers are routinely taken down for maintenance, preventing users from enjoying the online features they've paid for. This is understandable, to an extent, but what isn't understandable is the constant string of disconnects and outright outages that the EA servers experience.
From launch day woes that cripple or prohibit online play to random drops in the middle of FIFA matches, this constant reliance on an additional server layer on top of an existing server — Xbox Live or PSN — can really kill the flow in an online sports game session. You often get the feeling that EA Sports titles are trying to juggle so many balls — stats servers, marketing data, menu GUI, hard drive requests — that they often just crash or hang when an issue can't be resolved. Outside the sports game realm, the recent release of Battlefield 3 demonstrates these EA server issues quite well.
Another recent development in the sports game space — thanks to the this third-party server model — has been the termination of server support for older games. It seemed quite inoffensive at first, as EA would casually list about 15 or 20 games in a press release that were three or four years old, but now users are getting increasingly pressured by the EAs and 2Ks of the world as more recent games are shut down. 2K is pushing this to the limit with its NBA 2K franchise this year, as the NBA lockout is threatening game sales for NBA 2K12. The servers for NBA 2K11 will shutdown in mid-November, meaning they were only up for 13 months. Even EA has started to to move this shutdown period a bit closer, as older versions of Madden are terminated quicker than users have anticipated.
What of the Trojan horse that EA wanted all along — DLC, rosters, updates? Well, there's no doubt that it can be fun to have real-life weather conditions and rosters in a game of FIFA or Madden, but having all of this data pushed through the EA servers and the console servers often bogs things down, meaning you have to wait to receive the benefits. Additionally, the big-time payday of DLC has been a boon to companies like EA, as they are able to get a trickle — and sometimes a faucet — of money from users for boost packs, fake trading cards and other menial upgrades.
The irony is that this cavalcade of online gear and upgrades really has no precedent in the game space. Users are basically asked to trust EA that the prices are fair, and often online game experiences can be ruined by unbalanced users who've tricked out their players with skill-boosting wares and are beating on entry-level players and teams that are attempting to earn their unlocks through more traditional ways. It's certainly a bit disheartening to realize that your prizefighter in Fight Night Champion has little hope of competing against certain competition unless he sinks ridiculous hours into the game or pays exorbitant monies to EA Sports' coffers. On top of all of this, the additional content demands that the EA servers conduct random checks against this content, further slowing down the online experience.
Can the EA servers and their ilk get better? Is there a brighter future without them? It certainly stands to reason that they could — and should — improve in future console generations, but it's hard to believe that a company like EA would really strive for more than it already supplies unless their bottom line is threatened. Users spend big money on add-ons for sports game content, and they still routinely buy yearly releases even though it's almost expected that the usual list of outages, delays and problems will crop up because of shoddy implementation and increased server load. This is often the pitfall of one company having a stranglehold on the market, as they set their own rules and priorities. Like in all sports, competition seems to be the only way to make things better here.