As of this writing, fans of EA's NHL franchise don't know what's going on with several of the popular modes in the upcoming Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game. And in some ways, it now doesn't matter. To be sure, people would like to see EASHL, OTP, GM Connected and everything else “in the game,” as EA likes to say, but in terms of messaging and transparency, the damage has been done. A failure of communication has led to a good number of faithful fans feeling alienated or taken for granted. The stereotype of a company that's ardently pro-business marches on.
To me, the medium of gaming at this point is just as much about community as it is about content and game genres. The interactive, cooperative and competitive aspects of gaming are now ingrained as a hallmark of the medium, and they ascribe power to the experiences we have playing a game. The very act of interacting with others has become so familiar and so natural that it almost matters more than what is actually being played. Further augmenting this is the ability to have a shared experience, either through streaming (Twitch), clip sharing or mass player interaction.
In that way, it's easy to be cynical about a company like EA skewing its sports games towards Ultimate Team modes and microtransactions (across the whole EA portfolio). Ultimate Team modes themselves aren't necessarily exclusionary, but they do require users to participate in an ecosystem that strongly encourages microtransactions and that is, ultimately, a solo activity. The reason that EASHL and GM Connected resonate with a good deal of users is because of the shared experience. Players feel like a part of a team or a network of teams, and it creates moments and scenarios where there are actual stakes for a nightly gaming session.
But then again, we've seen this movie before. NBA 2K12 omitted its “Crew” mode, much to the dismay of many of the game's users. The reasoning at the time was that the new code base for the series meant that the developers had to leave some modes and features on the cutting room floor. I would certainly expect that the devs at EA Vancouver would love to have all of the features in, but some combination of time, resources and technical challenges may have prevented some features from making the jump to next generation consoles. I wouldn't be surprised if something like the 12-man collision physics may be the culprit, as getting that type of tech to play nice with an upgraded online infrastructure might be a hassle. Then again, it's troubling when something like HUT makes the cut, as the money-making nature of the mode makes everything feel a bit more calculated.
The exclusion of popular modes is bothersome on its own; the wonky or non-existent messaging by a publisher or developer is another problem. Once again, the medium is the message. The ability to communicate on social media has been a boon to companies like EA, who often leverage Twitter and Facebook to connect with their clearly passionate fans. An issue arises from an absence of communication in a medium that scrutinizes tiny nuggets of data. Consumers are used to being drip-fed updates on social media, and a non-response is its own type of response. When users are getting information (through Facebook posts and re-tweets and responses) in one hand, but getting silence in the other hand, it creates a dissonance. When a company stubbornly commits to its marketing plan, even when users are vocally asking for answers, it starts to create an estrangement, and that can fester.
Microsoft faced similar problems with the launch of the Xbox One. When the big wigs at that company decided that they knew best about what consumers — not gamers — wanted on the new system, it became a toxic brew. The MS folks decided to live in their own echo chamber, messaging the Kinect and TV features as something that a majority would care about when that clearly wasn't the case. When some industrious reporters and users sniffed out the troublesome DRM policies that would be accompanying these decidedly non-gamer features, Microsoft went into full retreat, often giving evasive answers — or no answers at all. This was definitely a case of a company who wanted to bury the negative press in whatever good they had to swaddle it in, but the messaging got away from them. I feel that's the case for EA with NHL 15.
I honestly believe that developers at EA Vancouver mean well and would want a game with a full feature set, but the reality is that they don't have a large development team or the resources of a franchise like FIFA. This reality clashes with a rigid PR schedule, especially one that doesn't seem to acknowledge the lack of information users have received about a next-gen hockey product over the last two years or the way people are playing games these days. People feel disconnected from the brand, and this type of silence doesn't re-establish that trust.
While EASHL and GM Connected are arguably about 10 percent of the player base in the NHL franchise (going by leaderboards and the roughly one million sales the game gets each year), these are your hardcore fans that evangelize the brand. If EASHL and GM Connected aren't included, there may only be a nominal sales loss, but for EA, the larger concern should be the damage this could inflict on their brand. When you lose the core, you lose everything. They are the ones who help build your brand and spread the word. You don't have a successful Ultimate Team in something like FIFA without placating both the core and the casual.
The mobile space allows for a bit more cynicism when it comes to free-to-play, microtransactions and a lack of consideration for “core gamers.” Different business models work there because of the sheer size of the potential audience and the nature of the apps business. The console space is a different beast, and Sony is a good example of a company quickly capitalizing on that necessary part of the equation. They realized what companies like Microsoft had seemingly forgotten — please the core and have transparent messaging. Now MS is scrambling to repair the damage.
Whatever the result of this possible issue with NHL 15, I hope EA heeds these lessons going forward, because it's a trend that won't do anything to improve that company's battered reputation.