Why EA must return to its roots

Riccitiello achieved the essential job of reforming EA, now the firm must be led by a gamer at heart, writes Rob Crossley

He came, he did a bit of this and that, he left.


John Riccitiello is out, and his tenure as EA chief executive was quite an unremarkable one considering he had one of the biggest jobs in games.

It is very unfair on him, but JR's work is destined to be overlooked and taken for granted. He's done much of the heavy lifting in the background and, whoever takes over his job (Peter Moore probably) will be standing on a far more stable foundation than the one Riccitiello was thrown on back in 2007.

The essence of the CEO role is to see what's coming ahead and prepare accordingly, and since EA was already heading for the iceberg by the time JR took the captain's spot, most of his five years at the company has been about changing direction as fast as possible.

Cue many boring and important matters such as restructuring the company into a publisher of mobile, social, console and digital PC games. This was nonetheless a crucial success: JR's biggest contribution was reanimating the old dinosaur into a cross-platform company that was doing good on its promise that it could make $1 billion in digital revenue each year.

Yet like all CEO tenures, his was far from perfect. EA's darkest "hour" dragged on for more than 12 consecutive quarters where the company haemorrhaged cash. Its share price at the time of his appointment was $0.50 and is today hovering at $0.18. The Old Republic was a slow-motion car crash that, fortunately for EA, no one cares enough about to criticise. The SimCity debacle, and resulting hate campaigns and conspiracy theories, may have triggered the decision that his time was up.

But it was JR's failed triple-A mantra that may have been his real undoing. The concept was that blockbusters were too big of a risk and so EA only had the bandwidth to publish "fewer, bigger, better" games.

Unfortunately, by the end of the console cycle, EA's handful of annual releases were games that failed to ignite the market. These were fewer, weaker, worse games than those annually pumped out by Ubisoft and Activision. Recent major releases - from Crysis 3 to Dead Space 3, Need for Speed Most Wanted and Medal of Honor Warfighter - were not the blockbusters that EA's investors were banking on.

Second-in-command Peter Moore is the favourite to take over John Riccitiello's spot

There is much to thank the outgoing CEO for: EA is not the cadaver many had expected thanks to the drastic reorganisation that JR spearheaded. But corporate organisation and strategies are the extent of what Riccitiello can offer an interactive entertainment company. He is a businessman with experience at the likes of Sara Lee, Pepsi and Haagen-Dazs, and not a "born-gamer" the way Gabe Newell or Satoru Iwata is.

It sounds fickle, but it's incredibly important. EA must return to its roots and have a gamer exec running the show if it wants to succeed in the next cycle. That means, in my view, not appointing the tireless Peter Moore (Reebok) or the reliable Frank Gibeau (North American Marketing), but someone like the astute Patrick Söderlund, who started his career because he loves games and still attempts to play them each day.

Recently I was asked by a certain EA executive, off the record, why people seem to loathe the company. Why it was voted The Worst Company in America 2012. Why the EA hate?

There are many answers to this question, yet they're all linked to the important work that Riccitiello has done.

EA has evolved many times in the past five years. From a dinosaur publisher of stale licensed games to a corporation obsessed with looking bigger than Activision, to a company brutally reorganising itself, to a group of executives preoccupied with placating internet trolls.

All very understandable business decisions, absolutely, but I just can't remember the last time I saw EA as a games company at heart.