I Miss When EA Was Weird And Experimental

EA has always had a healthy dose of sports games and shooters to satiate its player base—one of the biggest publishers deals in the biggest genres, whodathunkit? It has thrown Star Wars into the mix (one of the biggest franchises in the galaxy) while remaking and remastering its own older hits, but both follow that safe, tried and tested routine that’s grown so monotonous. It’s not trying bizarre, out-there ideas that make me nostalgic for the good ol’ days. I’m talking about the Xbox 360 era, when EA released its Christian-themed God of War, Dante’s Inferno, and its Tim Burton-inspired platformer, Alice: Return to Madness.

This is a symptom of how the games industry has changed so drastically. As we demand better graphics, bigger releases, and new tech with each and every generation, budgets and development time skyrocket, essentially killing off double-A games that could afford to try risky, experimental ideas. Industry giants like EA are more focused on what makes money, and that’s sports games, shooters, Star Wars, and already-solidified hits that can be remade and built on, like Dead Space, The Sims, Mass Effect, and Dragon Age.

I have a hard time believing something like Darkspore would fly today, a riff on EA’s own game, Spore, only it’s about aliens fighting across the galaxy to stop the mutated namesake villains. An innocuous simulator all about creating your own bizarre species was given new life as a squad-based multiplayer sci-fi—it’s a wild idea that just happened to work. I just can’t see games like that happening anymore. At best, I could picture a Darkspore remake, but how many people have heard of it? Not enough to warrant that kind of comeback. Sales drive ideas these days, rather than ideas driving sales.

Remember The Sims Medieval, a spin-off Sims game that was, as you can guess, set in Medieval times? It wasn’t just a coat of paint to give The Sims new life, swapping out bikinis and suits for corsets and shining armour, but an entire revamp, with quest-driven gameplay that worked towards fulfilling your kingdom’s ambition. There are also heroes that tie into the usual fantasy RPG roles, like merchants and monarchs, all of which you create from the ground up in typical Sims fashion. There were a few spin-offs like this in EA’s heyday, such as the Chibi MySims, as well as uniquely designed console variants of the mainline games, but all of this has been swapped for a homogenous sandbox that has been piled on top of since 2014 with The Sims 4.

The list of forgotten bizarre ideas goes on. EA developed an RPG in 2010 called DeathSpank which was essentially a splice between Diablo and DoubleFine’s signature humour. The protagonist was more or less Ratchet & Clank’s Qwark, an overly-enthusiastic hero who wasn’t very good at being one. It wasn’t steeped in the usual fantasy tropes RPGs so often are, feeling more like a fantasy world built up by kids in their back garden with cardboard boxes and Nerf guns. Then there’s Shank, a side-scroller about a mob hitman gunning for revenge. Maybe you haven’t heard of these, but you’ll have definitely heard of Mirror’s Edge, a parkour-centric game in which you scale a bleached white metropolis—EA used to be daring, shoving aside genre conventions and mixing things together that nobody thought to try.

It all lives on, thanks to Xbox Game Pass, which comes with EA Play, a service that holds so many of these old titles for newcomers to try out, rather than trapping them on old hardware. But it’s only made the sanitised version of EA that we have now more disappointing than ever. DeathSpank? EA’s too serious to make a game called DeathSpank now, and an Alice in Wonderland game that gives you a pepper shaker for an assault rifle is so beautifully strange that today’s numbers-obsessed EA will never be creatively bold enough to top it. The current EA is all about remakes, sequels, live-service shooters, the biggest IPs, and sports. The safe bets. The boring bets. There’s simply no room for it to take a risk and let developers bring their outlandish ideas to life, and that’s a shame, because the risks EA took in the Xbox 360 era built the foundation for what it is today. Its motto used to be ‘Challenge Everything’, but now EA’s given up the fight.

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