EA Pays $860M for Hardcore Gamer Studio — But Why?

masseffect.jpg“We’re boring people to death and making games that are harder and harder to play,” John Riccitiello, then-newly appointed CEO of Electronics Arts (ERTS), told the Wall Street Journal last July, summarizing the main challenge of the company he had just taken over.

And so what did he do? He spent nearly a billion dollars on a development studio renowned for making games that are hard to play.

At least the $860 million acquisition of Pandemic/BioWare isn’t boring, because it pretty much guarantees tech industry cocktail chatter for weeks. Unfortunately for EA, much of it will revolve around the question: “What the hell were they thinking?”

Why? BioWare is famed for role-playing games like Neverwinter Nights and Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, while its partner Pandemic Studios has a library of action titles like Full Spectrum Warrior and Star Wars: Battlefront — all of them primarily designed for a niche hardcore gamer audience who enjoy spending dozens of hours on a single, highly complex, difficult-to-master title. And while many of these were hits, none have reached the truly stratospheric success of, say, Will Wright’s Sims franchise from Maxis Studios, which EA bought in 1997 (according to Next Generation, for example, PC sales for the D&D spinoff Neverwinter were $23 million, while the Sims games, which appeal to a far larger crossover audience, have cleared $129 milllion in PC sales alone and surely much more for the many console spinoffs). Judging by Pandemic/BioWare’s solid but unspectacular track record, EA’s purchase price seems way steep.

So why did they spend so much? The acquisition includes several titles for the Wii and DS already in development, and those may have breakout potential. There’s tremendous gamer buzz around BioWare’s upcoming RPG Mass Effect, but in all likelihood, it’ll do similar numbers to the studio’s million-plus-selling Knights of the Old Republic — a hit, but not a huge one. There are rumors that BioWare is developing a “Star Wars”-themed MMO, but if that’s what inspired the purchase, the mystery only deepens: Sony Online’s (SNE) MMO Star Wars Galaxies was a disappointment in relation to cost and anticipation, and that was released at the height of the buzz over a movie franchise that’s since become old news.

Maybe there are several stealth blockbusters that will eventually justify EA’s purchase. But at the moment, it just appears to be the costliest example of the industry’s self-destructive fixation on being Hollywood for Lost Boys.

Image credit: BioWare.com.