Death of the Partners

A week and a half ago several outlets reported that EA Partners was shutting down. This wasn’t entirely unsurprising. The label has made its name on critically acclaimed games that generally don’t sell. However, it represented a portion of EA that provided some credibility with gamers still. Absent of the microtransactions and yearly entries that helped win EA its second consecutive Worst Company in America award, these titles generally relied on quality over quantity.

EA partners began under a different name, Electronic Arts Distribution, back in 1997. Even the early days remained marred by critically important games lacking in sales. Signing System Shock 2 as one of its early games, the title would go on to become a hallmark in atmospheric storytelling among video games, eventually resulting in its spiritual successor, Bioshock, finally drawing the attention Ken Levine’s first game never received.

The division shifted to EA Partners in 2003, and gained attention in recent years for its promotion of games that may not have gotten funding from other publishers. It seemed like the perfect marriage, the all-out marketing prowess of EA combined with talented developers crafting worlds and games that they can keep the rights to. The latter part is what drew developers to the label.

Respawn Entertainment still hasn’t announced its new game, but after Activision forced Jason West and Vince Zampella out of Activision post Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, the chance to own their own intellectual property seemed paramount. Hilariously, the two are referenced at every single EA press conference at E3, as if a shout out to West and Zampella was in their initial contracts. It very well could be, considering the gobs of money their franchise continues to rake in for Activision yearly.

EA Partners continued to produce quality titles under its umbrella: Valve’s The Orange Box, Portal 2, Left 4 Dead, People Can Fly’s Bulletstorm, Shadows of the Damned and Rock Band all launched bolstering its quality library. Yet, few games outside of Rock Band’s initial entries, Crysis and Valve’s games saw considerable commercial success. Even the marketing of EA couldn’t help these games move copies.

The many developers that have signed onto EA Partners Credit:

The many developers that have signed onto EA Partners Credit:

Admittedly, EA is somewhat at fault in this scenario. The glut of games they have to push means that oftentimes these games could be lost in the shuffle in favor of promoting that year’s Madden, a sure-fire five million copy seller. It’s disappointing though to hear that this label with so much potential is coming to a close. ┬áIt’s a sobering example of the realities of triple AAA development nowadays.

Creative titles like Bulletstorm that try something different with the first person genre can’t sell enough to warrant a sequel. Shadows of the Damned finally reigned in Suda 51’s crazy with Shinji Mikami’s solid gameplay conventions, Syndicate seemed to strike a chord with lots of gamers impressed with its co-op ideas, Kingdoms of Amalur: Reckoning, one of my favorite games of last year, married fast-paced action with open world exploration, but the entire studio blew up in Curt Schilling’s face. Even APB was…sorry, I can’t defend that actual disaster. Creativity is stifled, it’s certainly not a new concept, but one that this story only accentuates.

EA deserves some ire for how it has pushed out some titles, with rushed products that ended far below expectations. *Cough Dragon Age 2 *Cough*Cough. The microtransaction discussion is annoying but entirely overblown. It’s a business model they’ve publicly endorsed many times over and can easily be ignored, gamers just cry foul on principle. The death of EA Partners doesn’t mean EA is in any financial trouble, but it’s more distressing that if a triple AAA publisher couldn’t market these inventive games, who can?