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That stench you smell wafting through cyberspace comes from yet another Golden Poo Award bestowed by readers of The Consumerist, the website that dishes consumer advice and activism with attitude. This year, after weeding out an entire March Madness-style bracket of companies, more than 250,000 voters placed an unlikely winner atop the polling results for Worst Company in America: Electronic Arts, a video game company known for Madden NFL, The SIMs, Medal of Honor, and Need for Speed.
"Now, after years of being ignored and relegated to steerage, game-players have voted to send a message to Electronic Arts and the gaming business as a whole: Stop treating your loyal customers like crap," the award announcement reads. Not that EA took the message seriously; it bypassed The Consumerist and responded to the dubious honor via Kotaku.com with this statement: "We're sure that British Petroleum, AIG, Philip Morris, and Halliburton are all relieved they weren't nominated this year. We're going to continue making award-winning games and services played by more than 300 million people worldwide."
Consumerist Deputy Editor Chris Morran spoke to dealnews about the Golden Poo Award, what it could mean for EA, and what it says about their track record with gamers.
Why is it such a big deal for EA to win the Golden Poo?
Morran: In the seven years of our doing Worst Company in America, this is the first time a major video game company has been in the bracket. This was really a chance for gamers — [who are] a much larger group than the mainstream media recognizes — to vent some anger against these gaming companies that nickel and dime them. Compared to DVDs and music, video games have gone up in [starting] price; they have maintained $50 and $60 [price points] for new games, and a lot of people blame EA because they have some of the most popular titles and exclusives on releases. EA has had this exclusive on the NFL, and no one can come in and offer video games based on the NFL for less.
Apparently you got some backlash from your own non-gaming readers. Tell us about that.
Morran: After the results were announced last week, we got some heat from people [suggesting] that we were bowing to a bunch of sweaty nerds in their parents' basements. But think of all the people who play Angry Birds on their phones each day. The gaming industry is huge, and yet it is still relegated to an image of being only for nerds. And yet every mother I know has a Wii or an Xbox 360 somewhere.
What else has consumers fed up with EA?
Morran: Another thing that really annoys game players is EA's acquisition of smaller companies just to get their intellectual property. They either run these companies into the ground, or make them just another cog in the EA machine. It's hard to compete. If you develop a good game and your company is struggling, and someone is willing to buy your company for millions of dollars, it's got to be tempting to take that cash. But it's a sort of bullying tactic if you think about it.
Gamers are responsible for much of the advancement in computer technology, and it's big business. But people don't seem to take it seriously when gaming companies run afoul of consumers. Why is that?
Morran: [Video games] get no respect from the mainstream media, or lawmakers. Games only make the news when a new one comes out, and it's the last two minutes of the newscast. But this is a multi-billion dollar industry that is being largely ignored.
Gamers also seem to think that EA is more interested in making money than great games. What evidence do they cite?
Morran: With the Mass Effect series [originally developed by Canadian company BioWare], someone did a calculation that it would cost $800 to purchase every version of the game. The first two games in the series were so well done, that when it came to the end, a lot of people blamed EA for creating a crappy ending. Whether that came from the top down or some company that was part of EA, a lot of people blamed EA for the result.
EA doesn't seem all that concerned, though. What did you make of their response?
Morran: It was incredibly flip. Are they the most evil company on America? Probably not. But this was not just a couple of people voting. It was a large poll and enough people rallied together to say, "EA, you stink." Instead of being apologetic, or even reflective, they named companies that have already won the tournament and said, "We're not as bad as them." But if 200,000-plus people vote and call you the worst company in America, you deny it and you shrug it off?
At what peril does EA ignore what's happened here?
Morran: With a company like EA, they may not realize what a perilous position they're in, especially in terms of the shifting market. The gaming industry is about to get hit in the same way that the music industry was hit when MP3s became popular. A majority of expensive games are currently shipped on discs to gaming consoles. But some companies are now making games that can be downloaded or put on a cloud. The distribution cost is really dropping and it will soon become minimal. Resolution on the iPad will drive more tablet-based gaming and cloud gaming, and, in a few years, a company like EA could find themselves on the outside looking in.
So does EA really get a trophy that looks like fresh droppings from a Great Dane?
Morran: We will send them the Golden Poo. We always do. Bank of America lost by less than a percentage point last year, so we initiated the Silver Poo. And this year we initiated the Bronze Poo, and AT&T will be the first winner of that award. Bank of America again won the Silver Poo, though I thought they would win the gold hands-down. But the grassroots effort behind EA was amazing. The last time I saw something like this was in 2008, when Countrywide won.
A large portion of dealnews readers are well-versed in the gaming world (maybe because they don't have to pay full-price for those EA titles since they're scouting out video game deals?), so we want to know what you think of this year's Worst Company in America. Do you agree with the readers of The Consumerist? Have you had personal grievances with EA's practices?