Silent Execution: EA and Lord of Ultima
by William Myers
This week the players of EA’s browser RTS game, Lord of Ultima, discovered through an accidental early posting of a press release/notice that the game is being shutdown permanently May 12th.
The game was originally created by a Germany based studio, Phenomic, which was bought by EA in 2006. LoU released its open beta in April of 2010 and when I first discovered it that summer, most of the mechanics were still a mystery to players. Like many others, I had tried various browser based RTS games (Travian, ikariam, and others); but I quickly discovered how much more Lord of Ultima had to offer. Phenomic had included options to automate certain aspects of play and a micro-transaction system for booster items… not uncommon in this type of game; but they also capped burst spending, ensuring that a player couldn’t simply buy their way to a win. It was only the first of many elements that sold me on the game.
As time passed, I found myself part of a game winning alliance and actively participating in mechanics and strategy discussion on the game forums. I shared the knowledge I’d acquired in a guide for newer players and ended up gaining the attention of the community staff for my efforts to help others and keep conversations rational instead of emotional; and was invited to join the community moderation team. The game grew, more features were added, but one general opinion was shared amongst veteran players. While the game was good, great even; the support and management of it was lacking. Bug and even exploit reports took months or longer to be repaired. Many such were referred to the forums for resolution, but staff activity on the forums was minimal and players (even veteran players) can only help so much. Account and billing problems were referred off-site to EA.com where often they were confused by support agents as being connected with Ultima Online… if provided help at all.
Last year (late summer), EA closed Phenomic. It did so without any announcements to the LoU community. We found out through gaming news sites. When EA passed the game and its management to Sweden based Easy Games, it did this also without any announcement or indication of whether the game would be continued or receive any further development. Problems with a few of the world servers began to occur in late fall and community teams, despite encouragement from players in the forums and the moderation team, did not make an effort to communicate repairs progress with the players. Many players began to leave the game. Attrition is always a problem in these long browser games, where a ‘match’ takes longer than six months, sometimes up to a year in duration for players who are not in the leading edge of the competition. But even with the usual plans in place to replace inactive players, most alliances were suffering from huge losses.
Finally, with the community decimated by lack of communication from the studio or EA for nearly a year despite major changes and mounting game-breaking problems with the servers on several of the remaining active worlds that resulted in much more commitment of player time to maintain a competitive play-style; players discovered that EA planned to close the game in a few months. EA quickly withdrew these early indications of the game’s closing, but it was too late to keep word from getting out and the forums (and my mail box) started filling with questions about the rumors of the game closing.
The ‘why’ is simple, from a business standpoint. The game has declining market presence (the player numbers are dwindling) and it is a niche market to begin with. EA has little interest in keeping employees engaged in further development of four year old game with only a few thousand active players. Not when it can put those people to work on more important mass-market titles. It makes a lot of sense, even at its best, LoU wouldn’t have millions of customers paying monthly fees to keep their war ministers active. So why make the effort or spend the resources to keep the game running when newer, better games are drawing away the audience.
Of course, they don’t make any note that the developers at Phenomic weren’t put to work somewhere else, they were simply put out of business. They don’t notice that players are more than aware that LoU is still the top game in this niche market. They fail to recognize that one of the main reasons for the game not having a larger player base is lack of support and maintenance. There’s a reason why “you have to spend money to make money” is an old saw. No matter what today’s business executives and shareholders seem to think, eventually trying to boost your profit margins by cutting costs will fail you. An effective browser game needs ongoing development (just as does any MMO / persistent game that people play more than once) and it needs a good community and support team with the ability to fix problems and keep players playing.
Most important to me, as someone who has been a gamer since before video games expanded past four color CGI; is the recognition that to some degree ALL games are a niche market. EA’s philosophy of only serving the largest niche to ensure profit margins is eventually going to result in all gamers facing this sort of shutdown. Of a persistent game that no longer has enough players. Of a franchise that no longer sells like it used to. And given EA’s buying power, absorbing games in development (along with the studio doing the development); the next time we go looking for a sci-fi RPG, a middle ages war simulation, or a comedy FPS… there might not be one to play. That might not bother you if you are happy to load up the latest version of FIFA or Battlefield instead; but that isn’t to my taste. Imagine all the grocery stores deciding to only sell canned peas and microwavable lasagna. It doesn’t matter that you are allergic to peas or that you’ve already had lasagna 28 times this month, the store makes the best profit off those two things. If you want to eat, you’ll either have more lasagna or you’ll have to visit the farmer’s market. Just make sure you get there before 8:00 a.m. because that’s when their produce buyers arrive to buy up everything at the market.
There is a petition collecting names, as players attempt to show that there is sufficient interest in keeping the game open. In the first couple days it has accumulated over 1300 signatures, but if EA is using niche market audience sizes as evidence to close the game; a few thousand signers isn’t going to have much impact. Other players (including some of the moderation team, myself included) have inquired about the possibility of purchasing the code/intellectual property, in the hopes that we could start a Kickstarter campaign to raise the money, re-brand it (and fix some bugs) and reopen the game. We didn’t even get a negotiable response or price quote… just a flat response that EA will not license/sell the game.
I know there are many people out there who have seen clear evidence of the problems with EA’s business practices in the past. They have won the Consumerist’s “Worst Company in America” award two years in a row for just this sort of action. I hope that even those players who don’t have any concern one way or another about a browser based MMORTS like Lord of Ultima, still consider what this sort of policy means to the future of gaming. It is one thing when a game is no longer self-sustaining, but when the only thing making it unable to sustain itself is your own negligence; it isn’t the game that needs to be shut down.
If you want to join us in our last few months and weigh in on EA’s decision and policies, you can find us at http://www.lordofultima.com