Top 10 Game Publishers of All Time - #1 EA

Coming in at #1 for top publisher is a somewhat controversial choice: Electronic Arts. In recent times, EA has gained a reputation for being an evil empire of sorts, and at times, for good reason. The company now has a reputation of being risk-adverse and stifling creativity in games development. It’s also aggressive in acquiring development studios and IP. Also, depending on which section you work for in EA, employees can be treated poorly. However, things weren’t always this way.

In 1982, Don Valentine and Trip Hawkins (who left Apple Inc.) incorporated a company known as Amazin’ Software. Early employees of the company didn’t like the name and they eventually came up with the name Electronic Arts since Trip Hawkins thought software as an art form, and that the developers were "software artists". In the early days, EA gave lots of credit to its developers. Most of their games came in album covers, similar to record album covers, to give a more artistic feel. EA publicised their game developers and gave them a generous share of profits, eventually resulting in them attracting the best developers.

But those were the 80s and 90s. Now EA is a huge organisation employing more than 7,000 employees worldwide (and this is after layoffs of 1,000+ employees in recent years). EA now has four main labels:

  • EA Games, which seems to focus on racing games (Need for Speed), FPS games (Battlefield) and mobile games
  • EA Sports
  • EA Maxis (legendary studio responsible for the SimCity series and every Sim game since)
  • EA Bioware (another legendary studio responsible for quality RPGs)

Although some of EA's practises in recent years are questionable, to me they'll always be remembered as the company that published games by awesome developers like Bullfrog and Origin in the 90s, and then realised Maxis, Bioware and DICE's talent in more recent times. The challenge for EA is to ensure that these star developers have enough breathing room to keep delivering quality games.

The earliest EA game I ever played was most likely Populous II which was released in 1991. This game was the sequel to the classic Bullfrog god game Populous which saw you taking the role of a Greek demigod fighting against deities. However you wouldn't do so directly, instead you would use followers to do so. You would provide a guiding hand for your followers, help them found new towns and create champions that would wage war against your enemies. You achieved this by using a myriad of "divine interventions" – so as you can see, the Populous series was to be the inspiration for other god games such as Black & White (also by Peter Molyneux) and more recently, From Dust.

I didn’t remember much about the game (I actually had to get help from Wikipedia to refresh my memory!) but one thing that was memorable to me, was the intro:

Other EA games I played through the 90s included:
  • Strike Commander (1993) – an awesome flight sim that incorporated role-playing and business simulation elements at the same time!
  • Syndicate (1993) – a cyberpunk strategy game that had you managing your own squad of cyborg assassins!
  • Wing Commander: Privateer (1993) – a classic space trading game with exceptional graphics (at least for it’s time)!
  • Little Big Adventure (1994) – a French action-RPG with a huge world to explore and one of the most beautiful soundtracks in PC gaming
  • Theme Park (1994) – the original theme park management game that spawned so many clones and sequels.
  • SimCopter (1996) – the biggest attraction of SimCopter was that you could import your SimCity 2000 cities into the game and then fly around them in a helicopter!
  • Syndicate Wars (1996) – sequel to Syndicate. "Corporate Persuasion through Urban Violence"
  • Little Big Adventure 2 (1997) – sequel to Little Big Adventure. Also had an awesome soundtrack.
  • Sid Meier’s Gettysburg! (1997) – a really fun American Civil War game. In fact, I’ve yet to find one that trumps it.
  • Theme Hospital (1997) – similar to Theme Park except you run a hospital
  • Ultima Online (1997) – the first modern graphical MMORPG (i.e. not a MUD or a text/graphic hybrid)
  • Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1997) – it’s Civ in space!
  • SimCity 3000 (1999) – not the most revolutionary SimCity, but it arguably has the best soundtrack in the series to date.
  • Ultima IX (1999) – the final game in the venerable Ultima series of RPGs. Too bad it was a flop.

In the 2000s, these are the EA games I dabbled in:

  • C&C: Red Alert 2 (2000) – something about the "Romanovs having their legacy to consideeeer!"
  • The Sims (2000) – this was to be the start of EA (and Maxis’s) biggest cash cow
  • Emperor: Battle for Dune (2001) – the last of Westwood’s Dune 2 remakes. The Harkonnen had an especially awesome soundtrack in this game.
  • C&C: Renegade (2002) – It’s C&C the FPS. Thoroughly underrated game.
  • Freedom Force (2002) – A tactical squad-based strategy game except with superheroes!
  • C&C: Generals (2003) – a C&C game based on the War on Terror, where you get to play as the USA, China or GLA. One of the best RTSes to date.
  • SimCity 4 (2003) – the last SimCity to be made by Maxis – at least until the reboot coming out next year...
  • Need for Speed: Underground 2 (2004) – The best Need for Speed to date.
  • The Sims 2 (2004) – A significant improvement on the original Sims and the best in the series.
  • Battlefield 2 (2005) – the best Battlefield game to date. Only because it had Commander mode :)
  • Freedom Force vs the Third Reich (2005) – sequel to Freedom Force. This one goes back to the heroes and villains of WWII!
  • Need for Speed: Carbon (2006) – Need for Speed game that featured mountain drifting
  • C&C 3 (2007) – Lando is the president!
  • SimCity Societies (2007) – a casual version of the SimCity formula. Still fun though.
  • C&C: Red Alert 3 (2008) – the Japanese enter the fray. Also was significant since it had two player co-op.
  • Mass Effect (2008) – our first introduction to Commander Shepard: Reaper killer.
  • Need for Speed: Undercover (2008) – Need for Speed continues to go downhill in this iteration
  • Spore (2008) – Not really a game – more of a creative tool to demonstrate evolution.
  • Battlefield Heroes (2009) – a camp, cartoony and casual version of Battlefield.
  • Dragon Age (2009) – Bioware’s first non-D&D RPG I believe.
  • The Sims 3 (2009) – the most recent iteration of the Sims

And in the 2010s, I’m still playing EA games:
  • Battlefield: Bad Company 2 (2010) – PC players finally get to sink their teeth into the Bad Company series and this one is a winner.
  • Deathspank (2010) – Ron Gilbert’s hilarious hack ‘n’ slash RPG
  • Mass Effect 2 (2010) – an excellent sequel to Mass Effect and possibly the best game in the series so far.
  • Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit (2010) – arcade racing version of Need for Speed. Fun but no storyline.
  • Risk: Factions (2010) – a new take on the classic war board game
  • Dragon Age II (2011) – DA2 is to DA1 as ME2 was to ME1.
  • Need for Speed: The Run (2011) – I wanted to like this, but once again Need for Speed is disappointing. Why can’t we just have a remake of NFSU2 please?
  • The Sims Medieval (2011) – a fun spin-off from the main series
  • Battlefield 3 (2011) – Still playing this – it’s my FPS of choice at the moment.

Since EA owns so much IP, there’s definitely going to be heaps of potentially good stuff coming out. Battlefield 4 is already in the works, although that’s no surprise considering how quickly DICE pumps out sequels. More Need for Speed games are in the pipeline too but recent forays into this series has left a bittersweet taste in my mouth. I’m looking forward to the next Dragon Age game and who knows, there may even be another Mass Effect game.

Two of the biggest announcements though are the fact a sequel to C&C Generals is in the works and that SimCity is being rebooted (it’s been almost a decade since the last Maxis-made SimCity!)