Among more dedicated gamers, Electronic Arts is an easy and almost universal target for hatred. Some people don’t care for the publisher’s aggressive business practices, which often involve snatching up smaller, more promising studios, or signing exclusive licenses to keep competitors on the sidelines. Others may not care for the company’s products, which are mostly annual sequels of some decade-old franchise, and very often are less fun than their predecessor (though in the past year or so, this seems to be improving). And then there are the Sega fanboys, who blame the company for single-handedly killing the Dreamcast and knocking Sega out of the console wars.
The hear a Sega fan tell it, you would think that EA built a fleet of U-boats and spent the fall of ’99 torpedoing every cargo ship coming across the Pacific with a load of Dreamcasts. The real story is that EA wasn’t interested in publishing games for the Dreamcast (apparently they had concerns about the profitability of making games for a Sega console — who would have thought?), and without the support of the world’s largest 3rd party publisher, the Dreamcast struggled. Once the Playstation 2 was released, with a number of early titles from Electronics Arts (including Madden 2001), it didn’t take long for the Dreamcast to fade into obscurity.
Looking at the situation rationally, one can find many reasons for the Dreamcast’s failure that have little to do with Electronic Arts. Additionally, it’s difficult to attribute any kind of malicious intent to EA’s decision not to publish on the DC. But of course, you can’t expect a Sega fanboy to be capable of rational thought. If they were, they wouldn’t be Sega fans in the first place.
But while some people are quick to blame EA for the Dreamcast’s failure, few seem to want to credit them for being a big part of the Sega Genesis’ success.
The most obvious example is the EA Sports lineup (originally called EASN, but quickly changed after a threatened lawsuit by cable sports network ESPN). Titles like John Madden Football, NHL Hockey and Lakers vs. Celtics gave the Genesis an early reputation as the system of choice for sports gamers. It took a couple of years for these series to appear on the rival Super Nintendo, and even when they did, the Genesis versions were generally superior. While so-called hardcore gamers may turn their noses up at sports games, these 16-bit EA Sports titles were a lot of fun to play, big sellers, and gave the Genesis a mass market appeal — particularly to high school and college aged kids that had grown up playing NES but now found themselves a bit too mature to take interest in the adventures of dinosaur riding plumbers or effeminate wood elves.
In the early ’90s, Electronic Arts wasn’t the behemoth it is now, and had very little console experience. Without a lot of established properties to fall back on, the company had to instead rely on innovation and originality. Their background as a PC publisher gave them a different perspective on game making than their more console-minded rivals, and many of their early Genesis games were either ports of computer games, or games that were more “PC like” in their design. Games like Might & Magic, Rings of Power, and Centurion were drastically different from most other games appearing on consoles at the time they were released, which helped Sega’s machine establish a reputation as a home for unique, innovative games. This was particularly important, because the Genesis compared unfavorably to the Super Nintendo in terms of more traditional gaming. All the Sonics and Kid Chameleons in the world couldn’t compete with Mario or Metroid.
Once EA began publishing more console-centric games, they still had a penchant for originality and quality. Games like Desert Strike and Road Rash brought new gameplay aspects to established genres, and other games like General Chaos were unlike most titles appearing on consoles. They went so far as to reinvent their famous sports franchises in the form of Mutant League Football and Hockey. Even the company’s less than stellar efforts, such as Powermonger or Haunting, were still fairly original ideas. They also released three combat flight simulators. When a console’s library has a bounty of both popular games and truly unique titles — two things that the Dreamcast’s lineup was sorely lacking, despite its claims to the contrary — it’s a force to be reckoned with. EA provided plenty of both.
For a company that allegedly hated Sega and sabotaged its last console, EA showed a surprising favoritism toward the Genesis in the 16-bit era. Many of the games I’ve mentioned never appeared on the SNES, and the ones that did generally did so at a much later time. I doubt this had anything to do with Electronic Arts management having some kind of bias towards the Genny. More likely, it was driven solely by profitability, which is the same reason they didn’t sign on to the Dreamcast. Much like free agents in sports, game companies tend to go to where they can make the most money.
Doubtlessly, there will always be those who blame Electronic Arts for burying the Dreamcast. One would hope they would remember that without EA, the Genesis probably also would have been a failure, and very likely Sega’s last console.