Diminishing Expectations

The Sims Online isn’t a sure thing after all, and other cautionary tales from the endeavors in the world of massively multiplayer gaming from the world’s biggest game company

Brett Todd

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This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150

Sixth place. That’s the highest spot that The Sims Online reached on the NPD PC games sales chart, and that was just for a single week at the beginning of January. Two weeks later, the game that Electronic Arts expected to be a cash cow had fallen out of the top ten, lagging behind such dubious powerhouses as Backyard Hockey and the Marine Mania expansion for Zoo Tycoon. Sales were so underwhelming that it didn’t crack the top ten in monthly sales during its first two months on the shelves. By the end of January, 85,000 people had registered the game, which, like most massively multiplayer titles, requires a monthly fee to play. But this number was less than half what was expected for such a high-profile release. Its lack of success stands in stark contrast to the continued prosperity of the single-player Sims series, which continues to hold down three positions on the sales charts—including the top spot—week in and week out three years after the release of the original game.
These shortcomings haven’t gone unnoticed by the suits at EA. In a conference call with financial analysts at the end of January to comment on 2002 third-quarter financial statements, president and chief operating officer John Riccitiello admitted that his company had “probably made an error on expectations” for The Sims Online. A week later, the recommended retail price was dropped from $49 to $39. The pay-to-play fee remains unchanged from the game’s launch, however, at a monthly charge of $9.99 with the first month free. Vice-president of corporate communications Jeff Brown says that no further changes are planned to the pricing structure, although more content is being added all the time in an effort to “goose traffic.” A month after releasing the financial results, Brown says that EA is “happy with the growth curve” of The Sims Online and that he expects much better subscription numbers to be posted in April.
No matter how much better the company’s flagship massively multiplayer game fares, it probably won’t make much difference for EA.com as a whole. With the exception of Ultima Online, which is still going strong six years after its release with over 200,000 subscribers, EA’s online gaming arm has been hampered by one big-budget bomb after another. Majestic was a disaster, collapsing just months after its launch in 2001. Motor City Online, the massively multiplayer extension of the long-running Need for Speed racing series, never found its audience, although Brown says that the game was always intended as a “niche product.” The subscription base never rose above 40,000 and has apparently dropped considerably from that high-water mark in 2001 and will close down at the end of August.
Last year’s Earth & Beyond, the highly touted “EverQuest in space” promoted by free beta discs as ubiquitous last summer as AOL’s junk-mail starter kits, has performed below expectations as well. Brown won’t provide current subscription stats on the game, saying that it’s still too early to comment on the figures. He is also less than reassuring when it comes to guaranteeing the future of the game, admitting that, “every week we sit down to allocate resources and ask ourselves ‘Is this sustainable?’,” and musing on the possibility of taking, “everything we learned from these games and moving on to something else.” At the same time, Brown says that EA remains fully committed to developing massively multiplayer games and being the company that “busts out” of the “medieval fiction” focus currently limiting the genre.
But aside from this bit of bad news, the financial picture for EA is rosy. According to a Reuters wire story, the publisher finished the quarter with an estimated $1.2 billion in cash reserves and announced profit of $250 million, or $1.69 per share. Profit is up 48 per cent from the previous year, when the company took in $132 million in the same quarter. EA also announced positive expectations for the fourth quarter, making it the only major publisher of entertainment software to do so amidst the weakening U.S. economy. This good news didn’t help employees at Westwood Studios in Las Vegas, though. At the same time as the third-quarter financial results were released, EA announced that it would close down the long-time affiliate responsible for Earth & Beyond. Operations will be consolidated in a central Los Angeles development studio this summer, but approximately 50 jobs will be terminated in the process.

This article originally appeared in Computer Games Magazine #150