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So amidst the hours and hours of studying for my law school exams, I felt I’d take a short breather and share my thoughts on all the commotion abuzz over Wall Street chatter that tech innovator (or as I prefer to call them, “slick re-packager”) Apple might be eying a takeover of Electronic Arts (“EA”).  Michael Pachter went on record to call the notion, “retarded,” which is not exactly the way I would have put it, but at least he’s using layman terms.  Of course, all of this is just chatter, but that hasn’t stopped blogs such as Joystiq and Kotaku from reporting on it.  A brief perusal of the comments and messages shows most readers are either in the “WTF?” or “no way!” camp.  Granted, the very thought of Apple running EA doesn’t necessarily cross most gamers’ minds; but then again, no one thought Final Fantasy maker Square Enix could successfully marry its franchise with Walt Disney, either.

Yeah, that analogy isn’t exactly fair (or entirely relevant).  The point is an Apple-EA merger (or takeover) isn’t exactly as wild or as far-fetched an idea as many think.  The focus of the Internet community seems to be on the dreaded notion of Apple “exclusivizing” EA properties, such as Madden or Tiger Woods Golf on the iPhone or on iTunes.  Or, that Apple will force EA to waste resources on MAC game development.  Much of this misses the point, however.  Apple didn’t get where it is today by making unreasonable decisions.  Steve Jobs is an avid supporter of dropping barriers to access (remember the whole DRM speech from 2007?), and he sits with the Disney board of directors, and let’s face it, few companies have embraced the digital generation as well as Disney has (its recent hulu.com stake is just one example of how Disney understands that digital worlds are not primed for content control freaks).  Mr. Jobs undeniably plays a strong influence in encouraging these sorts of decisions.  I doubt any Apple-led EA would seriously alter how EA distributes or targets its content to gamers.  Madden will still be across consoles.  So then what would an Apple-led EA likely do or mean to the industry?  Here are a couple possibilities:

1)  A more casual EA

And by “casual,” I don’t mean EA’s (terribly misguided and nonchalant) approach to marketing new franchises (Dead Space and Mirror’s Edge, I’m looking at you two).  Apple is likely to encourage EA to develop games better tuned for mass appeal, similar to how Activision succeeded (and is now “sequeling” to death) in the Guitar Heroes games.  EA may actually put more beef (and not just pep talk) behind its Wii-dedicated teams to deliver more titles similar to Boom Blox.  Along with this approach, an Apple-led EA would develop more flash-oriented titles for iTunes, iPhone, and (yes) for Xbox Live and PlayStation Network.    Would this mean more portable games over console titles?  That answer is not entirely clear.  Given the audience composition of the 360 and PS3, we’d probably see fewer EA titles outside of the traditional sports franchises.  Apple may prefer EA focus new franchises towards the Wii and DS(i).

EA wouldn’t leave console gaming behind.  Apple knows Madden and EA Sports is the bread and butter of the company.  Forcing such titles to appear only on Apple platforms would just be nonsensical, if not short of stupid.  It would be like buying a multi-billion dollar company just to run it into the ground, or an $80,000 Ferrari just to send it over a cliff, and –well—even Jobs has to answer to his shareholders.  Multi-platform support would very much continue.  We might see a nice blending between iTunes and Madden (think of all those music downloads!) or even extras built into the iPhone version (but none of these are likely to be serious alterations to the current model.  In other words, an Apple-led EA isn’t going to result in marquee franchises jumping ship.  What it more than likely will mean is more games targeted to moderate and casual gamers.  But honestly, that’s a winning strategy for EA and every other gaming company out there, so even if Apple didn’t takeover EA, this is a shift we should be seeing across the landscape.  The big difference with an Apple-led EA?  My guess is better navigation and more targeted, efficient management.

2)  Following the Casual, for a Change

Why is there a shift happening in the industry?  Or, as famed God of War creator David Jaffe mentioned on GameTrailers.com, why should the industry perhaps rethink its dedication to the hardcore?  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out where these sentiments are coming from.

There are dozens of rumors about Microsoft and Sony introducing motion-sensing controllers (which is a rather sad and ultimately pointless endeavor, BTW – that could be a whole post by itself), and major publishers this generation are ALL suffering because PS3 and 360 adoption penetration isn’t making up for development costs and other major investments.  The economy has something to do with it; but this goes deeper than the economy (besides, gaming has fared well during this recession).

Both Sony and Microsoft squarely aimed their consoles at the hardcore; this despite the cold-hard truth that the hardcore is the minority (and possibly a shrinking one), stronger in voice only because they’re so loud (and yeah, boisterously obnoxious).  The decision to cater to that crowd served well in previous generations.  It’s sort of like trickle down “coolness” (which doesn’t ordinarily apply to us nerds, BTW).  The hardcore adopt a console first and determine what kinds of games people like.  The industry follows them and the masses are influenced by the hardcore to buy and like the games the hardcore enjoy, and the process repeats itself every 5 to 6 years.  It’s sort of like the film industry bothering with all those “enchanting” indie films to charm the “hardcore” for recognition and praise.

This time around, a three-letter word changed – nay, bomb-shelled – the process: Wii.  It essentially gave the casual a different place to go; they didn’t have to listen to the hardcore or follow the games they played.  A truly alternative option opened up and the casuals basically left (even moderates followed after Sony announced its $599 price tag).  For Sony and Microsoft, that desertion has proved painful and potentially console-ending (Pachter predicted the end of consoles – probably one more generation to go but may be).  For their supporting developers, that desertion has resulted in millions of un-recouped expenses.  Few are risking anything on PS3 and the 360, and that’s likely why both manufacturers are introducing waggle-ware to (re)open a line of communication to the casual gamers.  Is it too late?  Almost assuredly yes (not to mention this splits an already small user-base – who’ll bother with these contraptions outside first party developers – and it’s not as if they have any more time to be spending on other games since the consoles can’t produce enough AAA titles like it used to without heavy-duty costs).  By now, no casual gamer is ever going to see a PS3 or 360 as anything but hardcore gaming consoles, especially when the Wii remains an attractive alternative.

EA has been – yes – a victim of that desertion this time around.  Madden can only save it so many times, and even EA knows the future is far from secure (Madden retires, Tiger brand is slowly becoming Tony Hawk: redux, and the NFL is rethinking its license deal).  The maxim, “giant today, puny tomorrow,” is as applicable to GameStop and Blockbuster as it is to EA.

So where does Apple fit in?  Well, Apple is in far better position to embrace the casual than either Sony or Microsoft; it essentially has the audience but doesn’t quite have the content.  Apple is no content provider or producer, but it certainly knows how to sell what it has.  Apple is very good at branding itself and its merchandise.  EA used to be good at this, but now it is all over the place (Army of Two? Spore? Burnout? Mass Effect? What?).  Face it, as visually oriented as gaming is, gamemakers aren’t very good marketers.  We can all count the dozens of great games that never got advertised or advertised well (Psychonauts anyone?).  Apple can help in that department; Apple can also help EA better understand what the casual market is looking for, and drive “simplicity” into EA’s early designs and development stages.  This probably doesn’t calm those fears of the hardcore, but since when did the hardcore ever care about EA?  To most of us, EA represents the Wal-Mart of the industry.  A console industry with fewer EA Games is hardly worth crying to home about.  Now, if this were Capcom, we’d all be bawling.

3)  Leveraging the Future

Ultimately, all that I’ve written references the immediate few years post an Apple takeover.  If this were to happen, Apple is clearly eying the future, and that is where an Apple-led EA could in fact change the very landscape of gaming from where we see it today.

If digital downloads is in fact where gaming is headed (and there are some doubts on this, or at least how far away it is), then an Apple-led EA would be primed to lead the charge.  Apple knows the download industry and may want to firmly establish itself as the premier “iTunes” for gaming before someone else gets too big or too entrenched in gamers’ minds.  That sort of mindshare starts with the masses, and boy does Apple have the masses.

On the other hand, if there is any speculation about digital downloads being the future, an Apple-led EA might do its darnedest to force the intersection, or get all of us there sooner than we expected.  The leverage, innovation, and content between Apple and EA would certainly be sufficient to get the job done, presuming it had the right leadership and multi-year business plan. In this sense, the real people who should be freaking out about this is GameStop CEO J Paul Raines – digital downloads will probably do to GameStop what $1 rentals and Netflix has done to Blockbuster.

With EA at its belt, Apple becomes far more than just a technology company and it would certainly provide it more leverage to push its platforms and its ideas.  Right now, anything Apple makes is at the mercy of the content providers, meaning if Apple doesn’t always play nice, then they can go elsewhere.  If Apple itself builds the content, then it gets easier to launch new ideas because there is support (and in business, big support is necessary to be followed by other support).  Threatening to withhold EA content from others would give Apple ample leverage in putting together the future of, say, digital downloads.

And that’s the end of my rant.  Back to exam studying.

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So the ESRB “slip” about an XBOX 360 title turns out to be true. Eidos UK officially announced that Tomb Raider Anniversary — already released on the PlayStation 2 and PC — will have an episodic release through the XBOX Live Marketplace before its retail release later in the year. For the 360, will mark the first time a retail game is sold via its online store. The game will be made available through four separate downloads, the first two are expected to be released in September with the latter two reaching gamers shortly thereafter. Minus the manor section (which will be available for free), the entire game will cost 2400 MS points, or roughly $30 which matches the MSRP of the current console releases. It’s possible (and probably likely) the retail version will be priced higher — though I don’t suspect by much.  The only bad part about this should-be historic gesture is that Eidos is only allowing those who have TR Legend to download Anniversary — does this make sense to anyone?   Why Eidos is doing this makes little sense, especially if you think about the fact that Anniversary is supposed to be a way to enter the world of Tomb Raider for those who may not yet be familiar with it.  Without a doubt, Eidos is  losing out on online sales by forcing consumers to buy Legend in order to access this option.

This news comes on the heel of Capcom’s announcement that it had signed an agreement with Valve’s online distribution system Stream. Capcom will bring Lost Planet: Extreme Condition, Onimusha 3, Devil May Cry 3: Special Edition and Supper Puzzle Fighter II Turbo HD Remix (try saying that three times fast) to Stream — and future Capcom titles are also part of this deal. Capcom is the first Japanese developer to sign up with Valve and its move might be the first signal that we may be moving closer to the day when entire games will be purchased online. MS and Sony have repeatedly made mention of this idea — and that it is very likely in the next-gen that disc formats will be made defunct by broadband distribution. While I’d like to agree with them, I do think part of gaming is driven by material collection — it’s the same reason why many people (though not as many as before) still buy music CDs. CD sales in Europe and Japan for instance remain healthy — and that is because music publishers bring out CDs packed with exclusive content (music videos, interviews, not-for-online tracks). US publishers haven’t quite moved in that direction just yet but it’s one way to keep retail sales flowing. That might also explain why so many Japanese console games are released with limited editions and extra swag. We’re already starting to see such collectibility slip into US gaming culture with Halo 3 and multiple variations of Gears of War. As broadband penetration picks up, I’d suspect we’re going to get a lot more of these types of releases. The question is whether broadband will actually make up the majority of future game purchases. If the price difference is substantial then it just might — but something tells me it’s still unlikely — or at least a decade away.

BTW, for all of you staring at the photo, that’s Karima Adebibe — the model Eidos hired to represent Lara Croft for TR: Legend released last year. Eidos has always hired a new model to be Lara for each of its games dating all the way back to the decade old orginal Tomb Raider game (the one Anniversary is a remake of). Based on most gamers’ views, they think Karima is the closest to Lara there has ever been (well, perhaps excluding Angelina Jolie — though that’s debatable after the painfully awful “Cradle of Life”).