Earlier today it was announced that EA intends to acquire the superstar Melbourne iOS development house Firemint. At the time I first read this, I was outraged. I have never seen an acquisition work well, other than monetarily, for the acquired company. With rarely an example in the other direction, the members are eventually reassigned in the company and the founders exit within 2-3 years. Let's hope EA won't put out the fire in Firemint.
For once, I holstered my temper and restrained myself from posting a passionate knee-jerk reactionary rant, though I wrote three of them this morning. What held me back is that I am a huge admirer of Firemint the studio, the people involved, and their games. And I don't want to see the creative and original games go away. I feel that while this may be good for Firemint and the founders in the short run, only EA will profit from it in the long run. And we, as gamers, will most certainly lose. Let me explain.
This acquisition will likely mark the beginning of the end of one of the most interesting indie studios developing games for the iOS platform. Why do I say that? When was the last time you saw an acquired company thrive when purchased by a huge company like EA? It may work out in the short run as Firemint will get an influx of cash to keep doing what they are doing. But in the long run, meeting the schedule and bottom line of EA and the shareholders will be the undoing of the way Firemint works and what makes their games special.
For example, at the Game Developers Conference earlier this year, Firemint introduced their latest game, Agent Squeak. This combo route / maze game has been in development for well over a year. I'm guessing that during the acquisition talks EA praised Firemint for their dedication to getting the game out when it was right, not out quickly. But once it's EA's bottom line begins getting impacted by a 20 month development cycle for a casual game, the dedication to a quality over speed may not be as strong.
There's no doubt as to why EA wants to acquire Firemint. EA has failed to show any real creativity in mobile games. They half-heartedly tried with 8 Lb. Gorilla, an internal studio for quick, casual games. That group was to produce a game per month. They disappeared after just 1 game.
During decades in the video games business, EA has built a huge portfolio of franchise IP -- John Madden, Need for Speed, Tiger Woods. That has lead to a plethora of franchise games and console companion apps, but we have seen a real lack of creativity when it comes to mobile focused games from EA.
On the other hand, Firemint has produced 3 amazing games - all well thought out and designed from the ground up for mobile platforms, not franchise IP squeezed onto a 3.7" screen. I can't remember a single EA game that has given me 1% of the awe at the originality and creativity that Flight Control gave me on first play. I mean, come on, Coconut Dodge? Looks and plays like a feature phone game reject. In all fairness, EA is just publishing that game, but still, really?
So what will happen? In the best case nothing will change, Firemint will be left to do their thing and EA will publish the games. In the worst case, Firemint will be absorbed into EAMobile and we'll see Flight Control 2 and 3 rushed to market with guest appearances by a silly coconut catching crab. The real answer is probably somewhere in between. But anything past the first scenario and we, as iOS gamers, will lose.
Perhaps some of the vitriol I have comes from being part of a company acquired by the hapless Yahoo!. A group that was then wasted, split up, and then forced out. Even so, stories of acquisitions going well for those acquired are few and far between in the valley. For their sake, and they are truly nice people, I hope it goes well for Firemint and everything I said above is completely wrong.