Regarding the quality of future games, the official line was:
"The onus is on EA to keep making a better game each year ... that's the hurdle you have to clear every year."So, is EA living up to its calling?
-- Jeff Brown, Vice President of Corporate Communications, Electronic Arts
Bring on the Graphs
To compare, I've collected data from three sources: GameSpot, IGN, and GameRankings. All scores were mapped to a 100-point scale.
Let's see what was going on over at GameSpot for the past few years, on the PlayStation 2:
Ever since it appeared on the PlayStation 2, Sega's series had always rated higher. Madden was maintaining a very respectable score during this period. Then the first year with an exclusive license, and Madden NFL's score takes a dive by more than five points.
Let's look at IGN, again only on the PlayStation 2:
Both series showed fairly consistent improvement over the past five years, with Madden NFL edging ahead slightly for the 2004 and 2005 seasons. As with GameSpot, however, the review score took more than a five point dive this year.
Only two sites does not a trend make, but we might be able to get an idea of what's going on across the board by looking at GameRankings averages, again only on the PlayStation 2:
It looks like that five-point drop holds, even when we consider how dozens of sites reviewed EA's Madden NFL series. Given the data on this graph, one certainly wonders how NFL 2k6 might have fared.
To compare, I've also done the same graphs for the Xbox versions of these games, shown below. The key feature here is that the same five-point (or more) drop appears to be consistent across the board.
What does it all mean?
It would be convenient to say that EA has already taken advantage of its exclusive license and stopped pushing the Madden developers to produce an ever-better product. However, the graphs above don't provide definitive proof of that.
And don't forget: Madden NFL basically dropped from being a great game to a very good game. This isn't like EA dropped the ball completely. Perhaps we'll know next year if this is the new standard level for Madden NFL.
It could just be that EA's developers had an off year, and the timing happened to conincide with the first year they had no competition. It could be that, measured against itself, Madden NFL doesn't improve enough each year to justify an ever higher score. That is, having competition made it easier to laud the improvements, big and small, that EA put into each new season's game. Frankly, I'd like for someone who has access to real sales data to investigate a bit, and let us in on just what the ramifications are of a huge market like professional football being dominated by one company.
In lieu of that, we do have some recent news reports to guide us.
At the beginning of October 2005, UBS Investment Research predicted that total software sales would be down this year, some from the loss of a competitor in the NFL football game market. Just two weeks later the September 2005 sales results are in and we find total sales down by 25% while Madden takes the number one spot for the second month in a row. In short, while the rest of the market is sluggish, EA continues to reap tremendous profits.
Back in December 2004 an analyst commented to GameSpot:
I really respect [Electronic Arts], but the consumer really loses [with this exclusivity deal]... EA is both evil and really smart.
With EA raking in the dough in a down market with a game that's reviewing poorly compared to last year, the wisdom of this statement seems undeniable.