One Explanation Behind EA 'Destroying' Bullfrog

One Explanation Behind EA 'Destroying' Bullfrog

Over the past two decades, Electronic Arts has developed a reputation for buying and "killing" independent video game studios.

Fair or not, there have been some high-profile EA acquisitions that never quite worked out. Game studios purchased and later shut down by the massive publisher include Westwood, the company behind the Command & Conquer strategy games, and Origin, best known for Ultima and Wing Commander.

And then there's Bullfrog, the British studio responsible for classic games like Populous and Theme Park. EA bought Bullfrog in 1995, and just a couple of years later, studio co-founder and game designer Peter Molyneux left the company. By 2001, Bullfrog was effectively dead.

"The company fell into this sort of limbo period," ex-Bullfrog employee (and Syndicate creator) Sean Cooper told me. "Looking back on it right now, it was such a horrible time, I think for everyone, because people were leaving... If we could wind back time, I'd probably force Peter to not sell."

So what happened? It's tempting to characterise EA as a big bad villain that gobbles up studios just to ruin them, but reality is far less simple. EA bought Bullfrog in hopes of continuing to make successful, lucrative games, not because they wanted to shut the studio down.

While profiling Molyneux for a larger story , I asked about those days, and he offered up a couple of interesting explanations for Bullfrog's demise. As someone who has swung back and forth between indie studios and massive corporations more than a few times, Molyneux is certainly in a position to weigh in on this stuff. And his perspective is fascinating.

"EA is not an evil empire," Molyneux said. "They're a company that have done a great deal for this industry. [But] when corporates buy companies, several things change."

There's the obvious. "You've got this problem where the founders of the company get a lot of money -- that changes those people," Molyneux said. "That changes the company there."

And then there's the not-so-obvious. "You've got the problem of what I call 'love abuse,'" Molyneux said. "When EA bought Bullfrog, they just wanted to make it nicer. They moved us to a nice office, where we couldn't shoot each other [with BB guns] in the corridors. We had an HR department because that was a nice proper professional thing to do. And that changes the flavour of the company."

It's fascinating, as an outside observer, to think about how many little factors could have a major effect on how a company designs and produces games. But maybe that's what happened to Bullfrog, and Westwood, and Origin, and all those other small studios that have been gobbled up by publishers over the years. Maybe culture shock hurts more than we might imagine.

"When any company is acquired, it's gonna change the company," Molyneux said. "Sometimes, that change can possibly make the company better. Lots of times it can make it worse."

For more on Molyneux's life and the early days of Bullfrog, check out my lengthy profile .


Comments

    Words can not describe how badly I want Theme Hospital 2.

      Don't worry, EA is working at giving you Theme Hospital 2 as a free to play mobile game with transactions to allow you to buy how you want to play :)

        NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

        Check back in 12 hours to see how this patient is doing.

          Or you can speed up that time per hour for each bandaid you use.

          Don't have bandaids? For a small fee of 10 bucks we can award you 15 bandaids for being a good doctor.

          Last edited 21/03/14 4:12 pm

        Sadly I'm sure this would be on the cards.
        There will be plenty of opportunities to pay to win instead of making a PC sequel which is amazeballs.

      Words can not describe how badly the current EA would ruin Theme Hospital 2 if they were to make it for you. :(

        It's true, it would just be another dungeon keeper... ah well. The old one is still good.

      Have you tried Prison Architect? I bought the original Theme Hospital back in 97/98 and i tihnk this is one of the closest games to it that is out today. When Prison Architect is released, i imagine someone will mod if for hospitals, schools, universities etc

        Yes, but does it have inflated heads?

    Do you know the process of PHAGOCYTOSIS? It is a biological process where a PHAGOcyte engulfs foreign cells. Can you understand? In this sense, EA is Eat All, because, obviously, it is a PHAGOcyte.

    So they took away the fun of making videogames and turned it into a business?
    Do developers wear casual attire until they're bought out and have to wear a suit?

      It's not just EA or the gaming industry itself. It happens in many industries. Apple was started in a garage - eventually Jobs was ousted (amongst other reasons) for not adhering to the corporate way.

      For us to get big games like Mass Effect, Battlefield, NFS, etc, you pretty much need a huge company that can run things smoothly and business like. It's an 'unfortunate' part of the indistry.

      Last edited 21/03/14 2:55 pm

        I'm not sure what Jobs was doing was "fun" though. A lot of people from those early days all but accusing Jobs of practically torturing employees by making them work so hard.

      Moving from a small company to a corporate environment can be a bit of a shock. Suddenly the relaxed atmosphere is constrained by a bunch of well-meaning but constrained ISO 9000 and health & safety regulations. Spending becomes a bit less casual because the corporate beancounters, who you never see, want to make sure that they money is going where it should (as distinct from checking the invoice with Deborah down the hall.)

      The world is littered with the "corpses" of companies that failed to transition from casual and small scale to process-controlled and large scale.

    The cold, hard reality is that games have to a large extent become commercial ventures. There's shareholders, dividends, profits, market research and lots of 'liaising with key stakeholders'. They've ultimately become businesses out to make a buck.

    Save but some indy developers, long gone are the days when game companies were either created in someone's garage or a cool small office with a bunch of close-knit employees - as is the case of Bullfrog for instance, something that was outlined in the cool article with the Molyneux interview the other week.

    Many of them are now like any other company - and big companies, as we all know, can inevitably suck the spirit out of creating things. For a lack of better words, commercializing this industry has to some extent sucked the essence out of game creation.

    It's happened with most industries that traditionally started as a bunch of people creating things for the love of it. Take the Apple case study for instance, or countless other stories in the game industry.

    It's a different era now. One that is arguably inevitable if consumers want big budget titles like GTA or Assassin's Creed. It takes a large business with many people and tight procedures/processes to create those things, and along with that come other 'problems' as Molyneux pointed out.

    But it's not all bad. Without these models and companies like EA, I don't think we'd have some of the massive blockbusters we're accustomed to. And I also don't write this to devalue the enjoyment people who work for these companies must get (in fact I sometimes get jealous that I'm not one of those people).

    I also rejoyce in the knowledge that there will always be indy developers that will create cool little unique titles. At least, until they too sell out and get shut down. :P

    Last edited 21/03/14 3:04 pm

      I think nowadays we're starting to get back to the point where you can create a highly successful games development company working out of someone's basement or a small office somewhere. The indie / small-scale development scene is booming right now, probably the healthiest it's been since the late 90s. You're seeing more and more established designers and developers breaking away from the big AAA corporations to focus on smaller products that are closer to what they want to do (recent examples: Ken Levine shutting down Irrational Games so he can go make small projects)

      I'm not disagreeing with you though. The games industry has just gone through a really difficult period. The transition from SD to HD game development was a long, protracted affair that killed off a lot of minor publishers and the bigger ones have consolidated and absorbed as much as they can, getting as big as possible and as low-risk as possible in order to get through that. Budgets skyrocketed and expectations went up.

      But the rise of digital distribution and the change of stance that the platform holders have gone through recently to really encourage smaller-scale developers onto their systems, plus the rise of crowd funding as a seemingly viable way to pay those budgets has given a lot of small developers a leg in that they previously could never have gotten without going through those publishers.

        As I see it, it's a repeat of what happened (sort of) with music and movies.

        Creating something takes time, and people want to eat and pay their rent during that time, even though they don't have anything to show for their work until it's finished - sometimes multiple years down the track. Which takes money. Money for nothing but a promise - a promise on a creative venture yielding money. Which, to be fair, it has done, surprisingly often. So there's a market. Only creative people aren't usually business people, and don't have that capital lying around. So they have to ask business people for the money. But business people don't like gambling with their money on creative projects, so they do market research and exert creative control as a result of their findings, to make sure they actually get a return on their investment, because they can't go back to their stockholders and explain that they are taking a gamble on some creatives who've had a good track record.

        And so it goes. When money isn't a problem and return-on-investment isn't a factor affecting creative design (such as, say, Kickstarter-funding), game devs are free to do what they intended to do. What is unfortunate is that this is still a creative project, and as a result, can go wrong or be not good. Or they may need to take more time than they thought they'd need, which means more money than they asked for or were given, which - in the case of a publisher - would be killing the project and writing off the loss, or adding penalties and extending the budget.

        There are perfectly good understandable reasons for the status quo, but we keep hearing reports of how the risk-averse publishing crowd considers it unsustainable, with the shift to far less-expensive/high-profit mobile market which is poorly-understood by marketing in terms of its difference to 'core' gaming, resulting in temperamental gamer markets, the 'rise of the indies', crowdfunding (which I suspect might actually be looked upon favourably by Publishers), so I wouldn't be surprised if something has to give at some point. Which I doubt we'll see as some single reactionary change, but more a delayed shift in the titles being released. Given the length of development times, any policies popular with investors/publishers now probably won't see results until 1-3yrs later.

          I think a lot of publishers definitely look on crowdfunding as something good. They can use it to gauge popularity and potentially use it as a marketing tool (a lot of the stuff on Kickstarter is basically glorified preorders - Tabletop is rife with this)

    I remember a different interview where Molyneux admitted that Bullfrog before EA was completely mismanaged. They didn't have schedules or deadlines or much order to their chaos at all, and were really only a few failures away from dropping off anyway. Back then, success in games development was about being in the right place at the right time with a good product, not necessarily being a well-run, sustainable company. The same goes for Origin, apparently.

    Westwood I think was more of a case of the bulk of the talent up and leaving all at once and completely gutting the studio, they were never quite the same after that.

    "EA bought Bullfrog in hopes of continuing to make successful, lucrative games, not because they wanted to shut the studio down"

    Bullpies.

    EA bought Bullfrog (and Origin, Westwood etc) because they had valuable IP, not because they had valuable people.

    It's nothing to do with the company, and everything to do with the company's assets. Nothing more. Anyone who says otherwise, particularly the seemingly eternally wide eyed Molyneux, is, or was, kidding themselves.

    It's not just games companies that suffer after being bought out by a bigger entity, but any industry. it also affects small companies that suddenly get big. I'm sure Mojang is nothing like it was when it started.

    Last edited 21/03/14 3:43 pm

    Hear me out, and this might sound crazy - EA is out to make a profit, like most companies. Destroying or bastardising our favorite franchises into social or mobile games is terrible for us, but by jove is it profitable for them.

    No mystery here whatsoever.

    It still wasn't explained why Bullfrog got shut down though. The common story I see when studios get acquired is:

    - Studio gets acquired, new owners say they will let the company have full autonomy to keep producing their games
    - Studio doesn't make games that will earn big money, so new owners start asking for changes here and there
    - Games don't sell well because people in corporate don't know how to make fun games, just how to earn money
    - Corporate thinks that they need to be involved more because obviously the studio is doing something wrong
    - Studio gets blamed for repeated failures due to corporate interference and then downsized, eventually leading to its dissolution because it's no longer profitable

      All I got was "we stopped shooting each other with BB guns. "

    Bullfrog used to be my favourite developer back in the day... will always have fond memories of their games... in fairness though under EA they did manage to make Dungeon Keeper 2, Theme Park World and Theme Hospital -- 3 of their best games.

    i have really been wondering about peter m and whether he really is a games designer at all of late and then i read:

    "not able to shoot each other with bb guns in the corridor"

    YES! Okay I bow down to his games design genius again, i am sorry Sensai

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