In business, there are two main avenues for growth: internal expansion and acquisition. Electronic Arts has chosen the latter strategy fairly often in its history, buying out companies such as Origin, Westwood, Bullfrog, Digital Illusions, and Jamdat Mobile, to name a few.
Now the electronic gaming giant is continuing this trend, announcing a deal to acquire Mythic Entertainment Inc., creators of the massively multiplayer online game Dark Age of Camelot. Financial terms were not disclosed.
EA is no stranger to MMORPGs. After purchasing Origin in 1992, the company published what many consider to be the first truly “massive” online roleplaying game, Ultima Online, in 1997. Despite the use of 2D, top-down graphics that were already dated at the time (the MMORPG Meridian 59 had been released with 3D graphics a year earlier), Ultima Online succeeded beyond the company’s wildest dreams, shattering all previous online game records as it reached its peak of approximately 250,000 subscribers in July of 2003. At the time, EA had been removing resources from all other Origin properties (such as the single-player Ultima games and the popular Wing Commander series) in order to concentrate all of its attention on UO.
Thus it was somewhat of a surprise when EA canceled the 3D sequel to Ultima Online (originally known as Ultima Online 2 but then inexplicably renamed as Ultima Worlds Online: Origin) in 2001. Instead, the company decided to put all of its resources to improving the original UO. Expansion packs and updates to UO followed, including a graphical update that added 3D-rendered creatures while retaining the original top-down perspective. However, by this time UO was losing subscribers to other games, particularly Sony’s Everquest, which surpassed UO’s numbers in 1999 and peaked at around 500,000 subscribers in 2004.
Both titles, however, were completely eclipsed by the runaway success of Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, which launched in 2004, broke the 500,000-subscription barrier in half a year, and has shot straight up ever since. Currently Blizzard has over 6.5 million people playing their game, including a large number in China. While some people—in particular UO creator Richard Garriott—question the accuracy of these figures, there is no denying that World of Warcraft has changed the online gaming landscape.
Mythic’s Dark Age of Camelot has been online since 2001 and peaked at a mere 250,000 subscribers in 2004. However, the company has been working on a new title, Warhammer Online, based on Games Workshop’s popular pen-and-paper roleplaying game of the same name. The Warhammer world was introduced in 1983, and has strongly influenced many other fantasy works since, including World of Warcraft.
So will the acquisition of Mythic bring EA back to a dominant position in the world of online computer gaming? Given the number of new MMORPG games that have tried—and failed—to unseat Blizzard from their frozen throne, it will be an uphill battle. Many companies have tried to build a “Warcraft-killer” without really understanding what made WoW so popular in the first place, namely an easy learning curve and incredible attention to detail. Nevertheless, the addition of EA marketing muscle to the Warhammer Online launch should make an impressive splash, and it will improve the gaming giant’s position in Asia, where MMORPGs are incredibly popular.