Feature Article
The Medium is the Message: EASHL, Transparency, and the Core Gamer

As of this writing, fans of EA's NHL franchise don't know what's going on with several of the popular modes in the upcoming Xbox One and PS4 versions of the game. And in some ways, it now doesn't matter. To be sure, people would like to see EASHL, OTP, GM Connected and everything else “in the game,” as EA likes to say, but in terms of messaging and transparency, the damage has been done. A failure of communication has led to a good number of faithful fans feeling alienated or taken for granted. The stereotype of a company that's ardently pro-business marches on.

To me, the medium of gaming at this point is just as much about community as it is about content and game genres. The interactive, cooperative and competitive aspects of gaming are now ingrained as a hallmark of the medium, and they ascribe power to the experiences we have playing a game. The very act of interacting with others has become so familiar and so natural that it almost matters more than what is actually being played. Further augmenting this is the ability to have a shared experience, either through streaming (Twitch), clip sharing or mass player interaction.

In that way, it's easy to be cynical about a company like EA skewing its sports games towards Ultimate Team modes and microtransactions (across the whole EA portfolio). Ultimate Team modes themselves aren't necessarily exclusionary, but they do require users to participate in an ecosystem that strongly encourages microtransactions and that is, ultimately, a solo activity. The reason that EASHL and GM Connected resonate with a good deal of users is because of the shared experience. Players feel like a part of a team or a network of teams, and it creates moments and scenarios where there are actual stakes for a nightly gaming session.

But then again, we've seen this movie before. NBA 2K12 omitted its “Crew” mode, much to the dismay of many of the game's users. The reasoning at the time was that the new code base for the series meant that the developers had to leave some modes and features on the cutting room floor. I would certainly expect that the devs at EA Vancouver would love to have all of the features in, but some combination of time, resources and technical challenges may have prevented some features from making the jump to next generation consoles. I wouldn't be surprised if something like the 12-man collision physics may be the culprit, as getting that type of tech to play nice with an upgraded online infrastructure might be a hassle. Then again, it's troubling when something like HUT makes the cut, as the money-making nature of the mode makes everything feel a bit more calculated.

The exclusion of popular modes is bothersome on its own; the wonky or non-existent messaging by a publisher or developer is another problem. Once again, the medium is the message. The ability to communicate on social media has been a boon to companies like EA, who often leverage Twitter and Facebook to connect with their clearly passionate fans. An issue arises from an absence of communication in a medium that scrutinizes tiny nuggets of data. Consumers are used to being drip-fed updates on social media, and a non-response is its own type of response. When users are getting information (through Facebook posts and re-tweets and responses) in one hand, but getting silence in the other hand, it creates a dissonance. When a company stubbornly commits to its marketing plan, even when users are vocally asking for answers, it starts to create an estrangement, and that can fester.

Microsoft faced similar problems with the launch of the Xbox One. When the big wigs at that company decided that they knew best about what consumers — not gamers — wanted on the new system, it became a toxic brew. The MS folks decided to live in their own echo chamber, messaging the Kinect and TV features as something that a majority would care about when that clearly wasn't the case. When some industrious reporters and users sniffed out the troublesome DRM policies that would be accompanying these decidedly non-gamer features, Microsoft went into full retreat, often giving evasive answers — or no answers at all. This was definitely a case of a company who wanted to bury the negative press in whatever good they had to swaddle it in, but the messaging got away from them. I feel that's the case for EA with NHL 15.

I honestly believe that developers at EA Vancouver mean well and would want a game with a full feature set, but the reality is that they don't have a large development team or the resources of a franchise like FIFA. This reality clashes with a rigid PR schedule, especially one that doesn't seem to acknowledge the lack of information users have received about a next-gen hockey product over the last two years or the way people are playing games these days. People feel disconnected from the brand, and this type of silence doesn't re-establish that trust.

While EASHL and GM Connected are arguably about 10 percent of the player base in the NHL franchise (going by leaderboards and the roughly one million sales the game gets each year), these are your hardcore fans that evangelize the brand. If EASHL and GM Connected aren't included, there may only be a nominal sales loss, but for EA, the larger concern should be the damage this could inflict on their brand. When you lose the core, you lose everything. They are the ones who help build your brand and spread the word. You don't have a successful Ultimate Team in something like FIFA without placating both the core and the casual.

The mobile space allows for a bit more cynicism when it comes to free-to-play, microtransactions and a lack of consideration for “core gamers.” Different business models work there because of the sheer size of the potential audience and the nature of the apps business. The console space is a different beast, and Sony is a good example of a company quickly capitalizing on that necessary part of the equation. They realized what companies like Microsoft had seemingly forgotten — please the core and have transparent messaging. Now MS is scrambling to repair the damage.

Whatever the result of this possible issue with NHL 15, I hope EA heeds these lessons going forward, because it's a trend that won't do anything to improve that company's battered reputation.

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Member Comments
# 1 Gotmilkman24 @ 08/18/14 12:39 PM
Well written.
# 2 The Visualizer @ 08/18/14 12:43 PM
Finally someone in a position of higher visibility called this out.

Nice job on the article.
# 3 swimfunk @ 08/18/14 12:49 PM
Great read, it's become frustrating for gamers in general now that we rely on twitter/facebook for updates. If you want to follow your favorite game it seems like social media is required. It seems like games are relying less and less on their own website and using third party websites to provide info. When was the last time 2K announced something new on their website rather than use twitter, facebook, or even this site. nba2k.com and 2ksports.com have seemed pretty worthless lately.

Then the people who control the twitter and facebook accounts only seem to RT, pass you to a non working tech support account. It's impossible to get answers nowadays and everything is answered with " We will let the devs know".
# 4 snc237 @ 08/18/14 12:52 PM
This is a great article. I was pumped for nhl and am still getting it but you hit it spot on about creating a disconnect with your fan base. I would love eashl to be in nhl 15 but what I would love more is some communication. Say that's it's not in the game! I just want to know and then tell me the other reasons I should get the game, but going completly silent is worse then announcing bad news. Maybe there going with "if you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all". Well now we think you have nothing good at all and we know that's not true, start speaking EA.
# 5 Dino @ 08/18/14 12:56 PM
Great article. spot on. Hope EA Sports reads this because we are fired up.
# 6 willz1985 @ 08/18/14 01:09 PM
The main thing here, like most people have said is the lack of communication....

Surely with 2/3 weeks to release they know what is/isn't in the game at this point. Can only assume it's because they fear the loss of Pre-orders/launch purchases, which in itself isn't a good enough excuse because people will find out what's in the game before they hand over money.

I'm in no way a hardcore hockey fan, I like the sport and keep up with it as much as I can, but not my #1. The main reason I've kept this up is because NHL is arguably one of, if not the best sports game franchise out there every year..

Cant help but feel with the collapse of 2K's hockey games' demise they've took the foot out off the peddle, ironically much like 2K did with NBA
# 7 jpollack34 @ 08/18/14 01:14 PM
Extremely well written article. And spot on imo.

The sports genre is the only one I can think of that seems to be going in a backwards direction -- with a few exceptions from smaller studios like HB Studio's Golf Club -- in that the industry is moving more and more towards openness, transparency, and customization. However, the major sports Publishers are becoming increasing closed.
# 8 weenus @ 08/18/14 01:17 PM
Wonderfully written and well said. I've played at least two games of EASHL a night since NHL 10 with a group of friends that ranges from 3 to 15 at any given month. Also played a few seasons in some of the larger 6vs6 leagues that are a blast.

I'm heart broken that EASHL might not be in the game. It will singlehandedly kill my favorite multiplayer experience and a way that I've been able to game with my friends for years.
# 9 m_maclean24 @ 08/18/14 01:33 PM
I have to say, prior to reading this I didn't really care about the possible absence of EASHL or GM Connected, as I am typically an offline gamer, especially when it comes to NHL.

I see now though that I am missing the point entirely – the route that EA is taking here is one that could - and should – have long reaching consequences for them in the future. The silence regarding not only EASHL, but the game as a whole, has been alarming – but also speaks volumes. Since day one, we as the “community” have been forced to speculate on virtually every detail of the game aside from the graphics upgrades – and when EA has been presented an opportunity to clear up rumors, they have sat pat, and allowed it to swell. Even if they have to tell us that cuts have been made to some modes, and explain the reasons why, they could save face somewhat.

For myself, it will not have a bearing on whether or not I by the game, as it is the only hockey option available, but I have certainly lost a lot of respect for a company that I have supported since 1993.
# 10 japsubie @ 08/18/14 01:54 PM
Originally Posted by The Visualizer
Finally someone in a position of higher visibility called this out.

Nice job on the article.
seriously i agree! about time! very well written and i hope someone at EA sees this because this is very important. Even for the FIFA series as well, there are a lot of angry people there because of their lack of updates to the Career Mode and their distinct focus FUT the equivalent of HUT. hopefully within the next few years they turn this around and start paying more attention to what got EA to where they are in the first place, their core gamers and game modes.
# 11 japsubie @ 08/18/14 01:56 PM
i think each EA team needs to do a poll to see which mode players really play or enjoy the most. id be interested to see the results.
# 12 Gotmilkman24 @ 08/18/14 02:01 PM
Ea is supposed to release game modes this week. Anyone have an idea when? Lol
# 13 kerosene31 @ 08/18/14 02:19 PM
Their silence is deafening. I'm pretty sure these features will be omitted. I'm sure they haven't said anything yet because they want the pre-orders. Few major sites have picked up on the news since it is only a rumor, and most won't visit places like this.

Pushing people to HUT is terrible. It is a pay to win scheme. Either that or you have to basically play nothing else for months and "power level" to get a decent team.

I've bought this game every year for almost a decade now, but this year I am definitely passing.
# 14 MizzouRah @ 08/18/14 03:17 PM
Originally Posted by bigwill33
In another wonderful move by EA it is looking like those of us who paid for Early Access will be limited to just six hours with the full game prior to the release date.
So it's the same as Madden? Goodness.. I stick up for EA as much as I can, but I'm starting to get really tired of some of their crappy business practices.

I purchased EA Access because I read full access to games with saves that transfer over to the retail game.. what now, can we not even start a BeAGm in EA Access?
# 15 Gotmilkman24 @ 08/18/14 03:19 PM
It never said full game in the early access. Which is huge.
# 16 piffbernd @ 08/18/14 03:30 PM
Ultimate team gives them huge revenue, Why would u pay for player packs when u can play EASHL or GM Connect ? I never understand Ultimate Team. If Ea would be smart , u had to pay them per hour of gameplay. I bet they would more money.
# 17 mgoblue @ 08/18/14 03:58 PM
I just want to know what's going on. I'm primarily a offline gamer even too, but I don't know what offline modes they'll have, etc.

This just cements my waiting to purchase, along with no pre-order savings at Best Buy. I'll wait for them to have a sale and do that eventually.
# 18 MizzouRah @ 08/18/14 04:25 PM
Originally Posted by bigwill33
Well, we don't know the specifics yet. As once again EA is keeping their cards close to their chest. I am only assuming the NHL will work the same as Madden, but some clarification would be nice.

Just as it would've been great to know prior to putting the program up for purchase. But hey, I guess it's buyer beware with EA anymore. The joke is on those of us that spent money blindly.
Perfectly said...
# 19 Crank Master @ 08/18/14 04:54 PM
Being a long time fan of the series, the apparent "curtain of silence" has been quite annoying. This article is SPOT ON when it comes to micro-transactions. Lets face it. We have seen this type of thing developing harder and harder all the time (and yes... i bought horse armor). HOWEVER there is a sizeable community that has religeously battled for NHL supremecy for years and i personally find the lack of this feature in the initial release of next generation consoles very hard to forgive. In my circle of online friends this has been highly anticipated. Interesting to see whats to come of this as i assure you... while i do not play HUT or GM modes, I cannot remember a year that i did not only buy the title, but a four thousand point card to purchase all the upgrades i could before even seeing the practice rink. Mr. Wigmore, i salute you!
# 20 half-fast @ 08/18/14 05:22 PM
Nice article. Agree 100%

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