EA Games CEO falls on his sword

EA’s DRM has finished off the somewhat chequered career of Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello.

Riccitiello’s obsession with DRM appears to have killed off the launch of the flagship SimCity game which was supposed to make a huge killing for the outfit.

Despite the realisation that the DRM was not working, Riccitiello insisted that EA stick to its guns and in the process managed to stuff up the launch completely.

It was not the first time that Riccitiello had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. He has been in the driving seat of the company during a fairly hairy six year period and EA’s results have been suffering.

According to Mercury, he will be replaced in the interim by former CEO Larry Probst, whom EA named as its executive chairman.

In his letter to staff Riccitiello said he was “accountable” for the company missing operational targets. He warned that EA’s results are likely also to fall short of the company’s internal plan.

Riccitiello is quitting as a member of EA’s board. Probst, formerly EA’s nonexecutive chairman, will oversee daily operations of the company. Probst was EA’s CEO from 1991 to 2007, when he was replaced by Riccitiello.

His rule was not a total cock-up. When he took over, EA was in trouble for underestimating the popularity of Nintendo’s Wii console and overestimating the initial popularity of Microsoft’s Xbox 360 and Sony’s PlayStation 3. He did manage to turn that situation around.

However, after archrival Activision merged with Vivendi Games, EA was no longer the world’s largest video game company and it had to compete with free and low-cost games from Facebook and on mobile devices.

Riccitiello changed strategy repeatedly to adapt, first shifting to the Wii and then back to the Xbox.

EA also embraced social gaming buy buying PlayFish and mobile game developer PopCap.

But the plans did not always work. It took Riccitiello five years to get the company into the black and the numbers started to talk against it as it posted more losses this year.

EA needed a big money spinner and the high-profile launch of a new SimCity game should have helped. Unfortunately EA loaded the game with some DRM which overloaded servers that prevented owners from authenticating and playing the game. Rather than pulling the plug on the DRM, EA said that it would be expensive and take a lot of developer time. This angered staff who apparently had not wanted the DRM either and leaked their displeasure online.

Another one of Riccitiello’s stuff ups was “Star Wars: The Old Republic” which initially looked promising. It was an attempt to create a multiplayer online game that would rival Activision-Blizzard’s World of Warcraft. But it didn’t.

Investors seemed happy at the news of Riccitiello’s exit and EA’s stock was up 47 cents to $19.18.