I’m always saying that EA is badly run, but I rarely go into specifics. This week I break it down and explain why the EA leadership isn’t just doing things that make some customers angry, they’re actually making bad overall business decisions that are costing them hundreds of millions of dollars.
This might be my longest Escapist column to date. At 2,000 words, it’s almost double my usual target. And even at that, there were a few points I ended up cutting from the final work. I cut these because I thought it was important to stick to the clinical, business-type stuff and not the usual EA hot-topic issues. However, here are a couple more points that might be worth mentioning. Just tack these onto the end of the list in the article:
5. Mandating (or allowing) harsh work environments
I’ve done crunch mode in the past, and I know there are diminishing returns to what you can get from creative people. Making games is not like making Sarah Lee baked goods and it’s not like working on an automobile assembly line. It’s creative work, and you can’t force that sort of thing. When you force a 3D artist to work 70 hour weeks, there’s going to be a massive fall-off in their output at some point. The point of diminishing returns is going to be different for everyone, but once you hit that point you can work a lot more hours and get very little extra work. If I’ve only got 50 hours of creativity in me, then working 70 hours is not going to make me more creative. I’ll work those extra 20 hours and accomplish just a few more hours of actual work, and that work will be more error-prone than the stuff that came before. If I’m a programmer, those errors are called software bugs.
Crunch mode can work in short bursts. If the team is getting excited and drawing near the finish line, you can use that enthusiasm to propel the project over the finish line. But enthusiasm is like adrenaline. In permanent crunch, you’re not capitalizing on enthusiasm, you’re destroying it.
You end up taking a massive hit on morale, diminishing the quality of the work, and getting only slightly more productivity in return. Even worse, if you’re a release-schedule and hit-driven company, running in eternal crunch mode means you can’t modulate development speed. If you’re in early October and you realize they game needs another month of work, you can’t go into crunch mode and get a month of work done in a couple of weeks so you can hit that Christmas release window. You can’t speed up development because everyone is already working at capacity. Everyone is already burned out, haggard, and in a bad mood. They don’t have anything left to give.
The fact that we keep hearing these horror stories about 80 hour work weeks shows that the people at the top of EA do not understand software development. This is a serious shortcoming in people running a software company.
6. High prices
I’ve covered this before in other columns and blog posts, but the big point-and-laugh moment in this argument was when Origin Boss claimed that Steam Sales “Cheapen Intellectual Property”. Now, he gets a bit of wiggle room because it’s not clear what he means by “cheapen”. But in any case, the public reaction to this was pretty universal: This man has no idea what he’s talking about.
I’m not the best test case because I sometimes get review copies (less so these days, alas – you kind of have to invest some time to maintain your relationships with companies to keep those coming) and occasionally someone gifts me titles, but I’m sure I’ve spent many times as much money under the $40 price point as I have above it. A lot of other people report the same thing.
This point is hard to prove – which is why I left it out of my column – but I think that the Steam pricing model is probably really close to optimal: Begin at $60, and ratchet the price down as sales fall off. When you drop the price, do it in little rollercoaster dips. Drop from $60 to $40 for a weekend sale, then back up to the new $50 price point. Hold it there until everyone who wants it for $50 has it, and then do another dip down to $35 to hit the $40 plateau. There’s all kinds of consumer psychology at work here and even some slimy Skinner-box stuff at work. You can argue you don’t like this kind of “manipulative” pricing, but if someone at EA asked me how to make more money without spending more, this would be my #1 suggestion.
This column is part one of a massive two-part article analyzing what’s wrong with EA. In a rare case of being ahead of the curve, I had both columns basically done at the end of last week. Then yesterday the EA CEO John Riccitiello resigned, which threw a monkeywrench into the whole thing. I had to edit today’s column and re-work the one for next week. I’d left Riccitiello’s name out of the piece because I didn’t want people to think I was making it personal. But if I’d included his name it would have made the column extra topical.
Drat the luck. I’m sure he resigned now just to annoy me.
One final note is that yes, a lot of this was inspired by the TUN video on BioWare and EA.
Someone even linked him in the comments at the Escapist. One of my goals of this article was to take his thesis for BioWare and apply it to the corporation as a whole.
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