Experienced Points: Where EA Went Wrong

By Shamus Posted Tuesday Mar 19, 2013

Filed under: Column 152 comments


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.

Link (YouTube)

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.


From The Archives:

152 thoughts on “Experienced Points: Where EA Went Wrong

  1. Paul Spooner says:

    Placeholder (will be filled in)

    EDIT: Except that I don’t really have anything to say. “Yep” sums it up.

    The “creativity in me” idea really resonates though. I tend to burn myself out on creative projects, so I’ve had to learn to hold myself back. The whole “run for the marathon, not for the sprint” idea. If I had outside pressure as well as my own internal drive, it would be really easy to wear out my creative engines. “Creative” people are generally self-motivated anyhow. You shouldn’t need to force them to work overtime.

    On the other hand, pressure really helps to overcome the “creative block” that creatives are prone to. It’s a difficult balance, but the point stands that imaginative work can suffer exceptional degredation under undue pressure.

    1. postinternetsyndrome says:

      Yes, I very much identify with this “creative currency” concept. Having once aimed at becoming a professional musician, I have had a lot of experience with creative blocks of different sorts. A lecturer we had visit us once talked about creative people having a “inner pressure” of sorts, that demands channelling. Some nuts – like this guy himself – can keep it up non stop, never running dry of ideas or energy for new projects, while others – like me – have maybe just a couple of hours of magic juice per week. It didn’t neccesarily mean my output is of a worse quality (though of course it is), but it means the amount of it is significantly lower.

      Anyway, I’m rambling. Just start treating your people like people, stupid megacorporation.

    2. guy says:

      My experience with robotics competitions is that you can’t fake pressure. It only helps when there’s a looming hard deadline; people know that you’re not going to call a halt to work on something because it wasn’t finished by the planned date. You need to have something that can’t be backed out of to get benefits from pressure, like release dates or convention booths.

      1. Trix2000 says:

        Referring to FIRST? Because I know exactly what you mean, and I have stories (too long for comments though). It’s funny how quickly six weeks goes by, and how much work gets done in the last couple days.

        1. Herald Heldson says:

          I remember we named one of our robots “17 Minutes” because the night before it had to be ready we looked at the clock and realized we only had 17 minutes left before we had to pack it up.

        2. guy says:

          Yeah, we actually mostly finish at the tournament.

        3. Bryan says:

          Yep, did the same thing in high school Science Olympiad, on the events that required building something. We’d screw around for two months, and then throw something together at more or less the last minute — or at least in the last two weeks’ worth of single nights spent working on it.

          Once in a while, it actually worked perfectly. This did not do wonders for my time management. :-P

          (One event in particular required building a device that would do a bunch of energy transfers. So we wired up an infrared LED -> infrared receiver pair, such that the receiver would let power through to another LED when triggered, and looped that transfer sequence several times, to get through electrical -> electromagnetic -> electrical -> … enough times. Then we took the output signal, dumped it into an oscillator-based delay circuit, and used the output of that to trip a relay, and used that current — with no resistance from the electronics — to ignite a chunk of steel wool, which would burn a string that would release a switch, which would send current to the next chunk of steel wool, burning through more string to release the next switch, etc., in another 5x loop, to cover electricity, heat, and chemical energy (from the burning). At the end we did whatever the device needed to do at the end. The biggest issue was calibrating the delay circuit based on the oscillator frequency and the number of flip-flops in sequence. Didn’t that *that* long to put together either.)

    3. Mephane says:

      I still wait for people to realize that it’s not just about quantity and quality of output, but about the basic fact that having to work 80 hour weeks constantly is simply torture. This should long since have been banned to the history books, where we can still read about a time when children had to work in coal mines because they fit into smaller mine shafts. This is the 21st century but some stuff is going backwards at an alarming rate.

      I’ll stop now because anything more and it might get political.

      1. Paul Spooner says:

        Yeah, working all the time will really wear you down. It takes a special kind of person to be able to do that and still remain creative and dedicated to quality. Of course, people like that should be allowed to work long hours if they want to. Government mandated restrictions on voluntary labor just means less freedom for everyone.

        “I'll stop now…”
        A wise choice. As will I.

  2. Alan says:

    I’m almost afraid EA will follow your advice, and the thought of a competent EA is a little frightening.

    1. Brandon says:

      It shouldn’t be frightening, it should be exciting! EA becoming competent would mean only good things for the games they produce, and as a gamer, that sounds great to me.

      Imagine an EA that operates like Valve. Arguably, Valve produces some of the highest production value games out there, so more companies patterning themselves off of that model would be gravy.

      Or we’d be waiting 8 years between every new release.

      1. shiroax says:

        Waiting 8 years between every release would be a great thing, then they could say a studio failed and shut it down only every 9 years.

        1. Trix2000 says:

          Maybe then I’ll have time to actually play all the games I want to…

      2. MikhailBorg says:

        Back when my home computer had an 8-bit processor and plugged into a TV for a monitor, EA games were some of the best on the shelves. I wouldn’t mind seeing them return to that greatness.

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          With any luck, Mojang will buy EA for an ironic twist ending.

      3. Scampi says:

        Competence is not a value in itself. Well, in a way, of course it is, but without the right mindset it will not produce any good.
        I like to explain it this way: given the choice between someone who is well intentioned but incompetent and someone who is competent but evil, I’d pick the incompetent one. Yes-I’d like the stupid good ones.
        Explanation: the incompetent evil will certainly know how to screw me over and will execute his plan well.
        The incompetent good guy will try making something good, but there will be a high risk of him creating insanely stupid results. But there’s at least a small chance he accidently creates something worthwhile.
        Of course it would be even better having someone competent + well intentioned, but that seems a bit too much to ask from EA, right?

        I guess we currently get the worst of all worlds: A publisher who is (by my terms) competent evil (since they know how to successfully do the stuff I absolutely abhor), controlling lots of competent good creatives and a couple of apparently competent PR puppets of questionable intent(might be evil, might be good, but they apparently do their job good enough for people to be sympathetic towards them). To me, it’s the typical scenario where I’d like to scream and yell at the top guy, but he’s hiding behind his lackeys, holding them hostage, because they are out of business (or at least temporarily unemployed) if I don’t buy their games anymore.

  3. Anorak says:

    I read “EA Spouse” a few years ago, and it killed any desire I had to work in the games industry. I took a look at the junior developer’s pay at most companies, and the working conditions, and said “nah, I’ll keep game development as a hobby instead”.
    (EDIT: Not that I really have it in me to do games development)

    EA Spouse talked about the crunch time, and it brings to mind the “Mythical Man-Month”, which is something I’ve experience first hand a few times.

    Basically, it states “Adding more people to a late project only makes it later”.

    It seems obvious, but project managers and stakeholders continue to make this mistake.
    “Whats that? You’re slipping by a month? Have five more developers!”, they say. Then you spend a month getting them on board with the project.

    It’s not the same as what you’re talking about, Shamus, but definitely related, and I can imagine the same rationality that leads to “always crunch” would also lead to “THROW MORE WARM BODIES AT THE GAME” if it slips.

    Anyway, I’ve been watching the Sim Catastrophe with a morbid interest, and it’s absolutely staggering how much incompetence has been displayed. The worst thing is that there must be dozens of developers at Maxis crying themselves to sleep over being forced to ship such a broken product. It obviously wasn’t ready, and the reasons why it was forced through are probably for the reasons Shamus brought up.

    How long was it in development, overall? Who inside Maxis said “We can’t ship this”, or have they so thoroughly internalized EA’s policies (tone at the top?) that they didn’t bother?

    I also wonder how much of the Sim City debacle influenced John Riccitiello's “resignation”. This must have already been in the works, but was this the last straw? Or massive coincidence?

    Anyway – Thanks for the article.

    1. Aristabulus says:

      Point 2 in the EP article is basically the “Fred Brooks says ur doin it rong” section… I’m pretty sure Shamus has also read The Mythical Man-Month. :) Good book.

      1. Anorak says:

        Yah, didn’t mean to imply he hasn’t :)

    2. Ingvar M says:

      Throwing more people at a problem only helps if the problem is “too few people” (and sometimes the problem is too few people). And then it only helps in the medium to long term.

    3. Canthros says:

      The reason people tend to assume that more people means faster delivery probably has a lot to do with the way we talk about software projects. The predominant analogy still tends to be construction. With a large construction project, you tend to have lots and lots of small, easily separable tasks that can be easily explained and carried out without much need to get into the full context of the project. (Keeping in mind that this analogy is less about the actual process of erecting a building or creating a software system than it is the perceived process of same.)

      This isn’t a terribly great analogy to software creation, though. Software components tend to be complex, moving parts, and they interact in dynamic ways with other parts of the system. From outside either discipline, this sounds more like the work of a clockmaker or mechanical engineer than it does an architect or construction worker. (From inside one discipline–software–and with limited insight into another, I think a better analogy might be collaboratively building an internal combustion engine from scratch, often with no more formal direction than ‘make it go’.)


      (I also find it distressing the number of people who manage software projects and haven’t ever read Brooks’ book. It is dismaying the degree to which his advice isn’t internalized.)

      1. Deoxy says:

        With a large construction project, you tend to have lots and lots of small, easily separable tasks that can be easily explained and carried out without much need to get into the full context of the project.

        With very large and well-designed and documented software projects, that’s still a good analogy.

        In fact, that might make it a better analogy. Software is like building a skyscraper WITH NO BLUEPRINTS (in most cases). Oh, and often with significant turnover, as well.

        1. Canthros says:

          That’s possibly true.

          It’s been my experience (both first-hand and otherwise) that the vast, vast majority of software projects are not “very large”, “well-designed”, or “[well-]documented”. I could get into some noodling about the whys and wherefores, but it can be summed up with the following observation:

          IT expenses of all types are treated, first and foremost, as a source of costs, rather than a source of process improvement. Unless you are fortunate enough to work somewhere that does software as their primary line of business, it’s likely you will not work on a project that is well-designed or well-documented, nor one that is well-run (though it is unlikely that you will suffer the travails of the proverbial EA programmer).

          If that doesn’t match up with your experience, it may be that you’re lucky!

  4. shiroax says:

    As much as I love hating on EA when they say stupid shit, I waited for Cthulu Saves the World to go on sale, so I think they might have a point there.

    Btw, did you catch what Steam did with Skyrim at the Christmas sale? They had it for 30 euro, then they made it “50% off” during the sale for 25, then back to 50 when the sale ended and I think it was first or second top seller during the sale. I think Steam only gets a pass because Gabe Newell look like Santa Claus when he grows his beard.

    1. krellen says:

      Shamus has written several columns on why Steam “gets a pass”, but it mostly comes down to this: Steam is easy. Steam makes it easy to buy games. Steam makes it easy to install games. Steam makes it easy to update games. Steam makes it easy to NOT update games. Steam makes it easy to join multiplayer games. Steam offers a plethora of services above and beyond the simple “digital market” platform, and does so in ways that saves customers both time and money.

      Until Origin can claim these things, any difference cannot simply be chalked up to “corporate image”.

      (EDIT NOTE: I bet this comment got moderated because I said “Steam” too many times.)

      1. McNutcase says:

        Also: Steam has made significant efforts to improve.

        I remember when Steam was nothing but dog-doings brown, all the time.
        When Steam was an extra thing as well as having to have the disc in the drive.
        When Steam wouldn’t allow you to buy a bundle that contained ANYTHING you already owned.
        When Steam didn’t respect your browser preference and launched Internet Explorer no matter WHAT.
        When Steam could be counted on to fall over at major releases.
        When Steam would refuse to launch a game because your internet was down.

        I remember the days before Steam had multiplayer lobbies, friends lists, stats tracking…

        I remember when Steam was like today’s Origin, and it sucked back then. But Valve have made the effort to make it NOT SUCK.

        1. Shamus says:

          I remember when I thought Steam was the WORST thing to happen to the hobby. Oh man. I had no idea how much better Steam would get, or how horrifyingly worse the rest of the publishers would do when they tried the same thing.

          1. Peter H. Coffin says:

            This comment needs a “Like” button.

            But yeah. We could sure use more things that are horrible and improve. Being horrible means being different and trying something new. Maybe it’s a failure, but it’s a learning opportunity. Even GfWL learned a little bit, sometimes, and at least some of their titles are taking advantages of Steam, and doing Steam-things, even if they’re not the ones that they expect to do well (or ever need to be ported to Xbox).

          2. Scampi says:

            I still believe it was one of the worst things to happen. It does lots of good as well(as furthering small creatives’ chances and such) but I’d prefer if it hadn’t
            a) made its use pretty much obligatory for gaming
            b) been the blue print for the other companies’ attempts at online compulsion.
            Sorry, but the “others did it worse” just doesn’t do it for me.
            Just because it’s been there for 10 years and people got used to it doesn’t make it any better than it was. Still, I admit I see some of its own progress over the past almost 10 years from what other people say/write and would indeed prefer it over Origin-but that’s me NOW-what will I say in 10 years from now? Not to excuse EA, but I just don’t see how the 10 years of development could not have influenced Steam’s direction and evolution.
            My question: how much of the current uproar about Origin (specifically Origin) is due to people having a bone to pick with EA for one or another reason and how much of the (exaggerated?) implied awesomeness of Steam is due to (possibly misguided-I don’t know) customer loyalty?

            1. Hitchmeister says:

              Your statement that Valve being first with Steam: “a) made its use pretty much obligatory for gaming” is a problem. Other companies (EA with Origin in particular) should learn from studying Steam’s launch and early days to avoid the problem they had getting accepted and strive to get gamers to embrace a new platform rather than trying to force us to use theirs with exclusivity. Viable and appealing alternatives to Steam is good for gamers and something we should want. That gets online distributors to compete for our dollars, which would mean lower prices and better service for us.

            2. Phantom Hoover says:

              Both of your complaints are the result of Steam’s competitors completely failing to produce a viable competitor for a decade, not any evil business practices on Valve’s part. I can’t really fault them for not going out of their way to make the market less dumb.

              1. Scampi says:

                I wonder, how any competition would help with my specific problem-I know to the most it’s more a matter of: “How does company X create the competing online platform”, while to me the question is: “Why is it that noone even questions the concept itself of being connected to server x permanently? How is it possible the idea of being obliged to have yet another piece of software running to use another software is not questioned at all? When Steam was born, it was for reasons of patching games for online use, where all players were supposed to play with identical versions. But what does that have to do with me, if I myself want to decide, which versions I install(since I often found games, where a patch would disturb the stability instead of furthering it), don’t enjoy online gaming all that much (haven’t played any online games in 4-5 years) and just don’t trust companies with my data at all anymore (I have my reasons from my own experience)?

        2. guy says:

          Also, Steam was the first. Saying “we’re as good as WoW/Steam was when they started out” is simply idiotic. It’s not like they magically lost the power to provide an example when they got updated. Sure, they’ve had lots of time to make improvements, but you can copy the improvements too!

          1. Mephane says:

            Steam being first is a factor not to be underestimated. Even if EA magically fixed all problems with Origin and made it, in every little detail, as effortless, easy, useful and inviting as Steam, persued the same sales schemes, lowered prices as games age etc… in other words, if Origin suddenly became another Steam with just another name and color scheme – why should I want install this thing?

            I already have a game store/installation management/savegame cloud backup/community tool that works perfectly fine for me. Whatever EA does not publish stuff on Steam any more, but instead Origin-exclusive, simply does not exist for me beyond the occasional target of schadenfreude when they manage to pull off Yet Another Stupid Thing.

            If EA wants my money, they better not publish Origin-exlusive, because they’ll just fulfill the words literal meaning: exclude me as a potential customer. Their loss, really, I’ve got enough good games to play any way.

            1. Trix2000 says:

              They’d need to innovate – come up with some feature or way that makes people want to use it instead. But considering their track record on innovation and being ahead of the curve…

              1. Fang says:

                See? I don’t know if was here or elsewhere, but someone suggested having Origin also have older EA titles on it, for cheap! Well why not do that but also mark down your older but newish(Mass Effect 1 and Dragon Age 1 come to mind) for a lot less then stores or competitors.

            2. guy says:

              I know I’d happily buy Origin-exclusive games if I didn’t dislike the service. I actually have a couple, and say bad words whenever Origin has to be involved, so it’s catastrophically failed at convincing me to buy games through it instead of Steam.

              The thing is, Origin and Steam are not like consoles. If both of them were of equal quality, there would be very little reason to not simply get both in the event that they possessed exclusive titles you wanted. The hard part would be getting people who use Steam heavily to purchase non-exclusives through Origin instead. But getting people to download it by offering exclusives, then holding sales that don’t overlap with Steam sales on the same titles, has serious potential in the event that Origin was not horrible

    2. Primogenitor says:

      I think this is the point Shamus was making about “rollercoaster pricing”. You put the price down lower than you want for a short time to force people into a “buy now, or wait significantly longer” mentality rather than “one more week” if prices are dropped steadily.

      And yes, you do get some people waiting for lower pricing only if they know it is coming – but in software the cost-per-item is so low that getting two sales at a third off is much better than one sale at full price.

      1. Peter H. Coffin says:

        And this, the unknown wait for a particular price, turns even the process of buying a game into a game… How mindbogglingly meta!

    3. Wedge says:

      “I waited for Cthulu Saves the World to go on sale, so I think they might have a point there.”
      How much money a game makes is not just a function of its price. It’s also a function of how many sales it has. If I sell 1,000 copies of a game at $60, then it goes on sale for $30 and it sells 10,000, it would be utterly absurd for me to claim I’m “losing” money by putting it on sale. This is the exact situation a lot of games on Steam find themselves–especially indie games like CStW. Some indies have claimed that they have made more money during a weekend-long Steam sale than their game had made TOTAL up to that point, and I can believe it.

    4. Hitchmeister says:

      I believe Shamus has covered this in the past. (I read it somewhere, I think it was here.) The game buying public is not one monolithic mass. There are a lot of different types withing that group. Some really want new games as soon as the come out even if they know that the price may drop later. Others won’t pay top dollar for the latest game but will eagerly buy it later when the price drops. Buy never dropping the price a publisher will never sell to the later group. Buy releasing at a price the second group will pay, they lose money they could have made off the first group. Either of these ideas cost the publisher money. Maximum profit comes from perfectly timing and scaling the price drops. Of course, they’re never going to get it perfect. But they should strive to come as close as they can.

  5. Kevin J, says:

    The sad thing (and it has been sad for many, many years now) is that I can remember a time when EA published all of my favorite games- Bard’s Tale, Wasteland, Archon, Starflight. Watching that old logo (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Electronic_Arts_historical_logo.svg) sit for 10 minutes on my friend’s C64 waiting for Bard’s Tale to come up is one of my dearest gaming memories.

    1. krellen says:

      One of the problems with branding (and with “immortal” corporations) is this exact experience. The EA of today is not at all the same company as the EA that put out those games. There are different people working there, and the ones that are still there are all in different positions than they were at the time. There really isn’t a lot of value in a company name, because that name doesn’t share a correlation with the people that are behind it.

      Valve run by someone other than Gabe Newell would be a different company as well.

    2. MikhailBorg says:

      We broke a lot of joysticks playing Archon, and we kept going back to the store for more joysticks because it was just that addictive.

      1. Remember “Realm of Impossibility?” I can still hum the music, and the wacky Escher-like mazes were great fun.

  6. Isy says:

    Clearly Shamus should form his own company. With reasonable work hours. And blackjack.

    1. Blitztiger says:

      Actually, forget the company. And the work hours!

  7. Adamantyr says:

    Great article! And I will be celebrating when EA files chapter 11… it won’t be long now. Revenge for Origin Systems!

    1. Taellosse says:

      I guess that depends on your definition of “long.” EA is a BIG company, and it can limp along for quite a while doing moderately badly most of the time. Sony has been managing that for several years now. Apple did it for about a decade, during the period of time leading up to Jobs’ departure through his return. It actually takes serious mismanagement over a protracted period to sink a multi-billion dollar company into Chapter 11. Or catastrophically bad management over a shorter one (see THQ). EA is mismanaged, absolutely, but not so badly that it’s going to kill them quickly.

      The unfortunate thing is that they’re badly enough mismanaged that they’d be an excellent prospect for being bought out – either by a competitor that wants their assets, or an investor with deep pockets that wants to thoroughly reorganize it and make it profitable again – except that they’re actually too big, in an industry that’s presently too shaky, for anyone to want to do that. There’s no competitor with deep enough pockets to swing it right now (Square-Enix and Activision are about the only ones that might even be able to consider it, and the former is doing just as badly if not worse, and hasn’t got the spare capital, and the latter is trying to find a buyer themselves already, and is hardly in the market to become even larger), and there’s no outside investor who wants to take on that level of risk. But it would probably be the best thing that could happen to the company, if there were such a buyer out there, depending, of course, on exactly what they did with it once they had.

  8. Bearded Dork says:

    Watching EA and their latest high profile failure, I think they would do well to take a cue from the 1960’s era CIA and stop trying to do things they are demonstrably bad at.

    They are great at making certain kinds of games, they would probably do better to focus more on making those, and less on making what they think an audience they clearly don’t understand might want.

    1. Johan says:

      “Watching EA and their latest high profile failure”
      What, Sim City 4? I’m pretty sure they’re counting that one as a success, look at the sales numbers, 1.1 million in 2 weeks is not a tiny amount

      1. BeardedDork says:

        In any reasonable context, yes 1.1 million in two weeks is huge. In the EA blockbuster chasing mentality of AAA video game development I believe that is considered an unmitigated disaster.

        1. Johan says:

          Eh, I don’t really think so, I haven’t seen anything that it needs to sell “x” amount in order to get a sequel, citybuilders seem to me a tad more nitch than shooters, also note that this is the biggest Sim City launch ever and half of the sales were through Origin, EA’s eternally not-steam digital distribution center. I’m thinking 1.1 million will buy enough hookers and bobbleheads that it will be up for sequel in no time

          1. sofawall says:

            I had to be “that guy”, but the word you are looking for is niche, pronounced “neesh”. French, and all that.

            1. Nick says:

              You see America, this is what you get when you mispronounce words all over the place – people start spelling them how you say them. This is also why I’ve seen clique (pronounced Klee-kah) misspelt as click all over the place

              1. Fleaman says:

                What? Isn’t it “kleek”?

            2. wheals says:

              I wonder if I’m being more of “that guy” than you, but every evolutionary biologist (which is the vector that the word spread into English to mean “specialty”) I’ve talked to pronounces it “nitch,” with the spelling “niche”. I only mentioned it since Josh has said “neesh” on the Diecast a few times and it really gets on my nerves. I suppose its pronunciation is just one of those regionalisms that English is full of.

              1. Shamus says:

                I’ve heard the following:




                Which means the proper pronunciation is probably “nishe”, just to annoy English-speakers. I can’t escape the notion that we’re going to see more and more of this sort of wildly divergent pronunciation unrelated to regional accent as we conduct fewer of our conversations via mouth-flapping and more by HTML.

                1. Halceon says:

                  I vote we start writing it as nietzsche. To annoy philosophers in addition to the linguists.

                2. Jan says:

                  It certainly has to do with the fact that English spelling and the way it is pronounced have nothing at all to do with each other (e.g. compare the pronunciation of though, through, rough) Also, there isn’t an English language authority (like there is for example for Dutch, any discussion on what is the “correct” way of pronouncing it is void anyway ;)

                  Also, this reminds me of the situation in old China, where the writing was standardized (official government documents, contracts, etc.), while the way these characters were spoken differed greatly between the different parts of the country, so much that they might as well speak a different language.

              2. Paul Spooner says:

                Well, I’m glad we all know what we mean anyway. I’d say that fine distinctions on spelling and pronunciation are a bit too niche for my tastes, especially considering that context informs the meaning anyway. I guess there’s a nitch for every kind of specalist, but the “internet lexical expert” nitch seems much too narrow to support all the competing fauna.

              3. Ringwraith says:

                Amusingly enough, “nitch” is the one that annoys me the most, though I think it’s a regional thing, as I don’t hear as often normally, except from American-made videos and such. As “neesh” (rhyming with leash and such) is the one we use.

              4. Phantom Hoover says:

                did you know, your experiences of american english do not prescribe english pronunciation as a whole!

        2. Kavonde says:

          Yeah, especially considering that they generated a huge amount of bad publicity in the process.

      2. Shamus says:

        It’s not tiny sales, but the important point from a business perspective is “could it have sold MORE if it wasn’t mired in controversy?” Did the controversy result in sales falling off a cliff? How will this impact the game long-term? In turn, how will those possibly decreased sales impact all the future microtransaction money they had already plugged into their spreadsheet forecasts?

        We can argue over how much review scores matter or if the public really responds to negative news. It’s pretty dang hard to study. But since EA will often put HALF of a game’s budget into marketing it’s obvious THEY think it really matters. They think positive buzz is of equal importance to having a decent game that’s fun to play. They might even think it’s worth more.

        Which means by their own metrics (flawed or or not) SimCity has been a complete disaster.

        1. Paul Spooner says:

          Not only that, but it is a complete disaster due to publicity generated by game quality! How much marketing does it take to balance out a poor quality product? If only there was a way to keep the quality of your product from affecting what people think of it!

          1. wheals says:

            It would be even cooler if there were some way to increase the quality of a game you published! That would be really cool!

        2. Johan says:

          “It's not tiny sales, but the important point from a business perspective is “could it have sold MORE if it wasn't mired in controversy?” Did the controversy result in sales falling off a cliff? How will this impact the game long-term? In turn, how will those possibly decreased sales impact all the future microtransaction money they had already plugged into their spreadsheet forecasts? ”
          I’m not so certain about this point. The entire reason for the varies disasters was to stop piracy, and while I may not be an expert, the news I’ve read was that Sim City took a longer than average time to pirate, indeed there was recent news that the pirate copy was so hotly anticipated, that several fake ones made new by scamming people, they would claim it failed to install and then mine your computer for bitcoins. Meanwhile Tomb Raider I have not seen much in the way of intrusive DRM, and it was pirated quickly, so said the news, and it’s PC sales figures are abysmal from what I’ve seen

          EA makes all its worst decisions to stop piracy, and just to play Devil’s Advocate here for a moment, it might well be working to an extent.

          1. Mephane says:

            Notorious pirates will just pirate a week later anyway. The only people affected are those buying the game honestly. Add to that the number of people who don’t buy it because of the DRM (even if it is just one of many reasons adding together), I’d say SimCity 5’s DRM scheme is pure failure.

            1. Taellosse says:

              I’m not seeing any sales figures for PC specifically for Tomb Raider. Across all platforms, it sold over 1,000,000 worldwide in its first 48 hours, though, and it was the 5th bestselling title of the week in the UK (it was 1st and 2nd on 360 and PS3, respectively. Which means it did MUCH better than anything else that week, capturing 3 of the top 5 spots in the country). And that’s completely excluding digital sales (and I suspect it did quite well on Steam). Granted, the UK=/=the whole world, and we cannot safely assume that sales trends were identical everywhere, but still, that sounds pretty solid.

              Given that SimCity had 3rd place on that same chart, was a PC-only title, and sold about the same amount worldwide that same week, I kind of doubt the PC sales are “abysmal” for Tomb Raider.

          2. Trix2000 says:

            I’m a little curious where you got news about ‘abysmal’ sales figures from Tomb Raider from, because I haven’t heard anything of the sort yet.

            Truly curious, actually, since almost all the hearsay I’ve been getting about it is very positive so it would be disappointing if it didn’t do well. Certainly been enough to make me want to buy it as soon as it goes on sale (got plenty to do as-is so no reason to spend $60 to get it now).

            1. Taellosse says:

              As I said above, it’s somewhat hard to get platform-specific sales figures, but overall, Tomb Raider has been doing extremely well. It broke records for fastest-selling title in the franchise (breaking 1,000,000 at retail in its first 48 hours), and was the fastest selling game of 2013 to date in the UK. It’s sold roughly as well worldwide as SimCity, and without any of the bad press, so those figures are likely to continue to stay strong a good deal longer than Simcity’s (Sales for March 10-16 aren’t available yet for either game, so I’m only guessing there).

          3. guy says:

            Uh, no, not really. Firstly, I don’t think it took exceptionally long to pirate; offline cracks for it made the news within about a week of release. Secondly, EA has previously unveiled a new DRM scheme and proceeded to set a record for most pirated game of all time within the month.

        3. I’m kind of hoping the modding community saves the game in the long run. There are some die-hard fans out there, so maybe by the time it shows up for $5 on every download service, there’ll be a nice big patch that makes it into the game everyone wanted.

          I’d also love it if someone could somehow graft the engine onto Dwarf Fortress, just because.

          1. Sleeping Dragon says:

            Funny, because that’s about as much as it costs.

            See, in a desperate attempt to inflate the sales on SimCity EA has been offering “a free game” to anyone who buys and activates their copy before the 25th, one of those games being Dead Space 3 and the price between it and SimCity on Origin is (at least for my country) visibly less than 5E at the moment. So basically if you wanted to have Dead Space 3 you can now have SimCity as a 5$/E extra (and between some patching and a lot of modding the game will get better, it could hardly get worse really…), or you could consider both games basically going on 50% sale. Personally I think they’re trying to get the number of sales bigger so they can claim in some report to shareholders that “despite some bad press the game sold X number of copies within the first Y weeks” because their investors don’t really follow gaming news anyway. Then they’ll probably cover the financial mess by adding yet another 0 at the end of the “losses due to piracy” number, which isn’t hard since they pull it out of a certain orifice anyway.

        4. Peter H. Coffin says:

          Well, if the cruise industry is any indication, the general public has a short memory and featured prices are all they pay attention to. Carnival’s sales are up for the first quarter of 2013, even after the Concordia capsizing, the poo-ship being towed to Alabama, and a succession of smaller disasters and failures in the subsequent weeks.

          (And before someone says “But all lines are like that”, no, they’re not. They all have occasional incidents and problems, but no other line group has so many problems that industry pundits comment things like “Wow, it wasn’t a Carnival ship, this time, that’s dead in the water or ramming another vessel….”)

      3. Dreadjaws says:

        Dude, SimCity 4 was the previous game in the franchise. The last one is just “SimcCity”.

        1. Hitchmeister says:

          Informally referred to as “SimCity 5” or “SimCity 2013” when people want to distinguish it from the original.

          1. Fleaman says:

            Like “Sonic the Hedgehog (Oh-Six)”. Hmm.

            Counterexample: Tomb Raider, which so far does not appear to have become a hilarious disaster.

    2. Lalaland says:

      IIRC the CIA was told to get out of those things by Congress after they realised the CIA had things like a cupboard full of every bio-weapon known to man and the poor oversight and control to easily lose track of them (there was no formal tracking of who got what from this cupboard).

      To stretch the analogy EA needs their shareholders to act like Congress and enforce discipline and focus. They can’t do this right now as this is such a new industry there are very few CEOs or executives with a track record they can parachute in if they hacked off with the board or CEO. Right now I as an activist investor am somewhat stymied, EA is losing money but whom do I go to so it makes money again?

      If it were a film studio such as Disney et al there is a wide pool of executives with track records I can poach from, equally if EA made washers and bolts there are plenty of successful executives in analagous manufacturing sectors. It’s tempting to try and believe that other media companies are a a good fit when looking for a new manager but I believe their focus on relationship management and differences in how production money is spent make the skillsets too different.

      It’s a thorny problem for a Carl Icahn type, who can I hire to cut the fat I know is there without taking the bone out too?

  9. “Luckily, I have already written such a column.”


  10. Irridium says:

    It’s funny you should mention high prices. 6 years ago John Riccitiello said the $60 price point is too high, and it would have to change in the next five years.

    Plus, they have their own storefront now, they can price the games however they want, and they charge $60 for PC games. They’ve raised prices, the standard price for PC games is (or, was) $50. This is on top of all the micro-transactions and online passes and whatnot they’ve put into their games.

    1. Klay F. says:

      Whenever someone says “$60 is too much for a game.” it is inevitably followed by “but not for my/our game.”

      1. Peter H. Coffin says:

        I cheerfully paid that much for GW2. But … no monthly subscription, so…

    2. Trix2000 says:

      There is a reason it is very, very rare for me to buy a game at $60 (or even $50), regardless of quality.

  11. I’m not siding with EA here but let’s say that the programmer’s work rate is 50% faster than the 3D artists. Surly, the correct thing to do would be to either speed up the artist or make them work more hours; but not to slow down the programmers. Am I alone in thinking this way?

    1. Primogenitor says:

      If the standard work rate is always 50% faster, then you hire 50% more artists from the start and maintain the appropriate ratio.

      The problem is that there is a significant overhead in adding people to an existing project (need to learn tools, style guidelines, existing material, etc) and working extra hours is a diminishing return (tiredness, burnout, etc). In both cases the overall work rate is not increased as much as you intended.

      1. Ah yes right you are; thank you!

    2. It depends on the process and whether or not you’re making a fair comparison.

      To a lot of management-types, if one woman can gestate a baby in 9 months, nine women should be able to produce a baby in 1 month.

      1. Brandon says:

        Yes, this is actually something Shamus brushed on in his article. They like to measure productivity in this fashion, and then just throw extra bodies at a problem. “This takes 10% longer, lets throw 10% more people at it”. It sounds great, but in practice it can never work. Sometimes that extra 10% is a fixed number. Like your pregnancy example. There’s just no way to speed that process up.

        Sometimes the fault lies in the logic of “let’s throw a proportionate amount of extra people at it.” I imagine in a lot of cases, adding 10% more people will only get you a 2% increase in productivity, which isn’t even close to your goal. Beyond that you probably get diminished returns, too. So 10% extra people might only give you a 2% increase in productivity, but in order to get a 4% increase, you actually need 50% more people.

        The point is, throwing extra manpower at a problem is not always a good solution unless you aren’t anywhere close to a good manpower:productivity ratio. Adding one person to a four man team will probably increase output a great deal. Adding one person to a hundred man team is barely noticeable. I imagine it’s tricky to get that ratio close to where it needs to be, but isn’t that the job of management and planners? To figure that stuff out?

        … Wow, ranted a bit, there. Sorry about that.

        1. Daimbert says:

          Throwing more people at a project when it’s late works if two conditions hold:

          1) The work on the project can be broken up further into pretty much independent parts. If you need someone to fix or finish something else before the new person can do anything, adding them doesn’t help. So, for example, if you budgeted three designers to design nine levels assuming that they could do 3 apiece, and the levels can be done independently of each other, and you discover after a month that it takes two months to do a level, then you might be able to hit your deadline by adding more people.

          2) The people coming in know enough about the tasks you’re getting them to do to work mostly independently. To follow on from the previous example, if you can get people who pretty much know how to develop levels already, you’re fine, but if they don’t know at all how to do it, you will actually slow your project down, because the new person won’t be able to do a level in 2 months — because they have to learn how — AND you’ll take time away from the people who CAN do it in two months because they’ll have to teach the new people how to do it.

          Whenever I talk to managers about adding resources to a feature, I always point out that you need at least 1), and that if you can’t break it down any further adding more people won’t help.

          1. Nick says:

            That’s assuming that the people you’re adding to the task are already familiar with how the level designer works, in your example – much of the overhead of adding people to a project that is late is getting them to understand enough of the codebase to meaningfully contribute and/or tool teaching so they can actually do it. And you’ll often have to pull some good developers off of coding to teach this stuff, making the problem even worse in the short term

            1. Daimbert says:

              That was point 2) [grin].

      2. Mike S. says:

        Though it depends on the shape of the problem. Switching from women to cows (because there’s no non-creepy way to discuss this in the context of people :-) ) there’s no way you’re going to get a pregnant cow to deliver in less than nine months, no matter how many cows you buy. On the other hand, if you want to set up a calf-a-month pipeline with nine cows, you probably can. (Odds are you’ll need a few extras, but the basic idea is sound.) And if you want two calves a month, you can do it by doubling the workforce.

        But there’s still an irreducible nine-plus months before the first calf, and ditto for the first two-calf month after you’ve decided to increase production.

        I’m not sure what the equivalent would be for the gaming industry: given enough projects, you can be reasonably sure that your company can produce three AAA games each year, as long as you have enough projects and aren’t insistent which games will be the ones to ship this year?

        1. decius says:

          But you still need three years at the MUCH higher burn rate to start producing three games a year.

          Modern investors typically think that in a growth industry investments can be recouped quickly. If you’re building a house, for example, you can have the construction costs paid for before the house is fully built (by selling it in advance).

      3. Fleaman says:

        My dream is to create a future where this is literally true.

    3. MadTinkerer says:

      There are a bunch of different stages of production, during which different kinds of skills are needed. During pre-production(or “pre-alhpa”), artists are needed to visualize pie-in-the-sky conceptual stuff which often gets changed before the game is released. Programmers are not needed at this stage, unless something really needs to be prototyped before actual production starts.

      During post-production (or “late beta”), artists are needed little, as all of the main art should be done already during production. But programmers are desperately needed to fix as many bugs as they can before release.

      So the answer is: why the hell aren’t you working as hard as Johnson, you bastard? I don’t care what phase of development we’re actually doing, this is EA, not inXile! You crunch, because Johnson is crunching! It doesn’t matter that your jobs are completely different! It doesn’t matter what other companies do, our policy is to crunch when goals are not met! So CRUNCH!!!!

      1. Mintskittle says:

        I now have this mental image of a bunch of people doing sit-ups in a cubicle farm.

    4. guy says:

      The correct thing to do is to set the workload of the slowest group so it’ll be finished by release day and then figure out what everyone else should do. You can always find something to do with the time; have programmers work on fixing bugs, have level designers make side-levels requiring no extra art, have artists make shiny pictures and sell them in a collector’s edition, have 3d modellers create alternate skins.

      1. Atarlost says:

        The other option is to send people to another project when you don’t need them anymore. I’m not in the industry, but if different jobs are needed at different times I wouldn’t keep them on the team. You don’t just make one game so you can shift them from game to game as needed. As long as there aren’t two periods that require a lot of the same job with a gap between there doesn’t need to be dead time.

        If in the concept stage you need mostly artists and writers you bring in the artists and writers and a skeleton crew of other specialties for ideas.

        If in pre-alpha you need more programmers you bring in programmers. This is where most of the programming really starts, but you can’t really start level design yet so you don’t bring them in.

        Then at some point the art and writing is finished and you send most of your artists and writers to do the concept work for a new project. No need to keep them around. That new project could be your first DLC or something entirely unrelated. You can probably release the art people first because you can always keep adding more writing, but you only need so many models.

        When the writing is basically done you start to know what levels you need designed so you bring in the level designers. Then you send them on to the next project.

        When writing is completely done you bring in the voice actors, then you send them on.

        Then you get down to bug fixing and you drop back to your skeleton team for pretty much everything but programmers. Everyone else goes and works on the next project.

        At whatever point you believe you can hit a marketing deadline you bring in a team from marketing.

        Delays will cascade across multiple games if an earlier game doesn’t release people on schedule, but running multiple pipes should ensure something comes out every year and if you don’t let marketing set deadlines until you’re near the end of development nobody outside should notice.

        In fact I suspect any game developer big enough to have three or four concurrent projects pretty much does this.

  12. Katesickle says:

    There’s a very interesting book called The Progress Principle (and a TED talk by the author) that discusses research that was done into various management methods at creative-type companies (I don’t think any of them were game companies, but they all involved things like R&D, creative problem solving, etc). One major factor discovered during the research was that the most successful companies had managers who focused on facilitating progress, while the least successful companies had managers who focused on managing people. It seems that EA falls into the latter camp–the emphasis is on telling people what to do, when to do it, how many hours to work, etc, instead of focusing on what the workers need to create a quality product and then giving them that.

    As an aside, I wonder if Agile would work as a development method for games? My fiance is a huge advocate for Agile in the programming work he does, but games have some different limitations than other projects. Still, if “crunch time” is a widespread problem in the industry then it’s probably a sign that the development strategy needs to change. Or people need to get better at time management.

    1. Lalaland says:

      My own (limited) experience with Agile makes me suspicious of it for any project above a certain size and particularly for projects that are time critical. I especially dislike any management method that comes pre-packaged with it’s own metrics (just what is velocity anyway!).

      Of course I left coding a long time ago so I’m sure some of these points have been addressed, hopefully someone can chime in with some good examples of large scale Agile projects below.

      1. daemon23 says:

        I actually watched Agile run really, really well, so it can be done right.

        And velocity is the estimated work-units a team is able to complete over a standard period given past history.

        1. Lalaland says:

          That begs the question though just what is a work unit?

          All metrics are easy to game so I shouldn’t really pick on any one, it just seems to me that most management innovations are restatements of earlier theories with 50% more jargon.

          1. decius says:

            A work unit is a measure of production; it isn’t ‘lines of code’ or ‘commits’, but it could possibly be ‘modules written and tested’, or it could be ‘released a game’.

            One of the points of Agile is that you don’t spend a lot of time measuring progress, and you pull- if your programmers aren’t getting things done in the time estimated, you figure out why and either remove the obstructions or revise the estimate.

          2. daemon23 says:

            Work units–story points–are a collectively negotiated value and vary by team. Essentially, you start out trying to weigh various tasks against one another, and you and your team collectively decide A will take twice as much effort as B but half as much as C; C gets 1 points, A gets 2, B gets 4. Each round of estimation you go through, you attempt to maintain consistency across your evaluations, and assuming you manage that goal you wind up with some value for your story points such that X points roughly maps to Y time.

            While it definitely can be gamed, that suggests there is a motivation to game the metric and there shouldn’t be. Story points and similar metrics, once tied to compensation or used as a tool to “evaluate” developers or teams, are robbed of their value as an estimation tool.

    2. somebodys_kid says:

      My own experience with the Agile Process is not a good one. For small scoped projects, or large projects that can be effectively broken up, Agile might work. But for large, monolithic, lengthy projects that cannot be split up into smaller parts, it is terrible. I suspect a AAA game would fall into that latter group.

      1. Daimbert says:

        That’s been my limited experience with it as well. A former manager of mine asked about trying it, and I said it wouldn’t work too well on our product because we had a lot of dependencies (A must be done before B can be done) and we also had people who really knew certain areas and didn’t know others. On a project, especially one that’s behind, it only makes sense to get the people who really know how to make an area work to work on that area instead of getting someone new in there to learn. Learning is nice if you want to diversify your skillsets, but the one feature I was working on had me and a contractor. We didn’t really need to diversify in that case.

      2. Nick says:

        It depends on exactly what you mean by Agile. There are lots of processes and ideas from agile that can be incorporated into a more waterfall-like model to whatever makes most sense for your project. Daily scrum meetings, for example, are useful for keeping everyone aware of what everyone else is doing and what problems have arisen, leading to better cooperation and understanding between teams.

        I think Agile could work for a game, where you start off prototyping ideas and make those your tasks early on, then build on those to add game engine and so on. But it does depend on the team you’re in

  13. MadTinkerer says:

    I’ll re-post my reply to another article here:

    “Awww. [That EA is doing so poorly]

    Well I wish EA all the best.

    Yes, despite their many, many, MANY mistakes, (some of which were made quite a while before Riccitiello was CEO, and others which he definitely needs to answer for) EA is a company that, overall, has had a generally positive impact on the industry. And there are good people in the company. In fact, I was one of them for a brief time.

    My very first job was Q&A for EA, though it was a very short and easy Work Experience assignment in high school. (For the non-Britsh, Work Experience is when they make you go be an unpaid intern for two weeks in the equivalent of junior year of high school.) There wasn't much actual testing going on in the office at the time, but I tracked down some bugs in Syndicate and the first PC Space Hulk as well as a racing game whose name I've forgotten. The best part was just walking around “behind the scenes” and talking to Actual Professionals and seeing prototypes, works-in-progress, and tech-proofs-of-concept that were never intended to be released.

    So like all big companies there are decent folks there, and I hope the people at the top will pull their heads out of their asses and pay attention to what the consumers actually want so they stay employed. And also Magic Carpet 3, please.”

    1. MadHiro says:

      My rancor for EA is almost entirely the result of their habit of obtaining franchises that I care about, and then locking them in a box and tossing them into the ocean.

  14. I was forced to do “crunch” time (i.e. 12 hour days, 7 days a week, for 2 weeks straight) at Bioware in February of 2011.

    SW:TOR didn’t get released until December of 2011.

    I still don’t know why we were forced to work all of those extra hours 10 months before the game was even released. It felt like arbitrary abuse and exploitation – which is probably what it actually was.

    1. Anorak says:

      That’s…..that’s pretty dire.

      I was under the (mistaken) impression that they didn’t do that kind of thing any more, and it makes me very sad to hear otherwise.

      I just don’t understand what kind of manager thinks that can possibly be a good idea? I can see the argument if you’ve got a specific milestone to pass which all future work depends on, but then that would be your target, not….gahhh.
      What was your experience like there, during that “crunch”?

    2. Hal says:

      I’m sort of surprised labor laws allow them to require that many hours of work for that amount of time.

      1. Tizzy says:

        I take it you’re not familiar with the concept of “exempt” employee…

        As explained in “Dilbert”

      2. guy says:

        It’s complicated.

        Technically, they don’t. There’s two major ways around that:
        1. Not prohibiting it, then mentioning that there will be raises/bonuses/promotions for people who “exceed expectations”. Also, workload on videogames is a bit erratic because you can’t script up levels until the system you’re scripting them in exists, and you can’t do 3d modelling until concept art is done. So lots of employees are implicitly or explicitly temporary, and people are told they won’t get laid off if they do enough extra. Then they get laid off anyway. This is especially true for QA testers, but some of the employees added during crunch time are in the same boat. Some companies get around this by rotating employees between projects as their skillsets are needed, but others just use temps who are told they might become full employees. It’s actually pretty difficult to avoid, since video game production scheduling is a notoriously fickle beast.

        2. I don’t know about videogame companies, but many places have employment contracts where people are paid for results, not time. This is pretty much universally true of freelance writers/artists, who get paid on delivery of n words/a picture that the buyer finds acceptable. But apparently some places do it for more permanent employees, where their salary is dependent on meeting some kind of milestone instead of working 40 hours a week, and they work however long it takes to do that. This sounds appealing until you realize that it might take 60 hours a week to make the milestones.

        People with hourly salaries are legally protected from that sort of thing, after a fashion. The same sort of thing can be done, but they are required to receive something like 1.5 times base salary if they work overtime. Since most jobs with hourly pay instead of fixed compensation are ones like food service or construction where someone can easily pick off where the last person left off, if the number of extra hours worked by all the employees rises by enough it is actually cheaper to hire a new employee. There is the cost of benefits, except that part-time employees are not entitled to benefits.

      3. Alan says:

        Of course you aren’t required to work 80 hours a week! Specifying strict working hours would suggest that we should be paying you hourly and make you eligible for overtime, and no one wants that to happen. Feel free to show up and leave whenever you like.

        Oh, I see here that you didn’t accomplish all of the tasks we put you to; sorry, you’re fired? Oh, no one else met their goals either? While true, it’s clear that they’re more committed to the company than you are; it seems like they were here from 7 in the morning until midnight every day! Sorry to see you go, I don’t recommend using us as a reference.

        (If you do get stuck in this position, especially if you’re being told “Be in by X and don’t leave before Y,” discretely take extensive notes. People do occasionally win lawsuits arguing that they were effectively hourly and win retroactive overtime and damages.)

      4. decius says:

        Labor laws only specify that they must pay you for it. The salary workarounds have already been listed, but the hourly workaround is simply to pay someone working 84 hours a week roughly three times what they would make in a 40-hour week.

        There are times when that makes economic sense, normally when the ~50% increase in work done is worth ~doubling the per-unit wage cost.

  15. A lurker says:

    Normally someone says what I am thinking somewhere in the comments, but I didn’t see it this time.
    I think a union, or at least threatening unionization, might be a good idea for the workers in some of these companies.
    I am not a huge fan of unions in some cases, due to the power some have taken. They become more than simply an organization of workers for the purpose of maintaining decent working conditions and compensation. In this case, It seems like it could be just what is needed.

    1. Shamus says:

      EA should be terrified of unions, because in their view more people* more hours = more productivity. Other people have already pointed out how this is wrong, but EA thinks:

      1) They can barely afford to make games now
      2) You can’t make games without crunching

      According to their own worldview, a union would annihilate them. Hollywood acted like jackasses in the early days of cinema, and for those sins they now have to tangle with the SAG, forever. Again, not saying anything good or bad about unions, except that from the position of people at the top they usually represent a huge expense and hassle.

      However, a TON of game companies are in the USA. The USA is also suffering a massive glut of people with degrees who can’t find jobs. On top of these, we’ve got game colleges (don’t even get me started) churning out armies of young devs like clone troopers. The market is so heinously flooded with excess labor that a union is unlikely to form.

      So we’ve got the situation where – according to shareholder and typical board of directors worldview:

      1) A union is unlikely to form because we’ve got too much cheap labor who are desperate for jobs.
      2) If one did form – or was just attempted – it would be a nightmarish expense and a public-relations nightmare.

      I do wonder how much thought they’ve given it.

      1. Anorak says:

        Don’t want to work crunch time? Ok, don’t. Next performance review we’ll talk about how you’re not a “team player”.

        People are tricked into working these horrible, horrible jobs and sign away their rights in their contracts because they’ve got a dream. They think it might get better, and they hope to get noticed by working the extra hours.

        1. See currently: Just about every visual effects outfit working in Hollywood. The one that did the OSCAR WINNING “Life of Pi” was about to declare bankruptcy when the movie won its awards.

      2. Lalaland says:

        Even in a good job market for employees I think you’d be unlikely to see heavy unionisation in the IT industry. In the ‘West’ most of the arguments over labour have been solved, you get a contract, they have to honour it and it’s enforceable by the courts. Most countries even mandate parts of that contract such as holiday hours, parental leave, benefits that must be provided (pension schemes, etc) to a greater or lesser extent (I seriously feel for US parents, the leave is pathetic).

        As such the idea of private sector unions is largely dead, relegated to those industries with the highest physical risks (miners, ironworkers, etc) and worst working conditions (maids, farm workers, etc). In a well paid role like mine, where I can afford a decent solicitor if they try and do me over, it seems like a waste. Also my main interaction with unions is having to listen to public sector union bosses on the radio and that more annoys than inspires me (I know I’m drifting into politics here so I’ll leave at that as a personal opinion).

        1. guy says:

          Actually, I think that it’s bad job markets that are fertile ground for unions. When there are lots of people who want your job, you have relatively little negotiating clout individually, but all the workers together have a lot of negotiating power. When there are lots of job openings, an employee can convincingly threaten to quit and management can’t be confident they can replace him.

          This is the big motivation behind union closed shops and blacklists; they effectively mean that the union employees can’t be replaced with more tractable non-union employees no matter how many people are looking for work. It’s also why there are unions that are gigantic blobs of everyone at any company in the industry.

          IT and similar occupations tend to have a lot of openings available because of the high level of training required. People upset about their existing job can expect to find a better job elsewhere more easily than forming a union.

          1. decius says:

            Normally “good” job markets are described as those in which an employee can quickly find someone who wants to hire them.

            Thing is, experienced lead programmers aren’t currently in high supply. It would probably take only a few hundred people to act collectively and deny any company that doesn’t agree to union rules access to skilled lead programmers.

            1. guy says:

              I actually did mean that employees had difficulty finding other jobs. When employees can easily find other jobs, each employee has non-negligable negotiating power and can more easily switch jobs than form a union if they can’t individually get what they want. So while it would be fairly easy to unionize lead programmers, an individual lead programmer can actually get concessions by threatening to quit because he’s difficult to replace. They don’t really have much need for a union, and there’s considerable hassle involved in setting up and running one.

      3. “…keep hearing these horror stories about 80 hour work weeks shows that the people at the top of EA do not understand software development.”

        “..a TON of game companies are in the USA. The USA is also suffering a massive glut of people with degrees who can't find jobs. On top of these, we've got game colleges (don't even get me started) churning out armies of young devs like clone troopers”

        They do understand software development. They are most certainly well aware of the effects of long-term crunch time and forced overtime.

        They just don’t give a shit. Employees have zero value to them. None. Your analogy of “clone troopers” isn’t as far off as you think.

        It’s not them that lacks understanding. It’s everyone else. It’s the masses of people (including you, your readers and 99% of the population) that can’t process the simple fact that companies like EA, Siemens, Bayer, Home Depot and hundreds of other corporations simply Do. Not. Care.

        You are not special. Your ideas are not unique. Your contribution is not valuable. You are not valuable. You are cannon fodder.

        And we can lament the logic and/or practicality of such a philosophy but its hard to argue with the obscene amount of money companies like EA, Pfizer and all the rest of them make.

    2. The other side of unions is that in the case of specialized skills (plumbers, electricians, etc.) they’re supposed to guarantee to the employer that the worker is qualified, and in turn, the employer only puts qualified people in proper positions. When I worked for SBC, this meant that if you operated a line truck, the union and the company made sure you were trained and certified to do so (this also helped with insurance). This also meant that the line truck guy couldn’t be given responsibilities outside of his scope (let’s say telephone pole installation) without renegotiation.

      And just in case someone wants to jump in about unions preventing people from getting fired, both my experience in the CWA and my wife’s experience with several national teacher’s unions is this: Those complaining in a company (or school district) about not being able to fire someone is most often a case of those in charge being too lazy to actually document infractions or build a case. Union contracts have detailed sections about firing people, and it usually just takes a halfway-coherent presentation of evidence by management to the employee with their union rep present to get it done. Sadly, nowadays that can be a photo of someone holding a beverage posted to Facebook (which requires no work on the part of management and has little if nothing to do with performance, by the by).

      Edit: Sorry for the rant. It’s just a well-worn subject for me.

      Edit the second: A couple of Adam Smith quotes are favorites of mine on this topic:

      “In the long-run the workman may be as necessary to his master as his master is to him, but the necessity is not so immediate.”

      “We rarely hear, it has been said, of the combinations of masters, though frequently of those of the workman. But whoever imagines, upon this account, that masters rarely combine, is as ignorant of the world as of the subject.”

  16. drlemaster says:

    Reading this article, and the earlier Origin one, something occurred to me. Among their other problems, EA is obsessed with week one sales, to the exclusion of all else. This explains both the giant marketing budget, and why they seem completed disinterested in using Origin to sell games. I think they worry if people think there might be a sale or price reduction some day, they might wait and not pay the full $60 day one. To them, mandatory Origin is just another layer of DRM. Having written that, their week one obsession also explains their piracy (and resale) obsession. They want to make sure folks feels the only way they will ever get to play any give game is to buy that game full price, so you might as well get it right away while it is still cool. So what if our DRM gimps the game, we’ve already sold the game to everyone we care about by the time those concerns pop-up.

    As Shamus has pointed out, this is all self-defeating in the end, but it’s not like the new CEO could just change all this, even if they want to. They have a large organization built using this model. No one person can change their mind and make things different.

    1. decius says:

      Which also might explain why they are escalating the DRM; I’m convinced that the lies and false advertising regarding SimCity’s server requirements were intended to discourage or mislead the people cracking the DRM.

      If, in their minds, delaying the crack by a week leads to piracy not affecting week-1 sales, it would explain so much about their escalation.

  17. Ateius says:

    I just shout at EA for wasting money on server farms and DRM schemes. It’s nice to see the more sober analysis like this.

    On the other hand, examining just how deeply EA’s policies are screwed up is depressing. Maybe that’s the inevitable outcome of giving the games industry over to corporate executives who made their career in foods, but it’s frightening to see just how utterly divorced from reality they seem to be.

  18. guy says:

    One of the other problems with trying to accelerate a creative project by adding more people is that creative people are of variable quality, both in general and for specific jobs. Presumably, the new hire is going to either understand the setting less well or just be not as good; otherwise you’d have hired him in the first place.

  19. Tizzy says:

    In the original column, Shamus writes:

    “Well, their work environment is still reportedly abysmal and that’s arguably worth some Dark Side points on the BioWare morality-meter, but that behavior isn’t related to why the company is making such poor choices.”

    Now, the work environment is addressed here in more details from the creative side of things and crunch time, but there is a bigger picture at work here: I would like to insist on the fact that in *any* company, for *any* product, poor work environment is something that eventually bites you in the ass. (Well, maybe not in sweatshops…)

    Not only this is poor for morale, but your best employees will prefer a riskier, less financially rewarding gig elsewhere so long as it is more fulfilling. Also, it kills the feedback loop from employees to management. How do you end up making poor decisions? By fostering a climate of distrust between employees and management that dooms any chance you may have had to have your finger on the pulse.

  20. Hieronymus says:

    I’m pretty sure that your second hyperlink (the first one under 6. High prices) goes to the wrong page.

  21. Alan says:

    I wonder if Origin sucks because EA thinks, “No one uses Origin, therefore we don’t spend any money on Origin,” not realizing that the causality flows the other way.

    1. Sleeping Dragon says:

      At the risk of demonizing EA I think Origin sucks because they’re stuck in this mindset that their games are so insanely great (probably a consequence of their policy to only invest in “hit” games that Shamus discusses… seriously, I wonder how far this has gone into delusion territory) that people will buy them no matter what. So they take the games hostage by making them exclusive and just assume that as long as the platform has some basic functionality (most of the time) people will learn to live with it.

  22. wheals says:

    The economics word for the “Steam pricing model” you talk about is price discrimination. The steam idea is really an ingenious way to do it, since it’s a very good way to find out how much people are really willing to pay – if they’re willing to pay more and want to play the game, they won’t want to wait until a sale. As it says in the article, it works best since Steam is basically a monopoly.

    The very best part about it for EVERYONE, especially the game companies (including potentially EA, not that it will listen to me), is that this reduces piracy. Previously, people unwilling to buy a game for $60 simply did not buy, or more often, pirated. Now the companies actually make money through Steam.

    Also, this feeds into the positive feeling about Steam that Krellen mentions above.

    EDIT: Reading drlemaster, I realize how funny it is that they are trying to avoid exactly a thing that might help them get sales and slow piracy, in the name of making money.

  23. bloodsquirrel says:

    “Yes, Call of Duty is a huge seller. You know what else was huge?”

    The other Call Duty games? No, seriously. People who want Call of Duty have Call of Duty. It’s a great market to have, but it’s already being fed yearly releases from Activision. And what parts of that market Activision doesn’t have are being held by Halo and Gears of War.

    You guys have enough trouble carving out enough territory there for Battlefield and Medal of Honor, and you want to try to wedge Mass Effect and Dead Space in there too? Here’s a hint: a lot of those twenty million people or whatever who play Call of Duty only buy a few games a year. They don’t have some bottomless desire for low-rate Call of Duty clones. There’s a lot of money in that market, but you have to fight for it, and to do that you’re going to need quality and not quantity. Stop trying to zerg the CoD market.

    If I were put in charge, my main goals would be “Whatever type of gamer you are, I want to have something that I can try to sell to you” and “One million sales needs to be a success”. I’d be figuring out how to cut development costs so that I could try to fill as many niches as possible without having to worry about needing to sell five million copies of each game.

    Longer dev cycles with smaller teams is probably where I’d start. That also has the added benefit of letting enough time pass between sequels that I don’t Guitar Hero my audience.

  24. Blake says:

    “The rules of football (either one)”
    Should really say ‘any one’, the first paragraph of Football on Wikipedia mentions 7 different games referred to as ‘Football’, where I live it’s Australian Rules Football and sometimes Rugby League.

    Yes I’m being that guy :p

    1. Shamus says:

      You are SO MUCH that guy right now. :)

      1. Paul Spooner says:

        Everyone says that you’re the guy, but I wanna be the guy too!

        1. Mintskittle says:

          No way, you’re just a kid! Maybe when you’re older.

  25. Astor says:

    What the company needs is a bonafide gamer who grew up in the 80s in the board, not necessarily the CEO, he could be the CGO (Chief Gaming Officer!). And he has to have veto powers. (I’m not saying s/he should be a retrogamer who is stuck in the Good Old Days and won’t have things change, but s/he just can’t be a kid with low expectations out of games and who has no perspective on the industry as a whole from its humble beginnings).

    1. decius says:

      They need gamers at every point in the pipeline. There’s no excuse for the CEO not understanding what his or her company does.

      1. Tizzy says:

        There are a LOT of CEOs out there who would not be amused by your suggestion: if we start demanding this from EA, we might demand it for all companies, and then where would most of these guys be? ;-)

        1. Bryan says:

          Frantically trying to figure out what their company does?

          …Nah, that’s probably too optimistic. :-/

  26. Christopher Webster says:

    I had to post a comment here and chime in with a couple cents. Let me say that I agree with everything in both the article and the following blog post, but I’d like to add that EA does seems like it’s trying to burn itself down and collect from the insurance. EA has talked recently about focusing on fewer projects, presumably a step in their all consuming search for the next Big Hit. However, if one checks the statistics of software projects (I forget what the numbers are) one can see that the larger a project is, the more likely it is to either fall behind schedule, not achieve it’s entire scope, or fail entirely.

    Even small projects fall behind schedule a lot of the time, which has to do with the projects being managed like assembly lines, an iterative approach which just doesn’t work with problem solving processes such as programming (I imagine that goes double for videogames which also have concerns of art, story, etc.). Just adding man hours to a project doesn’t make things faster when the project is anything much more complicated that digging ditches.

    In short, I would say that focusing on fewer larger projects (i.e., “hit” titles) is a risky move from even a conceptual level, even if its a company that understand software development. Heck, even IBM cancels projects after sinking millions into them, but they have enough reliable sources of income to make up for it. To me, EA seems to be run by people who don’t understand basic principles of software engineering, whose experience probably involves the production of more traditional goods.

    P.S. I will be repeating the one of the twelve chefs baking a cake in five minutes. That made me happy.

  27. ENC says:

    A few points Shamus, asides the obvious you’re not a Financial Accountant.

    “EA should be fighting to grab as much of this new frontier as they can get. EA should be terrified of a future where they have to go crawling to Valve to get their game on a platform where someone will actually buy it.

    Yet EA doesn’t seem to be doing anything to make their own Origin platform competitive. It would take me an entire column to enumerate all of Origin’s shortcomings. Luckily, I have already written such a column.

    In the year since that column went up, very little has changed. Alas.”

    They have actually experience enormous growth in Origin, so much so that a significant amount of Simcity sales were through Origin alone despite cd-key sites posting the game at $40-60.

    You also didn’t mention that in the year Crysis 2 and Bf3 came out, between them and FIFA they made over $900mn in revenue, which is an interesting point, as well as the fact that they spend 1/4 of their revenue on game budgets.

    There’s also a reason they’ll never have the same net (or indeed gross) profit margins of Valve; it’s because EA is still very heavily retail, whereas Valve makes enormous money from Steam and selling other’s games where Valve takes a 30% cut of the revenue, and pays a tiny bandwidth cost for that, and then has comparatively little overheads to boot.

    IIRC in their Financial Reports (I’m not sure what the preparation rules in the USA are, I’m told the FASBs are poor) they’ve also documented how they want to share around things between game developers for things like engines, or code to handle problems or somesuch.

    I understand as a non-accountant it’s very hard for you to even scratch the surface of EA’s Financial Reports (even though our primary job is to make them readable to the likes of someone who hasn’t done accounting) but it would’ve greatly benefited your article to have consulted one.

    By the way, what we have about valve is and always will be hearsay; for all we know everything could be a lie. They’re a large proprietary company (at least; under Australian standards they would be due to revenue and employee count, not sure under US as US uses a system different to the international standard IFRS) but don’t have to publicly disclose their records, and they’re owned internally, so don’t have Dependant Users.

    A quick point too; your average shareholder is someone who doesn’t actually know what companies they have shares in. It’s someones’ pension fund being managed and invested in by someone more knowledgable than they.

    EA don’t have any particularly large shareholders as far as I’m aware, and undergoing a corporate structuring to smaller teams would be an absolute nightmare in order to fund it (all companies have debt/shareholder obligations) as all your shareholders would very quickly leave as you had to undergo the transition.

    1. Paul Spooner says:

      So, to sum up:
      EA is stuck in an outmoded business model by organizational inertia and will be unable to materially change their strategy without committing financial suicide.
      Fair summary?

      1. ENC says:

        Essentially, that is it.

        Valve have it easy to update; their business is primarily digital, and all it takes is a methodolgy chance more than an enormous physical effort and collaboration to accomplish.

        Although EA do have a certain efficiency about them in accomplishing what they do with the same revenue as ActiBlizzard in terms of how many games they put out instead with seemingly bloated budgets (although I nor anyone else can claim to know how much they spend developing a game individually; all we have is the sum of their costs).

        Valve can barely churn out a game every few years as it is, and that’s using their own 9 year old engine.

  28. James Pope says:

    What I’ve been wondering about EA recently essentially amounts to: Disney. A while back there was a bit of sniffing around as I understand it for Disney to acquire EA… which likely had something to do with that well-known LucasArts property EA was engaged with. I know the Mouse justifiably gets a lot of flack for all the terribly inconsiderate things it does, but recently it’s shown a lot of diversity with its management (or maybe because of the acquisition) of Marvel. Could Disney “fix” EA?

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