My, oh my, which way will Arnie go? The honorary Terminator and new governor of California has proven that he does like games by passing the friendlier bill forcing retailers to pay attention to the age ratings (or face the consequences) - something that is good in the long run because it disarms a lot of the comments used by anti-game violence activists. But the matter at hand are the recent suits filed against Electronic Arts by disgruntled employees, bringing to light yet again the terrible working conditions inherent to game development. Granted, Schwarzenegger probably won't have much to do with this one, but the implications of such a case could easily have a far-wider reach than any game-related law signed in by him, especially in the industry's current problematic state.
You see, the relationship between publishers and developers - and how publishers as a whole treat the industry and the companies they work with - has been an issue begging to come out of the closet, but it's being kept at bay because business does not like reform, regardless of what their spokes people tell you. This case, though, drags the topic into the daylight. On the one side are over-worked and abused employees, on the other side the world' fifth-largest software company, boasting a capital worth of just under $16 billion. And they aren't that favoured, either. Despite some great game successes across the board, EA is regarded in ill light with a lot of gamers. This is thanks to a few things; firstly their habit of re-releasing games liked FIFA, essentially milking the market; secondly their avoidance of mature games - even though the company did break the rules with Def Jam Vendetta their CEO admitted that we'd never see a game like GTA come from their stable; lastly, EA represents the corporate side of the industry and if they weren't so good at delivering solid titles I think this could have easily turned them into the entertainment Microsoft. Unlike Microsoft, though, EA never worked off a monopoly (consider that Acclaim was the leading publisher in the 90s) and their success has a lot to do with meeting market demands. For every person out there that hates the FIFA series there there's one who loves Battlefield 1942, Black & White or The sims. Love them or hate them, but EA do know a lot about making games.
So there's more to this whole story than meets the eye. Randy Pausch's white paper on the company is a revealing document that explains a bit more about these scenarios. The paper, written by the Carnegie Mellon University professor, was the result of a semester spending time at the company, shadowing the place in the point of view from what to expect if you want to go there from University. The words "meritocracy" and "brutally honest" often appear in the paper because it reflects EA's internal culture - one where honesty is straight-forward and being the best at your job will take you a long way. Obviously that swings both ways since people who cannot handle such an environment will undoubtedly run into serious conflicts.
That's no excuse, of course, but it is indicative of the times. I've heard similar reports before. One pertains to a large banking group locally which employs several people I know. A story about this company includes when a group of people sued the bank for unfair employment practices. The bank settled the matter, for two apparent reasons: settling is far easier and more cost-effective than a court case and anyone who sues that bank over unfair labor practices isn't likely to get hired by any other bank afterwards.
It is pure corporate culture and I think EA slots into that perfectly. They have to, considering their consistent and large revenues combined with a large work-force which is heavily reliant on a management structure.
But there is a third player here: the now-famous ea_spouse Livejournal post that details how bad management, lack of compensation for over-time and crunch times are eroding employee relations and the general culture of the company. Pausch acknowledges this: "EA's biggest challenge is the dramatic increase in team size. There are other grand challenges in terms of game design and content, for example, how to get greater
emotional involvement with games and characters, but the biggest challenge is clearly management of large teams." And the ea_spouse post makes it clear that management is a very big problem. The company has a strict policy: apparently the biggest sin at EA is for your game to be late, placing a lot of pressure on managers. Management is already a sticky topic in modern corporate culture, probably because a lot of people (especially high-rank ones) confuse the difference between a boss and a manager.
But I digress. I'm not here to defend EA. But I can see their problem - growth combined with the pressure of high revenues and looking good in a competitive market (if you are larger than Pixar and Apple combined, you have to shine to more than just the gaming industry) combined with a corporate culture that does work well under the right circumstances (which were when EA was smaller) but isn't working now equals a major challenge and balancing game for the company.
There's another, brief point to consider: EA is making money and lots of it without completely selling out on their principles of making good games. In other words, the company does very well without solely relying on licensed games. They are very reliant, though, on external IPs (Intellectual Property) but apparently this is changing as well to more original material. EA makes money by supplying both the masses and the hardcore buyers; so far they seem to be doing a good job of that. But the industry's publisher model is a serious mess, often indicated by the fall of a development studio due to a publisher problem. Gaming is a high-risk industry and even though there are plenty of life-long gamers eager to make games, if publishers want to attract a larger market they need a much wider base for their creative input. Sadly it seems that a lot of people aren't interested, thanks to the rumors and stories of terrible working conditions and an industry model pretty much in chaos.
EA's lawsuit indicates that gaming's problem is bigger than some bad employment practices. EA is an important company in the way they are approaching gaming because their methods are instrumental in gaming's mainstream acceptance, especially by the corporate world as an industry solidly on the same tier as music and movies. In short, more publishers need to be like EA. And as much as the practice can attract gamer spite, buying smaller development studios is a smart move, especially if it's a solid studio. Granted, these do lose a lot of their identity (I can hardly call Generals a Westwood game) but I feel that a strong corporate development culture combined with a resultantly safe and progressive industry will lay a more secure foundation for independent developers. At the moment independent development is either expensive or you often need to cut back on your ambition - no unsupported company can ever expect to produce something like Burnout 3. They might reach some of the highlights, but talent and ability cannot compete with talent and ability met by cash and other resources.
So we need them. But we can't do that at the expense of our talent. And as I've mentioned the expense of possible external talent. I'd watch the EA case closely, because it will have a wide impact on publisher-employee relations, at least with the few publishers I'd dare call progressive (and that's far fewer than you'd think). Of course the cynic in me says EA will settle and then continue its evil ways - sacrificing employees for the sake of business. But it's all about business these days. The trick is to find that safe and snug middle ground. Do not under-estimate the need for heavy-weights in this industry: EA has shown that it can be a forward-thinking company and that it has the culture to help make gaming really big, but whether it ends up leaning towards the mighty dollar or the talent that gets it that dollar will determine whether we should really start considering EA the friendly big brother of gaming.