To say that BioWare's latest game - Anthem - was a disaster on launch might be underselling it.
Technical glitches, odd design choices, broken story progression and extremely long load times amounted to a plague of gripes from discerning early players. Then again, BioWare had never released a live multiplayer game before. These were all understandable and duly forgivable hiccups.
What you'll find less forgivable is the work environment that produced it.
How Corporate Culture plagued what was conceived to be the "Bob Dylan" of games
The vision for Anthem was to be a game people would be talking about for decades after its arrival, hence its original codename: "Dylan". From the visuals alone, you could see the game had a lot of potential.
So where did it go wrong?
First, BioWare's workload over time looks "like a hockey stick". Flat for the majority of the time, then a huge ramp of effort at the very end. It's a bad sign that any procrastinator will immediately recognize this pattern as unsustainable.
That's been BioWare's modus operandi for years. It's a wonder they didn't bomb a release sooner.
Kotaku's Jason Schreier wrote an extensive article based on accounts from developers within BioWare, who were kept anonymous. The most-cited problems? Anxiety, depression, mismanagement and inconsistent vision, all indicative of a radioactive work environment on the verge of nuclear disaster.
Second, the success or failure of any business venture is its embedded corporate culture. So who was responsible for creating the destructive cultural environment?
The two-letter answer is EA - BioWare's parent company.
In 2013 they won The Consumerist's poll for "Worst Company in America" for the second year running (which no other company had done to date), outranking such regulars as Walmart and AT&T.
It even comes with a Golden Poo trophy.
That's right. EA is as universally hated as your ISP. Let that sink in.
Their employee schedules were barbaric. In 2004, the mandatory work week was 9am-10pm during the week, up to 100 hours, with a 6:30pm release time on Saturdays for "good behavior". Anything over 40 hours a week has been clinically proven to be detrimental to employee health and by extension, morale and productivity.
It seems that the rapidly growing tech industry is particularly prone to this type of overtime scheduling. Alibaba's Jack Ma recently came out in support of the 996 schedule (9am to 9pm, 6 days a week), sparking significant backlash.
Class-action lawsuits were brought against EA over such unhealthy practices, who settled for $15.6 million and $14.9 million with game artists and programmers, respectively.
EA has since claimed multiple times to be changing this part of their corporate culture, but if BioWare's anonymous 2019 accounts of workplace anxiety, depression, stress leave and outright abandonment are any indication, they have their work cut out for them.
In season 2 of our Voices of Customer Experience Podcast, we interviewed Annette Franz, CEO of CX Journey and ardent believer that "employee happiness equals customer happiness". Not acting on the concerns and pains of your respondents is one of her "seven deadly sins" of employee and customer experience.
EA committed this sin twofold: they listened, made progress and improvements, and then completely doubled back on that improvement just a few years later.
EA's conflicts of vision with the studios they own (BioWare among others) result in tension. There is rapid and seemingly needless organizational restructuring, and disregard for the core integrity of the games themselves in favor of ensuring the ability to monetize them.
The "lootbox" gambling debacle from EA's 2015 Star Wars Battlefront reboot is still fresh in consumers' minds. It has become a growing legal concern and refreshed the discussion of online gambling.
This restructuring practice intruded into Anthem as well, despite being well-known to cause intra-organizational tension. The manager has to adjust to their new team, and vice-versa. This takes time and inevitably causes setbacks for projects in the works.
With management changes come changes in vision and direction, further convoluting and confusing the original designs that captured and excited the development team. This happened multiple times during Anthem's six-year long production, and each new change compounded the negative effects.
A horrendous employee experience, a game with an identity crisis like an M. Night Shyamalan character, and a product that ultimately failed to meet changing customer expectations.
So what can you do differently?
There's no catch-all answer to doing right by your employees. Every job task is different, and every person has different needs to produce their best work.
The first thing you can do is listen and respond. That means gathering your feedback, analyzing the data, and acting on it diligently and purposefully.
Improving your people management skills is another perfect place to start for any organization's top executives. Learning and applying those soft skills at the highest level will cause them to filter into the corporate culture naturally as your company grows and develops.
Putting measures in place to minimize the damage from conflicting views in management and personnel changes is a must, especially for large-scale productions.
Consider empowering employee teams to respectfully disagree with their management's decisions if they can be proven detrimental to the final product.
When it's in your hands to decide what's best for you and your company, your employees are the most fundamental part of any choice you make. If you can provide an exceptional employee experience, the exceptional customer experience won't be far behind.