CEO’s Departure Could Bode Well for EA’s Workplace

Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello plans to resign at the end of the month, citing missteps in meeting the company’s internal operating plan and its Wall Street financial guidance. This might make investors happy, but what’s the impact on the company’s employees?

EA HeadquartersWhile more than half of the 240 employees who shared their opinion on Glassdoor approved of Riccitiello’s performance, his 59 percent rating was 9 percentage points below the average. Beyond that, there are indications of grumbling with in the company. One outside recruiter says Riccitiello’s taken the fun out of the game maker’s culture.

Riccitiello served as EA CEO for six years and was chief operating officer for nearly seven years before that.

While the company conducts a search for Riccitiello’s replacement, the CEO’s job will be done by Lawrence Probst III, the company’s executive chairman and former CEO.

This early in the game, it’s unclear how the transition will impact retention and recruiting efforts, though anyone who was considering a jump may now decide to wait and see.  Plus, EA has a good reputation on its side.

Good vs. Great

“They’ve never had a problem getting good talent and that’s not likely to change,” says the recruiter, who requested anonymity because of his business dealings with the company.  “But, they’ve had problems getting great talent and that’s not likely to change.”

In part, EA’s difficulty in finding rock stars lies in a large corporate structure that makes it difficult to make an impact and allows for less autonomy. Says the recruiter: “(Employees’) voice gets lost and they want to make an impact on new titles.”

In a Glassdoor post, one former EA software engineer noted similar issues. “The processes, procedures and hours that you might work vary a lot between studios and teams. There can also be a feeling of anonymity in such a large company.”

But Sandy Goldberg, an EA spokeswoman, disagrees. “There are many examples throughout the company where employees feel very empowered in their roles and excited for what’s ahead,” she told us.

As in many industries, buying talent and rock stars via acquisitions is one way to address problems of securing talent. And indeed, in recent years EA has extended its voracious appetite for acquisitions into the mobile and social space. Take its behemoth 2011 deal with PopCap, in which it agreed to pay upwards of $1.3 billion for the maker of Bejeweled, Zuma and Plants Vs. Zombies. Other deals included Firemint for mobile and Playfish for social.

Stay or Go?

Since the PopCap deal, however, a number of talented workers have departed the Riccitiello-led EA. Four PopCap employees who handled aspects of its attitude — like celebrating employee birthdays and special occasions — were dismissed. “Riccitiello spends a billion on PopCap and fires the four people who were assigned to its culture,” the recruiter observed.

Goldberg, however, pointed to a blog post by PopCap founder John Vechey, who announced in August layoffs at the studio. In the post, Vechey says the decision to reorganize was “100 percent” made by PopCap, without pressure from EA. “If we didn’t have EA behind us, the cuts would have been worse,” he said in the post.

When it comes to employee retention, EA tends to lose people who are ranked on the 15th level of its 24-level structure, the recruiter said. These are lead developers, creative directors and franchise directors, who bolt to mid-core mobile or social game makers when they felt it was time to go. But, the recruiter noted, “Retention has always been an issue for EA. They’re the most hated on the block and an easy pick [for talent].”

Dear Future CEO…

Given EA’s focus on transitioning to digital games and services, it would make sense for it to pursue a new leader who has a background in mobile games. But the list of qualified candidates is small. Yves Guillemot, CEO of Ubisoft, the world’s third-largest independent games publisher, would make an interesting choice. The company’s latest quarterly results were strong, as has been its transition to the digital market. On the other hand, EA is a substantially larger operation. It’s expected to generate more than $3 billion in revenue this fiscal year, compared to Ubisoft’s approximately $1.6 billion.

Regardless of who takes the helm, he or she would be wise to take a look at EA’s workplace, and maybe re-inject some of its lost aspects. Certainly it should change its habit of buying successful studios and destroying their culture, says the recruiter. “People leave and EA loses.”

3 Responses to “CEO’s Departure Could Bode Well for EA’s Workplace”

  1. They’ve already made so many customers angry with saying that they would use micro-transactions in ALL games instead of just MMOs someone had to take the blame for it. Now you will buy a game and content will be disabled unless you whip out a method of payment for micro-transactions. People see that as greed especially considering the box the cost of the game and aren’t friendly at all to micro-transactions pulling them out of immersion. The company in general has great issues with PR, just visit a gaming site and read the rants. I wouldn’t apply for a job with them if you know what I mean, I would rather work at a startup that doesn’t have a taint but that could just be me.

  2. EA is a powerhouse that’s holding on by sheer marketing power and console regurgitations. They started out on the PC and now are a laughing stock amongst PC gamers. They actively doubt every game EA creates and even publishes, b/c they are so console-focused that they dont allow their developers to spend any real time developing for PC. This has changed slightly for the better over the last 2 years (mainly with DICE, a long-time EA PC dev studio), but they still have an extremely negative reputation in the PC world.

    There are dozens of blog posts from ex-employees who quit EA-owned studios entirely b/c of EA. Many or most of these employees loved their actual studio and coworkers, but the corporate structure created and forced upon everyone by EA squashes their ability to go outside the box. They are rarely ever allowed to take risks. Major gameplay and story decisions are run through focus groups, and all their games are dumbed down to meet the criteria of the lowest common denominator player for largely this reason. They often need 2 or 3 levels of management approval to change basic things mid-development (ie before some of these systems or decisions are set in stone).

    There are many WONDERFUL game studios to work for. Ive heard nothing but negativity about EA from every angle…gamers, studios, and individual employees.

    From the outside looking in, Riccitiello was all talk. He kept promising things to PC players that never happened. He was extremely late to the digital distribution model (but then, maybe Valve was extremely ahead of everyone else) and just now have a solid working platform for the PC. I know that consoles took over the gaming world starting about 10 years ago, but PC gaming is still MASSIVE globally, and EA went in the direction of the immediate money, sacrificing long-term growth and wealth for short-cut stock prices. Thats been their MO since going public and it’s seen in every single game their put out.