Five ways Electronic Arts got back into the game

Getting EA's employees to change the way the video game maker did business took more than just a couple of speeches and some new rules.

Ian Sherr Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. At CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
3 min read

Electronic Arts CEO Andrew Wilson leads a meeting of the company's top executives. Electronic Arts

Electronic Arts, one of the world's largest makers of video games, has been working on a turnaround over the past two years after being voted the worst company in America two years in a row.

Gamers were pretty clear in saying they didn't like the way EA did business -- not releasing new or innovative enough games, charging them for extras and ignoring some player's feedback on how storylines should (and shouldn't unfold).

That forced EA to tackle one of the biggest fixes a company can face: changing the corporate culture. The job fell to Andrew Wilson, who took over as CEO in 2013. "We are at our very core a very good company made of good people," he said. The problem was that the world didn't see them that way. He believed he knew why: "We weren't thinking about everything we were doing in the context of the player experience."

Here are the ways Wilson changed the game for his team as they worked to win back customers.

  1. Change what your team is accountable for. One of the things Wilson pushed with executives was his company mantra, "Think Players First." The mantra wasn't just corporate speak on a wall poster -- it actually changed the course of meetings. Steve Papoutsis, who left his job as general manager at EA's Visceral Games in April, said he was able to win arguments by bringing up the mantra. "I can drop that phrase and stop a room," he said.
  2. Change the way employees work. Like many companies, EA worked in silos. Its game development teams were separate from the team running its "Origin" online store, for example. EA began to change that when developing its latest play-as-god game, The Sims 4. EA had members of teams like customer service and sales move their desks next to the game's developers. "The way we thought about it was to bring the teams together," said Lucy Bradshaw, head of Maxis, the division that makes the game. The result: Teams found and fixed problems quicker.
  3. Allow for changes. Releasing a game that doesn't live up to expectations can costs millions of dollars, but so can delaying a game to ensure it's rid of bugs and polished enough to impress fans. Before Wilson took over, executives said delaying a game didn't seem like much of an option. The highest-profile games delays since Wilson took over have included Dragon Age: Inquisition, Battlefield Hardline, PGA Tour and a version of Titanfall for the older Xbox. The company also cancelled an action game called Dawngate.
  4. Don't let data rule your decisions. EA collects more information every day from the way its games are played than there is in the entire Library of Congress. While it's enticing to let that information control how you make decisions, that can lead to a no-win scenario. "The challenge with data is you never seek to do anything profound or inspired," Wilson said." You just do what the data tells you."
  5. Make the work rewarding. Yeah, it's a company making video games, so there's an aspect of it that's fun by default. But to make work more meaningful, EA now has a mentorship system called "guilds," where members of different teams are paired up to discuss their careers and what's going on in the company. Wilson "wanted to create communities" within the company, said Gabrielle Toledano, EA's chief talent officer. Each guild has 40 to 50 people in it, and they have representatives that meet with the executive staff.