Speaking truth to power. The key to my success at EA.

Honesty is the best policy.   Always tell the truth.

As children we are taught that we should always tell the truth, and that lying is a terrible thing to do.   Certain cultures and religions, such as Islam, really truly live that value as adults too.

Not us Westerners.   We are snakes.    We convince ourselves that “things are more complicated than that”, and that “I’m doing this to protect so-and-so’s feelings”, or that “I can’t say that!   What will he think of me?”    The most common situation is lack of honesty through fear of loss, especially fearing the loss of your job.

So, members of staff will not be honest in their interactions with their bosses.     They won’t tell them about problems.   They won’t complain.    They will lie, and say that everything is fine.    They will offer unrealistic estimates and assessments on the progress of projects which are going off the rails, because they don’t want to upset the apple cart.

All of the behaviors are SO counter-productive in the long-term, and they are nearly always motivated by fear.

What are you really afraid of?   Do you realistically think that you are going to lose your job just from telling an uncomfortable truth to people in a position of power over you?   If that really is the case, perhaps you would be better off working elsewhere anyway!    For most people, this fear is irrational and unrealistic.

As long as you are bringing the uncomfortable truth forward from a position of good will, and with an honest intention to improve things, it is exceedingly unlikely that you will be penalized for your initiative.    Not many people are willing to speak up in this way.    Most bosses, unless they are very insecure, would be delighted to have such individuals working for them.

So … don’t be afraid to speak truth to power!

I’d like to share a particular instance of this kind of truth-telling from my own career, an incident which was actually pivotal in my life.

In my End of an Era post, I talked about how I had the opportunity to move to Canada to work on FIFA.    Here’s the full back-story.

Around March 2002, Larry Probst, the EA chairman, was visiting the UK Studio in Chertsey, and was present at a town-hall meeting where there was an open-mike Q&A session.   There were perhaps 200 people there – pretty much the whole of the UK studio, and the sales and marketing staff who were in the same building.

At that studio we had worked on three iterations of FA Premier League Football Manager and two iterations of the Premier League Stars arcade game, but Stars had been cancelled, and Football Manager has been outsourced.

So, in this meeting I stood up and told a rather stunned-looking Larry Probst that none of us in the UK studio played FIFA.   We all played Konami’s Winning Eleven / PES because FIFA just wasn’t a good game, and wasn’t authentic.    I had heard that the FIFA team wanted to “fix FIFA” but were never given the resources to do so in the form of a “leapfrog team”, but were just stuck in a yearly grind which never gave them time to resolve the major issues with the game.

Watch this video of FIFA2002 gameplay.   It is truly embarrassing.    If you are a FIFA player who only started playing FIFA in later years, say FIFA 2008 onwards – you won’t believe how appalling the game was at that point in its history.

The franchise was 8 years old already at this stage, and had most of the licensed content, and good sales figures.    But the quality of the game itself was just awful.     I have been told by people working on the game during this era that all of the focus was on “glitz”, and never on the core gameplay.   And it showed.   What a mess.    Look at the ball.   It’s on an animation node in front of the player.   It isn’t following the laws of physics!   That kind of matters 🙂

We were gamers, and developers, and football fans and football video-game fans, and football video-game fans who has worked on multiple football games for EA!   So we knew what we were talking about in our rejection of FIFA.

As soon as I had said this I could feel the blood draining from me.   Bob!  What have you done?   Why on earth did you say that?   Yes, it was true and important, but why did YOU have to say it.    You’re going to get taken into a back room and beaten!   You’re going to lose your job.    You’re going to be humiliated.

From what I remember, it was David Gardner who replied to me, asking whether it was just the case that FIFA was worse relative to Winning Eleven, or whether FIFA was bad in an absolute sense?    Both, I said.    It just wasn’t authentic or fun.

There was actually a hugely positive outcome from this incident.    We formed a “focus group” in the UK studio where Alpha builds of the forthcoming FIFA 2003 game were sent over to us several times a week, for us to play and comment on.    That was the year where Geoff Harrower decoupled the ball from the player (which was probably the inflection point which put FIFA on the path towards its current success).   Check out this FIFA 2003 gameplay video, and look at the ball.   It was a huge, single-year improvement.

Bruce McMillan, who was the GM of both the UK and Canada studios at the time, asked me to consider moving to EA Canada, to work on the FIFA team.    He told me it would be a great career move from me, and that Vancouver was lovely.   At first I said no, thinking that working on a project as huge as FIFA would mean having no influence and would be a death-march.    When EA offered to fly me and my girlfriend out to Vancouver for a week, I thought “free vacation?   I can do that”.    I met the team, who were all very talented and approachable and nice.   The rest is history.   We got married, moved over, and are now Canadian citizens, and love our life in this beautiful city.

To complete the circle on this story, Bruce replied to my End of an Era blog posting, wishing me the best of luck.   I think it was the first time I had spoken to him since he facilitated my move to FIFA twelve years ago.    So, when I was having my “Leaving EA Pub Night” last Friday, I invited Bruce along, saying it would be fantastic if he could pop in, even just for a few minutes, given that he was the reason why I was in the city in the first place.

He did better than that.    He came out for 3-4 hours, and we had a great time talking about EA and FIFA, and even about Distinctive Software.   There were 40-50 EA folk there (even some who had been at DSI), and many old acquaintances were renewed.   What a great night, and what a class act Bruce McMillan is.    I was honored to have him there for my big send off.


Read … Rejection, tragedy and billions of dollars – The story of FIFA.   It’s the fascinating story of how the very first FIFA game was brought to life by Bruce and friends.

So, everyone, talk truth to power.    You won’t regret it!


Postscript – There are two “artifacts” which I would love to see again.    The first was a hilarious cartoon which somebody made and sent around the studio after the meeting showing a Stormtrooper standing up in front of the Emperor and saying that TIE-fighters were a bit crap and they didn’t like how the joystick felt in their hand.    Does anybody have that cartoon?   Who did it?    The second was a games industry article around 6-12 months later where Bruce was being interviewed (perhaps it was an account of some presentation at a games conference?) and mentioned the incident, though not my name.    Does anybody know where that happened, or have the article?   Thanks!


4 thoughts on “Speaking truth to power. The key to my success at EA.

  1. Hi Bob. Thanks for trying out Omlet. I am sorry to hear that it doesn’t suit your needs. In order to make a usable fun experience for the majority of users, we have to make some tradeoffs that make our system not peer-to-peer. A lot of these constraints come from the limitations of mobile devices and their ecosystems. For example, one of the usability requirements for people is that they can get notified when their friends send them a message. Accomplishing this task without draining people’s batteries requires centralization through a shared push notification service. People also expect timely delivery of messages, something which you probably have found to not be a characteristic of many P2P systems. Is their a cloud provider you trust? Do you run your own secure server? Does everyone in your extend family do so as well? We are building towards the goal of giving people ownership of their data and freedom of choice in provider and peace of mind while communicating. A big part of that is making sure that the benefits we convey can reach a broad base of people.

    I also find the Android permission system to be lacking in the flexibility to gradually grant permissions. Unfortunately, it isn’t possible to make an Android applications that lets people find their friends, share pictures, send voice notes, login using existing identities, sign in to the app easily, share your location with your friends, or find nearby chat rooms without those permissions. iOS has a better model in place where permissions are request on demand. They also don’t have as many permissions because they disallow many useful capabilities. The really great thing about Omlet is that we don’t keep any of that data that you choose to send via our service. You can choose to store it with your own provider.

    Currently, we require developers to register their applications on our developer portal, so that we can list them for other users to find. We are working to add complete person to person sharing of Omlet web apps so that the platform is much more friendly for tinkering. Signing into the developer portal and registering the app also makes it show up in the phone version of Omlet’s app drawer so that you can test it out easily.

    We have done a lot of research on building out distributed mobile communications, and we feel that at the current stage of technology, Omlet is a great way for people to communicate. That said, we’ve only just started and are looking to share more exciting capabilities down the line. If you are interested in an end-to-end encrypted messaging system with an app-platform, check out Musubi, http://mobisocial.stanford.edu/papers/musubi.pdf . This was part of the research that led up to us creating Omlet.

    1. Hey Tim,

      Thanks for your detailed reply. I only just saw the comment.

      I’ll do another blog post which aggregates further questions and criticisms which I made with Twitter yesterday, along with your explanations in this reply. If you could answer my questions about storage or data and metadata, and about open source versus “open” that would be much appreciated, and then I could incorporate those answers into the new blog posting. It is probably to answer them here than on Twitter, because you are not subject to the 240 character limit.

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