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Adventures in Corporate Logic: Electronic Arts, ca. 1991

Filed under Can't Stop Thinking

Once upon a time in a career far, far away, my then co-conspirator Michal Todorovic and I were working in game development. Our publisher was Electronic Arts – which, even then, was an eight hundred pound gorilla in a stylish suit.

EA had started out as a company that went out of its way to honor its creators. It practically rolled in its creators. Creator photos and bios appeared inside every one of its unique, album-shaped packages. EA was near and dear to the hearts of the gaming public and of developers, to boot, who in those days were practically two sides of the same coin.

There was a time when a couple of people could walk into EA and walk out with a contract. I know. It happened to us. Of course when we got back to the hotel we realized that the contract they’d given us was a work-for-hire contract and Job One was to tear that puppy up and tell them to try again.

Because EA was changing, and in fact had changed, by the early 1990s. They were doing less and less internal development. They were doing more and more producing of titles that were developed at the little startups who still thought they might survive in what was rapidly becoming a very big business.

And as a result, the people at EA were changing. You didn’t see as many people who had actually made games. You saw more and more who had only worked in game production, which isn’t the same thing. So while we didn’t know it, this was the beginning of that trend in which game testers would by stages be promoted to game producers, ensuring that no one who oversaw game projects would have any experience in making the things. And that the people who would give you valuable feedback on a game’s design had never designed a game. But they thought they had: they were Electronic Arts, weren’t they? And they never realized that they weren’t the same Electronic Arts that had done the wonderful things they thought they’d done.

None of this was really obvious at the time. There was just this puzzling state in which it was clear that something was different.

In the course of hammering out a real contract we needed to write documentation that described what the project was and how we’d overcome its challenges. Perfectly reasonable if you wanted the company’s money, which we did. I worked on the design documents, and Mike worked on the technical documents, and everything – we thought – was going pretty smoothly.

We’d been working on our game (The Labyrinth of Time) for about a year already, so we had a pretty good idea what it was, how it worked, and what we still needed to do. I’d created a complete game design document already. That included several sections of the game that could be deleted, if necessary, and the steps we’d need to take to patch the holes those sections left.

Then the most important of the technical documents came back from its reviewer. Well, okay: what did we need to add, or do differently? He didn’t know. He hadn’t read it. His complete review was: "It feels light. There’s not enough there."

Mike wasn’t sure what to do about that – especially since what he was writing about already existed, and, well, he’d documented it. So since this was a matter of presentation, he asked for my advice.

We looked over the document. We increased the font size. We increased the spacing between the lines. We added one paragraph. We printed it out on thicker paper. The new document spanned more pages and each of those pages weighed more than the old ones had.

When the technical director got the new version, he said "Yes, this looks much more complete."

I don’t think we acted dishonestly. The document had been rejected, unread, on the grounds that it "felt light". So to fix the problem we made the document heavier. Everyone wins!

But the story didn’t end there. The document was kicked back again because of one required section in which we had to describe the problems we had not anticipated, and then explain how we would overcome those problems.

Let’s review that, shall we?

We had to describe the problems we had not anticipated. The problems that, by definition, we did not know were there. And then explain how we would solve those problems. Of which we were – again, by definition – completely ignorant.

I’m not sure how we described the things we did not know about, but our plan for overcoming those obstacles was:

We will crush our enemies, drive them before us, and hear the lamentation of their women.

Problem solved: that version of the document was accepted.

 
 

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