It’s been a good few months since EA Louse exploded, burned brightly for a few days, and fell into obscurity. To recap: anonymous blogger, allegedly an insider from “Star Wars: The Old Republic” development effort, published several emotional posts criticising game quality and team organisation. Gamer reaction ranged from serious concern to mild amusement. Developers, on the other hand, seemed angry: airing your dirty laundry in public is rude, and doing so under the cloak of anonymity is cowardly.
It’s a typical June here in Poland: a mixed pattern of heat waves and rainstorms. I’m being lucky, since it’s not going to rain today, and I forgot to take my jacket. I’m sitting on the floor of an upstart indie studio some two hundred miles from my home town of Warsaw, talking to a group of developers. We’re handling a technical issue they’ve been struggling with, but my presence here is strictly informal: I came to lend a hand to an old friend of mine. None of the guys I’m talking with is either an acquaintance or a co-worker.
Suddenly, conversation deviates from work to gossip. Today’s topic is a high-ranking developer from one of larger Polish studios – let’s call him Andy. Everyone seems eager to share stories of working on one of Andy’s projects. Harsh opinions fly around, ranging from comparisons of Andy to “little Hitler” to unfavourable assessments of Andy’s penis size. I engage in this exchange, but I could just as well stay silent, beside potentially telling them they’re wrong. They seem to have multiple sources. They’ve heard the usual stories. They’re up to date.
But I’m the only person here who has actually worked with Andy. I don’t think anyone from this team has ever met him. Andy lives and works some two hundred miles away, in Warsaw.
This is an upstart indie studio, so the odds are stacked against it; the people who work here may soon find themselves looking for jobs. I’m fairly confident none of them will send his CV to Andy.
Is their opinion correct? I really cannot tell you. After all, airing one’s laundry of questionable cleanness is rude. Ironically, if I told you about Andy online, anonymously, pointing at him with his actual name, he would get the chance to come here and respond, and if anything I said was unfair, he would be able to defend himself. But there’s no way for Andy to come over here, to this indie upstart I’m visiting, and take part in our lively conversation.
I’ll leave it for you to decide whether this is good or bad. My point is that this is inevitable. Gossip cannot be stopped or contained. The only way to prevent it, and not a very reliable one at that, is to not give people reasons to talk. Gossip is, among other things, shared between trusted friends as a way to exchange relevant experience. You cannot stop friends from having beer together.
Occasionally, successful whistleblowers like Erin Hoffman manage to capture public awareness and get some real work done. But they don’t topple companies. Hoffman took issue with EA’s employment practices, and EA was simply too large to be seriously harmed, even after they lost millions in a suit. Had she fought some obscure second-league company from eastern EU, no one would give her a split second of attention. EA Louse, on the other hand, was just too angry and emotional to be treated seriously. In fact, most whistleblowers are, which is why they’re not successful.
Even when you know there was a class action lawsuit against EA, you just cannot assume that they haven’t changed, or that it’s the same story throughout the entire company. What you actually can do is stay clear of some local equivalent of Andy, in case a friend of yours has warned you about him. That’s how a company, even a big one, can be harmed. The effect remains for as long as an “Andy” is around.
The company behind Andy’s team resorts to hiring abroad on a fairly regular basis, because, for some reason, local candidates don’t seem skilled enough. It takes time and costs unproportional amounts of money, but more importantly, it’s a permanent hindrance.
I’ll let you decide if this is in any way connected to skilled local candidates having friends among Andy’s teammates. But I will tell you that my own friends have worked in every major studio in Poland. I'm safe from all the "Andys" for the time being.