Andrew Wilson used to be on the road almost every week. These days, he’s washing dishes, doing the laundry, and helping homeschool his children. But as CEO of Electronic Arts, he’s also overseeing the most massive and fast-paced overhaul of how the game publisher operates in the company’s history.
All of EA’s 9,700 employees are working from home right now — and Wilson tells Digital Trends that the company is in no rush to get them back to the office.
EA had a slight head start over many American companies when it came to preparing for this pandemic. Coronavirus appeared on the company radar in early January, as offices in China and Korea were affected.
“At that point, while much of the world was declaring this a China or an Asian issue, we had groups inside our organization who were readying and ensuring we were prepared,” says Wilson.
Chief Technical Officer Ken Moss began working with several of the company’s departments (ranging from security to human relations) to put together an incident management team and started to scale up a support structure in case the entire company was forced to work from home. By February, EA knew it was just a matter of time before that worst-case scenario became a reality. In March, everyone was sent home.
In part because of those early efforts, EA is “essentially 100% operational as a company,” says Wilson. While workers have the same distractions as anyone at home — kids who need attention, grocery runs at unusual times, deep cleanings of the house — they’re also not traveling or preparing for conferences, so it balances out.
There are, of course, other challenges that come with telecommuting and game development.
The process of creating a game is a collaborative one, where great ideas are often born from chats that occur as designers look over an in-progress level or as they play a game of foosball in the break room. Small teams of developers will veer off and huddle together on side projects to show what their ideas can add to a game. And QA — quality assurance — testers sometimes have to walk programmers through exactly how they discovered a flaw in the game’s code to ensure players don’t recreate the bug after its release. Working from home slows all of those processes down — and could make some nearly impossible.
While some states, regions, and businesses are already slowly starting to reopen, Wilson says EA will take a much more cautious approach on that front.
“We are likely going to be slow coming back, maybe slower than many,” he says. “You will likely see us move back even more slowly than some jurisdictions might be comfortable with. We’ll be thinking about a framework for how people come back to work safely and operate at work safely. And that will likely mean some fairly meaningful changes long term in how we live, work and play. … We’re being extraordinarily cautious in how we approach this as a company. We don’t know whether there will be a second wave or not.”
Over the past several years, EA, like many companies, has embraced the open floor plan to assist with collaboration and brainstorming. That will likely need to change, says Wilson, resulting in fewer people per floor when EA returns to work. Common areas like coffee stations will be altered. Even the way people enter the building will be structured differently.
“It also means, in some of our locations that have had an increased cost of living and where we have young families who have asked about working form alternate locations or home, what we’ve learned through this process is a great many things that can be done remotely or from home,” he says. “So, we’re taking a lot of feedback from our people on how they would like to work in the future. … We’re going to be very open to change as we go through this process.”
Work continues, from home, on next-generation titles and upcoming releases, but EA’s also coming up with ways to keep the people who play its games engaged today, from giveaways and tournaments to drop-ins from pro athletes and developer Q&A livestreams.
“It’s helping people connect through play,” Wilson tells Digital Trends. “As a result of being home, we’ve lost most of our personal connections that we need for our health and well-being. This was an opportunity to motivate people to come together through play [and also] … give them unexpected pieces of delight that could lighten up what could be a challenging day for them.”
As EA has navigated the changes forced by coronavirus on a corporate level, it has also been working on its “Stay Home, Play Together” program, an initiative to keep people entertained even as social distancing changes how that’s achieved. Among the offerings so far have been the Apex Legends Global Series, featuring three new online tournaments that had a prize pool of $100,000, and the FIFA 20 Stay and Play Cup, a tournament featuring 20 European clubs competing in FIFA 20.
Hockey greats Alex Ovechkin and Wayne Gretzky squared off in a charity game of NHL 20. And some Madden players have been spontaneously joined by Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster.
So far, the company has implemented a dozen of the ideas it has for Stay Home, Play Together. Wilson says over 100 more are planned at this point.
“We’re seeing more people recognize the wonderful nature and the reward you get form connecting with your friends through games,” he says. “My expectation is that we will continue to see people … look to them for things like inspiration and escape and social interaction, competition and creation and self-improvement — these core motivations we’re able to fulfill.”