‘Battle for Middle-earth’ exposed the stresses of game development. They haven’t gone away.
Although a project 16 years in the past, the aftermath of “Battle for Middle-earth” made overt what happened behind-the-scenes as the video game industry grew from small teams to major productions involving hundreds. Lasting fallout from the game’s creation made long hours and developer treatment an issue warranting attention. “Battle for Middle-earth” became the catalyst for studios to begin rethinking their approach, in part due to widespread public outcry and young developers realizing their workweeks were anything but normal. Even a decade and a half later, crunch is still prevalent in the industry. Earlier this year, CD Projekt Red’s extended development of “Cyberpunk 2077” raised ire after the studio reneged on an earlier promise to avoid crunch, forcing six day workweeks on its employees.
Released in December 2004, “Battle for Middle-earth” found critical success and sales high enough to warrant a sequel, but the lasting legacy of the game’s roughly two-year development by EA Los Angeles is found in the memories of desperation from former employees, lawsuits and internal culture change — as well as lifelong loyalties.
Despite legal victories and years that have passed, out of the eight people who spoke or provided written responses to The Post about their time at EA Los Angeles, six requested anonymity. Their reasons were varied. One was concerned about their current employers seeing their name attached to this story. Another worried about potential reprisals from EA in the future. Whatever changes the EA Los Angeles team implemented within EA during their tenure, stories about crunch culture continue to surface, including at studios affiliated with EA.
The developers were unanimous on this, however. In their eyes, “Battle for Middle-earth’s” creation represented the video game industry at its most exploitative.
The development marathon
In May, 2004, the team leader at EA Los Angeles called a meeting to deliver seemingly good news — a change in the ship date allowed for a six-week extension on their deadline. “The entire team gave a collective groan. All they saw in front of them was six more weeks with crushing 12-hour days, seven days a week,” one former employee wrote in a LinkedIn message to The Post. While long, those days were supposed to push the team across the finish line.
“It was always said, ‘But it’s only going to be for a little bit of a short period of time,” and then that finish line just kept getting moved further and further and further out,” said Adam McCarthy, then the lead animator at EA Los Angeles.
Those 12 hour days continued for upward of six months, not weeks. The game didn’t finish development until November, shipping in December.
“I’m sure I’ll be busy,” development director Chris Corry remembers thinking when he joined the project late in the development cycle, in July 2004, after leaving LucasArts. “There will probably be a little bit of crunch for a month or two. You can put up with anything for just a couple of months. Not realizing at the time, of course, that I would be there for probably six or eight weeks before I would be calling recruiters again and saying, ‘Oh, my God, what have I done?’”
At EA Los Angeles, days off didn’t necessarily exist, and hours were fluid. “In general, it was made clear to us that the bar for not being at work was high — you couldn’t just be sick or want a vacation,” one team member, who held the title of project manager, wrote. Typically, a morning meeting happened around 10 a.m., and a gameplay test came around 10 p.m. Both were required, so everyone stayed.
“We were living there. People had sleeping bags next to their desks,” McCarthy explained.
When a meeting room was full of sleeping developers, an unspoken rule said to shut the door and not wake them up. “Maybe this is par for the course at EA and I have never heard about it. But then, the longer I was there, days became weeks, it was clear that whether this was par for the course at EA or not, clearly it was not right. It clearly was not,” said Corry.
The lights at the Los Angeles studio were never turned off. Someone coded, designed levels or added sound 24 hours a day. Artists created assets to mirror Peter Jackson’s movie adaptations; as “Battle for Middle-earth” included clips from the films, the narrative following Jackson’s take. An alternate playable story line provided a “what if” scenario, with a different ending that saw Sauron’s forces victorious.
The cause for this punishing schedule, according to one former employee, was management, who requested to see multiple playable versions of different mechanics before deciding on a direction. This meant wasted hours and assets.
“Crunching for the indecision of people who are supposed to be smarter and more decisive than the people working for them is pretty heartbreaking,” said one former employee. “I remember one weekend when we suddenly had to phone everybody at home to get in the office. There’s big changes ahead. Then they sat there for hours, waiting to be assigned something to do while the execs holed up in a conference room and tried to figure out what they were doing. A young woman, really talented, who was on the art team, quit and she said to me, ‘You know, this isn’t the life I want. I want a normal life.’”
As little as nine months from launch, fundamental changes were being made to the game. “They decided that the camera was too close to the overhead map, and due to some technical restriction that I didn’t understand, the camera couldn’t be pulled out. So we were asked to take every single asset in the game and scale it down so that everything was smaller and fit on screen,” McCarthy said.
Team members without work in their specialty were still required to be in the office in case their skills were needed. “Let’s say there was like a group of engineers who were working on a specific issue that really needed to be solved,” began McCarthy. “If those guys were working until 10 o’clock, everybody was expected to stay that late. Toward the end of the project, it got to be ridiculous because the art department was done. There was nothing else being added to the game. And we were turned into game testers.”
Permission was given to hire additional help, but EA’s reputation as a “crunch factory” during that time meant candidates were lost to other companies, including “World of Warcraft”-maker Blizzard. As more came and went, the resume stack slimmed down.
“We ended up having to hire people who weren’t necessarily the right fit, which then resulted in even more stress when those people weren’t able to do the work exactly as the team management wanted,” wrote the project manager.
“Fundamentally, you can’t look at any situation like this and see it as anything but a failure of management,” Corry said.
A former employee stated walls were punched, alcohol was a constant, and people were fired. When one artist became pregnant, the team joked enviously about having a kid to leave the office. Some shared more radical, harmful ideas among themselves.
“I discussed with a colleague how we’d both considered crashing our cars on the freeway that morning, just to get a day away from the horror of our everyday lives at work. We’d both slogged our way through commute traffic, weighing the cost/benefit analysis of making insurance claims, renting an interim vehicle, purchasing a new one and suffering minor injuries, all for the reward of a day away from our project at EA, a reward which at that moment seemed almost priceless,” wrote one former employee in an email to The Post.
Laundry service came to the studio because no one went home. “The room where everyone dropped off their dirty clothes developed a nice musty smell that never really did go away,” wrote the project manager.
Recognizing the problem for those with families, EA offered to send flowers to spouses. One unmarried developer chose to order flowers for themselves. “When they showed up, they were wilted and half-dead, which somehow felt like the perfect metaphor for all of the misguided attempts to make the schedule ‘better’ for us,” wrote a former employee.
Many were young, in their 20s, and assumed this was normal. For them, “Battle for Middle-earth” became the most important thing in their lives.
“[I wish] that I would have pushed back harder. I could have done more and, and I do think about that,” Corry said.
An open letter written and posted to a blog by the wife of a “Battle for Middle-earth” developer, titled “EA Spouse,” first brought these conditions to light. The writer, later revealed as Simutronics developer Erin Hoffman, wife of then EA Los Angeles QA manager Leander Hasty, spoke about producers who promised a short crunch at the beginning, stating that time spent upfront would make the latter half of the project easier. Instead, the crunch only continued, and grew worse without any additional pay, vacation or sick days. “This is unthinkable,” Hoffman wrote at the time.
Hoffman’s letter didn’t instantly change the “Battle for Middle-earth” team. “I think it was kind of a slow ramp,” McCarthy said. “Like it came out and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, hey, check out this thing.’ But you know, this is just something that’s being said that everybody knows. It wasn’t until we saw non-game industry press pick it up that it was weird.”
“The fact that the story was getting out and had an effect like that, I felt gratified,” Corry said.
Her letter led to a number of changes over time, including corporate turnover, where those responsible either were reassigned or took positions elsewhere. New producers better managed the work/life balance through more sensible schedules, putting deadlines on Fridays rather than Mondays, negating the need for weekend crunch. Some developers took it upon themselves to join a cultural shift, not working extended hours unless paid. Along with developers on other EA projects, two lawsuits concerning overtime were brought, one settled in 2005 for $15.6 million, the other for $14.9 million a year later. The latter came as a direct response to EA Los Angeles, including plaintiff Leander Hasty, citing his time on “Battle for Middle-earth.”
One former employee began to choke up when retelling their time working on “Battle for Middle-earth,” and explained why they didn’t immediately leave, and instead worked on “Command & Conquer 3” as new producers settled things down. “I couldn’t leave those guys alone. It was so messed up and I could shield them. I wasn’t going to leave them there,” they said.
This team became a squad, naming themselves “The Pirate Ship” to convey a “tight, cohesive, self-contained vessel that followed its own rules, able to sail through any storm and stay afloat on whatever corporate sea it found itself navigating … with a crew that loved each other,” said one former employee.
“I would never do that again. But if you’d asked me, two years later, I might have been able to say yeah, I’ll tough it out. … I think I would have been fine with it when I was younger, but I’m 48 now. I don’t want to work even eight hours a day,” joked McCarthy, still with the Pirate Ship today.
There’s lingering anxiety from the work. While former employees at the company approached The Post to share their experiences, anonymity for some stems from fear of repercussions — something that weighs heavily on younger developers seeking to advance their careers. Even with the years between then and now, some of the former EA Los Angeles team still don’t feel they’re clear of the corporate eye. “Those big corporations have long memories sometimes,” wrote a Pirate Ship member in an email to The Post.
EA Los Angeles closed in 2009. The Pirate Ship formed Zynga LA, which after multiple mergers (and more numbers on a spreadsheet obscuring the people behind them), became Kabam under Fox’s banner in 2017. “Battle for Middle-earth” not only brought this team together (for nearly 20 years now), but illuminated the industry’s cycle of crunch. Overwork burns people out. Younger hires push through, but eventually tire as they start families. Developers leave for other jobs, making them and their work appear replaceable and disposable when viewed through a corporate lens. That leads to more crunch, as new hires replace those leaving, requiring training and workflow adjustments. The cycle seems ceaseless.
“You can abuse somebody if you don’t value their longevity,” McCarthy said. “You think you can replace them with kids coming out of school because there’s always gonna be somebody hungry.”
Matt Paprocki has covered home media and video games for 20 years across outlets like Variety, Rolling Stone, Forbes, Playboy, Polygon, and others. His current passion project is the technically-focused DoBlu.com. You can follow him on Twitter @Matt_Paprocki.