Nothing deleted from Twitter is ever deleted on time, and sometime between Monday and Tuesday, a disillusioned former Madden developer figured that out. By then, his unvarnished rant tossed a dripping slab of red meat to Madden's many Internet enemies, and it didn't win the author much support from his old friends.
"Delete your tweets while you can, only a few have read so far," one of A.J. Dembroski's followers said while this was still mostly someone venting understandable disillusionment about what he once considered a dream job. It then became a general condemnation of his former employer, and an attack on a producer—by name—who is still on the team.
Dembroski seemed to recognize the consequences of going off as a loose cannon in an insular development community in which he's had one job. In one tweet (the full thread is in this post at Pastapadre, who broke the story) he acknowledges, "I might end up driving [a] taxi again the rest of my life."
But that kind of career-suicide ideation usually teases some kind of bigtime whistleblowing, and what Dembroski ended up alleging is nothing that I haven't read in forum threads and comments for the past six years. Here's the best of what we got, the stuff that actually may have some weight because it comes from a guy who was on the project:
• The game is regurgitated design-by-numbers pabulum, optimized to pursue Call of Duty profit.
• New features came up short thanks to incompetent designers.
• Consumers are lied to by a publisher that neither knows nor cares for the art of making a video game.
Well, where haven't I heard that before? About any sports video game? We wanted to know more. On Monday, another writer here went to Dembroski and I sought out folks I knew either on the current Madden team or with connections to the old one. Nobody wanted to touch this in any kind of depth, Dembroski included.
It goes without saying EA Sports doesn't want to talk about it officially; I couldn't even get them to send me a no-comment. It stands to reason, as they don't want what a former colleague described as "an entry-level grunt guy" to force the company to respond to criticism. Not surprisingly, the producer named in his rant also declined to go on or off-the-record with me.
This is not to say Dembroski didn't raise anything worth discussing or anything indefensible on its face. I was especially interested in a side conversation that cropped up about the scouting system in Madden's Franchise mode. Dembroski suggested that a better system had been squashed for bad reasons. I was also interested in the alternate visions alluded to for Connected Careers, the new suite that unites Franchise and the game's old Superstar modes. "There were four designers on [Connected Careers] ... 3 of them competent," he Tweeted. "The incompetent one undid most of what we did and fucked it all up." He also said that NBA Live, which again canceled its game right before release, has a great development team and that in two years will be a good game. If it was scuttled this year because of money and corporate meddling, heck yes we want to know more about that.
Maybe somewhere in there we could get a more concrete look at what I think is really sports development's biggest creative problem: the unavoidable corrosion that comes from having a tremendously expensive license on your game, the one that makes so many gamers care so deeply that they view internal bickering as rip-the-lid-off revelations. The NFL license on Madden is both the reason this was a dream job and the reason it was so disillusioning. That deal is rumored to be second only to the NFL's broadcast contracts. It's nice to talk about creative independence and integrity, but let's not pretend support for Madden NFL comes from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Dembroski's rant is only a service to pissed-off gamers in that it gives an authoritative endorsement of their discontent. In everything else it's a creative dispute in which the losing party took his case to the public. And they didn't get any evidence to work with. And even some otherwise sympathetic to Dembroski's frustration are unhappy at being caught in its blast. "Do you honestly think we want shit thrown at our face?" said one. "Of course we have frustrations, but what he did was extremely unprofessional."
Dembroski, as I understand it, ascended to his job through his hard work, dedication to the game and visibility in the Madden community. He was with the studio for two years. He seems to still be coming to this from the perspective of a gamer, which is great advocacy but a formula for a fast burnout. That makes the meltdown sad. It and the reaction to it highlights the way in which we're also unable to reconcile our unlimited expectations of a video game with the realities of how it is actually made inside a year's deadline set, by contract, by the league licensing it.
"I am fucking myself, but I've shipped 2 Maddens. I'm credited on 4," he wrote. "[I'll] have a legacy."
Even after it's deleted.