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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
ea_spouse
My significant other works for Electronic Arts, and I'm what you might call a disgruntled spouse.

EA's bright and shiny new corporate trademark is "Challenge Everything." Where this applies is not exactly clear. Churning out one licensed football game after another doesn't sound like challenging much of anything to me; it sounds like a money farm. To any EA executive that happens to read this, I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?

I am retaining some anonymity here because I have no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit. However, I also feel no impetus to shy away from sharing our story, because I know that it is too common to stick out among those of the thousands of engineers, artists, and designers that EA employs.

Our adventures with Electronic Arts began less than a year ago. The small game studio that my partner worked for collapsed as a result of foul play on the part of a big publisher -- another common story. Electronic Arts offered a job, the salary was right and the benefits were good, so my SO took it. I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: "how do you feel about working long hours?" It's just a part of the game industry -- few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what "working long hours" meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.

Within weeks production had accelerated into a 'mild' crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this "pre-crunch" was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don't know how many of the developers bought EA's explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title's shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.

Weeks passed. Again the producers had given a termination date on this crunch that again they failed. Throughout this period the project remained on schedule. The long hours started to take its toll on the team; people grew irritable and some started to get ill. People dropped out in droves for a couple of days at a time, but then the team seemed to reach equilibrium again and they plowed ahead. The managers stopped even talking about a day when the hours would go back to normal.

Now, it seems, is the "real" crunch, the one that the producers of this title so wisely prepared their team for by running them into the ground ahead of time. The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm -- seven days a week -- with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team's existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.

The stress is taking its toll. After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend -- bad things happen to one's physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.

And the kicker: for the honor of this treatment EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! ('comp' time is the equalization of time off for overtime -- any hours spent during a crunch accrue into days off after the product has shipped); c) no additional sick or vacation leave. The time just goes away. Additionally, EA recently announced that, although in the past they have offered essentially a type of comp time in the form of a few weeks off at the end of a project, they no longer wish to do this, and employees shouldn't expect it. Further, since the production of various games is scattered, there was a concern on the part of the employees that developers would leave one crunch only to join another. EA's response was that they would attempt to minimize this, but would make no guarantees. This is unthinkable; they are pushing the team to individual physical health limits, and literally giving them nothing for it. Comp time is a staple in this industry, but EA as a corporation wishes to "minimize" this reprieve. One would think that the proper way to minimize comp time is to avoid crunch, but this brutal crunch has been on for months, and nary a whisper about any compensation leave, nor indeed of any end of this treatment.

This crunch also differs from crunch time in a smaller studio in that it was not an emergency effort to save a project from failure. Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.

No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great. They are and were more than willing to work hard for the success of the title. But that good will has only been met with abuse. Amazingly, Electronic Arts was listed #91 on Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2003.

EA's attitude toward this -- which is actually a part of company policy, it now appears -- has been (in an anonymous quotation that I've heard repeated by multiple managers), "If they don't like it, they can work someplace else." Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA's Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one's workforce never enters the equation: if they don't want to sacrifice their lives and their health and their talent so that a multibillion dollar corporation can continue its Godzilla-stomp through the game industry, they can work someplace else.

But can they?

The EA Mambo, paired with other giants such as Vivendi, Sony, and Microsoft, is rapidly either crushing or absorbing the vast majority of the business in game development. A few standalone studios that made their fortunes in previous eras -- Blizzard, Bioware, and Id come to mind -- manage to still survive, but 2004 saw the collapse of dozens of small game studios, no longer able to acquire contracts in the face of rapid and massive consolidation of game publishing companies. This is an epidemic hardly unfamiliar to anyone working in the industry. Though, of course, it is always the option of talent to go outside the industry, perhaps venturing into the booming commercial software development arena. (Read my tired attempt at sarcasm.)

To put some of this in perspective, I myself consider some figures. If EA truly believes that it needs to push its employees this hard -- I actually believe that they don't, and that it is a skewed operations perspective alone that results in the severity of their crunching, coupled with a certain expected amount of the inefficiency involved in running an enterprise as large as theirs -- the solution therefore should be to hire more engineers, or artists, or designers, as the case may be. Never should it be an option to punish one's workforce with ninety hour weeks; in any other industry the company in question would find itself sued out of business so fast its stock wouldn't even have time to tank. In its first weekend, Madden 2005 grossed $65 million. EA's annual revenue is approximately $2.5 billion. This company is not strapped for cash; their labor practices are inexcusable.

The interesting thing about this is an assumption that most of the employees seem to be operating under. Whenever the subject of hours come up, inevitably, it seems, someone mentions 'exemption'. They refer to a California law that supposedly exempts businesses from having to pay overtime to certain 'specialty' employees, including software programmers. This is Senate Bill 88. However, Senate Bill 88 specifically does not apply to the entertainment industry -- television, motion picture, and theater industries are specifically mentioned. Further, even in software, there is a pay minimum on the exemption: those exempt must be paid at least $90,000 annually. I can assure you that the majority of EA employees are in fact not in this pay bracket; ergo, these practices are not only unethical, they are illegal.

I look at our situation and I ask 'us': why do you stay? And the answer is that in all likelihood we won't; and in all likelihood if we had known that this would be the result of working for EA, we would have stayed far away in the first place. But all along the way there were deceptions, there were promises, there were assurances -- there was a big fancy office building with an expensive fish tank -- all of which in the end look like an elaborate scheme to keep a crop of employees on the project just long enough to get it shipped. And then if they need to, they hire in a new batch, fresh and ready to hear more promises that will not be kept; EA's turnover rate in engineering is approximately 50%. This is how EA works. So now we know, now we can move on, right? That seems to be what happens to everyone else. But it's not enough. Because in the end, regardless of what happens with our particular situation, this kind of "business" isn't right, and people need to know about it, which is why I write this today.

If I could get EA CEO Larry Probst on the phone, there are a few things I would ask him. "What's your salary?" would be merely a point of curiosity. The main thing I want to know is, Larry: you do realize what you're doing to your people, right? And you do realize that they ARE people, with physical limits, emotional lives, and families, right? Voices and talents and senses of humor and all that? That when you keep our husbands and wives and children in the office for ninety hours a week, sending them home exhausted and numb and frustrated with their lives, it's not just them you're hurting, but everyone around them, everyone who loves them? When you make your profit calculations and your cost analyses, you know that a great measure of that cost is being paid in raw human dignity, right?

Right?


===

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 08:55 am (UTC)

Sounds like EA

That's really awful, and sadly sounds a lot like EA. :(
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:32 am (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

Just got back form doing hard time there for a month. 14 hour days, 7 days a week. I make less than half of that 90k salary I'd have to get in order to be exampt from overtime pay.
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[User Picture]From: grafxman256
2004-11-10 07:27 pm (UTC)

Re: Two things...

Nitpick correction - Blizzard was owned by the same company that owned Sierra, not owned by Sierra directly. That company was then rolled over to "Vivendi Universal" when Vivendi bought up Universal. Sierra might have liked to pretend they owned Blizzard, but Blizzard always had the right to tell Sierra off, and did so on many occations. (I used to work for Dynamix, which was owned by Sierra, and we were always rooting for Blizzard in those exchanges.)
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 10:26 am (UTC)
Wow, that puts my experiences in perspective. :(

EA isn't the only company to do this kind of practice but it's certainly the most extreme case I've ever heard of.

Where I sit, it seems Sony have similar ideas about how to treat employees but I 'only' did about 50-60 hour weeks for 4-6 weeks (I can't remember exactly how many weeks it was - they all blurred into one another at the time). That was horrific but still not even close to what you've been put through.

I'm headed for a smaller company and hoping that the publisher doesn't screw it over. :/
Doubtless, there'll be another fresh-faced newbie to replace me when I'm gone.
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[User Picture]From: direwolf109
2004-11-10 01:20 pm (UTC)

Yep

Been there, done that, and currently hoping for the same lack of screwage.

There's another problem here that hasn't been mentioned, and that is how you get into the industry in the first place. Small companies (quite reasonably) don't feel they can afford the risk of taking on someone without significant experience. That means young programmers who want to get into games pretty much have to go through the giants in order to have a chance to get that 2-3 years and 2-3 titles. That's certainly why I was at Sony.
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[User Picture]From: ingaborg
2004-11-10 11:01 am (UTC)
They need to get themselves organised and take action. EA (and other companies) only get away with it because game developers don't join unions, and take a foolish macho pride in working stupid hours. Also because historically a lot of them have not had anything better to do with their time. It really is time that game developers set the DTI (or California equivalent) on their employees.

For example, if everybody checked their legal rights and stuck to them, and if necessary sued for unfair dismissal, EA would find themselves in deep trouble. I don't think that a company can make you sign away your legal rights: you may sign, but it's not binding. Part of the trouble is that nobody wants to be the person who lets the team down by refusing to work silly hours, and that's what EA makes their money on. They don't have to manage projects better or hire more people, because they can trick their employees into breaking themselves while they take up the slack.

Form a union, folks. Or modern equivalent. Go see a lawyer or the Citizens Advice Bureau or an industrial tribunal or something: get advice on how what your rights are and the best way of getting them. Be prepared to stand up for yourself.
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[User Picture]From: squeekybelly
2004-11-10 04:15 pm (UTC)
Actually, the problem is that no one wants to be the whistle blower. They are all afraid that if they do/say something, then they will never be able to work in the industry again, which is probably right.

The problems stated are fairly common in the industry, although it seems that EA is pushing it to extremes. And yes, these practices are completely illegal. Most of the time, the requests to stay longer hours are done orally, so that there are no paper trails and when the employees do their time sheets, they are asked to put down only 40 hours, again destroying any kind of proof. If the employee complains, the company claims that they never asked and that the employee was doing it out of his own violition.

Hard to proove something when you have no physical proofs...

And, btw, EA is doing the same thing at its newly opened studio in Montreal...
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[User Picture]From: pond823
2004-11-10 11:04 am (UTC)
At lot of my game industry friends have headed out the door to find work in film and multimedia companies where we complain about working more than 40 hrs a week. The pay is better and you actually sometimes get decent project managers, not 'shit-floats-to-the-top' types. I think the games industry is going to collapse at both ends, nobody whats the rubbish they pump out and nobody wants to work on the rubbish they wanna pump out.

Good luck to you and your partner - I hope things get better for them or they find a good replacement for their life, because 85 hrs a week is their life.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 09:41 pm (UTC)
I have to admit that the film and multimedia industries are an enigma to me. We have talked about starting our own business as our abilities as pertain to games and other technology are compatible, but we've never considered going into film production or similar. I know that there are programming jobs there, since an ex-coworker of ours used to work for a company that did that, but there seems to be not nearly the community that there is for game developers.

Thank you for the well wishes, and for the comment. =) And be assured that it's EA that will be replaced and not his life, and not just for my sake. It's a tough decision because there are some extremely talented people working there right now, and my SO is of the type that just soaks up that experience and loves to learn, but everyone has limits...
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[User Picture]From: luckykaa
2004-11-10 12:34 pm (UTC)
I was in a similar position. The game was slightly behind, and so it was decided that one day a week would be the late night week.

I was in the semi-fortunate position of being on a temporary contract, and ahead of schedule. I figured I didn't really have a lot to lose by telling them "no". To do that, you need a certain inflexibility and pigheadedness. They can apply a lot of pressure. In my case, it lead to an uncomfortable discussion, but I was never given the impression that they would even consider getting rid of me. I would encourage your SO to make a stand, and simply go home at a sensible time, but I realise this may not be viable.

EA are being idiots. It's a bad policy. It just doesn't work. Software development isn't manual labour. Productivity plummets after a certain point. You end up spending more time putting in mistakes and glitches than improving things. And the next day everyone's stil tired. Nobody's enjoying the work. Everything starts to drag behind.

That said - late nights are sometimes worthwhile. I'll only stay late of there is somethign specific that needs to be done. In the past I have spend hours solving a single problem, and refused to leave until I've fixed it. This is something I refuse to make a habit of, and will not work more than an hour of overtime two nights in a row.

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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 09:44 pm (UTC)
Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do to meet a deadline, and the game industry is new enough to still be entrepreneurial enough that some of this will be necessary. It SHOULDN'T be necessary, with proper management, but sometimes shit happens, and the deadline won't budge. This is what makes a union tricky -- it would have to be a very special union sensitive to the needs of the industry, so that small studios wouldn't be crushed simply because they have to crunch at the end of a deadline.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 04:15 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

Yes, he definitely does not make enough for exemption, and neither do most of the members of the team. The $42-44/hour is the breakdown of the $90k annual salary required by Senate bill 88. Unfortunately, while he can stand up for his rights, it will certainly lead to dismissal... and an unfair dismissal case requires money. My personal conjecture is that EA rapidly settles cases like that when they appear, however... but it still leaves the developer in question out of a job. The larger issue is the labor practice of the entire corporation itself. The long and short of it is that with small studios collapsing left and right from pressure from the big companies, there are fewer and fewer places to go within the industry... so developers will increasingly take abuse. There is also the simple matter of a lot of them not even knowing their rights.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 04:07 pm (UTC)
Your husband is not alone. I'll be interested to see the results of EA's recent annual "talkback" survey, with questions like "Do you plan to leave EA in 6 months?" "Are you actively looking for a job?" (Not that Rusty will give a crap either way...)

Here's to hoping you and your family find a way out.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 04:10 pm (UTC)
That survey got a bitter laugh out of both of us. I was amazed they had the guts to even offer it.

Thank you for your kind words, and good luck to you both as well.
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[User Picture]From: sniperx876
2004-11-10 04:58 pm (UTC)
Im sorry to hear about this...my whole goal for my career is to end up as a computer programmer for a company such as EA..but after reading this. I feel that I may have to search for a diffrent career. I am deeply devoted to video games but not nearly as devoted to work 7 days a week 12 hours a day.
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[User Picture]From: epiphaniesrus
2004-11-10 05:19 pm (UTC)
I don't think I'd give up on the industry... EA is the most extreme case. The only reason we're all here talking about them is because their practices have made them the height of financial success, and we want to make sure that they stop and other companies don't follow suit. At my first game company, there was plenty of overtime - and I didn't mind it at all. From what I've seen of friends and family working at EA, the difference is that the EA management policy is to start project planning by bumping the hours / worker slider over to 60+. People there have been informed that they have to be in on Sunday purely because it's 3 months before ship - whether they have assigned tasks for not. When I crunch at other companies, I'm told to go home when my tasks are done and be available by cell phone. There's much more of a feeling of common bond between project management (not necessarily include exec and marketing [cough]) and worker, and it leads to people actually staying at a company for more than 2 years.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 04:58 pm (UTC)

Salary Information

It is interesting to see how much they make..

http://finance.yahoo.com/q/pr?s=ERTS
Lawrence Probst, III, 54
Chairman, Chief Exec. Officer
Pay: $ 1.45M
Exercised Options: $ 22.78M

I sympathize completely, and as a relatively new hire to EA, I worry that the same thing will happen to me. Time will tell.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Salary Information

From Hoover's (a business database):

Lawrence F. (Larry) Probst III, Age 54
Salary by year:

2004: $672,759 salary, $781,000 bonus
2003: $696,535 salary, $1,100,000 bonus
2002: $611,023 salary, $985,000 bonus
2001: $594,535 salary, $212,885 bonus
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 05:57 pm (UTC)
My favorite things about EA are the fact that they are trying to be "the #1 people company" and "a one-class society." HA!

Does it surprise anyone that EA dropped off of Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2004 after it debuted at #91 in 2003? I was shocked they even made it on the list in the first place.

How much money did EA spend erecting that labyrinth on its main lawn? If they'd taken that money and, instead of wasting it on superficial gestures, used it to improve the lives of EA employees in a tangible way, wouldn't that have gone much further towards being "the #1 people company?"

But there's a reason why EA didn't. It's because EA doesn't really care about being "the #1 people company." They just want to give the appearance of being "the #1 people company." And the most tragic thing about it is I suspect they've swallowed their own bullshit enough not even to be cognizant of that fact anymore. It's a shame.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:28 pm (UTC)

they circumvented this one


They changed "the #1 people company" to "the #1 people company for high performance individuals and teams" a couple of years back.

I took that as "if we treat you like crap it's because we don't think you're working hard enough."

Wild horse couldn't drag me back there.

- Five year veteran.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 06:33 pm (UTC)

Used to work there, wised up and left.

I had to laugh, my wife and several others were going to form a Wives Against Maxis and picket the building. As much as I would have loved that, I worried about what would happen. In the end I quit to go to greener pastures.
I worked for EA for over 10 years. I saw crunch time go from 3 weeks to starting the instant a project was announced until it shipped. We were told that 'the executives have complete confidence that we can do this'. The atmosphere inside is very cult-like with a lot of 'you dont want to let us down, we are family'. I almost quit the industry, but checked around and am now working at Ubisoft where I have been part of their self examination on their work processes. The difference between the two companies could be greater on this topic. Ubi has recoginized a problem and is working to reduce it (it aint perfect yet), but EA has a firm policy of "there's dozens more dying to get your job" and seems to be getting worse and worse (so I hear from my old friends). I believe there is a legal challenge on behalf of many artists going on, but of course there is no press coverage of it.
I have my life back, in the industry I love. Was very depressed, am very happy now. I am sure my buddies back at EA know exactly who I am, but I will not give the sharks in the legal dept (their own logo) any identity to sting me. Hi guys! Call me!!! :)
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 07:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Used to work there, wised up and left.

I talked about calling the wives of other employees and picketing the office, too. I also asked if it would help if I showed up in my Halloween costume (a kimono and geisha makeup) with a sword and staged a rescue operation.

Thank you for your comment, it helps distinctly to have the opinion of someone who has been with EA for this long. It was part of my question, actually, in general... do you believe EA has been on a steady downward trend, or is this behavior something that's likely to bottom out and improve? Either way, I doubt we will stick around to see it, but we both wondered.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 07:09 pm (UTC)
I'm not surprised. EA's been known for being nasty for years.

Though, to borrow a phrase from our most recent presidential candidate, "Help is on the way."

Trust me on this one.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 08:48 pm (UTC)
I would dearly like to hope that that is the case. If you'd care to share any details, my email is ea_spouse@hotmail.com.
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[User Picture]From: shades747
2004-11-10 07:18 pm (UTC)
Well, I know this doesn't help you any, but you're certainly not alone, and EA certainly isn't the only publisher pulling this sort of crap. I've been wanting to leave my job for quite some time, but it looks like all of the major publishers are following the same plans, and the small ones can't take a chance hiring someone that doesn't have at least 10 titles published.

We really do need some sort of union in this industry. When those in charge are getting christmas bonuses larger than my annual pay (and working less than half the hours), something is seriously wrong. My christmas "bonus" last year was $40. (This was also the bonus they promised me to keep me from walking out.) I could have made that much begging for change instead of coming to work on a Saturday.
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-13 04:39 pm (UTC)

union

Hi,
My name is Josh Pastreich. I am a union organizer and I am helping with the class action lawsuit against EA for overtime. If you are serious about forming a union in the games industry or if you are not being paid overtime please drop me a line at unionjosh@hotmail.com.

Josh
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Re: union - (Anonymous) Expand
Seriously. - (Anonymous) Expand
Trade Guild - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 07:45 pm (UTC)

White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

I worked at EA for over 3 years and shipped alot of product for them. When I started my own personal revolt against the crunch modes that are specifically the result of mis-management I lost favor really fast and I left for greener pastures only to find that the same problems exist elsewhere. The average game company manager is quite possibly the worst qualified leader of people in the world. They couldn't get a job managing a McDonald's IMO.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 09:47 pm (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

I think part of the problem is that, as far as I know, anyway, people tend to either revolt in ways that will enable EA to find grounds to fire them (I'm not saying that you did this, only that I've seen it happen on this very project), or they leave quietly to another job. It solves the problem for the individual in question, though they tend to be a little careworn afterward, but the machine just keeps on grinding away.
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