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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?


===

This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:51 pm (UTC)

Ubisoft

Ubisoft = EA
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:53 pm (UTC)

http://www.mpsc839.org/

someone should at least inform the union:

> http://www.mpsc839.org/
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:58 pm (UTC)
EA isn't union.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:08 am (UTC)

EEEeeeeEEE

no need
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:08 am (UTC)

Re: EEEeeeeEEE

cahm ahn!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: iesmeh
2004-11-12 12:12 am (UTC)
i'm shocked. i'd definitely follow the advice of those suggesting legal action. thank God for the internet, where information like this is so easily shared...

time to share this link with several dozen other people...

EA's not likley to have too many fans after this, especially after newspapers contact them and news shows do stories about this article.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:22 am (UTC)
This practice is rampant in the game development sector, even in small studios.

My husband works for a studio where a guy recently had a heart attack, and instead of letting the poor man rest, the management kept in touch with him telling him how behind they were getting, and how it would be really great if he could come in and work. It was disgusting how they were trying to guilt him into working hours when he was suppose to be resting. This is what they do best. They make you feel like you are a disappointment to your team. That the game won't ship because of you, and you'll start losing them contracts.

Divorce and families troubles are common, workers have gotten into car accidents due to falling asleep at the wheel. Workers have had strokes, ulcers and other stress related conditions. This is a relatively young work force too. Most of these men are in their 20's and 30's.

Something needs to be done, and I think your approach of public awareness is brilliant. Thanks for being so brave.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 12:35 am (UTC)
Thanks for your comment. I read a comment from someone on slashdot who mentioned one of their coworkers DYING from overwork in a crunch like this. He went home one night and never came back, they found him on the couch... a cold had turned into deadly pneumonia. My SO has gotten sick twice on this project, and they just kept pushing him -- at one point the whole office was coughing. The slashdot post scared the living daylights out of me. Of course because there's two of us we're able to stop things before they get so bad, but it is not hard at all to see how something like that could happen under these conditions.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
getting sick - (Anonymous) Expand
No surprise here. - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:33 am (UTC)

Globaliztion

Here is another problem. If EA will come out of USA to china and india for bigger part of the production pipeline...Is it will be better to lose these job places at least for just aftercolledge workers?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 02:24 am (UTC)

Re: Globaliztion

EA is already starting up an office in China that is planned to have more emplyoees than in the states.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
Re: Globaliztion - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:34 am (UTC)

Oh boo hoo hoo

Tell your husband to quit and find another job that is as fun to do as making games. Let him work at UPS working regular 8 hour shifts packing boxes. See how much fun he has then, at least you won't whine because he is home everynight for dinner. Then you can have your social life and quit ruining other peoples days by bitching about how bad your life sucks.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 12:36 am (UTC)

Re: Oh boo hoo hoo

Oh, I'm sorry, did I ruin your day? My bad.
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Re: Oh boo hoo hoo - (Anonymous) Expand
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hah.. - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:35 am (UTC)

EA: The Human Story

The same thing has existed in the web development industry for the last decade. Bosses would always threaten to get "younger, cheaper and more dedicated programmers" if you didn't work unpaid overtime all the time.

The web industry is no different, but at least your EA stock options are worth something....
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 12:39 am (UTC)

Re: EA: The Human Story

Legally speaking -- and bear in mind I only have the vaguest notion of this from what I've been frantically trying to gather in the way of information -- those stock options can actually be dangerous. Once you possess stock in a company, there's a certain murkiness with the law as regards overtime exemptions. Again, I'm not 100% certain of how this works, and if anyone has further information I'd appreciate it, but it merits mentioning, since EA does put a lot of emphasis on exercising those stock options.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: sgpearl
2004-11-12 12:46 am (UTC)

Taking the Next Step

Dear ea_spouse:

Thank you for what you wrote. It takes tremendous courage to take a stand, as you did here. Most people just endure, and then just move on, either because they think there is nothing they can do or because they simply do not have the strength to stand up and be counted. The companies know this and they prey on it.

A friend sent me the link to your posting because I am an attorney and I help employees, particularly IT employees, recover for their unpaid overtime. Here is a link to my web site: www.ITOvertime.com.

I have lots of information there for anyone who is interested (you obviously have already done your homework) including the overtime statutes and regulations. You are absolutely correct that most IT employees do not qualify for the IT employee exemption, which is Labor Code Section 515.5.

First of all (and as strange as this may sound), the statute was never intended to apply to salaried employees. The legislature passed SB 88 because industry complained about having to pay hourly IT people time-and-a-half, when they were already being paid for each hour worked. The overtime regulations make this intent absolutely clear.

Second, in order to be exempt, an IT employee must make at least $44.63 per hour, which will increase to $45.84 per hour on January 1, 2005. Even if this exemption did apply to salaried employees, which it does not, you are right that the minimum salary to be exempt would exceed $90,000 per year ($44.63 x 52 weeks per year x 40 hours per week = $92,830.40)!

There is a reason why the legislature set this figure so high. Public policy requires companies to pay employees for their overtime hours, and you did a better job explaining the reasons for this than I possibly could.

I would love to help you and your spouse with this problem, if you both decide that is something you want to pursue. Even if you don't want to pursue it, I would like to post your story on my site. (I will not post it unless you say it's OK to do so.) What you've written applies to so many companies that only care about the bottom line, and not the impact on their employees and their families. You obviously wrote from the heart, and people should hear what you have to say.

Please let me know if I can be of help. In the mean time, I wish you and your spouse courage and strength.

Steve Pearl
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 01:11 am (UTC)

Re: Taking the Next Step

Hello Steve -- thank you for your comment, it is very informative, and hopefully will clear up a lot of questions that other commenters here have had about how the labor exemptions work. I do know that my SO and I do not intend to stop here as regards the whole situation, but we also have not decided what direction we will take, or with whom. The class action lawsuit involving artists has already been mentioned in this thread. It does not currently apply to programmers, so some of that field is still open, but the folk involved with that lawsuit believe that we are strongest if we stand together, and I agree with them, so any legal action would at least be coordinated in tandem with their efforts. I am trying my best to encourage other EA employees who have posted their stories here and elsewhere to take action on their grievances as well.

Please feel free to post my article on your website. I posted it with the information about the Creative Commons deed specifically so that readers would feel free and encouraged to re-post so long as it was for informational purposes and was unaltered. I have also given permission for the post to be translated into Russian for re-posting on another site... you, being a lawyer, might be better able to tell me whether the CC deed applies to translations, but in either case, the bottom line is that I would prefer that as many concerned people as possible be able to read this and be informed.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:53 am (UTC)

Leave the game industry for software development

I always aspired to be a game developer. I was always amazed by the quality of games produced year-by-year.

Game developers are the cream of the crop but they are underpaid and exploited. If you want better pay and normal work hours, go work for a software development firm.

The customers of software development companies are other companies and corporations that depend on the software for the day-to-day running of their business. Therefore SW companies know that to make a quality product that doesn't upset their VALUABLE customers, they can't kill their employees like EA does. They also hate losing employees because new hires take a-lot of time to get up to speed. Therefore they provide ALOT of good benefits and normal works hours to lure and keep employees. Because without them they will loose customers, reputation and business. But the FINAL customers of large Game Development(GD) companies are us, the consumers. They know consumers will buy any game as long as it has good hype or heritage. They produce crappy games that end up in the trade-in shelf next week, but they still get money for it. They don't have a reputation or support contracts to uphold.

I recently graduated with a BS. Computer Science degree and took up a new job. I'm not even 21 years old and I'm making over 59k with a TON of benefits, that with a GPA below 2.8 . Seriously quit and go for a SW company. Game developers are highly skilled. They can adapt and learn new stuff fast.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: segasnk
2004-11-12 01:01 am (UTC)

My thoughts.

I always thought EA was ruthlessly corporate. This company has been doing not just this but I heard about what they did to the Ultima creator and dumping the lastest Ultima project because it wouldn't make a profit. God knows how much "crunch time" they put those people in for.
EA has burned too many bridges and been too unoriginal. They're like a bigger Naughty Dog: no creativity and some games may have solid gameplay. Sorry it's just that very few times have I EVER seen EA take a risk with maybe one or two exceptions. If anyone ever wonders what would happen if you took Disney and made it into a game company you have EA except EA's stuff is more tolerable and in that I'm referring to Disney shoveling out DTV stuff.
In the end I'm curious on comments here. I apologize for not wading through everyone's comments since this entry was brought to my attention recently but I have a question towards working conditions in other companies. I read your comment about Blizzard, ea but I'm wondering about others. What about Valve? Capcom or maybe specifically Capcom USA. Konami especially and this ties into questionability of their U.S. or Japanese marketing officials intelligence(coughSnatchercoughPolicenautscoughDraculaXcough), same second part to Capcom USA. Has anyone here worked for any of Sega's R&D departments?
Let me make this clear I'm not critisizing the programmers but rather EA's behavior in stifling creativity otherwise who knows where EA's games might lead.
Anyway I guess people have said this already but have him look around. If the working conditions are good and he likes to be creative perhaps he can "outsource" himself to whatever happened to UGA or other places.
Also a giant question to anyone here. What's Atlus U.S. or Japan like to work for?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 01:08 am (UTC)

This is as good as it gets, folks.

All you twenty-somethings reading this and wondering if it will happen to you, or if it already has happened to you, you must realize this is as good as it gets for 99.999% of you. You put up with these hours for 10-15 years and what do you have? If you aren't crippled by carpal tunnel you will still be let go the minute you slow down because there is someone 15 years younger who wants your job. Or you are still in your prime but earning too much money so they fire you. That has happened at ILM in the past 6 months, 25 year veterians with tons of knowledge fired because they earn too much. After you get fired that next job will be hard to find. First of all you aren't naive and full of enthusiasm. Second the technology has passed you by.

So you get to be 45 years old and you go looking for a new career that will pay a third what you make now. To those of you who get into this rat race: save your money, don't buy fancy cars and plenty of needless toys, invest now in the stock market and buy a home in a good, upcoming neighborhood. Something you can sell quickly when the time comes.

Good luck.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 02:29 am (UTC)

Re: This is as good as it gets, folks.

The person who wrote this article is 100% correct about saving money. Regardless if you are a white or a blue collar worker, if you can put 10% of your income away every year and start doing this early on, the incredible amount of leverage on how you want to do with your life is great when you grow older.

If you want the toys now and go in debt up to your eyeballs because you have to be and look "cool", it will come back and haunt you when you get older. Toys are temporary gratifications of the hear and now. The price that you will pay is the quality of life of your near future.

I hope you 20 somethings understand that I was there, where you are now over 20 years ago, in a godforsaken meat-grinding job, with no hope of a future unless I made my own.

And that is exactly what I did.

I made my own future.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 01:10 am (UTC)
My husband works in a simular sisuation. Not nearly as bad but i feel for you greatly and hope and pray that it gets better for you as the story spreads and becomes more known. Take care
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[User Picture]From: epiphaniesrus
2004-11-12 01:18 am (UTC)

All right. I can't take it any more.

wtf is wrong with you people!? Are you anti-progress? Let's say you live in Texas in 1850. You say, "damn, my cousin lives in Atlanta. I wish there was some way I could talk to him quicker than by 3 week post, dagnabit." And your neighbor says "I'm working on an invention called the telegraph that will let you send messages long distances in seconds" (names and locations have been changed to protect the innocent, or to avoid looking up historical facts)

Is your reaction to say to shoot him in the leg and say "You some kind of whiner, you sissy?? The post office has always been in charge of state to state communication and that's the way it's always gonna be!"

Someone says "I'm extremely unhappy and I'd like to do something about it", you do not get to respond by trying to convince them that they're not really unhappy or they shouldn't be miserable or there's nothing they can do about it or any of that crap. A group of people says "we've been mistreated and we need help making it right" and you ought to react by saying "right on!" Do you tell someone who's just been hit by a drunk driver that they shouldn't outlaw drunk driving, just be thankful they didn't get in an accident on a muddy mountain road in Malaysia? Do you tell someone that's been a victim of ID theft that muggings are a lot more painful, so don't bother trying to recoup your losses - if you don't like it don't have bank accounts or credit cards?

How about, instead of telling people to shut up and take it up the ass, you actually look at the big picture and decide that maybe there is some room for improvement (I haven't heard a single person suggest otherwise) and that it might be time to do something about it.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 01:34 am (UTC)

Re: All right. I can't take it any more.

Most of these people saying "Boo-hoo" are either very young, have no family, or are workaholics themselves.

I hope.

Or maybe they're just assholes.
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