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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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[User Picture]From: crankyuser
2004-11-11 12:04 am (UTC)
The IGDA has some interesting papers about quality of life.

All of this is quite familiar to those in the industry, but few places do anything about it. And comp time and profit sharing are being eroded, especially as smaller developers get taken over by publishers.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:04 am (UTC)

interesting

Is the no overtime pay the same for all EA studios? I know that here in BC it's like that 'cause the government changed the laws to give insentive for high tech businesses to work up here. I've yet to receive my first bonus, so I have no idea if it'll really make up for all the overtime hours I do put in.

I spoke to my manager once and his opinion is very strong that there should NOT be any overtime needed. He pointed out how everyone always goes, "Oh, that's just how the industry is," which was the thinking I had as well until he pointed that out. It does NOT have to be that way. Overtime should not be needed if the planning is done well ahead of time and no changes are made after it's approved. The people I work closely with do not push me to do overtime at all and would much prefer I didn't. But since that's how it's been, people still do it. So far I'm going onto my 2nd week of 12-hour days...

There have been other things I've noticed or been told about that I find it so strange that the company would actually do it. I think that people in QA get the short end of the stick, they're expected to work insane hours for such little pay (and no one respects them which is damn sad 'cause without them, there'd be no game!). Though some leads are more laid back and will allow people to take time off if they really need it, some are more strict about it and tell you to deal with it. I think that it does come down to a person-to-person basis as well. The people that I've worked with are more to the laid back end of the spectrum and question the decisions that fly around, but I've heard other stories from around the studio.

The money thing I also don't understand. They seem to waste money on such small things yet become anal when it comes to raises or head count... I'm sure there are some laws that gaming companies, and even visual fx houses, are going around and/or breaking. But no one wants to step up to do something about it. I guess a lot of us are desperate to keep our jobs? I know I'd rather be working here than most of the other companies around town from hearing other horror stories. It's such a small community here and everyong knows everyone else. You rub off the wrong way with one person, word's gonna spread.

I think that the whole industry will have to change their mind set, or else something like unions will step in. Don't know if unions will be a good thing or not, I've heard both. But something will probably happen eventually if things don't change.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 02:07 am (UTC)

Re: interesting

I here you,

I live in BC and work for another game company (not EA) and lately I've been "required" to work 12 hour shifts for this project.
This is retarded and not necessary. Even though I'll put in the extra hours if my part of the project is late or I have to debug some problem, but doing this for weeks at time is just f***ing stupid. Maybe we should unionize, after all unions form themselves when management becomes abusive.
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Re: interesting - (Anonymous) Expand
Re: interesting - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:17 am (UTC)

EA Spouse

A woman with the courage to say what I have been thinking for some time now. My SO is an EA employee; an unhappy, frustrated, over worked, and drastically underpayed employee. I have heard what employees are told in their meetings "Oh - Look at how much money we made this quarter - EA is doing so well." Why aren't these earnings being passed on to the individuals working 6 and 7 days a week. The individuals who don't see their families for days. I make dinner for my SO every night - but he never gets to sit down and enjoy it with his family. Our family time is suffering. We live modestly, but we are suffering financially. All of this from a company that is on Fortune 500's list and has touted that the average salary is $60, 000!!!! Let me tell you, that my SO's salary is not even close to that. And yet he bites his tongue and works weekends - because he knows EA will dispose of him. EA employees are disposable. Hopefully we will be saying "Adios" to EA soon. Our livelihood depends on it.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:24 am (UTC)

Re: EA Spouse

I'm just waiting for the higher-ups to pull aside our spouses and tell them to get their wives under control.

Is anyone higher up seeing this? I hope so. You guys need to learn that you can't treat your workers (or their families) like crap, and expect us to enjoy it.
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No royalties? - (Anonymous) Expand
Re: EA Spouse - (Anonymous) Expand
Re: EA Spouse - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:19 am (UTC)

We are NOT alone!

This is not uncommon in the world of games...and I must say, I blame us, the game professionals for letting it happen. So many of us labor away until a specter of unemployment. The "if you don't like it...leave" attitude is far too common. I work at a game developer that specializes in handheld and downloadable games...where we've encountered much the the same treatment. This isn't a big publisher like EA, or Ubisoft (although we've dealt with them)...this is a smaller developer (which, thankfully, has yet to be swallowed up by the big companies).

Employees "forced" to work long hours is not uncommon. It's happened here. Sometimes the norm...sometimes with annoying repetition. This is mostly due to poor lack of planning and organization within the management structure (which would, apparently, rather schmooze and count the money than run an effective environment). Sometimes it's down to mistaken scheduling or even pathetic (and downright unprofessional) "project improvisation" (because the managers down really know what the hell they're doing...but isn't that always the case).

Concerned employees who "dare" to speak the truth in the hopes of improving morale and *GASP!* product quality, have faced everything from being ignored to being threatened with firing (hell...once or twice the threat has been carried out).

Professionals in ANY market are going to experience the usual headaches...I realise that. But the current treatment of creative individuals (programmers and artists alike) in this industry is appalling. Many of my peers (some even within the halls of EA) and I agree that our current position, may be our last in the game industry. THAT'S HOW BAD IT IS.

Form a union? I'd be for it, frankly. I'm tired of how poorly I (and my peers) are being treated. Would it ruin things? Probably not. Unions may have made Hollywood a complicated process to newcomers...but it's not impossible. Some of us know how that process works firsthand, and let me say...it works out well.

EMPLOYEES: Here's my only problem with all this talk about forming a video game workers' union...the video game workers. We're like oar rowers in Ben Hur, complete with whips cracking away. Anytime anyone mentions such a thing here...everyone gets nervous and looks for management "spies"...just in case. FOLKS! We're the NERVE CENTER...the BACKBONE of what makes this industry work. Talk all you like...it won't change anything. It only takes some huevos to DO IT! I'll be right up there at the front of the line, but I cannot, and will not, do it on my own. There has to be a concensus...so starting thinking SERIOUSLY about this! NOW!

EMPLOYERS: Here's a little "PRO TIP" for you...TREAT YOUR ARTISTS AND YOUR PROGRAMMERS WITH RESPECT! This isn't just about money. We came into the game industry with the understanding that we would be sacrificing our valuable time on this planet (time that could be spent for ourselves, our families, and our own creative needs and projects) for YOU. Do us a favor...understand that we are not third-world country child laborers (although, the number of outsourcing companies overseas is growing at a plague-like rate). We are not burger-flippers...we (all of us) are thinking, feeling human beings who want to feel good about what we do. And we would like to do it for employers who know how to treat these creative teams with respect. Otherwise, what's the point? YES...there is a massive pool of people just waiting to get into the market. But you know what? It's like any natural resource...and your ill treatment will deplete the supply.

THIS FORUM IS PROOF OF IT!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:12 pm (UTC)

Re: We are NOT alone!

I would be up for joining a union. This needs to end!
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[User Picture]From: seiryu_16
2004-11-11 12:21 am (UTC)
Man oh man.

I knew EA sucked. I mean, I really did. But there's a vast ocean of difference between knowing something is bad and knowing exactly HOW bad. That's downright unconscionable.

I just got into the industry - literally 3 months ago - and am undergoing training to be a designer at a wee little developer called Papaya Studio. My position is currently the general jack-of-all-trades writer/press person/et cetera, but I'm being coached and trained by other designers as often as they can be spared. I'm really dammed proud of this place, and honestly speaking, I love my job. I was taken in with no experience at all - just my college degree (in ENGLISH, I should add - not something like CS!) - and am being trained by talented and experienced designers and staff. One of the reasons I like it here so much is that there's a great blend of really experienced industry professionals and young greenhorns like myself - our president has really gone out of her way to take in newbies (despite the risk of high turnover) and inject some life into the industry in a way that won't sap the newcomers of all their strength and leave them jaded husks. Woo for not being a jaded husk! And as I hear it, other developers like Gearbox are doing the same.

That bragging aside, I just want to tell you that 1) there is hope, and 2) I'm behind you 100%. I'll send out the feelers, touch on those who are deeply concerned about the path the industry is taken, and hopefully, if unionization occurs (thank Jeebus if this DOES happen), try to help everyone adjust. I think EA's time is running out - I HOPE it is - and people are quickly wising to their game.

Thanks again for your post. I know more than a few people who will find it more than a little bit intriguing, and I will be sending it out to them with due speed. Hang in there ::pat on shoulder::
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-11 12:41 am (UTC)
I'm glad to hear the good information about Papaya. Believe it or not, we have been looking around, and Payapa was a studio I'd earmarked for research because the openings you guys have right now suit both of us. Design is a wonderful field and hard to break into -- congratulations on getting in. Thank you for sending feelers -- I appreciate any and all efforts to spread the word about this.
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whatever - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:22 am (UTC)

Hmmm

I work for another large studio and this is making the rounds like wildfire, thanks for the ray of hope :)
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-11 04:08 am (UTC)

Re: Hmmm

Glad to provide hope, if I did, and here's hoping for more in the future.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:26 am (UTC)

Problem, solution.

This entire post is about whats wrong, but does not present anyway to fix it. If things are really that bad, you have a duty to do something about it. Talk about unions, class-action lawsuits, and striking. You should not sacrifice your health for this. Fight back.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:33 am (UTC)

Re: Problem, solution.

Well, the first step is shedding light on the problem, and getting people to realize that they can do something about it if we band together. Seems to me, that's what the point of this entry is.
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Tiburon - (Anonymous) Expand
lawsuit - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:45 am (UTC)

Hours

It's very similar in the visual effects industry.
Sony was getting a very bad reputation, like EA.
They finally did a good job of revamping their structure,
so that it is not as bad at Sony as it used to be.
But a lot of the other visual effects houses still
work the 6 and 7 day weeks and outragious hours...
So beware what you wish for, when you look at switching
from games to movies, web, or tv. They all have pretty
hellish hours. So if you have a job at a company that
treats you well, and you have your weekends off,
consider yourself lucky, and don't complain about
your low pay, etc... You usually have a choice.
Work 40 hours a week at some call center, or work
at a creative job, and deal with the long hours...
A lot of people want to work on games and movies,
but once they get into the industry, they realize
how hard it really is, in terms of hours, etc...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:56 am (UTC)

Re: Hours

The thing is, though, it doesn't have to be that way in the gaming industry. A lot of this problem can be laid at the feet of poor management and design. If they had a better plan going in, and didn't actually schedule crunch time to be a months long process, it wouldn't the problem it is.

Other software companies (non-game ones, and a handful of smaller gaming companies) are able to create products that don't require 70 or 80 hour work weeks.
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Re: Hours - (Anonymous) Expand
Re: Hours - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: panaphobic
2004-11-11 12:47 am (UTC)
This is why unions are necessary...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:10 am (UTC)
Yes, the industry badly needs either a huge lawsuit or two, or a union. Or both.

That goes for the UK industry as well, although we don't seem to have it quite so bad, it still takes the piss.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 01:08 am (UTC)

I am also an EA spouse

My Spouse used to work for 3D0. They worked on a couple of games there until the studio closed. As an employee there they would work pretty normal hours on an extremely flexable schedule (as long as 40hrs were workd management didn't care). Near the end of the year there was crunch time usually a month where 10hr work days 6 days a week for 2-3 weeks. They were given comp time to make up for the OT and extra days worked. I used to complain about it a bit, but this was part of the cycle of being the spouse of someone in the game industry.

Then EA came along, the paycheck got bigger. The flexable schedule went out of the window. The the first milestone crunch came 3 weeks of working 7 days a week. Only after the workforce became to exhausted to go on were they grudginly given a day off (sunday, but on call so they could be pulled back inside). They did that for so many mile stones, that it looked like one big crunch.

EA really needs to look at how much money they spend on rehiring new employees and get a clue. They need to take the big bucks that they spend on getting new employees up to speed and use it to make the lives of their existing employees more reasonable. Those employees need time to cool down and to recharge their creative batteries. Most companies realize that tired employees are much LESS productive than rested ones.

I am completely sick of what EA is doing to my Spouse. I just wish that we didn't have to go through the uncertainity of finding a new job to get out of this BS. The ugly thing is they do this to all of their employees, from project management down though the QA testers (one of my friends is a QA testers and has worse hours than my Spouse).

I really do wish the employees of EA would unionize, but in this era of union busting i just don't see it happening there. EA will continue to exploit their workforce until someone either legislates a resolution to the issue or lots of employees and ex employees sue for back pay.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 09:29 am (UTC)

Re: I am also an EA spouse

Hey Kit, how's it going?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 01:08 am (UTC)

EA

I dont understand why all these engineers dont just pull together and start there own company!!! with all that tallent im sure they culd come up with some great games also..
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:20 am (UTC)

Re: EA

Spark (sparkunlimited.com) did and got sued by EA. The case got settled, the work situation there is even worse than it was with EA.
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[User Picture]From: dark_angel69
2004-11-11 01:09 am (UTC)

Fuckers.

I've always wished that CEO's like that could be thrown in jail, sewed (for very very large amounts of cash) and then shot. Fuckers who treat us like that don't deserve anything good in life. That, along with outsourcing of programmers is what pisses me off most in life. I truly do hope this post of yours makes an impression and, something is done about it in a big way. I'm very glad to see so many comments.

Wonderful post btw, very well written and definatly makes me continue to enjoy my 36k a year programming job where I work at most 2-3 weeks a year over 40 hours.

I'll never work for EA, thank you.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 01:11 am (UTC)
I'm not actually a headhunter, but rather an animator at one of their studios. They're hiring so I figured I'd drop a note for people.
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From: joestraitiff
2004-11-11 01:13 am (UTC)

I was recently fired from EA because I refused to work the insane long hours.

So I'm posting under my real name -- you have to stand up to this type of thing or it will continue. And every company will become EA so that can compete... Remember, you can't spell ExploitAtion without EA.

So I typed WAY to much to fit in a comment... So I added it to my own livejournal click here to read the full story:

http://www.livejournal.com/users/joestraitiff </a>

-Joe Straitiff
formerly Software Engineer III
of EA formerly Maxis
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 02:43 am (UTC)

Get a lawyer!

You should get a lawyer! someone here posted the numbers of someones lawyers sueing EA already. What they did was illegal to you.

> > Todd Heyman
> > Telephone: (800) 287-8119
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wombat! - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 01:36 am (UTC)

Poor project management?

The biggest vacuum in game development seems to be in development methodology and discipline. Pretty much everyone is given free reign to code, design, and demand whatever the hell they feel like with no measurement or metrics to guide decision makers. It should no longer be a surprise that this anarchy leads to late delivery and extended crunches - the books have been written and the research done.

Game companies will grow up over time. The quality of all parts of game development is realtively low in the game industry - planning, management, and programming. We're left with a legacy of people who've been too busy to learn new technologies, disciplines, and methods. These are the people who are now leading the teams of today, passing on their bad habits of the past, and using ad-hoc development processes because they don't know any better or don't understand how new methodologies could possibly work (for example, pair programming is usually too scary).

As time passes, everyone will get better at what they do and game development will be streamlined so that it is possible to work regular hours for longer, and produce decent games.

If you want to make a difference in your company, instead of forming a union I recommend requesting additional time and money for additional education adn workshops - especially for management. Try and talk everyone into learning about development discipline. Plant the seeds of improved processes and give your bosses phone number to good management consultants.

Speaking of which -- any testimonials for development discipline? Or for management consulting?



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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 02:16 am (UTC)

Re: Poor project management?

finally someone with a solution and now the problem is how to make this happen. there are so many insecure, immature and incompetent middle managers at ea, any useful suggestion would be lost in their selfishly consciousness for their own job security.
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