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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)
2004-11-11 03:37 pm (UTC)

Scew EA

Screw EA never buying a game from them, and also I hope your spouse gives out his code to the OpenSource Community to screw them over. EA I hope you guys get bankrupt by petty lawsuits from South America.
EA is in my Walmart bag. Hope they both perish into history and no one ever hears of them ever again.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:45 pm (UTC)
I worked for an IT group at SBC and it was exactly the same. I remember one day going in a 4:30 a.m., getting off at 11:30 p.m., and going back the next day from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. again.
MWhile we worked, my boss sat in his cube reading e-mail and talking on the phone.
I felt so angry and trapped, and everyone acted like it was an honor to have that job. And in most states there's no legal recourse. Want to go to HR? Good luck: your HR rep is there to cover the company's liability, not to be your advocate.
The final straw was when SBC enacted a new attendance policy and made it apply retroactively...so in 2002 I had a disciplinary hearing for having more than one sick day in 2000.
Thanks for being so eloquent about your situation. I have been there and I know how it destroys your life. Good luck.
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From: dsmart
2004-11-11 03:46 pm (UTC)
*sigh*

This is hardly surprising; its not just EA thats doing it. For years this has been discussed, debated and whatnot in several circles but given the industry, its not the kind of thing ANYONE wants to openly talk about - and for the obvious reasons.

The fact is, working conditions for game devs is a notch above (if not on par with) with slave labor. If you do the math of an average game dev's pay, compared to that of slave labor, you will find that they are quite comparable.

This sort of treatment has NOTHING to do with competition, it is just a means to an end and an excuse to squeeze every last breath out of an employee because the corp feels that they are doing them a favor by giving them a job. In the case of the larger big name companies, they have this attitude that working for them is a privilege that takes you places (especially if you get to put it in you resume) and most game devs will do anything to preserve that, rather than take the necessary action.

Its never going to change. Period. Lawsuiits won't do anything, except paint a bullseye on the ass of the whistleblower and a tattoo on their forehead that says something like [i]....I cannot be hired[/i]

There are lots of professions (e.g. firefighters, police, doctors, nurses, military etc) where dedicated people - of their [b]own free will[/b] - pull very long hours; most of which is unpaid. But it is their choice to make. In the case of the gaming industry, you usually don't have that choice.

e.g. I work 12+ hrs a day - crunch time or not - seven days a week mostly. I do it because I love what I do, not because I [i]have[/i] to. It is a [b]CHOICE[/b] that I get to make. Even my publishers (past and present) regard me as a vampire of sorts (it is a running joke) because no matter what time zone they are in, they can always count on hearing from me (IM, email etc) at odd hours of day - usually when they're just contemplating rolling over.

If I were working for someone (instead of heading my own gig), I would probably pull the same hours as long as it was [b]MY[/b] choice to make. When you don't have a choice, regardless of how much you love your job, the company, the benefits or whatever, resentment settles in. Once you go down that path of psychosis, there is usually no turning back because resentment is one of the most dangerous and destructive of emotions. Might as well go see a psychiatrist, get a prescription for an SSRI, keep your mouth shut, your emotions in check and plod through your gig if you want a paycheck; because making waves will just get you fired.

Given that most of the smaller rigs are getting routinely bought out by - or are reliant on - the bigger [abusive] guys - the Roses aren't always Red on the other side either; no matter who tells you what. Eventually - and this ALWAYS happens - the rig you jumped shipped to - will one day end up either in the folds of either the rig you jumped from or in business with them. Further, given the attention span of the industry and the alarming personnel turnover rate; if you make waves, people will remember you. The end result is you WILL be out of work for an indefinite period - no matter how great you are at what you do.

[continued]
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From: dsmart
2004-11-11 03:46 pm (UTC)

The game industry doesn't have rock stars (only naive gamers and foolish media proper, tend to think that) - we have eclectic and mostly eccentric artistes working in a tier based structure that amounts to being just short of a glorified and highly complex [and somewhat illegal] pyramid scheme.

Everyone wants the game industry business to mimic the Holllywood structure; but the only way that is going to happen, is if the emulation or adoption of that scheme is devoid of publisher interference.

The IGDA in its present form, is [b]useless and crippled[/b] in the protection of the interests of game dev members, due in part by the fact that it doesn't particularly know WHAT to do FOR its members. Taking a page from likes of other Hollywood organizations, unions etc, would go a long, long way to curbing this abuse of game dev talent.

As I've said over the years and in no uncertain terms, the industry needs a union that models other unions (e.g. the Hollywood unions are pretty robust and studios know better than to mess with them) and makes the interests of its members paramount. Once that happens - the IGDA is the only such organization (though crippled in more ways than one) that is currently in place to pull it off. The problem is, I doubt that ANYONE at the top (1) has a clue how to go about doing it (2) is brave enough to even dream it, let alone suggest it (3) has the clout to get heard, make waves without fear or reprisals, reprimands or whatnot.

We need a union with leaders who have balls and whose balls aren't connected by aligator clips to publishers, distributors or retailers. Given that most in the industry would rather talk shit, trash and whatnot all day long than stick their head out, NOTHING is going to change, period.

So, if you're in a sweat shop and don't know what to do about it, get psychiatric help, get a prescription, lay low and hope that you get to work long enough to put your kid through college.

I'm gonna go take a shower now.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:50 pm (UTC)

Which office?

Sorry, I didn't have time to read through all the responses.

I noticed that you mentioned Madden in your article. Does your husband work for the Tiburon office? I was approached some months back about a position there, and this article has me thinking, if he is, in fact, working in the Orlando (Tiburon) office...
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[User Picture]From: kittypoocaca
2004-11-11 03:52 pm (UTC)
so we should all stop buyins EA games today! I'll sure miss The Sims though.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:58 pm (UTC)
simple, get a new job
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:04 pm (UTC)

Screw EA

From now on I'm going to play their games if I can find a pirated copy.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:04 pm (UTC)

Re: Screw EA

I don't think that'll solve the problem.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:08 pm (UTC)

Your Spouse

Quit your fucking bitching, beeyatch! Maybe if you got off your ass and worked and contributed to the family instead of bitching online, your spouse could find a less demanding job!

Corporations - ALL CORPORATIONS - Suck! You don't like it, start your own company (with an honest partner, this time). Otherwise, go work at Denny's or some other less stressful place.

Stupid whore.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:26 pm (UTC)

Re: Your Spouse

She does work actually. This much you would have gleaned had you a basic reading ability.

Oh yeah, and starting your own company is such a piece of piss, no doubt you run your own mega corporation.

Though judging from your grammer, it's more likely you work at Denny's yourself.
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[User Picture]From: madscience
2004-11-11 04:13 pm (UTC)
As much as I sympathize, part of the blame lies with employees who don't have the dignity to "just say no."

One more reason for programmers to unionize. They'd have a stronger union than just about anybody, because you can't hire scabs to work on a large software project. It would take months just to familiarize them with the code base.
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[User Picture]From: pecosdave
2004-11-11 04:14 pm (UTC)

Been there, done that

for something no where near as cool or well paying as EA. Yep, I moved on and was much happier for it. I'm not saying anyone should HAVE to move on or endure these things, but it is a rather common practice. I'm usually not pro-union, but I think many of the technical fields need to start them, if only to let employers know they're serious. Hiring a few more people is a lot cheaper than not delivering on time because everyone suddenly quits or strikes.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:16 pm (UTC)

Sue Them Into Compliance!

I worked for a company with similar practices although no more than 10 hours a day and only if you wanted to. I didn't sue because I had respect for the owner but I could have and would had they operated with the attitude of EA. I guess now I can't purchase the latest version of Battlefield 1942!

Here is my advice. Find another job, then find a mean attorney and let them go to court. You'll get a decent settlement but I hope you'll take it all the way because settlements are only good for one person. A judgment is good for all the other co-workers at EA.

Good Luck!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:17 pm (UTC)

I'm out for good.

A few weeks ago I left the game industry forever. I loved making games, I loved the work, the money was good, but the job was literally killing me. I still have a lot of friends in a lot of different game companys, and it's the same all over.

My advise, get out of game development. My advise to anybody who wants to pursue it as a career, don't.
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From: thedarksyde
2004-11-11 04:19 pm (UTC)
I am sure this is going to get lost in the shuffle of 303 posts, but never should anyone with any talent ever work for a game company unless you want to stick with the shit to become an executive producer...

I work 35 hours a week, make more that 60K a year, and have stock and bonuses, at a medical company...doing software. There are tons of regulated, or sane companies that are not goign to kill thier IT group, who have tons of money and pay well. All the kids think its cool to work for game companies, and to become a developer there is killer, when your husband leaves some other fresh out of college kid will fill that spot, for way less than he should be paid, and work more hours than is humanly possible.

You are a spec on the map of developement, and unless you are the EP there is no future for you in game development, leave it while you are whole and get a good job where you are doing good, and get paid good, I help save peoples lives, have a happy home life, and get paid better than every game developer I know. Games are fun to play, but suck to work for.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 07:09 am (UTC)
To be honest, I would not be an EA exec proc for all the tea in China. They run the same hours as the rest of the staff, with the corporate level breathing down their necks to push the team even harder, add one more feature, fix one more bug. I also have no interest in being a slave driver, period, but it's not my experience that these guys have it any better.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:20 pm (UTC)

I dunno...

I am sympathetic to the cause of overworked people, but this sounds kinda like some exaggeration to me. How are they not giving OT? I know that Bush is probably gonna take it away soon, but as for now, if you work more than 40 hours, isn't it the law that they have to pay OT? And if the game was on schedule, and they were made to work like twice the hours, wouldn't the game have been released much, much earlier? Or were they told to be less productive while working longer or something?

I believe that there are plenty of avenues that someone in the position of your spouse can take. Obviously, find another job. Aside from that, there are plenty of lawyers that would take this case(I would bet pro-bo no for a chance to get some of that settlement money) if any of what you have said could be documented. It is outrageous that they could basically "make the time go away".

By the way, why would anyone stay at a job like this? Love of making games doesn't seem to make up for months and months of illegal, degrading, tedious drudgery. I have had jobs for days - hours, even - and quit because of bullshit policies or asshole bosses. According to one of the first comments here, from an EA employee of a different division, it doesn't seem to be company wide, which is a little strange. How could one part of the company get away with this? Wouldn't EA be aware of the legal ramifications?

Again, although I feel that yes, the situation you describe is horrific, and I have heard other seriously twisted stories of game developers and distributors, there are too many questions that I have to blindly say F EA.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:42 pm (UTC)

Re: I dunno...

it's government laws i believe that allow gaming companies, visual effects companies, and other high tech businesses to not have to pay OT. at least here in BC it's that way from what i've been told. then there are any positions of management that don't get paid OT either, whether you're working at McDonald's or somewhere else.

i don't think EA has done anything illegal, or else i'm sure there'd be tons of people looking forward to take them down. i think they just look for as many loopholes as they can possibly find. and not just EA, any company would love to take advantage of saving more money right? i'm not saying i approve of it, but you gotta take that into perspective as well. it's not just EA.

i have heard many stories, both good and bad. these seems to be on the more extremely bad side, but i have heard a couple others as well so there's no doubt in my mind that these things happen. but my experience with them has been pretty good, and you can't dismiss the fact that they can be a good company to work for. there will always be a few bad apples, whether they're in management, engineering, QA or arts. just gotta deal with those and change the way everyone thinks about having to work OT. hell, it's Remembrance Day and I just got into work! my team's been shrunk every year since i joined, even though we've been putting out a great game. that, i seriously don't understand. how can you continue to raise the bar when you're reducing the resources??
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Re: I dunno... - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:20 pm (UTC)

Probst salary

Well according to Forbes this is what he made last year:

Cash Compensation (FY March 2004)
Salary $672,759
Bonus $781,000
O
T
H
E
R Latest FY other short-term comp. $0
Latest FY other long-term comp. $720
Latest FY long-term incentive payout $0
Total $1,454,479

Stock Options (FY March 2004)
Number of options Market value
exercised 660,000 $22,785,397
unexercised 2,634,000 $97,887,737
unexercisable 1,386,000 $29,037,299
Total 4,680,000 $149,710,433

Thats a shame to treat employees like that


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