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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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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 07:42 pm (UTC)

Union

I agree. People have to organize.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:02 pm (UTC)

Re: Union

absolutely right. if the big publishers are consolidating their power, so must their employees. factory workers, tradespeople, agricultural workers, and the service industry have all stood up for their rights. so why can't the "smart" people of the information age do the same? it is NOT OK for a company to abuse its people in this manner, and the only way they'll realize it is through collective action. miss a couple of ship dates, and see what happens to the stock price. hit em where it hurts, the greedy bastards! get up, stand up! its not just a catchy song, its a call to arms. also effective: consumer boycotts.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:25 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Unions are a huge problem. Unions produce useless employees and create a major strain in the work place and generally cause the 'good useful' employees to lose out on the real benefits they should be getting. If the union was also self policing as to fire or put out lazy useless employees on the chopping block, then yes an union wouldn't be too bad.

Anyways, though I'm not in the game business (I strive towards it), I know how the near 24 7 programming clock works in the web/database dev world works and it isn't pretty.
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[User Picture]From: koppermoon
2004-11-12 07:03 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Unions produce useless employees and create a major strain in the work place

Sorry, I can't buy that - it's a myth. Union employees remain the same people they were before they organized. They just have better working conditions. I've been on both sides of the fence - management and employee - in both unionized and non-unionized work forces, and this is my personal observation from over 40 years in the workplace.

The idea that unions can control their members' behaviour - in any area, be it professional, personal, political - is simply laughable.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-25 07:02 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Unions produce useless employees and create a major strain in the work place

Sorry, I can't buy that - it's a myth.


It's not a myth. I'm in a union. I see it all the time. Being in a union breeds laziness.

The typical attitude is "Why should I do more than what I do now? We still get paid the same." This was a direct quote in response to me asking one of the guys why he hasn't volunteered for any of the projects my group had just taken on. And he's right. In a system that doesn't reward uniqueness, innovation, or creativity... and doesn't punish laziness or slacking off so long as (laughingly low) metrics are met, what motivation does anyone have for doing more than is expected. I like to think it's a personal ethics thing, but we've been told it's because we're young and that we'll eventually tire of working our asses off for no more reward than a nod from the boss.

The job security of being in a union and the lack of performance incentives CLEARLY breeds an employee base that is utterly useless.
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[User Picture]From: koppermoon
2004-11-25 09:06 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

You're clearly in a different workplace with a different collective agreement than mine. Mine does have performance incentives.

And this one:
The typical attitude is "Why should I do more than what I do now? We still get paid the same." occurs in non-unionized workplaces as well. Who of what is ultimately responsible for that? The company. If that is what they will accept, that is what they will get.

You see, I've been a manager in companies with both union and non-union staff, as well as employee in certified and non-certified workplaces, so I've seen many sides of the situation.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 07:49 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

In Sweden, where I live, around 80% of the working population are members of a union. Do you believe those 80% are all useless employees?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:01 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Well, the only Unions I don't like is where you have janitors and bus drivers striking twice a year trying to get paid 20 dollars an hour and as many paid vacation and sick days as they want. That disgusts me.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 08:39 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Yeah, how dare those janitors and bus drivers demand an honest day's pay and the right to take time off when they need it. A salary of $22,000 breaks down to roughly $11 an hour. After taxes are taken out, well, there's not a whole lot of money there. Try raising a family on that. Most janitors and bus drivers don't make a heckuva lot more than that, so they have to work multiple jobs at about 80 hours a week in order to break even. Fucking unions, giving them a chance to have rights.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 08:53 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

i think the guys that are sounding a little anti-union are heading in this direction.

a union says "For a person that does this job, they get paid this ammount"

the problem with this system is that not everyone is the same skill level, or as professional, etc. i am neither pro or anti union, i can see both sides of the argument have valid points.

to put this in perspective, my family owns a construction company (i am not involved, i took up an IT Job). the pay for a union laborer is approx $28/hr last time i checked. with insurance and such, it's about $40/hr the employer pays. now if you get a worker who gets the job done, and is good at what you pay him to do, there's nothing to complain about.

on the other hand, alot of the laborers from the union hall act as if they have never seen a shovel before, and the thought that they should use it in any way is laughable.

the point, i guess, is as i said earlier, you can say "you get this much, for this job, and for this many hours" but that doesn't take into acount the quality of the work or the dedication of the individual.

just my 2 cents.../shrug
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 09:09 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Same guy who wrote the above. kinda sounded like a cold @$$ in that to me, so i just wanted to say i'm not standing up for EA at all, sounds like they are a bunch of money grubbing bastards, and somethings DOES need to be done to them. was just stating my veiws on unions in general.

I know i'm not gonna be buying any EA games for a while, till i hear this has been taken care of
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 09:56 pm (UTC)

Unions arent a threat

When we say union, look at Hollywood. Look at the way unions have made sure people that help create movies that make multimillions get payed something up front. We are educated skilled people with a lot of desire to do good work.

A good game (not even the big sellers) sell around 1.5 million units (read 75 million dollars retail) and see the developers see nothing of that. Video game developer make less money than other branches of software developement even though the games they produce pull down insame amounts of cash. Publishers will continue to abuse this process until someone stands up to them.

The sadest thing I have witnessed is the fact that most employees feel threatened by unions and feel they can do better by taking on the EAs of the world by themselves. That is how they want it. That is why profit statements are hidden. That is why you aren't supposed to talk about salary with your fellow employees. They play their employees and potential employees against themselves and reap the benefits.

Sure unions will make it more expensive to develope games. Hollywood probably made the same arguement when it got unionized back in the day. Somehow they survived and still make profitable movies in their era of unions. They had to plan better and be more realistic about the cost of developement to make these movies but that sounds like a good thing to me. Currently most of the people I know in the games industry are living pay check to pay check. How can that be when you consider the level of profit.

Publishers will come back and tell you that many games fail. Its true but these same publishers lack the structure and organization to give most games a chance at success. Why? because they dont have to plan. They dont have to have a realistic budget. By just working people longer hours at unrealistic expectations they can push games out make their quarterly reports and start the next project.

Publishers live by the "my way or the highway" philosophy. Many of these developers who consider it a career dont want to miss their opportunity so they agree to unreasonable conditions. Unions are there to protect the employee. These young enthusiastic people dont know how to write a contract to protect themselves. They dont have the power to stand up to unreasonable goals.

Even more so, young developement companies have no way of protecting themselves from unreasonable contracts. If you are unwilling to agree to the contract offered by the Publisher there is another company out there that will. Once again playing developers against one another.

This isnt a question of abstract ethics, the people that run these small dev houses have employees dependent on them. They need to eat, support their families etc so they dont have time or the strength to stand up to publisher and protect themselves. They cant hold out long enough to shelter themselves nor would it matter in the current business environment.

The solution, some people say is just leave the industry. We dont want to, we just ask the industry to be balanced with fair business practices.
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[User Picture]From: luckykaa
2004-11-14 08:54 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

But london underground workers are also striking all the time, and they're on something like £30000 ($54000), and strict limits on the hours they do.
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From: slaixth
2004-11-16 05:35 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

So you think Unions are a HUUUUGE problem eh? Ever worked a job where you made an hourly wage? If you have I bet you enjoyed that time and a half you made for working over 40 hours in a week. Your employer is required under federal law to pay you 1.5 times your wage for hours over 40 according to the Fair Labor Standards Act signed by FDR. Y'know who got FDR to pass this law? LABOR UNIONS! That's right, if it weren't for labor unions nobody in this country would be enjoying the 40 hour workweek standard, nor would employers be penalized for working you longer than that, not to mention the host of other reforms the FLSA made. The FLSA took the most common elements in collective bargaining agreements and made that the standard for every hourly worker in the country.

You say Unions breed worthless employees. Well, in America we have lots of freedoms, such as the right to possess firearms. Problem is there are a few people who abuse this freedom and buy or possess firearms for the sole purpose of taking human life in cold blood. Does that mean that the 2nd amendment should be written out of the constitution? The same argument applies to Labor Unions, sure there are those who abuse the job security a Union offers, however the unions also protect those who do their jobs to the best of their abilities and prevent them from being exploited. If you outlaw guns outlaws will still have guns. If you outlaw labor unions you'll still have worthless employees. I've worked in both Union and non-union jobs and you have the same amount of worthless people in each. Your logic sir, is SEVERELY flawed!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-23 04:56 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Sorry you dont know, ive done both. Forming a union for all tech people would be a great idea. As far as companies in entertainment and creative/tech endeavors forming a union and then "produce useless employees and create a major strain in the work place" people working in ILM are in a union. Most would say their "useless" employees do fantastic work for their industry.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-02 08:51 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Union people fought and died for the following: the 8 hour day. The weekend. Overtime laws. Anti-child labor laws. Workers safety laws. Worman's compensation. A living wage. Equal pay for women and disabled people. The end of racial discrimination. The fact that you would insult those people who died for your priveleges and that you would insult people who try to make their working conditions better through collective action makes me realize why this country is headed in the wrong direction.

I work my butt off and am in a union. I am not lazy and am actually very very good at my job. The difference is - I get paid for every hour I put in and get good health insurance. Yeah, its really a "huge problem"

Read Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle" if you need to be reminded of your own history.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-05-24 09:07 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Yeah the Union's are great. My Grandfather ran a one man dairy in Sand diego. He had a small route a couole dozen customers, and he drove the truck himself. Except that the union insisted that he hire a union driver. well since he was a one man shop and had no use for a union driver he ignored their request. next was a demand that he hire a union driver. He ignored that and continued to deliver his own product and drive his own truck. one morning on his route about 25 guys stop his truck, empty his product on the ground and say have a nice day. He goes to the law and is told that what they did was perfectly legal. The next morning he is driving his route and they stop him again. This time they not only dump his goods but they beat the crap out of him. Again the law says it is perfectly legal (it is too). So not having enough profit in the business to support himself and a driver at union wages, he goes out of business and the big dairy (who just happens to be union) get's his route. Yeah tell me how great the frigging unions are.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-08-31 02:13 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

What your describing isn't a problem with unions, it's a problem with the law. They had no right to dump it out on the ground, as it didn't belong to them, they never bought it. If the law says they did, then clearly it's the law's fault, not the fact that there was a union.
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From: (Anonymous)
2008-08-20 11:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

theft, assault, and destruction of private property by civilians for civilian purposes are never legal.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 10:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Union

I helped start a union in my high-tech company. Our vacation has doubled, and we can't be fired at the whim of our famously crazy boss. We don't have to work crazy overtime anymore without comp time. Incomprehensibly, we're with the United Auto Workers, and they've been very helpful in teaching us labor law and helping us negotiate.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 01:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Union

I think that what many people have forgotten is that labour law was not caused to come in to existence by the large corporations of the day, way back when - it was a direct result of the working people applying pressure to these companies in order that they be given - "a fair deal" - and ultimately on the whole, still profit or benefit the large corporations.

There is really no 'fair way' in business - the capitalist system comes with a very important 'law' - "own your means of production as best you can" - now, you can make a difference - as others have made a difference by standing up for your dignity and for some respect and fairplay - you can refuse to become a slave, which is what it sounds like has happened in the gaming industry.

I have worked my fair share of crazy hours for tech companies; 6 month stretches of 7 days a week - 12 or 14 hours a day. I have watched friends and colleagues 'go over the edge' - start to drink heavily, have sleeping problems, divorce, and even one suicide. All for the 'glory' of 'doing something great' - well, I have nothing against excellence, however I do have something against killing yourself for that or abusing yourself and others. Business has become fanatical and I don't see much of a good reason for it either anymore - the irony of the gaming industry is that they design, develop and produce - "entertainment" - something to do to relax. How much relaxing do the developers and designers get out of this? It's inversely proportionate it seems.

Start a union - get control of your lives again - you're deciding to spend your time doing certain things, which means you trade time for the experience you hope to get out of a particular situation. Don't get taken down by it!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-15 02:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Union

Beware of the whole union thing. I was once part of the CWA years ago it has it's pros and cons. Make sure you have the right people there who won't lodge their heads up the asses of the companies. I watched this happen with the contract negotiations and we got screwed more than once because of it. They can work and they can help keep the big bad pricks in line, everyone just has to keep with it if it happens and not let go. The union protects you but ulitmately you protect yourself.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 11:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Union

Unions in the software business will never happen. You have no leverage.
It is too easy to ship all development overseas where the same work can be done for one-third the price. Suck it up or find another job!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-23 05:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Union

People like you need to get a clue about offshoring. 1. its not cheap setting it up. 2. no guarantees the work will be the same quality. 3. No company can ever ship 100% of its work overseas. 4. The reason there are alot of American/British/Japanese studios is beacuse they can relate to the consumers' wants/desires in a game, we know what is "cool". 5. Its only 1/3 cheaper to ship a job over to another country.....in 5-10 yrs it wont give you nearly as much of a return. 6. When you ship it overseas it will take months to bring it up to an operational level....try floating without a team who left as a group, for 6 months and see what happens to your EPS. For the american worker in tech, like me, we need to set standards, we need some organization to protect us.... and ultimately we must do this ourselves...we tend to slowly roll of jobs and then those jobs trickle over to an overseas firm....slow death, not a cool thing.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-04-14 09:07 am (UTC)

Re: Union (Trip Hawkins comments at Stanford 13-Apr-05)

Trip Hawkins, founder of EA, spoke at Stanford Wednesday. He pointed out that Electronic Arts was in fact named after United Artists, the Hollywood union started by Charlie Chaplin. During the question and answer period he suggested, quite stronly in my opinion, that it would be prudent and appropriate for EA workers to unionize.
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