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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
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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 12:32 am (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

(Link)

Just got back form doing hard time there for a month. 14 hour days, 7 days a week. I make less than half of that 90k salary I'd have to get in order to be exampt from overtime pay.
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:37 pm (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

(Link)

In that case I'd point out that Microsoft had abusive practices towards contractors and they got a class action suit for their trouble. One they lost.

If EA is violating the law frequently then a lawyer should begin contacting people within the company for participation in just such a suit.
From: atomatom
2004-11-12 11:18 am (UTC)

HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

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First, I made an agreement w/my SO that I would put in whatever hours I had to during the week so that I would not have to work weekends (this is before they started instituting mandatory 6-7 day work weeks). I got used to sleeping 5 to 6 hours a night so I could put in 14-16 hour days during crunch time.

Second, I stuck it out as long as possible, almost 2 years, and when I was getting really, really burned out, I quit.

Working at EA was a good decision. I got a highly recognizable entry on my resume, and learned some new things there.

Quitting EA was a great decision. I'm so happy not to be working there anymore. I don't regret it in the least. :)

I'm a tech manager now, and I'm still working on games: I love my job, love my boss, treat my team right, we kick ass. There's always a lot to be done, but we don't have to work insane hours, and I would never ask my team to work on the weekend.

EA managers do not understand that developers perform WORSE when they're burnt out. It's my job as a manager to recognize when that's happening and I do give my guys time off when that happens. Together we strategize about how to work smarter, rather than harder.

EA_SPOUSE: You're right, this kind of mismanagement is not a dependable business model, particularly for the industry leader. It'll work for them in the short term, but it's obviously getting worse, and it's not sustainable. Eventually they will have to change. Kudos to you for accelerating that change. I didn't care enough after leaving to look back. After your spouse quits EA, maybe you'll have more perspective on it. Good luck!
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 05:43 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

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I worked in the games industry for 10 years, and I can tell you that this is common practise in a lot of games companies. I've even worked for companies where the upper crust or project managers (they liked to call themselves producers) took pride in that people worked these insane hours. At one company in Los Angeles that I worked for we were working on a sports game for EA. Towards the end of this project, we the team worked 14 hour days, seven days a week, and if you didn't show up the next day (typically due to being exhausted, they would call to find you and explain to you that its the best for own good to show up). In this company they didn't even pay us our promised bonus (no it was never in writing), blaming it on that the game didn't do well enough in the market space. There's a reason to why games companies prefer to hire really young people without attached girl friends/wifes, I'm sure you can figure it out...
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-20 09:44 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE

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Long hours is nothing new. I am a programmer @ well know fps gaming house. We work on average 15 hours a day including weekends. I'm sorry to say it but there is no getting away from this reality - if you wanna work in the gaming industy you have to "suck it down".

Hey think of it like this - get that office with a window & you can gaze down on your red in the parkinglot :-).
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-20 04:58 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE

(Link)

You sound young. To more mature people, family life is more important having a sports car.
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 10:01 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE

(Link)

Ummmm.... my husband has worked at 3 different major game companies; and none of them has ever, EVER, made him work inhumane amounts of hours like that. Every day we're grateful that he couldn't take a job at EA. Given their deceitful tactics during the interviews... I couldn't be happier that EA has been slapped with a class-action lawsuit. He's one of the best in the business; his only mistake during his interviews must have been making it clear that he has a wife that he loves very much. We're certain that's what kept him from being hired there. And thank God.
Re: HOW TO COPE - (Anonymous) Expand
Re: HOW TO COPE - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-17 02:06 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE

(Link)

Whoo. Is that all you have going on in your life? Yer being conned son....
From: (Anonymous)
2005-09-28 06:14 pm (UTC)

Your right, but....

(Link)

Your a programmer, theres a diffrence, you make more money than most of us who work on the in game design.
From: (Anonymous)
2006-03-06 08:10 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE

(Link)

your red in the parking lot? are you serious the funny thing about that is when you are finaly driving your "red" you are alone!!
From: (Anonymous)
2006-03-20 12:20 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE

(Link)

> get that office with a window & you can gaze down on your red in the
> parkinglot

My red what?
Re: HOW TO COPE - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2009-03-02 10:14 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE

(Link)

Hey People just keep f**king and making babies. It's inevitable that the worth of one human's time is going to become less and less. Add to that the fact that the US is already inflated beyond reality. With the power of the internet the world is becoming less separated and having work done in other countries is not unrealistic. If you want the game development job, which is highly portable, then you're going to have to compete with other countries like India or China. If u want to get paid 5 times what they make over there then.. you might have to work extra extra hard. If u want a job that can't be ported over to India become a nurse. A nurse IN California has to live IN California and pay California bills etc...
To make a game on schedule takes a lot of capital. And sadly the people who have a lot of that aren't so interested in making games as they are making money. THey want a bigger return than just seeing a group of talented game developers make a comfortable living and support their families.
Tell me I'm wrong. I want to be wrong.
Re: HOW TO COPE - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-30 07:04 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

In regard to that EA humane story. She indicates that EA pays well and the benefits are good. First of all, I used to work at EA of over 11+ years, I left to pursue other challenges, but regreted ever leaving. I'd wished I never had left. It was the best job and company I ever worked at. I was there in the beginning when the company was small and watch it grow into one of the biggest entertainment companies that is out there today. I know what benefits EA has to offer and there is not one other company out there that offers what EA offers....

Secondly, she said that the pay and benefits was good, then she mentioned that EA doesn't pay OT, Comp time, and doesn't give people (team) time off. So, which is it? Make up your mind! If your husband is not happy, then tell him to quit! and find a job that is hourly. Then find another job in the same entertainment field that is better.

Thirdly, I was there when EA bought out Maxis. Any kind/type of take over, there will be harsh feelings with the employees involved. Just keep this in mind, if EA didn't buy out Maxis where would Maxis be today?? That would go for any other of the buy outs that EA had purchased through out the years.

Last but not least. You babies have to stop crying and live in the real world. It's a dog eat dog world and we all need to just deal and if you can't deal, then get out of that type of business period.

I could on and on, but I said what I needed to say.
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-01 08:37 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

"Need to stop crying and live in the real world"? Take some of your own advice, pal. Employers who destroy individuals and families so that their stock can go up a quarter of a point have no place in this world. None whatsoever. And when a company gets as big and monolithic as Electronic Arts has become, it's a BAD THING.

I don't know what part of "happy employees are productive employees" it is that you don't understand. The longer you can keep your team onboard, the more experienced they get. The more experienced, the more focused they are, the better your product. So many studies suggest that EA could be doing -more- with -less-. Who should we believe -- the splendid results from developers who treat workers well (i.e. Bioware) or someone like you?

And with regard to your own last sentence: "I could on and on". Forget something there? Little glitch creep in unnoticed? Funny how reading your writing feels like playing any given EA release.
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-02 05:31 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

You are such an idiot. "You babies stop crying and live in the real world."

What are you talking about? Who makes the world? We do. We control the vertical. We control the horizontal. EA has made a conscious decision to go down a bad path. I believe in the win-win and I work at companies who endorse that thinking. Now I don't work in the games industry (I just play the games), and after reading this thread figure I probably never will. I work long hours and I work smart. But the conditions outlined here are a joke. Somebody's making a buck on somebody else's back. Time for the programmers to unionize I reckon.

Adam
Re: EA - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-10 12:52 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

"if EA didn't buy out Maxis where would Maxis be today?? That would go for any other of the buy outs that EA had purchased through out the years."

perhaps if publishers weren't constantly trying to get AAA titles in 6 months, and then closing said companies down (by default - with no funding) when their ridiculous development schedule and meddling external producers (who have wangled their way to the top from a QA department) finally result in yet another copycat no-sales no-brainer.

Good things take time, regardless of how big your marketing spend (and marketing mouth) is.
From: (Anonymous)
2005-02-13 02:24 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

EA has become a huge media giant that should fall. EA is absorbing these smaller companies, like Maxis, and then dissolving the employees to something else. Take Westwood for example. They made some of the most influential games in the industry with their Real Time Strategy games. EA bought them out, let them make C&C Generals (a pretty mediocre game) and then dissolved it. Mr. I used to work at Maxis, you are most likely either a lackey of EA, a disgrace to Will Wright, or both. EA is cutting the competitive edge out of gaming. Remember EA, giants are eventually charged for monopoly.
From: (Anonymous)
2005-04-21 12:38 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

To the person who identifies this world as "a dog eat dog world." I feel sorry for you. To think that you honestly believe that we need to live in a "real world" that involves 14 hour work days 7 days a week makes me sad. Have you even tried to listen and understand this person's situation before you impose your own judgment here? I actually find your response to be hurtful. It's fine if you think working an insane amount of hours is okay for you....however, you are not in the position to impose your brutal labor practices on others. Furthermore, it's people like you who perpetuate these illegal acts and create a disfunctional society.
From: (Anonymous)
2005-09-28 06:19 pm (UTC)

Did you read what she wrote or did you make it up as you skimmed

(Link)

Her husband was told the benefits were good, and was decieved into thinking he recieved the good stuff like comp time and OT. And you were there when the company was small, as more money gets involved more people get skrewed. If you also read what she wrote, she mentioned and cited documents that state its illegal what EA is doing.
From: (Anonymous)
2005-02-13 06:09 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

This work practice definitely is illegal. Making employees work overtime hours without pay when they don't qualify for the exemption rule of 90K salaries per year is illegal. It's great that the employees at EA are joining together to file a class action law suit against the company. I'd say sue them for every penny they've got for treating humans like robots or worse yet slaves. It doesn't matter if this practice in the industry is the norm or not, it's still illegal.

I've never worked in the game industry before, although I at one point had aspirations to do so, and now after reading this article am quite discouraged.

I have, however, worked in the automotive industry as a manufacturing engineer on new vehicle launches. There too working long hours are the norm and typically fresh college grads are placed on the job as I was. It was required to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week and in addition you were placed at the launch site of the new vehicle which was typically out of state or out of the country (in the case of Canada and Mexico) and away from your family of course.

However, there are some very distinct differences between how the automotive industry managemet handles its employees and the game industry's way which is very sloppy and inefficient in my opinion.

Difference number one is that you get paid for every hour you work. So if you are doing 84 hours a week you get paid for every single hour. I was contract so I got paid straight time for the ot I worked. However the direct hire guys really made out big. They got 1.5 hours for every hour they worked over 8 hours on a weekday. On Saturday's they got paid 1.5 hours for every hour they worked. On Sundays's they got paid double time for every hour they worked.

Difference number two, even if you are working out of state on a launch assignment, the company pays for you to either fly or drive back to visit your family for weekends every 2-3 weeks.

Difference number three, you are paid all expenses for your out of state assignment. Food, gas, lodging, laundry, rental car - you name it, it is paid for. If you were a direct hire (I was a contractor at the time) you also get a per diem for meal allowances. You got about 50 dollars a day whether you used it or not. So that's like an additional 1500 a month right there. Also, the contractors got to stay in some really nice corporate housing fully furnished and fully equipped apartments with washers/dryers, stove, balcony, the whole bit. Sometimes the direct hire guys were put up in 3000K+ month condo's which were just plain awesome.

So the end result is that people wanted to go out on product launches because of all the incentives. Not the other way around as in the game industry where you are exploited.

I've been with the same contracting company in the automotive industry and still am for the past 9 years now and haven't regretted one day of it.

Now that I have family, my company has stop sending me on launches because they realize I am human. I was promoted to a sr. level engineering job where I work only 40 hour weeks now. I love all the extra time I have on my hands now to play with the kids and enjoy my hobbies. I used to be a huge video/computer gaming buff, but now rarely have the time to spend on it with family, job and school responsibilities. I'll break out a game every once in a while and play. My favorite right now is Warcraft III.

Oh yeah and one more thing. I know quite a bit about human psychology and physiology since I studied it in college and have a personal interest in health. Studies have shown that people work most productively when they have frequent breaks. Time-motion studies have proven this as well. It's a fact people work best in spurts. The same thing applies to studying as to work. You'd rather work or study in 30 minute spurts with 5-10 minute breaks in between, than burn yourself out working 12-14 hours straight.
From: (Anonymous)
2005-02-13 06:12 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

Post continued....

The game industry has to read a good book on human physiology to understand that's just the way human's operate. We need to take breaks. Working 14 hour days has a point of diminishing returns after a while. Even when I worked 84 hour weeks, I got every 2-3 weekends off to visit family. If the game industry doesn't even allow that than they are just plain exploiting people and much worse breaking the law.

Anyways, that's my two cents worth. Hopefully it gives some perspective to people working in the game industry from people working in the automotive industry.
[User Picture]From: wolfsilveroak
2005-03-17 08:46 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

EA managers do not understand that developers perform WORSE when they're burnt out
Yes they do, and in turn , those of us who buy the games that come out are disgruntled about the bugs that are in the games. And yes, I speak from experience as a Beta Tester. For EA its all about making money, anyway, anywhere, anyhow.
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-26 05:05 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

(Link)

Im an architecture student in Louisiana, and i have to say that this blog really hit home for me. We in the school put in similar hours, but dont get paid...in fact, we actually pay to subject ourselves to this hell (what the hell was i thinking?!) What i know though is that our nightmare will eventually end (after 5 years) but yours seems to be perpetual. All i can say is that life is too short to be spending the majority of it making money for some asshole who makes shitty games. Mabey money and a nice car are important, but most people will have to pay the price, both in money and quality of life. What good is an awesome sportscar if you can't drive it in the sun (because you work during the daylight hours)? Ive decided to side with the blog. Making C's in school is far better than wasting the prime years of my life sitting on a hard stool in a room with 30 other people, working like a child in a sweatshop.
From: (Anonymous)
2008-05-09 10:34 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

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I agree with you as a beta tester as well. They destroy their great minds. WE end up with bug after bug then the game is squashed. I personally after reading this article and after the recent experience I've had with them squashing a great online game.. have decided to boycott all ea products. They don't deserve the money, the smaller companies do. Specially if they don't treat their employees like robots.

Wake up EA your loosing great minds and many customers by your practices. I just hope the public/customers and the employees start banding together against EA

Maybe they should be called the USA biggest sweat house....? I hope these families sue EA for everything they deserve.
From: gerlsex
2010-03-05 09:16 pm (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

(Link)