ea_spouse (ea_spouse) wrote,

EA: The Human Story

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?



This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.

  • (no subject)

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,…

  • Post a new comment


    default userpic

    Your IP address will be recorded 

    When you submit the form an invisible reCAPTCHA check will be performed.
    You must follow the Privacy Policy and Google Terms of use.
Were already shipping art to India for 1/6th the cost of art in the US. Next thing to go will be the coveted programming jobs. I would tell SO to tell your husband to find another side of the business if he wants to stay in it. The Games business in general is poorly managed by egotisical people who could not care less about the people who work for them. It's the same as all other business, nothing special about it. It's not a cottage industry anymore. The model that we'll end up with in the US is the management of global asset creation including programming that will go to the location of least cost. The management's jobs will be fairly secure as long as they perform but everything else will be outa here. Not cheerful but reality.
ea_spouse, I completely empathize with what your SO is and has been going through (and I sympathize with your own plight as well). I worked for a game company for a while that demanded 7 days-per-week continual crunch time for a while. Note, however, the past tense. I was able to find work with a developer that treats its employees humanely. While these developers are shamefully few in number, they do exist.

On a different note, a former co-worker of mine is now a development director at EA. He's been known to say things like, "Hey, if there's a developer who doesn't want to work crunch like we demand, that's all right. After all, I can guarantee I can fill his slot the next day with some new, talented developer from off the street. In fact, I might even be able to pay that new guy less money than the disgruntled worker. So, if these disgruntled developers want a job making games, they'd better learn to shut up and smile!" Personally, I'm a bit shocked by this attitude (but not surprised), as it's extremely short-sighted. This is the kind of mindset that kills industries. I guess I'm just saying that this sort of attitude seems to be firmly entrenched in at least a part of the EA culture. Your experience is dead-on with reality, and I hope that you and your spouse will find greener pastures soon.

Deleted comment

"I especially noticed this in computer games (why hire test players when they can get their games out faster and patch them later as WE, THE CONSUMERS, TEST THEIR GAMES FOR FREE?)."

I can say with utter conviction that the QA staff that tests these titles before they ship reported these issues. It was the producer and the higher-ups that decided to ship the game as-is. You can not imagine the amount of fustration you feel when after spending the past month working 12-18 hour days and telling the higher ups that the title is'nt ready and needs more work that they decide to ship it anyway. It's even worse when you see the reviews blaming QA for what happened. :(

So please, remember this when you run into a title that has issues. If QA had any say in the matter then you would not be seeing them. Sadly, as is the case in a lot of the industry, they decide to ship it and patch later. Or worse, not patching anything until the customers scream bloody murder. :(
This is the general trend that is spreading in the developed world: either work yourself stupid and wreck your life and relationships or take a job that pays 5 bucks an hour. Add outsourcing into the pot to make things even worse. Eventually if things continue this way, all that will be left are the $5 / hour jobs. Eveything skilled will be done in India and China.

Things will only start to improve when a large enough number of people get fed up enough to be vocal in expressing their dissatisfaction and elect a capable & willing goverment or get those currently in office to listen and act to fix things for the common good.

Capitalism is great and all that, but you gotta balance it with some with respect for basic human dignity and qulity of life. Sometimes government has to intervene and artifically stabilize things. BTW, to say that this is communism (as some people would try to claim), is complete f'ing bullshit. It's what govt. is supposed to exist to do... help to ensure things run smoothly for all of us by making sure everyone adheres within reason to a set of rules we have elected to live by.
so quit the job then. EA is not holding a gun to the employees heads to work there.
.. to quit a job!

Aren't You Cute


19 years ago

Tons of us ex-EA employees have similar stories or have heard similar stories from our cohorts. EA ruined my one good chance in the gaming industry when they closed Westwood, for that I'll never forgive them. I'd rather not play any game associated with EA, and encourage everyone I know to do likewise (or pirate them, then I don't care as long as money does not go into EA coffers). Keep your chin up, he'll get tired of it soon and get a new job somewhere else.



November 11 2004, 18:46:15 UTC 19 years ago

first off, thanks for writing this -- both myself and _my_ SO have been approached by EA, but we were both wary since we actually like making fun games and not "spiderman 8: the franchise continues".

secondly, what i'd like to know is: do none of the management at EA ever read books about software development/management? because in every book i can recall reading, there's at least one chapter where the author waxes poetic about how stupid crunch time due to the fact that it almost always results in EXTENDING the schedule due to bugs/etc..

The majority of managers there have ties to EA old guard, either a) never graduated college b)have done heavy drugs and continue to do so c) graduated college used drugs once or continue to do so.

I'd like to see this story reach John Madden at ESPN. I'm not saying he has to act in one way or another on it, but since he endorses one of EA's key products, he should at least be aware.
There's one way to get to EA. Wait until the final weeks before release, and then have the entire team file lawsuits for unpaid overtime. An entire team filing papers for over a year of unpaid overtime would just about triple the project budget.

Follow this up by taking their sick leave for the last few weeks. Any doctor who heard the schedule they have been working would immediately recommend taking time off for their health, so EA would be unable to fire them as it would be under doctor's orders. If they do, file wrongful dismissal claims.

Bear in mind, EA will fight, and the industry will likely blacklist everyone involved. But if you win, you should have enough money to start your own studio, where crunch time will not exist.
I think that the one mistake everyone makes is thinking they will open their own studio. Crunch time will always exsist, and larger companies will always eat up smaller companies. You always end up in the same boat...big or small.
1. http://www.kazaa.com
2. Download EA games for free
3. Distribute Freely
4. http://www.notsorryeverybody.com

Well this is why I never wanted to work for a video game company. They treat you like crap because you are willing to do more and work for less.



November 11 2004, 18:58:05 UTC 19 years ago

I don't disagree with your writing.

But is the point that a high-profile company like EA shouldn't behave in this way, or are you just complaining that you never see your SO?

There are many overworked people in many fields. But at least at EA you have the option of quitting and working somewhere else (e.g., computer skills are transferable).

My wife was a medical resident and is now a fellow (specialization training). Because her field is pediatrics, she doesn't stand to make ton$ of money later on like other fields can count on (e.g., surgery). She can't go work anywhere else for "better working conditions" or for "better pay" because this stage of medical training is the same everywhere in terms of both working hours and salary.

The same can be said for public school teachers ...

Would you like it if all your teachers and primary-care doctors quit because they were overworked and/or underpaid?
The "point" of this is making sure that people are aware of the issue, and maybe, just maybe, EA will stop doint it. Duh.

Re: So?


19 years ago

I'd LOVE to work for EA at the salaries they offer - but I didn't attend an Ivy League or similar, so I'm screwed. Have to work hard? Boo-hoo. Quit that job, sell your BMW and Tahoe cabin and Redwood Shores condo and go move to Tennessee and work as a public employee.
Shut up you jealous uneducated cocknibbler. It's not hisher's fault that you're a lazy, welfare dependent dumbass.

Re: Cry me a river


19 years ago

Hopefully this will bring some sort of change, some sort of reprive. Thank you for the story.
There's a reason he doesn't mind being away from you for that long every day. hahahhahahhaa
LOL!! jackass

  • (no subject)

    When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another,…