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.

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November 13 2004, 00:07:50 UTC 16 years ago

well, if your spouse worked in QA you could count on multiple crunchs, one right after another with barely above miniumum wage which would encourage you to not take any time off because you could not afford to and little respect from the rest of the studio employees to that list. granted, they do get overtime, but they also put up with no benefits, much longer hours (try several 20 hours days minimum, I have heard tell of 36 hour days even!) and even with the overtime you hardly make as much as most others in the company even though without QA the games would be unplayable or very buggy because programmers would have to spend their time finding bugs not fixing them.

Re: QA


November 13 2004, 00:40:17 UTC 16 years ago

I worked at EA for nearly 3 years (seems to be a common breaking period). I started straight out of college in the Technical Support group, answering customer calls for PC and PlayStation issues. This was back in 1998. The hours were regular, and the pay was decent at 12.50 an hour. Of course, nobody starts on the phones with hopes of staying on the phones.

Not being a gamer, my passion was towards the artistic side of the industry. I hoped to be a world designer or even a texture artist. I advanced quickly, by staying late (we WERE payed overtime, not being on salary) and helping CQC (Customer Quality Control - a group which gets the games just before release and is relied upon to find any issues that the QA process somehow missed) with their last push before the title was released. I had success there and was fortunate to work for this group for nearly a year. This was a great position and a team that was managed efficiently and and with consideration. Overtime was still expected on occasion, but only 50 to 60 hours at the most, one month at the most.

Unfortunately (for me), after displaying the ability to manage a small group of testers in CQC, we were recruited to lead test teams in QA. The QA process takes anywhere from 2 to 9 months for most titles. 9 months working on the same title. This was hell after the variety experienced in CQC. The QA "area" of the building is rarely visited by anyone not in QA. Only the lowly Assistant Producer will dare venture there... for good reason. Many gamers insist upon not taking showers, creating pyramids of mountain dew cans, etc... which EA is fine with... so long as you are willing to sleep under your desks on occasion.

Up until this time my relationship with my girlfriend from college has sustained wonderfully. Despite having been driving from Aptos to Redwood City (the old EA building), depending on the hour of the day, taking 2 to 3 hours round-trip... we were golden. We later moved to Mountain View, and things were still fine... until "crunch time".

Crunch time covered the next three titles I led... one of which was finished ahead of time, and "saved the day" for the company as were able to ship it before the end of a quarter... we saw nothing for it as a team, and during the meeting, Probst was quick to congratulate the producer and assistant producer, but there was no mention of the artists, developers, or qa. I averaged 60 hours a week, and enjoyed a couple of 100 hour work weeks, twice actually sleeping under my desk. I saw my girlfriend from 6 AM to 6:15 when she got ready for work and I woke up to her alarm.

We broke up 28 months into my EA career... what time we had left to spend together was often spent by me trying to justify the amount of time I was at work... that this was a career in a field for which my college degree wasn't any help... that I had to work extra hard to advance, yada, yada yada.

I then moved on to the ill-fated ea.com qa department... what a joke. I quit 2 months before the whole department was scrapped.

I'm still in the software industry, still in QA, not designing worlds, but not working much overtime (I will be coming in tomorrow, a Saturday)... but its no big deal because I haven't found any woman that compares to the girl EA took away from me.

The stock options are great, the 401K, the gym (I was one of the lucky few QA people that got to use it because I had been there early on) .. the cafeteria... but the hours and the pay are not fair... I still have a lot of friends there, and there are fair departments, but as an entry level programmer, artist, and especially QA rep, expect to suffer until something changes.

Re: QA


16 years ago

Man, this post scared me. I'm currently studying computer science in hope of developing games at some point as well. :O


November 13 2004, 01:09:57 UTC 16 years ago

So keep planning on it but study a little business too, and make sure that you save money and build up a network of contacts both in and out of school. At least up till you have children, you should make very certain that you can, financially and professionally, give your employer the finger and move on with two weeks notice if you decide to. The keys to that are contacts, a wide range of skills, and sizable savings.


16 years ago


16 years ago


November 13 2004, 00:52:42 UTC 16 years ago

This is not as bad as some corporate ("biglaw") law firms or investment banks. Of course, that'd be comparing apples and oranges -- for e.g., lawyers and bankers get paid tons o' cash money for those kind of hours. At any rate, I shall now quietly slip away, back into the anonymous recesses of the internet.

Suspended comment


November 13 2004, 01:16:26 UTC 16 years ago

this is me.

Suspended comment

I worked at EA (for nine months) and can confirm that this story is absolutely true. I worked in the entertainment industry as an artist for over 12 years (7 years creating video games and 5 years working on movies) and was brought into EA with many enticing promises, such as bonuses and stock options. However, I could not make it through one year to cash-in on any of these "rewards". The work environment was one where those that worked the insane hours of uncompensated overtime either hated doing it or began hating those who wouldn't work it. Not coming in on a weekend was often perceived as a lack of supporting the team and became an instant excuse to be trashed in a performance review, which subsequently resulted in a zero bonus. Remember, these bonuses were mainly used as "carrots" to keep the crew working towards a "reward", which could literally be withheld for almost any reason. If a producer or manager didn't like you nor understood your need for a life outside of work, then all those hours of unpaid overtime would amount to purely time lost without any compensation. Moreover, many managers and leads were single guys in their mid-twenties, who had little or no management experience, let alone the knowledge to effectively complete a project on time other than by slave-driving those under them. Even when an artist's given tasks were completed, he still had to come in whenever the rest of the team was there, to playtest the game and search for game bugs. The prevailing attitude was that weekends were something that EA gave as a gift to it's employees at it's discretion. In my specific case, because of my prior experience, I knew to leave at the end of the day when my work was done. After all, I felt I had paid my dues of working insane hours as a young man. But never have I experienced the kind of abuse "by design" that I saw at EA. Ultimately, I left EA and am now happily working elsewhere. EA thrives on bringing in young talent. Persons who are straight out of school; excited just to be working at a brand name company like EA, creating video games for a living. If this was also your dream...beware!
This is the first time I've seen the problem of guilt addressed.

The problem is that there is always the feelings of guilt over this. I know people that would work late when they didn't have to out of guilt for leaving those that still had work to do. While the sentiment and spirit of team unity here is excellent, as it often at game companies, this is only adding to the problem. In fact, I've had game company managers bring up guilt and try to exploit these feelings to keep me at my desk longer. Of course, I know that any team friends of mine would want me to leave when I was done with my work.

This brings up another issue, the "sympathetic crunch." On my first game, the programmers were way behind and had to crunch extensively, but art was effectively done with all of their work. Management "asked" them to stay and crunch alongside the programmers "to show their support," but no doubt hoping to get more work out of them. This was the dumbest example of "butts in seats" management I had seen, as the company was effectively asking the artists to dink around on the 'Net for a few hours, eat a free dinner, and go home angry.

So, remember - if some people are crunching and you don't need to, go home. If they are really good team mates or friends, they will want you to go home.


Re: EA operates on a culture of guilt...


16 years ago

Re: EA operates on a culture of guilt...


16 years ago

Re: EA operates on a culture of guilt...


16 years ago

After working for EA for 3 years and finally coming to my senses I know this is all true! Working for EA destroys whatever social life you thought you had. And if you are not 100% commited to their policies then you are urged to look elsewhere for employment. Well, after 1 year of not working for the Death Star of the gaming world I finally feel human again. however a human is supposed to feel.
I know this is going to get lost in the sea of responses here (and that's good I think!), but I've got even worse news.

80 hour weeks at this particular studio is an *improvement*.

There used to be peaks of 100 to 120 hour weeks at that same location. I know which one it is and I used to work there. And yep that's mathematically possible. It translates in this particual case to working every single day with about 6-7 hours off out of the 24 hour period. To go home and sleep. This was not a shocker when I was there...it was becoming part of a yearly cycle: 50 hour weeks for about 5 months, 60 or so for the next 2, 80 for the next 2, and then "the crunch". I remember one peak stint in particular: post-alpha for 2 1/2 months, at 100-120 hour weeks. That's working seven days a week for 16-18 hours a day. For about 70 days.

If you think watching someone you love come home with a headache and sour stomach is bad (and believe me I feel *dearly* for you because it IS bad), imagine coming home and wondering if you're starting to lose it. When I say "lose it" I mean "starting to have a nervous breakdown".

You and your husband, along with others in the same trap (it is a trap until you can convince yourself that it's safe financially and career-wise to leave) are in my thoughts, I wish you the best.
So, EA is clearly an example of what not to do, so I thought I'd share some positive examples I've heard about.

Point of View Software
This Orange County-based studio was crunching on a project, pulling this sort of EA-esque deathmarch. One day, management was called into the meeting room, and were surprised to find the team waiting for them. The team basically said they would finish the project, but if things didn't change on the next project they would all walk out, which would have effectively destroyed the company. Management changed, and apparently POV's a pretty good place to work now.

The makers on Tony Hawk produce consistently excellent games, and have developered a unique work schedule. A normal work week is 40 hours...spread out over four days, Monday through Thursday. Lunch is provided free for all employees every day of the week. When crunch rolls around, they work an additional 10-hour day on Friday. From what I am told, the company is closed and the office is locked on Saturdays to prevent people from coming in.

There are other ways and people are experimenting and finding success - now to convince the rest of the industry to do the same.

While it's possible things may have changed in the last few years, Neversoft used to be a sweatshop just like EA. So beware!
Ask them.
I'm sure this will get lost among everything else, but I wanted to make my reply real quick...

First of all, I'm very glad I've never had to work in a company with its head so firmly up its ass. My best wishes to you both.

Second, to all of you who have reduced the solutions down to "it's similar everywhere" and "just get another job"... Well, it's not quite that easy. First off, these practices are illegal. If you are employed by any company at all, this is meaningful to you - if one company is allowed to break the rules on a whim, others will follow suit.

If you work for a game developer yourself - even one of the good ones - you might not realize how directly this will affect you.

Let's say EA is allowed to get away with this and the employees don't raise a stink, or don't unionize. What's the result? A whole lot of underpaid employees doing a whole lot of work. This drives the employer's costs down considerably - which in turn, passes profits on to upper management and the company's shareholders. It also will allow them to put product on the market for lower prices, undercutting competition.

Its competitors at that point will only have 2 real options - joining the game or quitting it. If Company A is able slash its costs and churn out games rapidly by mistreating its employees, Company B will need to find other ways to keep up in order to stay competitive. If Company A fucks over its designers, Company B may try other options - like reducing benefits, changing time off procedures, etc. - but increasing costs will probably not be one of them because, nowadays, cost is the single biggest determining factor on whether or not customers will actually buy your product. Quality matters, yeah. But I haven't seen EA's game quality suffer that much of late, you know?

The key point is that software companies are in direct competition with one another. Their sole purpose is to make profits for their shareholders or owners. The employees, however, should all be on the same team - if employees at one company are getting screwed, eventually that screwing will make its way over to you.

I'm fortunate enough to work for a company that treats its employees well. I'm glad to be where I am. But I sincerely feel for the employees at EA who need to deal with this kind of thing.

"Unionization" is an ugly word, and unions have been responsible for horrible abuses of companies' time and money. But when shit like this is going on, it seems like the only real option.

Its competitors at that point will only have 2 real options - joining the game or quitting it. If Company A is able slash its costs and churn out games rapidly by mistreating its employees, Company B will need to find other ways to keep up in order to stay competitive. If Company A fucks over its designers, Company B may try other options - like reducing benefits, changing time off procedures, etc.

I've said this before in response to a few posts, so I'll be brief.

The problem is, the seatshop approach simply doesn't work. Time at work is simply not a measure of productivity. More hours make people more tired. They spedn the extra hours adding bugs and the next day fixing them, or zoning out in front of the monitor.


16 years ago


16 years ago

I showed this document to every gaming friend I know. And EVERYONE of them was sick to their stomach when they read it. We've all agreed to boycott EA games until they pay their employees and treat them like human beings.

It is utterly disgusting and dishonorable to see EA treat people like this. I hope what goes around comes around. Best of luck to all the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against this pitiful corporation.
It's kind of you but I really don't think that's the solution. There aren't enough gamers aware of this situation who are willing to join the boycott, so the loss in sales simply won't register.

Essentially, I don't think this is a problem the customers can solve. The employees will have to deal with it themselves.
It's amazing to see how fast this post spread. It's even mentioned in gamespot:

> http://www.gamespot.com/news/2004/11/11/news_6112998.html

Along with the class action lawsuit. , you did the right thing. With fire and attention like this, something is bound to change. Ignore your detractors...those who tell you to stop complaining. This is a valid issue.

I find it painfully ironic that next to the story about EA is a sidebar about a Featured Game... The Sims 2.

Couldn't let this post go by without congratulating the author. It was brave, honest and true to the core.

I have been married for over 8 years. My spouse has always worked in the video game industry. His Experience with EA Canada has been extensive. Most recently he worked for EAC for the last 4 years.

When my husband joined EA I was unprepared for the "crunch time" that took him away from me for those 4 years. There was never ever a time he worked less than 10 hours a day. He shipped 3 titles in 4 years and these title were done for 3 different platforms, therefore 9 sku's. During severe crunch time, he would be at work for 10am and get home at 2 or 3am. He did not have a holiday in those 4 years and he worked 98% of weekends (sat and sun).

His work was never appreciated and I begged him to quit many times over. His dedication to the team and the project was the only thing that kept him there. He did not want to leave in the middle of a crunch time however there was never a down time in the entire 4 years. He kept telling me through our many fights that this was expected by his supervisors and everyone had to do these hours. Often I thought perhaps he exaggerated, since as many in this industry, he is a self confessed work-a-holic. These posts however explain to me exactly the hell he went through, and make me thankful our marriage survived. At times it was dicey.

I am glad our chapter of hell with EA is over. My husband has this year finally left EA and found a new home with a fabulous local video game company called Radical. They appreciate and cherish his 20+ years in the industry and his love for the work. They have revived a man that I slowly saw dying, and have made him love the work again. I can count on one finger the weekend days he has had to work since he began in April, and that is the same finger I give to EA!

I hope all that are responsible for torturing those poor EA employees live a very miserable existence. And my words of encouragement to those employees left in that hell hole is get out! There are other game companies, and though they are not all great, I am willing to bet they are all better than EA!
I could have written that. My husband left his company that had insane hours and joined Radical's team. Radical restored my faith in this industry.

Re: Radical_spouse = EA spouse


16 years ago

I worked for Black Box Games in Vancouver both before and after EA purchased them.

As an independent company, Black Box treated it's employees with respect, encouraged people to have normal lives, and compensated them appropriately for crunch time. A high percentage of the employees had greater than 6 years experience, and turnover was next to nil. I always felt the people in charge had my best interests in mind.

EA changed all that - The company culture all but disappeared, deadlines and workload became unreasonable, the employees were treated like pawns, and the people formerly in charge had no power to change it. What's worse is that EA flat out lied about how the buy would affect the company. After a year and a half of watching them destroy what my friends worked so hard to build, I left for a smaller company, and I'm happy to say that things are much better here.

When I left, I told management in no uncertain terms why I quit, I won't work for them again or buy their products, and I wholeheartedly encourage others to do the same.

Jason Dorie
Hey Jason, here's one reply I can write.
Good to hear that you're doing well and your better half also.
Don't wear the nipple shit in public.
Vegas Frenchmman :)

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