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.
go me.
I heard about this on Penny Arcade and wow... I knew EA was pretty bad as far as games go (another year, another Madden, another Bond, another few shitty movie tie-ins), but this... wow.

I'm linking to this in my LJ, to spread the word.
Wake up!

All public video game publishers are like this. I use to work EA's So-Cal competitor. Upper management has financial targets to meet. They're going to run their staff into ground to achieve them. You are easily replaceable by some green nosed kid out of college. leaving will not create a massive void that can't be easily filled at a lower price. If you’ve got enough talent go off and create your own studio so it can be bought up by the big boys.
My name is Sydney Bristow. Seven years ago I was recruited by a secret branch of EA called Development. I was sworn to secrecy, but I couldn't keep it from my fiancé. And when the head of Development found out, he had him killed. That's when I learned the truth: Development is not part of Game Production. I've been working for the very people I thought I was fighting against. So, I went to the only place that could help me take them down. Now I'm a double agent for THQ, where my handler is a man named Michael Vaughn. Only one other person knows the truth about what I do, another double agent inside EA. Someone I hardly know - my father, a matte painter working on Tiger Woods.

Ok folks, I thought I'd insert some humor into the heady talk here, which I might add is a very valuable dialogue. I don't think my story is too pertinent here, but as a game artist (concept illustrator), I've been following the threads here closely. I've never worked in production at EA, but I've done a few conceptual pieces years (ages) ago for one of their pocket developers.

I do feel a bit like Syndey Bristow reading these posts. If you don't watch Alias, bear with me ladies and gentlemen. I've also noticed a lot of media lurking about (good) and attorneys (not necessarily good). I've seen scores of threads ending with "sue them" "just sue" -walk out, etc. It's not that simple. I'm a bit reluctant for one to involve "legal experts" in resolving matters unless I know it is a last resort, and I know the intentions of the law firm are just and honorable. That's not an easy pie to slice there. Draw your own conclusions, this is not pro-bono work folks. Money is to be had.

I have mixed feelings about union involvement. Some of the demonstrative calls to "unionize!" feel very FDR to me. We get it, there's a union out there. No kidding. I think as gamemakers we need to decide what is best to preserve our rights before leaping into union involvement. They can regulate the workplace but all those other things, like taking breaks, activities, those too are under the light, the same microcrope. Will the teamsters join the touch football league, or do they have to sign a waiver first? Give me a break. Maybe that's the way things will go but I'm in no rush to fill out cards until I know what the heck this means. I'll due my Due Dilligence, no need to fill me in.

The heart of the matter is what the heck is it about making a video game that necessiates these kind of hours. It is the damn marketing/product release dates that are absurb? Too many damn features? Game design is not locked down? Managers don't understand how to make games?

But the way NOT to resolve is by the backs of the people, and by "crunching." That needs to go. Bravo to those who have stood up and put their heart on the line. HOW that is resolved, I think we as a community need to look at and talk about. I just don't want to freak and get a picket sign. I want to make this better.

By the way, this is historical stuff here folks. This is being done online, on the internet, free of censorship. Agree or disagree, that is damn cool.

I had a wonderful relationship with one of EA's former programmers. They put him through that crunch period, and our relationship ended as a result. He felt it wasn't fair to me...he barely had enough time to even call me and when he did, he sounded like he was on the verge of collapsing. I will never buy another EA game as long as I live.
I noticed that in the 20 pages this topic has reached now, not a single person claiming to work at EA has denied the claims, instead more and more EA and ex EA employees find their way here.

If someone would write something like this about my company (one of the aforementioned independent developers), and it wasn't true, at least half of the employees would have posted here to debunk the claims, because they are passionate and proud about making games and their jobs.

The fact that this has not happened here (idiot trolls aside), indicates very strongly that the article isn't far away from the truth.

ea_spouse, my congratulations for having the guts to expose EA for what they are - a greedy, slave wrecking corporation. I'll do my part and make sure a link to this page get's passed around at our university ... to prepare some nice questions for the recruiter guys from EA who show up here every once in a while.

To all the "suck it up or get another job" trolls:
If your grand-grandfathers had the same shitty attitude you have, we would still plow the land for king and landlord and give our 10th to the church, rather cowering in obidience than speaking out against the obvious wrong.

If employees exercise their rights (and that, by law, is a lot more more than "work or leave", unless you live in the third world or the middle ages), they should be commended for that, because it keeps corporations from establishing themselves as landlords just again.
Next time the recruiters come around to my Uni, I'm bringing this up as well! This is too much to be ignored!
I was hired to work at EARS less than a year ago and I already see that this studio operates differently to any other in the industry. The hours and expectations are extreme.

What are our rights? Do we really have any rights? Can we really join/start a union? Does anyone out there know how that would work?


Please quit...


19 years ago

For 12 months, I held on to e-mails to Fortune Magazine (responding to their 2003 article) when I shared my stories of being a wife of an EA employee with them, and I can't tell you how grateful I am that your voice is being heard. I describe it to my friends as "the time during which EA ruined our marriage." When I first starting reading these comments, I felt all the anger and bitterness, frustration and hatred that I felt while I was waiting for my husband to come home (or driving to the office at 2AM so I could spend time with him.) Now, I just feel sad that so many other people's lives have been ruined - ok, there's still some anger there too. Some of the most vivid memories I had were:

-hearing that "some countries celebrate Christmas in February" with regard to a winter holiday
-being told that some family events such as weddings and funerals fell on "inconvenient days" and that they should still come in to work
-being bought off with flowers, promises of bonuses, and other electronic gadgets
-welcoming my husband home at 5 AM as I was getting up to go to work
-throwing "congratulations" parties to co-workers who left the company (too bad my husband couldn't make those parties)
-eating dinner at the company...after all, why should I cook when it's just me at home?

Anytime I hear anyone considering working there, I tell them to run away while they still can. It was so sad to see such a hard-working group of people I respected and admired treated so poorly. As I read the other postings, I wish they were exaggerated, but know from experience that they are true.
Finally another wife who will admit to eating at EA too. I do it all the time. Cheers! I think EA should pay for my food.

Re: another wife...


19 years ago

The only appropriate response a consumer such as myself can offer is to boycott EA products until they capitulate and respect the rule of law. Would consumers pressuring retailers (Walmart, etc.) for their proxy support of EA's unscrupulous labor practices give you any leverage, or is that expectation too high?
Somebody mentioned on this post that they aren't putting a gun to our heads. true, but they have put a new wrinkle on "motivation"- it's called fear and pressure. The minute you walk onto one EA dev team in Orlando there is an obnoxious huge red digital clock displaying the "countdown to ship date" (a year away mind you) that does nothing but tick away how much time is left.

How's that for work productivity? It looks like a huge bomb timer making you feel the pressure every time you look up, so you don't ever look up.

Despite many employees asking management to remove it, it's been up there for months. In fact, EA management from other studios plan on adopting it for their teams and studios with similar "countdown to milestones". I think the guy with the whip shows up Jan. 01...

just in time to tell us our bonuses are laughable again because we are going into another "transition year" that'll last 3-4 years like the last console "transition year(s)"


Suspended comment

Re: CLOCK, CLOCK..who's there?


19 years ago

In addition to the points made by the disgruntled spouse, in which I have not experienced but many of my friends have, EA also practices in illegal hiring and non-hiring methods that I have witnessed first hand.
The EA HR makes deals with certain companies that keep current employees from getting hired at other companies and vice versa.
For example, I have witnessed many times that EA will not hire from other game companies without first calling up the HR person from the company to find out if this person is available for interviewing. They will also not hire certain people without the permission from the other company. This puts the employee in jeopardy since their current employer now knows they are looking for better opportunities.
In turn, certain other companies under the "illegal contract" will not hire EA employees. This keeps the overworked and disgruntled EA employee from getting out of the "Machine" unless they quit or get fired. If he or she gets fired, they will most likely not get unemployment because EA will use the "employee did not work to satisfactory levels" excuse for working only 40 hour weeks.
It sounds like a good deal to EA all around the board.
I would just quit if I where you guys.
My name is Josh Pastreich. I am a union organizer and I am helping with the class action lawsuit against EA for overtime violations. What this company is doing is outrageous! Is there anyway that we can document this "illegal contract" that you describe? Someone has to put an end to this. If there is anyway that you can help, even anonymously, please call me at 415-441-6400 or unionjosh@local16.org
These workers really need your help.

This is all lies and scams just to put EA down, and to just get attention of the community.

Anyway, something bugging me:

You can't blame the big publishers for the downfall of smaller companies, it is obvious that civilization as we know it, is controlled by the rich and powerful, and there is no choice but joining them. Independent companies won't live long enough in this world.
Is being stupid like being high all the time?
I feel for you. I have a brother in law that just got out of the industry because they won't hire talented, experienced artits and designers like him. Instead they hire kids straight out of college so they can do exactly what you have described. I hope things work out for you, as I read about some sort of "orginization" fighting back over EA's illegal pratices.
I worked at Electronic Arts as a game tester, a few years ago. Hourly pay, not salaried; I'm not sure if that's what caused them to obey overtime laws in my case, or if they just hadn't thought of pulling that trick yet.

The long hours weren't something they tried to hide from the testers. In fact, it was something that got pumped up as a mark of pride... we were told, during our training, that one of the groups testing a flight simulator a few months back hadn't left the building for two months, they'd had their wives and girlfriends bring them clean clothes and showered at the company gym. Personally, I broke triple-digit hours in a couple of weeks. And since I was a young bachelor with not much of a life, it really didn't bother me much; that much double-overtime combined with no time available to actually spend the money, leads to quite the pile-up of cash.

But there were no medical benefits. We were all on six-month contracts, after which we couldn't be re-hired for another six months; one of those little legal loopholes EA loves to use, nobody ever worked there for more than half a year so nobody qualified for benefits. (At the time, there was the possibility of being converted to full-time if you were an exemplary tester; shortly after I left, even that carrot was withdrawn.) And over the course of my months there, the work environment got steadily worse. Early on, we were allowed to stick around after-hours and play network games, or use the company's T3 for whatever. Our lunch hours were flexible, especially if we were on a crunch project. These little compensations vanished one by one; lunches must be one hour at noon, no gaming at lunch, no taking a break to snipe at each other with Airsoft guns, no instant messanger software, no downloading (even legal) audio/video content... while I was there, it never got to "no using company equipment after-hours for any purpose" but it was heading rapidly in that direction.

And these were the things that kept us sane. These were the only reasons we put up with such shitty conditions: because, ultimately, it really was a fun environment. It almost felt like being self-employed, during the crunches; we lived there, we hung out with our friends, we collaborated on a project and when we got too frustrated with that we took a break and had fun. But that environment was dying as I left, that's why I left before my contract was up, and from what I hear, it's completely gone now.

But apparently there are enough technically skilled Americans willing to work in a sweatshop, that they can get away with it.


November 13 2004, 03:29:56 UTC 19 years ago

too true, damn EA!!!DAMN THEM ALL TO HELL!!!!!
Did you work at EA? I am a union organizer and I am talking to a lot of current and former employees.
Josh Pastreich
IATSE Local 16
I’ve always loved video game and jumped at the chance to work for EA’s support department.
However I quickly found the shady business practices out shun the glamour.
First was the low pay. (I could deal with that, I’d worked for less)
Then came the mandatory overtime (that started creeping me out when it was 3 or more days a week)
Next were extracurricular duties that were assigned to support reps. (these seemed like good ways to advance in the company; Call reporting, Shared support staffing with Help Desk, Compatibility and Testing, Customer Quality Control but they were just cheep ways to stretch us into doing someone else job and our own.)
Lastly the manipulation of time cards to eliminate any visible double time and on occasion even overtime. (Although hours were not actually shaved and we got paid the correct amount this as I found out later could be considered illegal)
There are a few other smaller things that tarnished the overall experience but out of respect to certain individuals I will not mention them here.
I would have stayed longer. I could have put up with all of this for longer, but I had to leave to better support my family.
My heart goes out to those who endure far worse at the hands employers who take their employees for granite and walk all over them with our fair compensation and I hope EA and other big companies will wise up learn that respecting the individual is more important the bottom line in their profits.

He's too nice. He could have made more working for Starbucks. I mean really. He was never home. We were constantly going further into debt. I had to pick and choose what bills to pay. And that year they reported record earnings, but did my husband see any of it? No. They had him working a different job than what he was hired for, one that would have paid more, but refused to transfer him into that department claiming a hiring freeze. I was willing to risk going bankrupt for him to have a chance at a better job. Now he works for a company that gives a crap about him and treats him like a human being. I swear EA should break out those whips cause they aren't any better.

  • (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,…