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?



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I'm still young (relatively),
Planned to get into the industry, now gotto think twice,
thanx for the heads up!
the schools don't help. you go in and they tell you there's tons of jobs, but it's not true of all jobs. in vancouver, everyone thought that there were so many animation jobs (probably because of the popularity of mainframe). maybe 5-10 years ago that was true. but now, there aren't that many pure character animation jobs for all the students that the schools are pumping out. games companies rely on mocap, and that isn't really animating. the majority of my class haven't found work. i'm probably the only animator out of my class, a couple others are modellers.

i started in the industry (haha, it's kinda funny saying that) just 2 years ago at the age of 19. i've heard good and bad and i don't understand how companies, large or small, can get away with so much... it's unfortunate that we do let them get away with it.

but if it's truly what you'd like to pursue, give it a shot. you're young, you could always get out while the getting's good!
There is currently a class action lawsuit against EA that has been filed already. It is for wage and hour, its already in the process and the preliminaries have been infront of a judge.

EA even sent an email out to their own employee's. They even gave the names and numbers of the attorneys that are sueing them for people that can sign up for the lawsuit.
here are the numbers to call:

Miranda Kolbe, Esq.
Tel: (415) 788-4220

Thomas V. Urmy
Telephone: (800) 287-8119

Wow!!@# I am definatley calling
I spent five years working for Microsoft, another five for IBM, and more than I care to count working for various other companies large and small, startup and billion-dollar cap.

Crunch modes are definitely always a part of the industry, but what you're describing is simply unacceptable. None of the companies I've worked for--Microsoft included--ever got that bad; not by a long shot.

Have you guys considered a strike?
The game industry can be very sticky when it comes to getting the whole group as a body to take action. They're geeks, so generally resistant to drastic risk, which a strike definitely is. There is also the cameraderie of the team, something that corporations like EA prey on -- they actively exploit the pride and perfectionism of their workforce. Some of the entrepreneurialism (is that a word) comes in the package, too... if you hurt your project, you're effectively hurting yourself, because that title winds up on your resume and can determine whether you get your next job. So the question if a strike is a difficult one. Right now, we're in an information stage... hopefully from there we move to an action stage, whether that's unionization, a lawsuit, or something else.



15 years ago

a high turnover rate is devastating for an industry like this with a relatively high learning curve. don't expect them to change unless it starts cutting into their pockets because having fewer employees is better for nearly every conceivable reason. I started an internet company during the boom and I can definitely tell you I would rather have one exceptional employee and work them to the bone than 3 normal people that work regular hours. And that's not even taking to account monetary reasons, that's simply from a productivity standpoint.
The problem is that EA has got its talons deep in the education markets and has a steady inflow of new hires. It is true that if enough people left they would start to have difficulty -- this actually happened at one of the projects at this studio, and they were desperate to bring in new people to fill the gaps. Whether it will happen again is hard to say. There have been some changes of the guard at the executive level, but so far, no change.

Re: give them a reason to change


15 years ago

Re: give them a reason to change


15 years ago

So... ea_spouse lamented that something I said got compressed into a thread, so I'll repeat it here. But more than that, I'd just like to crunch some basic management choice pro's n' cons.

Managers have a main job, and that's to get the game out the door. They're there to make sure their employees do that. It has become a Dilbert-era joke that they actually impede productivity, but still, it's their ultimate task. They have to manage the time and tasking of their people to get the product done with minimal spent cash.

So secondary to that is the happiness and well being of their employees. The primary reason they're supposed to care about the well being of their employees is because it allegedly keeps them work at top efficiency and keeps them loyal.

So taking all of that in to account, where is the message coming from that screwing people out of their lives and stealing their overtime is going to reach the goals? At what school of business do they teach you that when you start with

X employees
Y budget

and ask you to set a deadline, where do they teach you that you start building a schedule by calculating the employee time pool at 70 hours a week? I mean really, it's either a malicious lack of interest in the attitudes of your employees, or its "I never graduated from business school" rank incompetence. I never went to business school or took classes in finances, so maybe someone has a manager's frat secret answer?

The other aspect to keeping your employees happy is in the reward phase. EA Redwood Shores has the most lavish facilities designed to keep you living on campus as much as possible, but it's of no use if they want your but in your chair 14 hours a day for 6 months straight.

Of course, they could compensate instead with salary or bonuses, but as I said in my earlier post, I've witnessed them not caring about that side SO much that they made two anger inducing announcements back to back earlier this year. The first was

1. telling their staff that bonuses would be reduced because they didn't make financial goals over the past year.

2. A week later was the press release that they had a record quarter and now had $1.2B in the bank.

Now I know that they apparently needed that cash to buy a new front lobby remodel and Criterion, but seriously... if you gave each hard working developer an average of $10,000, and there was 5,000 developers, you'd be out $50 million. That's 1/24th of what's in the bank. If you knew your people were disgruntled, wouldn't you even think about it?

If you actually had to pay the overtime of having someone work a 70 hour work week, and assuming the earlier figure someone posted of and average salary of $60k in Redwood Shores, you'd be talking

30 hours overtime per week. $60k comes out to $1154 / week. Time and a half for those 30 hours is $1298. Assuming 6 months of overtime, which is less than my wife had in the past year, and you're talking $33,750 in lost wages. Per worker. And most people do not just crunch for 6 months a year at EA.

I'm pretty sure they'd rather do the $10k bonus thing than the getting sued for lost wages thing. But I never went to business school.
Yeah they completely lied to me about my bonus. They took 25% away saying the studio isnt doing as planned. But then they reported record earnings shortly after that. They are so full of crap.
They pay their advertising people way more than us who make the games.

Re: Management styles


15 years ago

Re: Management styles


15 years ago

I was wondering if EA was offering internships.
Unpaid 6 Month Interships, 18 Hrs a day 7 Days aweek.

Primary Duties include:
Shoveling Dead Employees into the Furnace
Putting Speed in the Coffee Makers
Rechaining people to their desks after they escape


November 11 2004, 03:10:40 UTC 15 years ago

is it the same for all EA studios that there is no overtime pay (except for QA)? i had only thought it was only 'cause my province changed the laws to give incentive to high tech businesses to come up here, and that the lulls in between productions, bonus and paid time off make up for the overtime worked. (not saying i agree with it, just pointing out what i know)
Oops -- too many comments, I posted this in reply to the wrong one:
As far as I know, EA has no official overtime policy. Although it isn't written down anywhere, what they do seem to tell people is the bit about exemption (CA Sen bill 88). However, as mentioned in my post, that exemption does not apply... so the overtime, which, as the above poster has said, is in some cases astronomical, is indeed owed. From what I understand, these are the grounds for the class action lawsuit.



November 11 2004, 03:31:00 UTC 15 years ago

Yeah long hours suck. But take a look at what we're doing. Its not like any other industy. Every other medi industry requires massive amouts of people to produce. Video games require very small amouts in comparrison. So all the weight and pressure goes to theose few. That's a responsibility every developer must understand. I work long hours without weekends too (three guesses which company). There's a good reason why employees put up with it and why the industry doesn't fail, money. I have one of the lowest positions and I make more than any of my friends or family. Its the unspoken reason to this insanity, we're all a bunch of techno whores. To us this sort of thing is easy to do, just requires full devotion and in return we make good money. Stop crying about it, you know why we do it and if it wasn't true there would be no video games.
"we're all a bunch of techno whores"

Yea but even Whores deserve a little respect.

Your choices

1) Form a Union, or join a Union. Large parts of Hollywood crafts are Unionized for the reasons highlighted by EA's ways.

2) Bail from this industry, go into Defense or some other industry, you'd be suprised what a good programmer makes with one of the big gun companies.

3) Suck it up, quit crying. But take a look around, how many 35 year old coders do you see and can you see yourself coding in one of these shops at 40, 45 or 50?



15 years ago



November 11 2004, 03:53:40 UTC 15 years ago

As a member of EAQA I can totally relate to what EA Spouse is talking about. QA is highly underpaid. The amount of hours we work, and the responsibility of the senior tester role, we are defiantly not compensated enough. I have worked 400 hours in one month. 7 days a week 15 hour days. We in QA don't get bonuses. We in QA hardly get any type of benefits. We in QA hardly receive any type of recognition. QA are more dispensible then any software engineer, or artist anyday. Unfortunatley nobody recognizes the amount of talent, heart, and determination that most of QA has. The only problem is, all of the heart and determination gets cut away each time a contract is renewed and we are handed a 25 cent raise. Why do we keep doing this. Hope? That maybe someday someone will recognize us for the job we do? If not for hope then I don't know what.
i have a handful of friends that work in QA, my SO included. i work in dev and the things i hear others in dev say about QA is pretty sad. without QA, the games would not work. it's pretty lame that so few people actually recognize the hard work they put in, not to mention the talent that does exist.



15 years ago


November 11 2004, 03:56:20 UTC 15 years ago

Just sent this to /. Maybe it will get posted, Maybe it will make a difference.

~Industry Freind
Thank you, it will be interesting to see if they pick it up...


15 years ago


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15 years ago

Not to belittle your situation or anything, but... EA is the devil? This is news?

Seriously, though. EA needs to die and take their crappy licenses and mediocre annual rehashes with them. Their practices are not healthy for the industry, both on the employee and market levels.
My personal experience with EA has fallen in line with the original spouse's post. That said, it isn't much different from any other developer I've worked with.

Getting paid by the hour is the only way to fly at EA. It boils down to being respected (more or less) for your abilities, getting paid what you're worth, and not having to put up with the crazy hours unless you choose. If you do choose to do so, you can take it to the bank.
I tend to agree. You do, however, have to be the cream of the crop in order to land a contractor position, from what I've seen, and you lose out on a large portion of what EA has to offer, which is their benefits program. I know a couple of people who were taken on (at great reluctance on EA's part -- they pushed really hard to get them as full-timers rather than contractors) via contract and they did escape the lion's share of the slaughter, that's true. I would wager that the majority of those working in the industry don't have that as an option, though. Who knows, it may be something forced on EA if they can't get their act together and start treating their regular employees well enough to not be losing them so regularly.
Holy crap, this was written today?? How did it circulate so fast!?!? A friend of mine sent me to this becauseJUST TODAY I posted about submitting my reel to EA and hopefully getting a response by this Friday. So thanks so much for the information, it is certainly timely in my life. I just can't believe the coincidence in all of this...
I was surprised at how quickly it circulated, too. I deliberately only 'advertised' it in one livejournal community (gamedevelopers) and wanted to see where it would go from there. And here we are.
Saw this elsewhere: http://finance.yahoo.com/q/pr?s=ERTS

Looks like Larry's pulling down a cool $1.45 Million right now.

Deleted comment

Thank you for syndicating me -- make no mistake, every person who posts a link to this site is helping. I greatly appreciate it and I know the many others who have contacted me wanting to spread the word do as well.


15 years ago