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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i'm currently a student in audio production @ valencia community college, hoping to break into game dev as a sound designer. up until now, i had been putting all efforts into getting into Tiburon. They had contacted my school and UCF about recruitment. i was really excited when i heard they were not hiring from Full Sail and wanted to pull students from my school. i felt fortunate, not being able to afford Full Sail's tuition costs, when graduates were coming here complaining about what a crappy school it is. now yet again i feel lucky to avoid making a terrible mistake. thank you so much for bringing this to light. i'm sure you've saved a lot of other students from making that mistake. i will be informing as many people i can, here at school, about EA's practices and hopefully my friend in game dev @ UCF will do the same there. seeing such unity among developers, only strengthens my desire to join the industry. now more difficult that EA is the only studio to contact my school, and i refuse to go there. hope things work out for you, your spouse and your family.
And I thought working DSL tech support for BellSouth via a subcontractor was a bitch.

You have my utmost sympathy, and if you haven't already, I urge you to report this tripe to the Better Business Bureau.

Yeah, I'm glad I stayed away from that one. I've known a lot of people that work(ed) at a place called ClientLogic that did DSL tech for Bellsouth. We called it the McDonalds of the tech industry in the area. The one project they were involved in that I wanted to be on was canned after about 3 or 4 months.


16 years ago

My boyfriend works at one of those big video game companies too. But he is a Temp technically, so he cannot even claim the large video game company on his Resume. Being a Temp also means he works those ridicules hours like EA employees but he also has no job security or health insurance. Its crap. The only bright side is the hourly wage, but it isn't even close to livable, so he depends on the overtime. Which means a month of work with 12-15 hour days with NOT ONE DAY OFF! The gosh darn loophole is this-you must have 4 days off a month, but that is considered a calendar month not 31 consecutive days. So you could work Sept 4-Oct 27 with not a stitch of time off-and its LEGAL!
When someone works 80 or upwards of 90 hours you think Doctor or Lawyer, but no these poor schlubs work that playing the same video over and over. In the instance of my boyfriend-his last project has been shipped and on store shelves for weeks-but he is still playing "looking busy" for the next big PUSH to happen.
The problem is this; the fine video game loving individuals love their jobs. They get to play games all day long. Often as us widows know their SO's play when they get home too. They love what they do, but it is hard to see them 20 minutes a day because you have a job too, or to see them with bags under their eyes, or stomach problems from too much take out. It breaks our hearts.

Deleted comment

Make your actions count. Tell your friends about the site and ask them to read the relevant information. 1 person tells 2, 2 tell 4, and so on. At some point, EA will see they are not winning the game on the backs of their employees. It takes a little effort from everyone to make a big impact and it can be done.
Thanks for your support.
In 1900, Dr. Ernst Abbe, director of the Zeiss Optical Works in Jena, Germany, conducted an experiment with the hours of work. He reduced the scheduled hours from 9 to 8 per day and carefully observed output during the shorter day, using several measures. What he found was consistent with more casual observations that had been conducted throughout the 19th century: output at the plant during an 8 hour day exceeded that from the 9 hour day.

In the 1920s Philip Sargant Florence wrote a book, the Economics of Fatigue and Unrest, documenting the empirical evidence about the relationship between the hours of work and productivity. The following quote from Florence sums up that evidence to that time:

"Reduction from a 12-hour to a 10-hour basis results in increased daily output; further reduction to an 8-hour basis results in at least maintaining this increased daily output; but further reductions while increasing the hourly rate of output, seems to decrease the total daily output."

Now, it occurred to the Work Less Party that an innovation that can increase the daily output of a worker and that is based on scientific observation can properly be called technology. Reducing the hours of work is thus, strictly speaking, a technology but one that has been forgotten in out supposedly "high-tech" knowledge economy. That is why we started the Work Less Institute of Technology -- to refresh our societies failing memory about the empirical and theoretical knowledge regarding the economic and social benefits of working less.
Here are some realities that your school won't tell you about:

1.) Very unstable career path. Only a tiny tiny fraction of games ever being developed ship to market. Of those games that somehow make it, only a small percentage break even or turn a profit. This basically means that unless you work at one of the major publishers that own licenses(EA, Sony, Ubisoft, Activision, LucasArts, Midway, THQ, Sega, Nintendo, Konami, Capcom, Vivendi etc) you can pretty much expect to get laid off of work every 12 months or so.

2.) Be prepared to relocate a LOT in life. The game industry in the U.S. is very small. Approximately half the industry resides in LA/Southern California with pockets in Texas and Northern California. The rest are scattered about randomly around the nation. If you expect to stay in this industry long term, you have little choice but to move to one of these locations. Don't expect to apply for a game job somewhere out in Oklahoma and settle down with a house and kids for the long term. You WILL get laid off within a few years and be forced to move again. To tie this in with point number 1, a coworker of mine got laid off from a job in Northern California so he took a job down in San Diego. He had relocated his entire family down there. Approximately 3 months after arriving in San Diego, he was laid off AGAIN and had to relocate to Los Angelas. This industry can be THAT volatile kids so be aware.

3.) Extremely competitive job market that can also be feast-or-famine. Small studios get dozens of resumes for a position. Large studios get HUNDREDS of resumes for a position at times. Of all these resumes out there, only a tiny fraction qualify for the job or are considered a fit for the team. If your skill level is top-tier you can do very well. If your skill level is adequate or poor, you may have a tough time. While average applicants fight each other for a studio position, exceptional applicants get fought over by studios. Thats why EA may disregard 20 animators that work cheap and can do the job, but pay six figures for that one person with feature film animation credits.

4.)Long hours with no overtime pay(no explanation needed here)

5.)Outsourcing. Studios are just now starting to escalate their outsourcing. Currently it is mainly art but engineering and design will follow next very soon(although to a smaller extent than art). By the time the Playstation 3 and Xbox 2 arrive, it will be just too damn expensive to do eveything in-house. Expect a development structure in game production where there is a small core staff of senior developers in-house with the work reserved for junior artists/programmers being farmed out to India or Eastern Europe. This will possibly make it more difficult for entry-level people to break in due to these positions going overseas.

6.)Education and long term outlook. The turnover rate in our industry is very high. The constant job insecurity combined with the family burden created by long hours/constant relocation causes a large portion of developers to leave after 5 years. Many of you will at some point get burned out of game production and look for something more stable to raise a family. Don't pigeonhole yourselves by getting a "game degree". Do yourself a favor and get a good solid 4-year degree from a proper college(many of them have game design courses). If your going into game programming, get a proper engineering degree so that you may cross over to other companies later in life. If your going into game art production go to a proper art school that teaches the basics of design theory. Many of these schools just teach you the software which is useless since it will be obsolete in a few years. With a game degree, your options may be limited as we have yet to see how other industries feel about them. An engineer with a 4-year college degree can get into games but an engineer with a "game degree" may not be able to get into Oracle or Microsoft. Just food for thought

Although the game industry has its good points such as creativity, informal dresscodes, smart coworkers, free beer during crunch, and being on the cutting-edge, please be sure to factor in the above points and decide if this is the path you want to take.
I hear the "outsourcing" argument a lot, yet I have not seen any evidence of this. In fact, here at EA, all the stuff you mentioned being outsourced to India is stuff that we are doing ourselves, in a more organized manner.

We are basically "outsourcing" low level engine code to new central EA teams that reside within the US and Canada, at existing EA studios.

There are no plans for outsourcing as far as the eye can see. At least at EA. I cannot speak for any other developers.


November 19 2004, 02:50:21 UTC 16 years ago

I totally understand I was also in a draining career, underpaid and over worked.

I felt too much like a minion so I quit and just got offered a new job and i made sure for now I only work part time hours as I'm so exhausted and numb.

I hope things work out for you.
I need help. My husband also works for a game developing company. Is there a support group out there? My life is falling apart and I don't have anyone to talk to about these issues. I can't give away many details because I fear that people will know who I am and who my husband is...I don't want him to get canned because of my big mouth. Going to a shrink is out of the question because even though my husband is one of the exempt, there isn't enough money left after paying all of the bills. Well, maybe there are a few dollars left, but I don't think a shrink would really understand me unless she/he was in a similar situation. Is there anyone out there to listen? Please email me at helpmeepleeze@yahoo.com
All of us, SO's and more, hear you. You have our support. We've been where you and and you are not alone. It's very hard to stand but this whole site tells you there are others who will listen. Post your story, anonymously if you like and go and and find the links to the people who want to form groups and report on these atrocities. Communicate with them and find strength in the numbers.
Your SO other needs you, too. He/she hates this situation as much as you do. Take any chance you get to spend together and make it quality. You already know this, I'm sure. Put even those few minutes/hours to the best use you can. Don't let it tear your relationship apart and, if you need it, there is no shame in going to a counselor.
If you have medical benefits, visits to a marriage counselor should be covered by your plan but make sure you read your contract first to see if there are any conditions. If you don't have a copy of the medical benefits, ask your SO to get one from the boss or HR. (I had to call HR and she was very co=operative. They are not allowed to ask the nature of the call or what you want it for.)
THe best exercise our counselor gave us was to write a letter "WHy I fell in love with X" and read it to each other. Corny as it sounds, it did help us reconnect.
Everything you do together is so much stronger than what you do apart.
Hang in there and we're on your side, too!
On labor day we celebrate the people who helped give us a 40 hour work week. Now we have those of us who worked to get an education and are working two times that many hours every week. It is not acceptable.

Dean Takahashi
staff writer
San Jose Mercury News
750 Ridder Park Drive
San Jose CA 95190
cell 408-406-3132

Yes, Dean is quite a well known and respected journalist who follows the industry. His articles that cover the industry are published in the Mercury and picked up by the AP. He also wrote the book: Opening the Xbox : Inside Microsoft's Plan to Unleash an Entertainment Revolution


He will listen.

An e-mail address would be good!


16 years ago


November 19 2004, 05:58:37 UTC 16 years ago

oh man if it ever gets this bad for me, i swear, i'm not afraid to get people together, ill blow that whistle and get a union going, anyone that treats human beings like that NEEDS to get bitten in their arse. I may loose my job but most CERTAINLY NOT in the industry, all you have to do is just not stick where u worked in your resume, or if you do just give the phone number of a co-worker who you've informed that they may get a call asking about you. Simple as that, just make friends and working with a team day by day shouldn't be too tough to find someone you can trust. But seriously, thanks for saying this, I'm going to post this on every board I know of, and when i get into this industry I'm not going to stand for it.
You have probably scared me to the bones with that story and what really goes on behind those scenes. I'm a student going to school of visual arts in NY and EA actually made a presentation in my school yesterday which I THOUGHT i was upset at missing until i read your post. And wow, scared me like hell but im happy and grateful to have found this...your post is getting its way around the net and i'm going to make sure to spread it further and beyond that ill make sure to tell all my classmates to stay clear of EA and even more so just give them your post and perhaps as students who are still in college, we can make demands to the big companies before working with them. It will starve us probably for a while, which sux, but in the long run they will be forced to re-hire you guys but wont be able to since you hate them, and will have no other option but to concede to our demands. I don't know how well I can convince students to listen to this, or actually if this is a flawed idea. But if its logically sound, heck why not.
Anyways, thanks again! I'll be sure to spread the word!
With respect to contacting the Mercury News, bear in mind encouraging folks to "call in anonymously" is not generally considered fair journalism, especially if the subject matter alleges illegality. I'm not saying individuals should go on record and jeopardize their job, however, it sets bad precedence to cite Anonymous comments as a basis for "news".

The Washington Post says this on the matter:

‘Before any information is accepted without full attribution, reporters must make every reasonable effort to get it on the record. If that is not possible, reporters should consider seeking the information elsewhere. If that in turn is not possible, reporters should request an on-the-record reason for concealing the source’s identity and should include the reason in the story. In any case, some kind of identification is almost always possible - by department or by position, for example - and should be reported.’
Well, it's plainly obvious that the person posting the Mercury News contact info a few posts ago is not actually the person writing the article, so don't try to make it sound like Dean Takahashi is the one encouraging people to call in anonymously. I'm sure he's hoping that some of those contacts will give him permission to use their name, etc. And at this point, I'm sure he's merely engaging in early research...so no need to get your panties in a twist.

Re: Anonymous sources


16 years ago

4th Commandment; Verses 8-11: "Remember the sabbath day, to keep it holy. Six days shalt thou labour, and do all thy work: But the seventh day is the sabbath of the LORD thy God: in it thou shalt not do any work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy manservant, nor thy maidservant, nor thy cattle, nor thy stranger that is within thy gates: For in six days the LORD made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that in them is, and rested the seventh day: wherefore the LORD blessed the sabbath day, and hallowed it."

Please leave god out of it (with lowercase G!)
I am a huge video game fan and I purchase many titles and systems on various platforms. I enjoy and cherish the games I own and spend many hours of my life playing video games. I've seen very few insider looks at the development of a game by a team of programers, artists, writers, directors, and designers. I know that they sometimes are working hard for many long hours under great demands by bosses, company owners, and gamer expectations. I, however, hope that I am never supporting businesses that practice unethical and illegal treatment of their workers during game development. After reading your blog, I am saddened by my past support of EA games. I have purchased numerous games from their company in the past mostly sports titles and the occasionaly 007 or Need for Speed. Knowing what I know now about EA and their worker treatment I will not purchase for myself or others any title made by EA until they dramatically change their policies and compensate your SO. I will also return any game purchased by someone else for me if it's an EA game. I know I won't be able to part with my old EA games but I know everytime I play I'm going to be thinking about the sacrifices your family had to make as well as the other families of EA employees, current and former. I hope if there is a case against EA that the employees who were mistreated will be reembursed for their hard work.
I am a storywriter. I don't know if any of my stories will be transformed into a game or movie but if one is I will personally demand the ethical and fair treatment of every one of the workers involved. I'll even share the profits.

John Villeneuve

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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,…