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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As a married soldier deployed to Iraq I get payed about $3000 a month. I have worked the past 9 months without a day off at about 90hours a week while dodging mortars, rockets, and carbombs. The difference is, your spouse can quit, and he comes home every night. I'm not saying that it's not hard, but just remember that it could be worse.

at least we are not killing people so that halliburton can make cheney even richer. i feel for you man, i really do. i guess thats why i never joined the military, but i am glad some people did. its too bad our government is wasting good people like you on such a frivilous way.

ea and the gaming industry exploits people and gets rich off of it and we complain. the government exploits people and gets far richer, and kills its employees as well ans thousands of innocent people and we choose to re-elect these officials. very sad. glad i am not in a red state.

Re: sounds like being deployed...


16 years ago

Re: sounds like being deployed...


16 years ago

Re: sounds like being deployed...


16 years ago

Re: sounds like being deployed...


16 years ago

I, like many of my co-workers in the UK, are very much in favour of unionising.
Logistically it is difficult to know how best to go about it. No-one wants to be seen to be publicly rallying support, and it seems impossible to do it anonymously. If everyone knew that by voting in favour of joining a union they would be part of a majority, many people would feel more secure in doing so.
Any advice?
A UK developer posted a comment a good way back - he's successfully brought in a union and I'm sure he'll help you. You can contact him at nigel_knox@hotmail.com.
EA (Canada) used its considerable political clout to push for an exemption to the British Columbia's labour standards for high tech workers in 2000. According to the province's backward, Victorian sweat-shop labour code high-school kids working as beta testers are afforded the same freedom as upper management to concentrate on improving their stock options (no kidding! it says so in the statute); the law also exempts animators, coders, graphic artists, *anyone* with a BA or *work* equivalent (ie, arguably anyone) from statutory overtime requirements.

And EA thrives in this environment of planned, perpetual crisis characterized by huge overruns of "voluntary" unpaid overtime. The first time it happens, you really believe the wheels are coming off the bus, and you've got to put in extraordinary effort (sleeping bags on the floor, no shit!). The second year, you find the whole script played out again verbatim. Turns out, the schedule *always* slips. A couple of senior heads nod. Ship date slipped a week, three? Bullshit! It's a cynical, manipulative management tactic perfected in Vancouver and exported to Redwood.

Man oh Man! You guys over in B.C. need a union BAD. The government there only listens to two things: $$$ and public pressure.

For some reason, (maybe because they are hidden behind the 'curtain' of the Rockies, they believe they can get away with the most medieval legislation in that province.

I know for a fact that their tenancy law is prehistoric. They have a massive problem with intra-venus drug abusers and homeless (I wonder why, eh?) and for decades, rentals have been used as grow-ops. We're talking moldy, crappy rentals unless you want to pay an arm and a leg. They have the lowest per capita of black and hispanic people there and a massive, rampant racism and an out of control problem with illegal asian immigrants.

Anyone planning to relocate out there: BEWARE.

You who are being victimized by EA Canada need to start writing the appropriate government officials 'en masse'. Either that, or get a bloody petition to change the legislation AND START PASSING IT AROUND!

The government can only back EA so long as you all are willing to go along with this continued abuse.
It may be obvious that EA sets certain unit target sales for their games. For example, the newest James Bond game they just released, "Golden Eye Rogue Agent", had a target of 5 million unit sales. For those of you that are not in the industry, you may not know that they also set ratings targets. The site metacritic.com collects ratings from industry publications. EA's goal for every game they produce is to score an average of 80+ on metacritic.com.

So what happens when you work on an EA product with a 24 month development cycle? Well, managers scratch their asses for 18 months, "oh shit" happens, the team baloons to 200+ people, the team works 80+ hour work weeks for 6 months, divorces occur, the team is burnt to a crisp, and the game is finished. Results? See for yourself:

Rogue Agent - Current Average 59

Third Age - Current Average 71

Nice work EA.

Developers, I have been there, why the fuck do you keep doing it? It can't be because you love producing mediocrity. Grow some balls. Leave for god's sake.


November 26 2004, 17:44:59 UTC 16 years ago

I am part of management in a studio working in the entertainment industry. We do have artists working 12 hour days and even 14 hour days when a project has to be delivered. But then EVERY SINGLE artist gets a share of the revenue that particular project generates.

I suppose this way we atleast try to compensate the artists for their hard work.
If EA offered profit sharing like this, we'd all be thrilled, rich, and happy. but they don't so all the great EA talent, is quitting and leaving. Alot of guys will join better studios where they are respected, wanted and paid.
From the Employment Standards Act, Ministry of Skills Development and Labour, BC:

Section 39:
"Despite any provision of this Part, an employer must not require or directly or indirectly allow an employee to work excessive hours or hours detrimental to the employee's health or safety."

From the Employment Standards Regulation - Part 7 - Variances and Exclusions:
"The following provisions do not apply to high technology professionals:
(a) Part 4, other than section 39, of the Act;
(b) Part 5 of the Act."

So section 39 applies, even to exempt high-tech professionals.

Contact the Ministry, find out how they define 'excessive hours' and hours detrimental to health, and take it from there.

Employment Standards Inquiries:
1 800 663-3316 (toll-free in British Columbia)
Thanks for the post! Remarkably people seem to be un aware of this exclusion? I'd be very curious as to how the government defines excessive.

Pure BS


November 26 2004, 21:15:49 UTC 16 years ago

I'm sorry, but putting people through the wringer like this is just bullshit. In a few years, no one will give a damn about the game that destroyed peoples' lives to make, and others will be downloading it from an abandonware or emulator site (or selling it on ebay for a couple bucks). So is it really worth it?
yes. it is. because they had to work inhumane hours to get it done.

the product isnt what's on the topic here, its about how EA's labour practices are illegal and nobody is doing anything about it. (untill recently).

does it matter what industry someone works in, to have acceptable work enviroments? no it doesnt.

I used to work in an audio post production studio that I won't name, and the treatment I got as an employee was even worse. I worked horrid hours and was refused payment all together.

even though the actual content I worked as an editor on were total shite, it didnt change the fact that I was getting used and I was entitled to payment.

how on earth does the type of game it is or if its popular come into the argument at all?

That or getting cracked copies anyway (nt)


16 years ago



November 26 2004, 23:36:56 UTC 16 years ago

By all means, management can disregard this all they'd like for now. They just won't have any place acting surprised in the relatively near future.

Don't think employees and union groups aren't talking. This one won't be going away just because management isn't reacting.
... and not just in the game business/gaming community.

I'm having more and more people (regular folk) coming up to me to talk about the quality of life issues in the gaming industry. These are normal, non gaming people (they do not even play games).

Hell, I had a dermatologist appointment today and HE was talking to me about it, and HE had no interest in games or the game industry. His concern was for the people in it.

Keep spreading the word.

no kidding! I had a doctor apt today, he asked me about stress. Told him about my work environment. He then asked me how much I make, and was pretty shocked that I would subject myself to so much stress for the amount I pull in. Actually I found his scolding a little comforting for some reason. I guess because my family (parental) values are opposite, the harder you work the better a person you are, period.

I'm now regretting not asking him what the medical profession can do to help. His view was very clearly that prolonged stress compromises the immune system and leads to chronic illness. I wonder how many of us are going to be dead before we reach 50? My office doesn't have anyone over 40!

Re: Word Is Spreading...


16 years ago

Making this blog post was a very good idea because a lot of software developers out there can probably relate to it. I know I can. Why not take it a bit further though and create some kind of weblog or website that ranks employers like EA on how well they treat their employees.

It seems like a lot of other former and current EA employees have read your post and if you and you husband might have been able to talk to them or trade information about EA with them the whole situation might have been avoided. One thing big companies definitely don't like is bad press. We need to make employers show they want us and not let ANY company have the power to do stupid crap like this to us. I ended up leaving my crack-the-whip job for another company that appreciates me and my family life and I have worked way harder for the new company and produced 10 times better code than I did at the other company under the conditions.

I also have to point out to you ea_spouse that your support is really appreciated by your husband! I know I couldn't have made it through the tough times without my wife. Good luck to you and your husband in the future and take care.
I'm sorry but 'millions of ppl get to play YOUR games' is not a reason to work. That's like working for free. and just because the industry wants people who are 'passionate about games' which basically means they want people who will work their asses off for pennies. that doesn't mean people should do that kind of work for nothing, it only prolongs the cycle of working for free, so that no one gets paid, and the industry thrives on volunteer slavery.
at least in california they have the salary cap for no overtime....here in bc it's 'high tech industry = no overtime, ever' and they can pay you $8 an hour for it....cdn!
then again, with how the american dollars plunged....
You talk about exploitation as if we live in a third world country, and pennies a day are needed to feel your starving family of 12. Your husband allows himself to be exploited, thus empowered EA to exploit him. Start a union, get a good lawyer, sue the fuckers, and for God's sake, tell the man to QUIT. Better yet, tell ALL these 90-hour-week employees to quit, and burn the place to the ground while they're at it. The onus is on your husband - EA is a heartless corporate whore and will do what they can to turn a profit. If you stick your hand in a lion's mouth, don't expect to keep it.
Its a job.

Problem being is that too many people complain over such miniscule matters.

YOU ARE whats wrong with your country/


November 28 2004, 08:31:05 UTC 16 years ago

F*** EA and the horse they rode in on they sound like bas****s to me.

  • (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,…