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 read you article with interest, but long hours and working weekends are now a lifestlye in an increasing amount of employers.
I have a background in investment banking and I frequently need to put 100-120 hours of work a week in when working on a live deal. Similar such workloads exist for junior lawyers, so this case is nothing special or unique.

And working 120 hr a week and weekends does not equate to bonuses or overtime, it's part of the job and the sacrifices you make to have and keep it.
Interesting input. Not sure I understand the argument that similar hours in a different industry infers that everyone should just embrace it because nothing can be done to change things.

I have 2 questions:

(1) "I frequently need to put 100-120 hours of work a week in when working on a live deal"

These conditions are ongoing throughout the year, year after year, and in mismanaged circumstances that are often repeated year after year?

(2) "long hours and working weekends are now a lifestlye in an increasing amount of employers ... working 120 hr a week and weekends does not equate to bonuses or overtime, it's part of the job and the sacrifices you make to have and keep it"

So, accept it just because?
stifle creativity.
look at what it's done for Hollywood
No, unions didn't do that to Hollywood... Major film studios without original storylines or the willingness to see beyond their dollar signs did that to hollywood.
so much for healthy competition. The unfortunate thing is that the SEGA/ESPN sports games rivalled (if not surpassed) EA sports games in quality. It doesn't help the industry and takes away from the consumers.
Saw this post in a friend's 'blog and it made me sad.

And let's not all comment at once so he doesn't kill me, okay? o:)


Makes me sad, too. Great reply, though.

At any rate, glad to see a new post from you, Peter.

Btw: Today I found the following on a financial message board that tracks EA's stock. If I missed this link on previous Live Journal posts, please excuse the error.

Gamers Against EA Games.


Productivity was targeted, wrongly some might say, as the chief source of our problems. Working hours were ramped up, to the point where sleep came courtesy of three chairs at the back of the office. Hours started to exceed 120 per week. People began falling asleep at their desks, warm game pads dangling lifelessly from their hands. As winter set in the lack of heat and light began to take its toll. Casualties were inevitable: Two Testers were sacked. When it became obvious that these games weren't coming out for Christmas, two more disappeared, leaving two of us left. The Manager said they'd been taken back to the main office but we weren't so sure. It began to feel like some sort of computer games gulag, a monumental trial of mental and physical fibre.


January 22 2005, 21:37:29 UTC 15 years ago

It stinks that you didn't know this going in, but at least you are opening other people's eyes. When they get those job offers, they need to consider that they will be working 60-80 hour weeks and then figure out what that time is worth. If your husband is working 80 hour weeks and getting paid less than $80,000, then he's making less than $20 an hour (including overtime). Part of their business plan is to profit from their employees. If I could get programmers to work for me for $20/hour, I'd be signing them up in droves as well.
corporate profits are the "spread" between what a company pays and what it receives from employees.
EA's practices have always been a subject for personal boycott for me. And I'd heard of this article many times. But this is my first time reading it. And I have to say, if companies begin running Like EA, my dream of game design will be crushed. Still good to see people Like Bungie and Blizzard Running Decent Hours for their workers.
I don't have a lot of specific information on Blizzard, but I've heard they don't exactly have decent hours. While they are certainly exceedingly willing to throw more people at the problem, their management seems to be unable to use them properly and they get hung up for months at a time with little or no progress, which is part of the reason why their games take so long to make.


God, why does this happen?


15 years ago

I passed this on to the press this morning, and the first story has gone up.


Sad news - hang in there everyone, and I'm sure you'll find new work quickly.

I think those in the office had an inkling this was coming. How nice that EA had the money to push through that NFL deal, but when it comes to holding onto their work force, too bad, I guess.



January 27 2005, 00:18:40 UTC 15 years ago


1) EA works their employees to the bone by having them work 60-80 hours a week.

2) Spends $300 million+ to purchase exclusive rights to the NFL.

3) Posts that they made a profit this quarter (not as much as expected, but still a profit).

4) And then fires 60 employees from their LA branch (which in itself is a shining example of corporatism gone wrong, with money spent willy-nilly on pointless stuff).

The people laid off are not just from MoH and Goldeneye -- it's across the whole LA office. This is bullshit, to work people like slaves for months on end, and then say "Well, here you go, bye-bye." The whole POINT of the LA office was to have multiple teams working on multiple projects -- why spend millions of dollars for this, and then start laying people off?

So many people say "That's how business works, live with it." You know what? As a gamer, I expect better from the companies that I buy games from. I DEMAND better. The people making these games should be gamers themselves, who care about the games, the people working on them, and the people buying them, not a bunch of corporate suits who only care about making their investors happy. To see a game company acting like any other corporation disgusts me -- should I be surprised? No. But I can speak with my wallet...and my wallet is going elsewhere.
I'm re-posting this as a top-level comment just in case anyone is here looking around after the recent news of the EA layoffs. The original message was in response to Peter/ravidrath's comment above:

Re: Massive Lay-offs at EA Today...
2005-01-27 01:21 (link)
I'm really not sure what to say to this. I'm not entirely shocked, since with the response to the latest Golden Eye game I agree that the folk at the LA office probably saw it coming, but I for one didn't expect it to be so severe. News of the "EA bloodbath" is circulating around the wires today.

The bit about the Golden Eye game is indeed powerfully, bitterly ironic. From what I understand, the project was abysmally managed, and that team, along with Medal of Honor, was run absolutely into the ground. They were not given the chance to produce a good product. I don't think anyone can doubt that the Bond franchise is one with an extreme amount of potential. But there is no doubt that the individuals on the team, the ones being let go now, were at fault. They were caught up in a badly performing cycle of the machine. And as always they are the ones paying for it, not the ones responsible for the machine's behavior in the first place.

My sympathies to everyone hit by the layoffs. I do think that they will land on their feet; here's hoping. If anyone needs a hand or a contact passed along, drop me an email, I'll see what I can do. It probably won't be a lot, but better than nothing, maybe. =)

Re-balanced (verb) - an idiotic euphemism uttered by Neil Young.

I listened to EA's scheduled conference call yesterday. Warren Jensen crowed that the company posted a record $722 million cash flow, then hurried over the bit about EA's Q3 revenues were down 3 percent, and sales are down 6 percent in North America. Larry Probst later blamed sluggish sales on Sony failing to supply enough consoles to retailers this past Christmas season. (That's a real "dog ate my homework" move.) Probst later echoed a closing thought that EA is committed to investing "in people, product and technology."

And today, EALA "rebalances" 60 employees.

For a company boasting its intent to dominate the global gaming market, with new devices and platforms to come, this makes no sense.

Since the EA brass appear to be in some kind of media lockdown mode, is there anyone "rebalanced" who can somehow get the word to the rest of us what really happened? Is this "rebalancing" (christ) truly across the board, or was the Goldeneye team singled out? What gives?
Let's not punish the LA studio for the "rebalance." Don't forget who is at the healm as the company CFO - Warren Jenson, the individual that built a reputation for his "cost-cutting" measures that drove Amazon to profitability. Spend less, increase profits was his mantra at Amazon, and prior to that, he was at Delta Airlines - a shining example of healthy employee relations and workplace stability. Clearly, this is simply an example of finance guiding development, plain and simple. Spent top much money, games didn't sell enough, need to keep shareholders and large institutional investers happy - cut staff. The shareholder wins, the employee loses. Sounds like another "win" in corporate America and yet another slap on the back of Jenson's freshly starched Brooks Brothers suit. Increasing shareholder confidence, pleasing the street, having scalable growth - these are the driving factors.

Re: Have you been "rebalanced"?


15 years ago

Re: Have you been "rebalanced"?


15 years ago

"even tools got hit"


15 years ago

Re: "even tools got hit"


15 years ago

Re: "even tools got hit"


15 years ago

Re: "even tools got hit"


15 years ago

Re: "even tools got hit"


15 years ago

Re: "even tools got hit"


15 years ago

In my opinion, EA is laying off in increments to prevent having to notify employees via WARN act provisions. More to come in the months ahead.

can we start a list here of everyone who got laid off?
Oh, dear. I've heard some bad things from people in any kind of game/software development, but this is one of the worst. I'm sorry you guys have to go through this.

Death to corporations, ne?
And got a $20,000 a year raise at a competing company!

Suck my balls!
You were obviously employed in the EA HR department.