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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"The threat of sending jobs overseas is one reason that workers need to start thinking about organizing into unions"

Go ahead - unionize. Do you think that will slow down the momentum towards offshore development? Quite the opposite.

Yes - EA has a churn and burn mentality. As do many consulting companies and accounting firms. Unhappy employees can always leave and look for work in another firm or another industry.

Re: My comments about EA


16 years ago



March 11 2005, 20:17:20 UTC 16 years ago

i knew ea was evil cause they ripped off customers with substandard soccer games. every year glossy advertising to encourage gullible people to buy a peice of rubbish. i say with this report on their working practicies we boycott them.



March 16 2005, 21:25:37 UTC 16 years ago

This is sad...but not unexpected.

Globalism seems a bit unconcerned with human beings as anything more than a resource, and in order to be succesful in a global market, you either have to pay your employees less, or make them work longer hours. When it is a simple matter to hire 10 coders from India for the price of a single American one, the ruthless nature of international business becomes clear. there may be nothing left to do but sue the bastards, but it will not resolve the underlying motivations behind such policies. Fierce competition is at fault, and capitalism fosters that. Our world, our paradigm, is to blame much more so than a single company. It is common knowledge that the Japanese companies were much more pervasive and blunt than EA, prior to the past decade. During the cold war Japan mercilessly launched itself into the Information Age. Employees were expected to work ridiculous hours, and, what's more, they were required to engage in social excursions with their coworkers almost daily. Business was family. This was not simply an aberration; it was hammered into their very culture. Anyone familiar with the school system in Japan will readily agree they are insane. The first decade or so of education is difficult, but liveable, but the last bit of high school is enough to explain the high suicide rates, and rampant alcoholism (http://www.mcdl.org/Stats/gnpsuicide.htm)

The point?

There is no one to blame but ourselves. our mindset is the reason we are unhappy. What wpuld we do to fix it? If we were to work a French work week, would we be a productive society? I posit that we would not. In fact, France and Germany, while touting some of the most benevolent work ethics, also happen to have some of the highest interest rates in the EU. If the welfare state, communism, and Mao's democratic dictatorship failed, if Nazi's and more general fascists, as well as socialists and even Bentham's utilitarians did not succeed, but capitalism did; what does that say? Our people are only happy when they are successful, and that means when they are in a capitalist society. Capitalism is based on Adam Smith's conceptualization of an "enlightened self interest", and this invisible hand has directed us to this state of affairs.

So, finally, it seems our choice is twofold. We must analyze our own nature. Are we more interested in money, as we feel it will make us happiest in the end, or do we want a life that is based on family, and not work? Are we more than mere factors of production, or are we simply doing our best to make a great product?

What is it worth to you?


March 17 2005, 06:10:04 UTC 16 years ago

Games will never be worth human misery. The only Maxis games I'm holding on to are pre-EA. All my sims properties-- including the DVD-ROM-- and all the simCities-- went in the garbage. With malice aforethought.

I would be ashamed to buy a game that came at the cost of someone's family. Even if EA were only doing this to one family, it wouldn't be worth it. How worthless and empty can someone be to just sit back and say 'you asked for it, you collect the paycheck' and consume it?

To the "I just play the games, it's none of my business how they make them" crowd... If you buy the product and sit there playing it you are just as guilty for these broken homes and broken people as if you were cracking the whip yourself. If you seek out the game houses that DON'T behave this way, and stop acting like idiot infants fussing and screaming if a game comes out a few months late, then people won't have to wreck their lives just to fill your empty life with a few hours' distraction. If you take a stand against this kind of crap and actually inconvenience yourself to support people fighting for their quality of life, your life might not be empty-- you might respect yourself a little rather than making excuses.

Legislation makes no difference-- companies break the law routinely and find ways around it. That's why companies have 'temp' workers for 15 years and 'part time' workers who keep three jobs with no benefits. Consumers make the difference-- and until those consumers grow a SPINE this crap will continue to worsen.

Moving to India isn't the option they say it is-- I know people whose companies are trying to farm work out to India and let me tell you, it's going to be a long time before those overseas offices can catch up to the native understanding of code. People who didn't grow up on computers and elbow-deep in video games do not have the same passion nor the same grasp of computing no matter how many classes they take. Now's the time to force the hand of the computing industry-- before the advantage is gone.
Unions started in this country specifically to prevent this type of corporate exploitation of employees.

The law provides for significant penalties for employers who retaliate against employees who try to organize a union.

I strongly suggest that the spouses of EA employees in this situation consult one or more labor attorneys. There seem to be many abuses here, probably enough for a class action suit.

I speak from the perspective of having run over 100 companies, none of which were ever unionized, simply because we took care of our most valuable resource - our employees.

From your comments, I think that EA must be ripe for unionization.

Meanwhile, as an entrepnreur, I spent years working over 500 hours per month but that was at my own choice. In many of my venture companies, lots of people chose to work long hours with me. None was ever expected or required to do so.

Unions have a place. This sounds like a very good one.
Agreed, coming from another union within the entertainment world at least employees are protected from the OT by being compensated for it.
My friend sent me this article and I couldn't stop reading the subsequent responses to the article. I just couldn't believe that such a thing was happening in an industry where some of my friends will be venturing off to within just a couple of years when they'll graduate from universities.

Just three questions:

a) I have only finished reading up to the 3rd page of the responses. Have there been any talks of lawsuits in any other cities other than California against EA?
b) the initial posting's date was nov 11th of 2004. Was there a lawsuit that actually went to the court as of yet?
c) unionjosh has been working towards forming a union since nov 13th of 2004. Has there been any tangible progress towards that end?

Thank you for your time in advance, and I hope that these bastards will learn to value human well-being.
I don't know if someone else has said this but that's what labor unions are for. They might still have scabs and everything but they certainly aren't going to beat you and kill you. Unionize.
I'm from America and worked for a dev house in Australia. The company was fresh and new, crunch hour happened. EA was the demon, like any other big company IP churning company.

The pay sucked - what it was for made up for that (game programming is in my blood - but you'll agree this is a rhetorical statement). However, "I'm getting paid to do this!?" quickly wears off after "pre-crunch time".

Through all of this I had to ask my fellow programmers, "Why don't we have a union!?" I still wonder this.

Presently I'm on the outside looking in and likely heading back in VERY soon. And I read this letter, I remember not so fondly the "PRE"-crunch time, I remember the empty promises of recomp when the product releases, "If we even sell 250,000, you'll be rolling in it!" But something always comes up.

There is more to my story, but out of respect for ONE HALF of the ownership of the company, I choose to keep it to myself.

Why not union? Why not strikes? Why not boycotts? THE PEOPLE WOULD LISTEN! People care about the devs! How many kids hear where we work and flip? "Can I test you game!" "How do I get into it?" I believe the people and ESPECIALLY the other geeks (and programming geeks) out there would have nothing but RESPECT for us. The THREAT of union actions seems to work.

Any how, maybe just a day dream.
From: Rueff, Rusty
Sent: Tuesday, March 08, 2005 7:25 PM
Subject: Direct Communication On How We Work #3: Overtime Eligibility


Late last year, we committed to providing you with periodic updates on what EA is doing to ensure this remains a great place to work. This is the third communication on How We Work and is specifically addressed to our North American employees because it details some changes we're planning for early in the new fiscal year.

In my last note, I addressed the November TalkBack Survey, which told us what you do and don't like about working at EA. TalkBack debriefing sessions are happening now and we're using your feedback to show the entire industry that there is a better way to make and sell games.

The next step won't be easy – it means changing how some people get compensated.

For more than 22 years, EA and other great Silicon Valley companies have run on a foundation of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. The employment environment at EA was built to allow you flexibility as professionals, with the expectation that time on the job could be managed without watching the clock. Unfortunately, labor laws have not kept pace with this spirit of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. Also, recent lawsuits against EA, Sony and other California technology companies have led us to re-evaluate how we classify certain groups of workers.

Regardless of how the lawsuits are resolved, we need to face the fact that the employment landscape is changing. Recognizing this, EA will change the compensation program for some positions to include payment of overtime.

This is a complicated undertaking and I'd like to explain what it means. First, let me highlight what doesn't change: the value of each person's contribution. For 22 years, we have prided ourselves on treating one another as professionals. That will never change at EA.

Beginning next month, some people who have been salaried employees will be paid as hourly workers eligible for overtime pay. The changes will not affect jobs that are now involved in class-action litigation (specifically Artists and Software Engineers).

While overtime pay will be an additional component of compensation for some people, it will come with tradeoffs. The newly overtime-eligible employees will have very structured work days and structured work hours. Managers will be trained to manage a tiered work force as efficiently as possible. Overtime-eligible employees will not participate in some of EA's variable compensation programs like bonuses and stock option grants.

Some of you will be happy with this change because it reflects your feedback in the November PayBack Survey. The results of that poll showed a majority of staff-level employees prefer lower-risk compensation (salary) as opposed to higher-risk compensation (bonus and stock options).

Others may not like this change. There is no perfect solution. We're going to work hard to ease the transition, but hourly compensation marks a profound change in the entrepreneurial culture of EA and Silicon Valley. On the other hand, we are in the fortunate position of being able to accommodate these changes without compromising our overall operational viability.

These changes are likely to create significant interest in the world of technology and entertainment. I expect there will be coverage and discussion in the media, on the web and at industry forums like this week's Games Developers Conference being held in San Francisco. We need to keep in mind that EA is in this position because we're the industry leader. The industry has identified a problem with the game-making development process; now they are looking to EA to find the answer.

I realize this e-mail will prompt questions about individual job status. We expect to have the details available within weeks. Please talk to your HR leader if you have specific questions. Thank you for your attention and I will send more information again soon.

Thanks, as always, for listening.
Unfortunately, labor laws have not kept pace with this spirit of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. Read: so I guess we can't legally work you to death after all.

First, let me highlight what doesn't change: the value of each person's contribution. For 22 years, we have prided ourselves on treating one another as professionals. Hahahahahahahaha. *whimper*

Overtime-eligible employees will not participate in some of EA's variable compensation programs like bonuses and stock option grants. So...we'll still be worked to death, and get some minor compensation for the extra hours we work, but we don't get to be involved in any incentive programs to make us want to work harder or make a better product, and will be effectively making less money than before? Awesome!

Others may not like this change. There is no perfect solution. How about hiring competent managers, and coming up with reasonable project schedules? Sounds like a perfect solution to me.

Thanks, as always, for listening. ...must refrain from comment...
Wow...I just made a decision not to buy Sims 2, and not to buy stock in ERTS. I can't support a company that functions in this way. And I'm not one of these crusader-people who boycotts at the drop of a hat. I like my "stuff".


March 21 2005, 01:58:42 UTC 16 years ago

You know what these people should do? Start a union. Obviously they are SKILLED workers that can't be replaced just like that...so why no union?


Jensen said that none of EA's senior staff will be receiving bonuses this year, though the company said it plans to reward its employee base "accordingly."

What, with a slap upside the head?
...hmmm...makes you wonder if maybe this whole ea_spouse thing has anything to do with the poor outlook for 2005. Maybe the gamers have been paying attention, and the boycott is actually doing something?

Or maybe EA just makes shitty games that no one wants to buy ;)

Re: EA stock plummets


16 years ago

Re: EA stock plummets


16 years ago

as far as the "game degree" thoughts go

my plan is to go to digipen for a BS in RTIS and later return for a MS in CS to broaden my horizions. i dont expect to be a game programmer (and i use that in the simplest terms - i wish to be the guy writing the code) for more than a decade or so before i move on to management or some other programming related job (hell, look at the lifespan of most programmers, they have to leave in a matter of 2 decades AT MOST usually because of carpel-tunnel). would the MS in CS from digipen be viewed the same as one from another college? i want to go to digipen to jumpstart my career in the game industry, but i don't want to be locked into making games forever.
-especially if you dont plan to stay in the industry long term. Game degrees are worthless in "normal" industries and of minimal value to the actual game "industry"
haluan että joku neuvoo suomeksi että mitää teen kun minun The sims double deluxe peli ei toimi...kuj yritän lataa sitä siihen tulee teksti kieltä ei ole rekistöröitu tai jotain vastaavaa...haluan että joku kertoo mitä teen....ärsyttää kun missää ei saa apua...:S:S:S:
what i can do fof my The sims double deluxe game...when i´m insatlling it...it say"something like that...: error getting language from teh registry....i want help...
auttakaa joku minua/help someone me, please...

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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,…