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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oh well not my problem



January 5 2006, 07:14:15 UTC 18 years ago

Man, i understand your feelings, i'm a software developer too.
worked on first x box, now trying to get some money, selling X box 360 (http://getxbox360.5u.com/)

Good luck! hope you got a good new job!

is this over now with EA's settlement or is there more to come? what of the comments about outsourcing to companies in china now that EA needs to pay artists and programmers in the states more money?

It's not over yet -- there was one settlement for the artists, but even independent of what's being done in the realm of class actions, there is more to come. I can't talk about it yet, but you can bet I will as soon as I can. Gamewatch remains underway and I hope it will be up soon, but things are very, very busy.

As for outsourcing, you'd have to ask EA about that. It was something one of the VPs threatened, but he was also quickly chastised for it IIRC. There is only so much that can be done with outsourcing, as other industries have learned. I personally doubt if EA will be able to do much with it, but they also had studios overseas long before any of this started. Paying programmers what they are owed will not ultimately figure in -- if they were going to do it, they were already on that path.

Hope you all are well.
I'm not gonna ask you specifically which EA studio your significant other works for but from the way you kept dropping the name Madden, it sounded like tiburon. Although that could just be a clever diversion ;)

I'm not gonna disagree with you that some EA studios work their people way too hard, but that has not been my experience at Tiburon. The crunch for the last game I worked on was pretty manageable, on par with the other company I worked at previously. We finished on time in early december, got a free week off to relax, and work has actually been pretty chill since then. They didnt put me on another crunching project... and if they did, I would just be helping out and wouldnt have to crunch with the rest of the team. Mind you, I didnt work on madden next gen which had a pretty bad crunch... but it was because of the difficulties with the new platform, not crunching for the sake of crunching.

So, why am I posting this? Why am I standing up for an evil company that goes around buying up everyone and locking other sports developers with exclusive deals? Am I an EA plant? No. Am I looking for a raise and promotion? HELL YES, but that is not why I am posting. I am posting this because I genuinely have a really good time working at EA. I like the team I am working with, I am doing what I love and getting better at it every day, I think tiburon gives us some amazing benefits and throws some great parties, and I seriously dont think I have ever been happier.

Is it always easy? no. Are there times I'd rather be home playing call of duty 2? Sure (although I do like the tiburon xbox live games we get going). But to read the description of what happens at one EA studio and automatically assume that it is the same for every EA studio doesnt make sense to me. Every studio has different managers who have their own managing style. In fact, without giving away confidential company secrets, my company is reorganizing the way game teams are composed and it REALLY seems like its gonna make crunches better and more managable. Maybe I am just being retardedly optimistic but I'm pretty excited. Oh, and on the last game I worked on, my managers and producers and pretty much the whole team crunched with us, so everyone had a vested interest in reducing crunches (none of this evil manager whipping us from his reclining chair stuff).

So, please dont automatically turn down EA interviews because you could end up working for a really fun place. However, I **WOULD** do some serious research into the studio you will be interviewing at to avoid getting screwed. You can always talk to programmers and get an idea of what life is like around the studio. There is no doubt in my mind that some studios are run like sweatshops, but dont automatically assume they all are
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

The mentions of Madden honestly were just because that is EA's most recognizable title. My SO was not at Tiberon. =) However, from everything I've gathered, Tiberon is reported to have been much WORSE than the other studios... with my SO's as second place. Some managers at Tiberon -- highly placed ones -- have acknowledged that overtime policies have been a problem there for seven years; this is their figure, not mine.

From some of the things you've said it sounds like you haven't been employed there very long, and I am genuinely very glad that you've had a good experience. I hope that EA is able to fix its practices to ensure that your experiences continue to be positive. Much of the experience at EA, or anywhere else, has mostly to do with the quality of the individual team that a person is placed on. In EA's case they had many, many, many teams that all had the common thread of being drastically overworked and underpaid for that work. EA's efforts to "reorganize" happen about every six months to a year -- you will get used to them. Whether they find the magic bullet that will enable them to produce good games and have happy employees, only time will tell. But I think the end solution in any case has to involve fair treatment for the developers.

Please keep an eye on Gamewatch, and I would encourage you to post your feelings there once we have the database up and running.

Re: are you talking about tiburon?


18 years ago




March 5 2006, 13:15:58 UTC 18 years ago

You might check out washtech--- http://www.washtech.org ... they have some good resources. :)
'm too tired fighting them to tell the whole story right now, but yesterday I received a purchase from EA (bought at the EA online store) and the CD-Key was missing from the back of the manual (the designated location). So far I've spent about 4 hours, 3 phone calle, 2-emails and 1 fax trying to get a CD-Key. And guess what? I still don't have a CD-Key so my game CD is merely a coaster at this point.

So far I've received no reply from the fax and a different answer from each e-mail and phone call. The answers range from we can't do anything, to be sure to keep your your CD-Key in a safe place (which I have never had), to "send us the manual."

Come on folks, it just shouldn't be this difficult for a legitimate user who can document their purchase to rectify this situation! BTW, there is no direct phone line I that can find for the EA Store -- it all goes through EA support and is passed on to the store. It appears that their warranty is worthless because you can't get through to them to even get an RMA and I'm not sending anything back without documentation and authorization.

Funny, but I've done nothing wrong. I received a defective product, and now I have to jump through oh so many hoops. This experience cleary tells me there is a major problem at Electronic Arts. I see this as a deeply flawed support system and corporate culture. I venture to say that they've already spent more in support costs than they made from my $20 purchase. It is a lot to lose over $20. Of course, I've already spent more time and energy than I should have on it. If this were my customer, I would at the least have sent them a new copy of the game with a call tag to return the defective one.

Not only that, but we all know that they could simply call or e-mail me with a CD-Key. That would solve the problem. But for fear that I might be a pirate, they are cutting off their proverbial nose to spite their proverbial face. Funny but they have all the documentation of the purchase since I bought it from their store. What I'm not willing to do right now is send back my manual back to an address with no person or department designation. That was just one of their many requests, which came late today, after I had already faxed them scans of the front and back of the manual -- a project that took me close to an hour, since I'm not set up to fax.

Those who know me know I'm computer literate and Web saavy. If I'm having this trouble, I can just imagine what happens to some poor kid. Is the plan for me to give up and buy another copy if I really want it? I wonder how many people do just that. This seems to be a company in disarray and entrenched is a stance that we are all pirates to the detriment of its legitimate customers. Of course, no company can sustain that attitude towards its customers forever. I'll really think twice about any more of my money ever going to EA again. -- gail@oncomputers.info
Unionize. Please.
Rusty Rueff has written a new book called "Talent Force"
I'm trying to post a review, but it might not make it past the Amazon censors, so I'm putting it up here as well:

"Take the Money and Run"

The end result of Rusty's 8-year stint at EA was a human resources management style that crushed its talent force in a never ending downward spiral of tighter deadlines and longer hours (often 7 days a week). Predictably this caused many artists and programmers to leave, creating a product-specific knowledge vacuum, which, with a yearly product cycle for franchise titles, leaves no room for innovation. -i.e., when you're trying to figure out what five engineers and two artists did to make the gameplay work on the previous version and you've got two months to make asset lock for a holiday release, you can't spend time filling all the requests from marketing/ senior management for "more" and "better". Hence the common complaint amongst gamers that EA sells the same game again each year with new packaging.

On a side note... in March of 2005 four class action lawsuits charged that EA released inflated earnings projections (via a conference call to investors on January 25) just before issuing its first ever mid-quarter profit warning on March 21 which resulted in a dramatic dip in EA's share price. Shortly after the projections, top EA executives sold around $20 million worth of EA stock. Chief Executive Larry Probst and Chief Financial Officer Warren Jenson alone sold around $19 million in stock. J. Russell Rueff, Jr. sold $5,013,884 worth of stock on January 28th, 2005. You can find that here: http://finance.yahoo.com/q/it?s=ERTS Both the warnings and the announcement of the suits resulted in EA's stock taking a tumble of over 20%.

Meanwhile the result of Rusty's human resource management abilities came to fruition in October 2005, when a settlement of a lawsuit over compensation for artists was announced, to the tune of 15.6 million. And in April of 2006, EA announced that it will be settling another suit from their engineers for 14.9 million (this suit was filed in 2004).

Rusty Rueff resigned from EA in October 2005. Don Mattrick, president of EA Worldwide Studios, departed a month earlier. Bruce McMillan, executive vice president of the studios, also left around the same time.

I may have a different opinion than the reviewers who seem to be acquaintances of Rusty's, but I would highly recommend this book if your goal is an employment model where developers work under (mostly) incompetent (and sometimes insane) senior management, relying on the work ethic of the staff to make up for unrealistic scheduling (or no scheduling whatsoever, in some cases), until the whole thing falls apart. You can always take the money and run.
Thanks for the heads-up. I'll definitely take a look at this. Rusty was very coy throughout his time at EA when the media was trying to get ahold of him as regards these employment practices... EA's had issues for many years, but I do think things came to a head during his term, and honestly, if I were to set all of this at any one person's feet, it would have been his, not Probst's. They're all culpable, certainly, but this is the one dude whose JOB it was to protect people, and he wasn't doing it. EA's turnover says enough about that -- it's hilarious to me that this book asserts a claim of how to "retain" talent when EA was moving people through faster than any game company I've ever seen.

I don't see your review up there, and it is more than a little suspicious that the reviews are so homogenous. But I'll try to reserve judgment until I've read the book.
The behavior of the game industry is really quite astonishing and they're on thinner ice than they think. These companies rely on 'cool', highly skilled workers and publicly traded stocks to stay alive. Cool factor and skilled work force are fast being shot in the foot by terrible salaries, high working pressures, unethical practices and the inevitable press that follows. And they should be very scared of the press. It'll all result in tarnished image and lack of skilled workers leading to failure on the stock market. As a comment to stock holders, I suggest you are taking a risk. This is quite a volatile mix. Soon as a few really decent stories or expose's hit the media it might all be over.

Cool needs to be generated through personal success like the music or film industries. It certainly won't come through sweatshop failure stories. They need to start paying salaries that both reflect the level of training and skill in their software developers that will also lend an air of glam back to the industry, in combination with more creative development pipelines and properly scheduled and managed teams. Don't be deceived by the now worryingly common devaluing comments about 'assembly line' programming. A good programmer is a very highly skilled scientist and engineer. Remember the days when EA put pictures of coders on the cover ? They're missing big PR opportunities not profiling their best people. I suspect they're scared of loosing power. Unfortunately, as we know its partly pushed along by younger engineers who are eager to please and dazzled by the lights into doing it for peanuts because they're reassured this is 'normal for the industry'. But any idiot can give something away. It would show greater intelligence to know your worth and act on it by only accepting salaries that will buy you a decent house and acceptable life style, unionizing and striking if necessary. Amazing that so many industries can unionize, but the supposedly intelligent workforces in the games sector can't seem to manage it. As for the argument of 'doing something you love and get paid for it', that simply demonstrates the skewed employment relationship and lack of professionalism that's used to control. Plus don't you think that successful musicians, directors, actors, and writers etc. love what they do ? Ever noticed their salaries have a few more zeroes ?

On another note, I'm surprised this opportunity hasn't been taken up by more adventurous financial investors. Were anyone to set up a skeleton rival business and offer to pay properly, EA and the like will be crushed by the rush of those abandoning ship.

I have 20 years coding experience and a PhD in graphics and would certainly be working in the games industry if it paid well (read - $120k+). But sadly for everyone, the salaries are pathetic (read - you could earn more as a waiter) and somewhat price fixed between the publishers due to lack of competition. You may also notice that very few job ads publish the salary range. They won't even tell you when you contact them. They like to make out its to tailor offers, but it also aids in hiding low pay and preventing any salary wars. Instead, I go where the money is in business apps, financial companies or startups as will the majority of others (I hope) until things change.

Some programmers and artists at EA Redwood Shores do get paid at salary levels betweek 90-130K. But you can bet that they are working 6-7 days a week, not taking vacations, and working 10-12 hour days. Those weekend days are unpaid, other than the bonus that varies from year to year. There are also stock options, but the stocks have become less lucrative lately, largely because of elements outside of the control of the production staff (overprojected earnings, the insider trading lawsuit, etc.).

Activision set up shop a stone's throw away from EA and sucked over some of the best programmers, artists, and one of their top producers. You are correct that this has had a big effect on the studio's ability to meet its ambitious deadlines. Lucasarts has also been recruiting very heavily.

Re: Lots to worry about


18 years ago

Wow. I just read about this on Boston.com. Another white-collar sweatshop story, and it sounds so familiar--to the bad old days before the labor movement brought us 8-hour days and two-day weekends. What happened? People need lives outside of work. I like what one union guy said: eight hours work, eight hours sleep, eight hours what you will.

I have a blue collar union job that doesn't use my education, but it pays the bills and provides a damned good living for me. We have our "crunch times" too, but the company can't force us to work more than 12 hours in a day and they pay OT--double time past 12 hours in a week. That way everyone makes money and the job gets done. Having the double time rule really keeps the OT in check.

I really hope that the high-tech industry and other professionals will wake up and realize the benefits of unionization. You people are being oppressed and it angers me. And damn it, with your lousy work conditions, I am being forced to work at a job I hate because we have protections I wouldn't have in the "real world!"
Thanks for your comment. Do you happen to have a link to the story on boston.com? I did a search on their site, but couldn't find it. I keep hearing from people all over the country tha the Merc story has been syndicated, so I'm curious where all it's going. =)

Re: Unionize!


18 years ago

Re: Unionize!


18 years ago


May 27 2006, 09:04:08 UTC 17 years ago

Let's all boycott EA (^_^)


May 27 2006, 09:08:22 UTC 17 years ago

I'm a software developer myself (^_^), but I work for myself in the "blooming" commercial market. The only EA game I play frequently is Sim City 4. It's quite fun, but the load and save times are unacceptable. The programmers were probably too tired and sick to write those functions properly (-_-).

Now that I know this I won't buy anything from EA though (^_^).

Well back to work for me *giggles*


17 years ago


17 years ago


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16 years ago


June 22 2006, 23:25:39 UTC 17 years ago

Keep accurate logs of all hours worked and compensations recieved.
Even salaried employees are entitled to overtime compensation as per Federal Labor Laws.
Find a labor practives attorney and get what's coming to you.
I would suggest you do it as a group too.
your site was just on BBC so if you had some google ad-words, maybe your poor husband could take some time off...maybe he has...i didn't read the whole post...

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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,…