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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They have been hurting lately because of this recession. I used to feel sorry for the gaming industry because of this incident, but hearing the hiring practices about not hiring minorities (non-white) I just stopped caring and who gives a damn. oh you can be spanish and work for them as long as you look white.



June 2 2011, 11:45:09 UTC 10 years ago

These practices are what unions are meant to balance It's also what the department of labor and the many labor laws are meant to control. EA employees need to organize and either sue or form a union., or both. There is no need for this to continue.
Will never give EA another cent. Will seed any worthwhile game on torrent sites to help others pirate. This is complete bull and it WILL NOT STAND
And I'm fucking nervous as hell. Gaming's always been a passion and I know that programmers don't actually play games very often, but I thought that by working in the gaming industry I'll have motivation and pride to do the best that I can. After reading this, I wonder if I should even bother........
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EA-Spouse, Thanks for the info!!
Most of the people who post comment here are programmers. So I wonder if artists and designers are being in the same crunch-time situation in EA.
Hi there. EA is a large company and what's happening with one project at any given time may differ from what's happening on another project in the same studio, to say nothing of a completely different studio entirely. But generally, to answer your question, artists and designers are also impacted by crunch conditions. Generally when entire teams crunch like this it's considered part of 'morale' to keep the whole team there rather than to have only one discipline crunching. The intelligence of this is dubious at best, but then, so is prolonged crunch on the whole.
Well after reading this article I am boycotting EA and will try to get others to do the same. Slavery is illegal for a reason, the whole nine to five culture in general is flawed and exploitative as it is, raising expectations for no compensation is just a higher degree of manipulation. This corporate world where greed is applauded is disgusting and as far as Im concerned these CEOs should have their assets seized and be hung publicly, all of them at once. The averge CEO made eighty times the average workers wages in the 80s. Thirty years later they make over one thousand times the average worker. Does anyone else see a problem here? This is little more than a few evil, greedy scumbags participating in a global dick measuring contest to feed their egos. No one needs that much money, and the affects of their greed have lowered the entire countries standard of living. Small businesses collapse, the common man is forced to live a life of chasity and slavery where most cannot afford the cost of a trip to the emergency room. Is this what is to be the future of America? Brainwashing everyone into this idea of an american dream when over ninety percent die in the same class they are born into, yet made to believe it was because they didnt work hard enough. How hard are these CEOs working? What gives them the right to their money at all? The factories should belong to the people, if we focused as a society we could feed, clothe, and power the entire world, yet we dont. There are no countries, there are corporations, and CEOs are the Czars. This is bigger than EA, it is a global problem. If you ask me its time the people came together and showed corporations that they arent that big, we are. This is our world and our society and its time we told these greedy 21st century Kings we want it back. And if they dont want to give it back, then its time to take it by force.


January 16 2013, 21:06:01 UTC 8 years ago

good luck with that <.<
Should just boycott all game related anything. Maybe you will teach microsoft a lesson too.
Absolutely right. I completely agree with you. People in higher positions should not forget that their business is running because of their employees…so they should think about their employee’s happiness and comfort to a certain extent.


October 3 2012, 05:29:11 UTC 9 years ago

I'm in school for radio, which, I've heard, is similar to the gaming industry in terms of an over-saturated market and poor working conditions. Poor EA_Spouse's plight has made me think twice about wanting to work at a big radio station and bust my ass. I could never put my boyfriend in the situation that EAS is (or, hopefully, was) in. I'd much rather work at a little station out in the country somewhere and make next to nothing, and spend time doing the important things, like spending time with my family, and just enjoying life. It's not worth it to spend your life being miserable, just for the sake of money.
Are the working conditions still the same, 7 years down the line?
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January 16 2013, 21:02:12 UTC 8 years ago

I hate to be a jerk.. Ea's point in continually producing those football games is to always try and out do the previous installment. Chalenge everything seems to really only to there consistent projects. Yes it is essentially a money farm but trust me, when you can completely revamp the old one to new graphics, Make the gameplay siimplfied even for those new to the games to understand, and still keep the fast paced gameplay rolling the way it does is not something easily done. Though whats truly satisfying and makes it all worth it is that feeling of actually playing the game, The crazy enthusiasm of fans seeing their favorite football teams, Even the ones going nuts in the same room as you. Also, I Ea's pint in continually shelling out the games is because they are pretty sought after by avid football fans, soo big money there, And secondly, because its a renewable resource. Players change every year, Coachs fired coachs hired its always going to be updating itself. Not to mention the actual ranks of the teams and so on and so forth. EA can always make money off this until Football ends, So why not keep making them? Just for the record, its doesnt mean i like or agree with the fact that they keep making them or having people beta test them that rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrreally arent sports fans <.> But why should they quit making something that brings in a profit. Its the same things 2K and the NBA games. Hockey isnt nearly as succesful so they wont really get noticed unless they find a way to tie wayne gretzky into it. And Back with FIFA, Its the same Policy/train of thought. The only difference is, The top people just want the money. Im a programmer and coder myself and This what me and many of the people i work with would respond with. We love doing what we do. Yes, Its hard and deadlines are almost always placed way beyond our own estimated times of completion but what matters most is the gamer, the fan, Though Newborn holding the xbox controller x3 Its about the satisfaction of the people. Screw the higher ups. Because even the high and mighty have to listen to the mobs of people buying. :p
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Good post. Food for thought.

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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,…