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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
ea_spouse
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?

Right?


===

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 07:45 pm (UTC)

To all those "Get a new Job" People

I currently work at EALA. I have been working mandatory 80 hours a week for six months.
I want to get a new job, but tell me, when you get to work at 9am and get home at 11pm Monday through Sunday. When do you have time to look for a new job? When do you have time to 'start a union'?
When you work these hours, every waking moment not at work is spend on the couch trying to recover. Those everyday things like laundry, cleaning and shopping get done in those precious few hours you aren't at work.

Yes, they have fired people for not working their hours.
Yes, they have fired people for looking for another job at work.
Yes, they have fired people for speaking up about the hours.

We do this 'for the look on the kids face Christmas morning'. That's what we were told.
At least that's better than the 'think of our share holders' that we used to get.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 07:52 pm (UTC)

Re: To all those "Get a new Job" People

Would you mind talking to me? I am a reporter with the LA Times. You can reach me at 213-237-7196. Or you can email me at alex.pham@latimes.com.
Thanks,
Alex Pham
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 07:51 pm (UTC)

Anyone want to talk to a Reporter?

I am a reporter with the Los Angeles Times. If you're one of those working the long hours to make ship date and are interested in telling your story, please email me: alex.pham@latimes.com.
Thanks much,
Alex Pham
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 07:52 pm (UTC)

Here's an idea...

Don't work there.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:00 pm (UTC)

Re: Here's an idea...

cripes, do you think you could actually be bothered to read the article before posting snarky and clueless garbage like this?

ea_spouse wrote:
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.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 07:56 pm (UTC)

Work 2 live... don't live 2 work

If they require your SO to work the overtime by threats of lossing his job... well that is illegal. If they only hint that overtime is needed, that has more wiggle room.

Before the dotBomb hit, I worked for a small startup company (employee #30). Eventually we grew to a size of 300+. The funny thing was we all still were working like crazy. If you went to scale back your hours it looked bad, because they knew you were able to work harder.

After 6 years with the company I left. It had become a game of "how many hours do you work?". Results weren't even a factor - if you could demonstrate an online presence you were better off than working 8 hours and getting all your tasks done.

When I left I was very vocal about my dislike about the work policy. It also took me about 6 months at my new job to unwind from the overtime that I was used to, even though I hated it - it was almost programmed into me.

Now I'm almost 180 different and if I'm asked to work over I normally flatly refuse it. I don't like being that way but I feel like it's too much of a slippery slope to start out on.

And let's face it. Most programmers are geeks. Upper managment views them as lazy punks who sit behind a computer all day that would be doing that at home as a hobby if not at work.

The best advice I could give you is to not think about leaving, but start putting a plan in place TO LEAVE. When your SO does leave, encourage him to be vocal about the reason. The company won't change this pratice unless their hand is forced... i.e. More than 1 person leaves

Also I'd suggest you record everything. Suing your current employer isn't a great idea, but suing a past employer would help get attention too. There is a grace period of like 3 years or something where you can open up a suit. If you recently worked at EA and this stuff applied to you, I'd suggest you contact a lawyer... if not to be greedy, to send a message to EA.

The startup I worked at had alot of people who were really jazzed about the technology (I was one of them). I think the "higher ups" count on some of that as an excuse. If your SO really likes games all that much, have him quit his job, take a better paying, less exciting, job in say web page design. Work 50 hours a week and blow another 20 playing games... he'd still come out ahead ;-0

Also 3 or 4 months ago there was some law change about exemption status. I believe that if the work was classified as software you were exempt from overtime. State law might differ, but still it would be best to talk to a pro (attorney).
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mactavish
2004-11-11 09:45 pm (UTC)

Re: Work 2 live... don't live 2 work

After 6 years with the company I left. It had become a game of "how many hours do you work?". Results weren't even a factor - if you could demonstrate an online presence you were better off than working 8 hours and getting all your tasks done.

One of my cubemates (our particular cube was set aside more like a windowless interior office, not visible from the rest of the area) brought in a thermarest pad and a beanbag. He'd work late into the evening, maybe 5-10 pm, sleep on the floor, get up and work another three or four hours, then take off for much of the middle of the day, running errands, going to medical appointments, having lunch. He'd be onsite if he had to be, for meetings, but would adjust his morning/night work for that. There was a shower in a building in the complex, he'd shower there. He rarely went home, lived with his mom anyhow. He was lauded as an example of someone with extreme devotion to the company. He was getting free rent and a T-1 line for 45 hours or so of work a week.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 07:59 pm (UTC)

Outstanding

I also have a friend at EA whom I hardly ever see, for this exact reason. It is understood that extra hours are required of any professional salary-based job, but it does appear that EA has taken advantage of this understanding. On the other hand, and this is no excuse, they do tend to treat their employees on a level commensurate with their success. Their employee stock options package seems equitable, and the benefits of the campus (ClubOne, soccer field, etc.) along with tons of swag and free advance movie screenings are a nice slather of icing on the cake. The problem arises when people don't share the same life/work balance as the company's leadership, and would prefer not to devote more than even 60 hours per week, let alone 85, to a company which has met with ample success to merit additional staffing, despite any anxiety about future performance. It isn't just, and it isn't fair, but by no means is EA the worst culprit or even malicious in its intentions. They've just lost sight of the big picture, like so many companies in tech and other fields. Employment practices should have regulatory checks and balances, because like it or not, multinational corporations are the face of the new government.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 07:59 pm (UTC)

I hate to say it...

...but having lived with this practice for so long, I'm really starting to think that we will have to unionize, just like the movie industry. It seems like it's the only think that will create equity in the games industry, not only in hours worked but in sharing of the profits (and risks?) on the games as well. Heck, the games industry is trying to become just like the movie industry anyway.

And I hate unions.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ravidrath
2004-11-12 01:44 am (UTC)

Re: I hate to say it...

I absolutely agree with your stance on this. I don't want to unionize, but what else can be done? Until these companies feel a financial sting from their labor practices, they have no reason to change.

Keep sending this around - I've alerted many gaming news sites and mags, and now that they've seen the class-action lawsuit filed against EA they're very interested in the story. I also E-mailed everything to Chris Morris at CNN/Money, noting that unionization would destroy the profits he reports on from week to week, so that this is an issue he should mention.

Expect to see more of this in the following days and weeks.

-Peter
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:01 pm (UTC)

As another who was offered a job by EA..

I find the lies they tell during the interview process shocking. I asked, flat out, "do you have crunch? If so, what kind of hours are we looking at?" After all, I've been in the industry for several years now; crunch exists, I don't like it, but I am willing to do it for short stints to push a game from A to AAA ranking.

Their response? "Oh, we're much better than most other shops, especially small devs (like what I was coming from). I'd say we work maybe one 10 hour day a week, the rest 8 hours, for a month before ship, and weekends only occasionally if things get really bad". Yes, I kid you not, he was telling me that they basically didn't do crunch! And this wasn't just one person - I asked several during the interview process, and got similar responses.

However, I've heard too many stories like yours, and talked with other ex-EA employees, and turned down the job offer. I'm glad I did.

Encourage your SO to find someplace new - there are other studios hiring, as many others on this list have stated. Also, if your SO is given a task list and a date to have it done by, make sure that they state, in email at the very least, their true estimated completion date. Same goes for any discussions they have with supervisors, in case of 'forgetfulness' later. Confirm in an email what was decided, so that no one can claim otherwise later. A paper trail is a great thing to have when disputing with supervisors, even if it is just in email.

At the very least, have your SO just stop coming in on Sundays. Turn off their cell phone, and screen your home phone with an answering machine. It's more important to have that downtime than a lot of people realize.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:02 pm (UTC)
I witnessed the EA pricks lay off everyone(around 60 people) at EA Seattle the day after the game they worked on shipped. AFTER they had crunched nonstop for 6 months up to 100 hours a week. The whole time management promising that if they "just get Hot Pursuit out on time...big bonuses and job security are guaranteed." At one point during crunch, EA had the balls to send a letter to all the worker's families...the letter was an apology for the mandatory 7 day work weeks and included a $25 gift certificate for dinner. "Spend some time with the family on us." OH BOY!!!

It's all because of pathetic project planning/managment by EA's army of overpaid, worthless producers. The irony is, the main management on that project got promoted after they shut the studio down. One is now the exec producer for EA Racing and the studio manager is now the head of the Vancouver studio...go figure they are both buddy buddy with Don Matrick.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-14 03:23 am (UTC)

The more I read...

The more I read about the injustices by EA and other vampiric game companies the more I want to just...fuck 'em! I don't even play videogames! My my husband finally quit the industry altogether after 15 years of indentured service. It almost cost us our marriage and his health but it was the best decision he ever made. If you don't get in, you won't get burned. Stay away, stay far away!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:09 pm (UTC)

It's not just the video game companies doing it.

I used to be a proofreader for a computer software maker who has been in the L.I. news quite a bit. I recently left this past May and one of the main reasons I left was the amount of hours me and the other two proofreaders were expected to work.

When I sat down and totaled the hours I had worked in 2003 it came to be equal 14 months for the year. Yes I got paid by the hour but at a salary that was in the mid 30s that doesn’t amount to much. It was a huge strain on my marriage, one that thankfully I think we are now recovering from.

Did they realize I and my other proofreaders were there until 3 a.m. Monday through Friday for 2 months? Yes. Did they care? Not from what I experienced.

I remember being told after working 3 days in a row from 9 a.m. to 2 a.m. that we were getting sloppy and let too many things get by us. I asked my boss just how accurate she would be if she had only a total of 12 hours of sleep in 3 days. I never did get an answer.

From what I keep reading and hearing too many software companies see their employees as resources to be used as much and as fast as they cane be. They aren't viewed as people with lives and families. It’s sad and I’m thankful that my new job is no where near that. I wish you the best of luck and hang in there. I got out and things have never been better.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:13 pm (UTC)

right there with you

suppose that we should start a support group? or maybe a picket line?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 01:49 am (UTC)

Re: right there with you

Okay I am blanket posting in this news group, but please, rather than just say it do something.

contact me at nigel_knox@hotmail.com.

We need some sort of international union (like the IGDA), if you agree, contact me.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:18 pm (UTC)

Tsk, tsk

$2.5 billion market cap. Millions of dollars donated to USC (my alma mater) in the name of creating a program that prepares students to work in the industry.

If this is the kind of work they prepare you for, a whip and a bellowing beast is all they need.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ravidrath
2004-11-11 08:24 pm (UTC)

Getting This Out There...

I'm former press and doing everything I can to get this out into the media, gaming and otherwise.

Spread this as far and wide as you can, and hopefully EA will respond to public pressure.

-Peter
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ravidrath
2004-11-12 01:41 am (UTC)

Re: Getting This Out There...

I've alerted gaming press outlets as well as CNN/Money.

No one was interested in just responding to the 'blog, but when I dug up the class-action lawsuit already filed against EA over this stuff, they became very interested.

Hopefully we'll be hearing a lot more about this in the days and weeks to come.

Keep up the hard work, everyone.

-Peter
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:31 pm (UTC)

testers have it even worse

This comes as no surprise to me, as I was employed at EAHQ as a tester in 2002. I clocked a few 80+ hour workweeks at the end of the testing cycle, but because I was being paid hourly, I was compensated with overtime/doubletime, plus production would buy dinner for their teams in overtime.

However, as testers we almost expected to take a certain amount of shit, being pretty much the lowest-paid and lowest-ranking workers in the company. Not to mention, we were all pretty much guaranteed to be laid off at or before six months of employment, as EA hires for its QA department on limited contracts (so that none of the testers or tech support people ever have to be paid any benefits - ain't that nice?).

However, I had no idea they would put people on salary through the wringer like this, or that it was even legal to do so. Again, it was understood that us testers were going to be treated as machinery, but that there would be an end to the labor at six months (or less). You would expect that people on salary are in for the long haul, and 80 hour workweeks are certainly not healthy for anyone for more than a very brief period of time.

I'm interested to see what will become of these sketchy practices now that people are really calling EA out. I applaud your bravery, but I'm still going to remain anonymous for now.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: gedrean
2004-11-11 08:33 pm (UTC)
I know I'm not going to buy anymore EA products... not that I did in the first place.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 08:34 pm (UTC)

Hear hear!

My husband has been in the video game industry for years, and though part of smaller companies that don't quite compare to a corporation the size of EA, I can vouch for the fact that this kind of practice is standard wherever you go. It's a shame, but as others say - there's a thousand people lined up just waiting to take your job, and your boss can probably pay that guy less than he paid you.
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