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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 10:12 pm (UTC)

Oh please

This is a ridiculous thing. This lady or man is jealous of there spouse has a good job. I have a cousin who works for EA and he loves it. He's been there 4 years> he has worked through several of these "crunch-time" hours. Granted 85hr work weeks are long, but there are some jobs out there that wore 80-100hr work weeks. Like construction workers, some police, nurses. And these make considerably less than someone working at EA. I guess this person needs to get a job and quit complaining.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ea_spouse
2004-11-11 10:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Oh please

Wow. RTFM. On a scale of ten rating points, there are possibly two that make my SO's current position qualify as a 'good job'. He plans on exiting it at the point of greatest opportunity. Secondly, you make a number of assumptions. I have a job, and I'm willing to bet it's better than yours. This does not prevent me from being deeply disturbed by my spouse's working conditions. Thirdly, my stepmother is a nurse. They have far better worker's protection than game developers do -- they have their own issues, but they also have a union. Police are in a similar position. Fourthly, those people are saving human lives. They are not feeding the slathering maw of a corporate media giant. If you would like to take this up with me further, my email address is ea_spouse@hotmail.com. I have little hope that this response will prevent further moronic behavior, but I do what I can.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: hatboxhats
2004-11-11 10:14 pm (UTC)

Call a Lawyer

I was in a similar situation at an advertising firm. I was working long hours and was told I was "exempt" from overtime. After many assurances that they would hire more people and cut our extended hours, I decided to look further into the law. As far as I could tell, it seemed that I was actually "non-exempt" under California's law.

So... I called a lawyer. Well, two firms, seven attorneys and five years later, I settled with the firm. Not only for myself, but in the name of 89 employees in the State of California in a class action suit. It was a court-approved settlement. My original claim of $17,000 for a year of overtime cost the firm over $2.5M, between the settlement and their attorneys' fees (my attorneys' fees were paid through the settlement). And who was this advertising agency? TMP Worldwide (known best for their little job-board website called monster.com).

If you think the law is on your side, then take the next step. Not only on the behalf of your SO, but on behalf of all the employees. You may cause a change in the industry. Look at the six women from Wal-Mart that are contesting their gender discrimination policies... The bad thing about frivolous lawsuits is that we start to question legitimate lawsuits. This is legitimate. EA is benefiting by not paying the full cost of salary. That skews their bottom-line (and if not for the assumption that this problem is industry-wide, you could argue that it causes unfair competition).

If you are interested in talking to an attorney, I'm happy to give you the numbers of the firms that helped me. Email me directly at hatbox@pobox.com. It's good to vent and let people know what's happening. It's even better to make them change their ways. Good luck.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:23 pm (UTC)

The Irony


The irony of it all is that some developers actually enable this kind of thing. Because most developers only view their productivity in terms of LOC produced, well then 60 hours of keyboard banging MUST be better than 40, right?

If rework (that is code returned to the owner because of bugs) were factored in, it would be relatively easy to demonstrate that most people working prolonged overtime are actually hurting productivity. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if some weeks teams actually experienced negative progress because of this.

This is clearly shown in the attitude with which the developers and company hold the testers. In that mindset, the testers are the "enemy", since they produce problems. It's no wonder they've been unable to link the bugs to the overtime: developers don't create bugs, testers do.

A previous poster mentioned Extreme Programming. We use that in my project. One of the principles is "Sustainable Pace". In other words, you want the team to go at the absolute top speed they can managed for the entire release. Short (and I mean short) term sprints of a week are allowed, but no one is allowed to work overtime two weeks in a row. A burned out programmer is a liability, not an asset.

What's funny (and sad) is that, while XP teams are often vastly more productive than regular teams, you have to spend time managing your management. Managers see a team that isn't pulling overtime and complain that the team lacks "dedication" or has no sense of urgency. Sigh.

Btw, I'm also active in the game modding community. I see the "game company fever" that many modders have. I've seen the sweeps companies make through the modding community where they snatch up any warm bodies available. You can tell right away that the size and breadth of the hires means the "lucky" people are going to be treated as disposable.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:23 pm (UTC)

Welcome to manual labor

Yes manual labor. Any labor that is not managment is now considered maunal and you will be treated as such. Two concepts for you and yours 1. A Union! 2. A labor Contract define working conditions. Have Fun
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:25 pm (UTC)

UO Player feels sick

I have the worst feeling of guilt right now. I am supporting a high-tech sweat shop - I really had no idea. I wouldn't buy sweat shop sneakers, but I am a 5 year veteran player of an EA game.

To be honest, I can not understand why your SO doesn't leave; it is just ridiculous to stay. There is always a market for talent. If your SO is the love of your life, bite the bullet and move if you have to.

Sue them, report them, whatever. But just get the hell out of there.




(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:29 pm (UTC)

Welcome to manual labor

Yes manual labor. Any labor that is not management is now considered manual labor and you will be treated as such. Two concepts for you and yours 1. A Union! 2. A labor Contract defining working conditions. Have Fun
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: spiralfeathers
2004-11-11 10:32 pm (UTC)
Didn't have time to read through all 600+ comments, so someone has probably already said this...but I would seriously report the matter to an appropriate government organization (osha maybe, or whatever else would be more appropriate), and/or talk to a lawyer, particularly if you do think this is illegal. I'd also be sure to keep up with things that can be used as evidence, from things such as the memos or whatever saying when the crunch time was supposed to be ended, to proof of how many hours being worked and how much is being paid. You may have a case, and if you do bring a lawsuit against them, you will be at least in some way compensated for all the crap you've gone through, and it'll make EA think twice about treating employees like that again.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:40 pm (UTC)

Probst's wad


http://www.aflcio.org/corporateamerica/paywatch/ceou/database.cfm?tkr=ERTS&pg=1&CFID=79527&CFTOKEN=41437425

Lawrence F. Probst
Chairman and CEO
Electronic Arts

In 2003, Lawrence F. Probst raked in $17,552,413 in total compensation including stock option grants from Electronic Arts.

From previous years' stock option grants, the Electronic Arts executive cashed out $13,723,593 in stock option exercises.

And Lawrence F. Probst has another $60,055,226 in unexercised stock options from previous years.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:40 pm (UTC)

EA Spouse

I am also a spouse of someone in this industry. We have also gone through the insane hours of "crunch" time. There is nothing more frustrating than a manager telling you it will be over soon...it is never over! Last year my husband worked 26 straight days one month and 19 in the next. Having no time off is not healthy either physically or mentally. It wrecked havoc with our home life and our marraige. We didn't even get to have a honeymoon due to the fact that he couldn't take any time off. I have to agree with someone else who suggested a union. Might not be a bad idea.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:53 pm (UTC)

Re: EA Spouse

this is why anyone with an ounce of brain would have this stuff in black and white before they signed the letter of offer.

just do your reserach and know where you stand contractually before you accept the job.

dont accept a job on the basis of what is told to you but conveniently isnt included in the letter of offer.

would you sign a contract for a house even though items which are of extreme importance to you are not covered accurately? of course not.

just apply the same rules you would other business transactions instead of throwing caution to the wind and accepting the job when you dont know what you are in for.

it's extremely difficult to get an employer to change the conditions after the fact when they know their contractual position.

you need to make sure from the word go you and the employer understand and have addressed hours and overtime.

then you dont have to worry about fighting after-the-fact if things get too much you can simply refer to your contract and say hey, remember this.

its that simple.
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Re: EA Spouse - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:43 pm (UTC)

Thats just retarded

This really sucks man.I am approaching soon towards graduation and EA was on top of my TO CONTACT list.Well now i fell i wont be applying for them.I'd rather work as a software coder then as a game coder because for me ,my social life is most important.

Admin
Fs911.com
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:12 pm (UTC)

Re: Thats just retarded

this is why anyone with an ounce of brain would have this stuff in black and white before they signed the letter of offer.

just do your reserach and know where you stand contractually before you accept the job.

dont accept a job on the basis of what is told to you but conveniently isnt included in the letter of offer.

would you sign a contract for a house even though items which are of extreme importance to you are not covered accurately? of course not.

just apply the same rules you would other business transactions instead of throwing caution to the wind and accepting the job when you dont know what you are in for.

it's extremely difficult to get an employer to change the conditions after the fact when they know their contractual position.

you need to make sure from the word go you and the employer understand and have addressed hours and overtime.

then you dont have to worry about fighting after-the-fact if things get too much you can simply refer to your contract and say hey, remember this.

its that simple.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:43 pm (UTC)

Oh my god -- this is my life too!!

Oh my god -- this is my life too!!

At least they let you off at 10pm though -- there has been many a night where I had to drive home at 2am and be back at the office by 7:00 am. I would drive with the windows all down singing at the top of my lungs to stay awake. Talk about DANGEROUS!

Our management uses the threat of if you don't help us through this crunch time (and it's aways crunch time) you will be laid off in the next round of lay offs. They have had rolling lay offs every 3 months for the last 3 years.

Do we as IT professionals need to unionize? I mean I went to college and I have a master's degree and I'm working in sweat shop situation trying to keep my job from being sent to Malaysia! Not what I had in mind in college!

Thanks for the forum to air my beef...

(Reply) (Thread)
From: unionjosh
2004-12-17 10:15 pm (UTC)

Re: Oh my god -- this is my life too!!

which company do you work for?
Josh Pastreich
IATSE Local 16
unionjosh@local16.org
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:45 pm (UTC)

maybe do your research before you sign letters of offer then instead of whinging after the fact


if you are looking for someone to blame maybe you should look a little closer to home.

no-one forced your partner to sign up for this job at ea. if your partner did not fully understand the work conditions and the hours then he has no-one to blame but himself.

you wouldnt go signing a house contract without fully understanding the consequences, so why is it that people jump willy nilly into jobs and sign away without looking at the specifics.

it's a bit riciculous to complain about conditions AFTER THE FACT

it's also ridiculous to expect you can then alter those condtions AFTER THE FACT

conditions are determined when you sign that letter of offer, if you dont like the terms conditions hours and compensation for those hours, dont take the job. seems pretty simply to me.

my 2c. dont like it, find a new job.... AND next time, tell your partner to pay more attention to what it is he is signing up for.

pppppp

prior preparation prevents piss poor performance

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:50 pm (UTC)

Re: maybe do your research before you sign letters of offer then instead of whinging after the fact

Could you be any stupider? A job applicant does not have all possible information about a job and working conditions and cannot have complete information until they start the job. They rely upon fair and accurate representation on the part of the employer and trust the employer follows all applicable laws... oh, and you generally assume they don't treat their employees like total crap.

You can't blame him for not knowing when the information wasn't available to him. Employers generally don't let prospects interview large amounts of their staff before accepting. Idiot.
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Learn to write - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:47 pm (UTC)

Easy remedy

Have him record all his hours. All of them. If you are right and he really is a "non-exempt" employee (i.e., if the law says he must be paid overtime), then it sounds likehe has an open-and-shut case that any labor lawyer would be happy to accept, especially if there are memos (or voice recordings? emails?) describing the mandatory overtime.

IANAL, but he should be entitled to at least the overtime wages, if not more.

-El Kabong
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: giza
2004-11-11 10:53 pm (UTC)

Re: Easy remedy

Regardless of his non-exempt status, I think it would be a good idea for him to keep track of all his hours *anyway*. If his employer attempts to terminate him and he chooses to fight back in court, not only will he have documentation of all the work he did, but he'll also have a full accounting of just how many hours he spent there without additional pay. Chances are that it might go over better for a sympathetic jury. :-)

Good luck!
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:53 pm (UTC)

Shove it up your @$$

Boo-hoo indeed. How dare anyone complain about their working conditions! I mean, someone else is guaranteed to have it worse! Instead, lets all just keep our mouths shut, and make it even easier for a few people to become millionaires on the hard work of others.

Give me a f**king break. You people are absolutely ridiculous. I work in a call center, making crap wages, wishing I could get a job at a game dev studio. And I still have empathy for these people.

So either give a damn about other people, or take your selfish attitude, follow the subject, and put in an application for management at EA. I hear they like to hire assholes.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 10:58 pm (UTC)

wrong

Sorry but you're wrong about the labor law. It specifically exempts people in "management" or "creative" positions. Nearly all game/software employees would fall under one of those.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: iconoplast
2004-11-11 11:05 pm (UTC)

Re: wrong

I've kept my mouth shut on a lot of the stupider comments here, mostly because I'm a lurker at heart, but this one bugs me.

Are you a lawyer? An expert of some sort on US labor laws? Did you even call the Department of Labor and ask them? Then I severely doubt you know specifically which positions do and do not fall under that exemption. And as far as I'm aware, your employer is required to notify you in writing if you are under an exemption (and I'm also happy to admit that I am not a lawyer or expert, nor have I called the Dep't. of Labor, so anyone who is in this sort of position should check for themselves rather than listening to a stranger).
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
Re: wrong - (Anonymous) Expand
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