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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
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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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:20 pm (UTC)

Re EA - leave america, come to australia

Come to Australia.
Our per-capita standard of living is up there with Japan, our Games industry is exploding into action, and we haven't gone completely down the deadend path of corporate fascism yet. Our workplace laws also appear to work most of the time.

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[User Picture]From: kineticfactory
2004-11-12 12:19 am (UTC)

Australia tomorrow = America today

The Tories (i.e., Australia's answer to the Republicans) have got control of the Senate, and one of the pieces of legislation they intend to push through (which had been blocked by Greens and Democrats for the past term or two) is "labour reform", i.e., deregulation of working conditions. Chances are, Australia will soon be competitive with the US in sucky working conditions. In other words, don't bother.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:22 pm (UTC)

Game industry programming is dangerous to your health

My experience in the computer game industry is similar to what the author mentions--the long hours of work resulted in burning out my adrenal glands to the point where they were completely non-functioning. The adrenal glands produce adrenaline, to give you a boost under stress, but those glands can only do so for a short period before they burn out and stop functioning, which mine did. I had no choice but to leave my programming job due to constant fatigue.

It took a year and a half of treatment for my adrenal glands to heal and function normally, to where I wasn't sleeping and sluggish most of the day.

Looking back, it was simply a misconception, albeit a harmful one, that our managers had: they believed that if we worked longer, we'd get more done. Seems logical, doesn't it? But it's not true. I discovered that working longer hours resulted in rapidly diminishing returns on how productive I could be, as the author also mentioned. I was at my desk more hours, but I wasn't getting more quality work done. I was staring at the computer screen and zoning out. I was tired. Having plenty of rest and time to recharge is a must in any job, and game industry people are no exception.

I couldn't recommend in all honesty that any person who values their health enter the game industry unless their employer is wise enough to value their employees' health over a game.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 06:46 am (UTC)

Re: Game industry programming is dangerous to your health

It IS physically damaging. I know several people (more than two) who have left game companies for health reasons--getting fatigued and sick due to the long hours, back strain, muscle tension, migraines, high-blood pressure, increased stomache acid/acid reflux, eye strain...

Sitting in front of a monitor for seven days a week, 12 hours a day can seriously damage your health!

It's not worth it. It's just a GAME.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:27 pm (UTC)


I've read a whole lot about boycotting over the page 11 something pages in these posts, and even though i already posted, I really really have to respond to this.
Boycott EA? What, you think that other companies do it better? People make CLAIMS that they do it better. Ubisoft and Neversoft (hmm.. is it the "soft" that makes it better?) have had some stories on here that claim they treat people better, and if thats the case, well, awesome!
But thats 2 companies in a sea of thousands, people.
If you are so appauled by these conditions, then you might as well start boycotting THQ games, and Sony, and Eidos, and Microsoft, and jeez, so so many others. If you're appauled at these conditions, then you might as well stop buying games at ALL, because it's all over the place. I'm sure if you went to every game studio on the planet, and asked them about crunch times, they would tell you a similar story. And it's not new, it's been going on since the dawn of systems. Mostly because people WANT to make something really great, so they almost willingly put in the hours. I myself, won't put my name on anything I'm not personally happy with. The sad fact is that companies see this, and take it for everything it's worth.
Boycotts are a nice idea, but they're completely unrealistic. All it's going to do, if anything, if make it even harder for those trying desperately to get their projects out into the world. Truely great game makers, programmers and artists, do what they do because they love it, not because of the money. So by boycotting them, you're effectively giving them even less for something that i assure you they WILL do anyway. It just will be even harder. Or maybe worse, maybe they will be so bankrupt, they won't be able to realize their dreams.
It needs to come from us, from the game makers, the artists, programmers, producers. People IN the industry have to make it change. Anyone outside of it trying to tear it all down with boycotts, is just going to hurt things.
If you really want to help, the next time you play a game, think about this story that you so greatly despise. Because odds are, the game you're playing right there, probably went through something similar if not worse.
Apprecaiting what goes into the game makes it all the more better. It doesn't compensate for it, but it makes all the hard work of us makers, worth something at least =)
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[User Picture]From: rapierice
2004-11-11 11:29 pm (UTC)
This has been linked to from a DigiPen message board, and I can almost guarantee that within a week, this will be all over DigiPen. EA Spouse, you've accomplished something here, at least I hope so. DigiPen is the best school out there, if all of its students hear that it sucks to work for EA, they will have to make due with more naive students who haven't heard about their working conditions. Hopefully, with a lack of great programmers and artist coming in, they'll have to change a bit? Ah, we can hope. :) Definitely try to get a job somewhere else in the meantime! Are the other major studios the same? How about Square?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:29 pm (UTC)


I work in the entertainment industry myself , a company that produces , 104 WEEKLY TV shows , and 15 additional shows. Thats 52 weeks a year ... thats EVERY WEEK. I work long countless , thankless hrs as part of the job.

You have to understand something your whiny ass seems to forget , thats part of the entertainment industry and the way it works. You are expected to give give and give , without any kind of thanks... Everyone that I work with is used to this. Trust me , I start on the road on Saturday Nights or Sunday Nights , and I usually dont get a chance to really sleep or anything until Wednesdays , my ONLY OFFICAL DAY OFF , and then it starts all over again as I work three days at home.

I have aged a bit my 3 yrs + back in the business , but , its part of life. I have a goal and I will reach it , to retire before 50 , 40 if I am lucky , and the reality IS I WILL BE ABLE TOO , and be able to afford it. Thats the key ... if you cant handle it , GET OUT. I absolutely refuse to be the old guy holding down the younger cats that can't understand why some old turd thats 65 or 70 is STILL working , and stopping the ascension of those more rightfully deserved cause he didnt save his money. Instead blew it , and has nothing but lint in his pocket.

I dont and cant have a meaningful relationship , does it matter , NO NOT really. I would like too , but its not the main goal. My main objective is to make the company as much money as possible cause I benefit from it in the end.

I will say this , this past yr , I placed absolutely every egg I had in the basket and worked from Wednesday to Sunday with UNDER 6 hrs SLEEP total for a show or as we refer to it a presentation. I totally re-wrote it from start to finish and it was over 4:30 HRS long.

We did the biggest one night total event revenue for this event in company history that night. 6 month later I collected a bonus check , that I wasnt really expecting , almost near 6 figures. All of that money went into my retirement trust.

The whole point of being in the creative end of the entertainment business , culminated for me that night , and not cause of the green pastures that it brought forth , but the satisfaction that for once I was happy with the end result. I was back working on the next show , the next day ... and it was business as usual.

I choose this line of work , and I will no doubt pay for it someday. I dont buy your complaining one bit and I think you dont get it just how lucky he is.

Be happy your able to most likely not live in poverty like a lot of people are , and that , your "OTHER" is not working for the man at a place like Wendy's , or a Taco Bell.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:44 pm (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

The whole point was that the SO wasn't getting adequate compensation. You happened to find a job that requires the long hours AND compensates you for it. You're right, there is no need for you to complain, it was your good fortune. Take away your bonus and equalize your compensation to what EA is giving out and see if you're still of the same opinion.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:29 pm (UTC)

To all the people saying "stop whining"

If you're working those kinds of hours with a "shut up or get out" attitude, maybe you're the one with the problem? I worked 100 hour weeks so I wouldn't consider myself lazy, but I work to live. Anybody who lives to work needs to reconsider his priorities or seek counseling because it's dysfunctional.

Nobody ever lays on his deathbed wishing they had spent more time working in their life. You only live once so make the best of it. My family is second to none, especially not my work.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:45 pm (UTC)

Re: To all the people saying "stop whining"

Furthermore, free soda & coffee all the time and free dinners during crunch time is a nice perk, but maybe some of us actually want to move beyond the college dorm lifestyle and actually get a life and have dinner with our wife & kids every once in a while.

If you want to want to be a bachelor when you retire or if you want to cohabitate with your wife instead of actually having a real marriage or if you want your kids to be strangers, then the game industry might be for you...or the recording industry, law or medicine from what a few dummies on this site have been saying.

I do crunch time, but I've been resisting ungodly stupid deathmarch crunch time. They don't like it, but oh well. I'll find something else before they decide to axe me.
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[User Picture]From: miss_twilight
2004-11-11 11:31 pm (UTC)
That is so horrible.

And they've already sent their first line technical and billing support to India! That alone makes me want to boycott them.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-19 07:27 am (UTC)


...that didn't work out. It has since come back to the US.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:38 pm (UTC)


Stevegek here... damn. If all the ppl would stand up together and tell you want to get paid, you dont get it and your all gonna get fired?

Respect that you make this public. Realy good. The fact you work for EA says enough about your skills... go to other companies... or set up your own with other people over there who want to leave EA? OK it's hard to start it no income etc. ... but still...

Good luck!
We need ppl for RC world a game we'r working on... :P nah just kidding we cant pay.

Gooood luck again from the netherlands,
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From: wasdisgruntled
2004-11-11 11:39 pm (UTC)

Thanks for bringing this out into the open

Thanks for your posting, ea_spouse.

As a formerly disgruntled EA programmer (no longer working there), I was pleased to find the link to your article on Slashdot and I've spent hours reading through all of the discussions with interest.

I worked at EA for about a year and a half; long enough to make it through two iterations of 'crunch time', and long enough that I knew I couldn't keep that pace up forever. Like so many others, my personal life took a heavy toll at the hands of EA.

One thing that strikes me most about this whole crunch time phenomenon is how ludicrous it looks from the outside, yet how easy it is to get sucked into that situation when you are working there. Every year, everyone says they aren't going to do the crunch time thing next year, yet each year it slowly escalates until it gets out of hand. Towards the beginning of the project, it might be 9 to 5. Gradually you start to get behind, working longer hours, the occasional weekend, until somehow for the last 3 months of the project you are working non-stop.

It was'nt fear of losing my job that motivated me to work these insane hours. More than anything, it was loyalty. I felt loyalty to all of the other programmers on my team who were working longer hours than me (who knows how long they would stay there coding at their desks after I left at 8pm?), and I felt loyalty to the team as a whole. I depended on these people to help me get my job done every day, and they depended on me. Making a game really is a team effort, and when everyone else is putting in 12 hour days it is hard to leave at 5pm in good consience, even when you know that working those long hours is something that you shouldn't be forced to do.

On top of loyalty to your peers, theres the constant reminder from the producers that if the game is late Bad Things will happen. "Were behind schedule, and if we don't deliver alpha by next week, the big wigs upstairs are going to loose faith and cut our marketing budget and reallocate it to Other Successful Game Title"... "If we don't deliver by this certain date, our product will loose its place in the publishing pipeline, and we won't be on the shelves in time to compete with Evil Game Produced By Our Competitor". "None of us wants to spend the weekend here, but none of us wants to see the game fail either." Basically, it was like all the games at EA were competing for survival. The execs would have their favourite projects that would get all the cash, and they would threaten to starve any projects that weren't looking like they would deliver a competitive product on time.
...Or at least that is the way it was presented to us in the trenches; who knows how much of it was reality, and how much of it was mental warfare? In reality the game had no chance of failure; the competition would be crushed and the game's existing fan base virtually guaranteed tremendous profits. After working there for a while, I began to get a sense that there was a lot of deception and/or willful ignorance on the part of our team's leaders.

I've now moved on and I'm working for a smaller game developer with seemingly a more realistic work ethic. I'll have to go through a full development cycle here before I decide if I'll stay in game development for the long run. I've wondered whether the 'crunch time' phenomenon was inherent to the industry and whether I should get out of it altogether. Hopefully things will work out better here.

For the sake of all of my friends still working at EA, and in the game industry in general, I hope that a lot of people read these discussions and that it prompts some discussion and resistance on the inside. Developers are all too tight-lipped about this issue; no one wants to look like a complainer I guess. It's a big issue though and I'm glad you came out and said something about it.

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From: unionjosh
2004-12-17 10:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Thanks for bringing this out into the open

In the movie industry we got legislation passed to insure overtime pay. Why can't we do this for games? It is just amazing to me that being paid for the hours people work is a foreign concept to some people. But as this becomes more and more prevalent, it puts more pressure on other companies to follow suit. somebody has to stand-up to this. There is a class action lawsuit against EA and I would be interested to see if more suits can't be brought against other companies using these practices. Any interest?
josh pastreich
IATSE Local 16
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:44 pm (UTC)

The master of reverse psychology at work

Here's what Mark Skaggs sent out to the EA LA team:


For those who might not have seen this.

It’s an interesting read. Take a look when you have time. My only suggestion is that you read it with the same “eye” that we apply to message boards about our products. In other words, see if you can determine whether we’re looking at a similar case of very vocal minority or whether it’s something different.

Whatever the case, there’s certainly lots of energy surrounding this.

Clearly this is another reason for us as a team to get the “Talkback” survey completed. So far we have about 80% response from our team. Let’s get it up to 100% (of the RFTs).

We’ve had a hard year in LA for the past year and there is a strong focus on how to this studio can have a better future. The survey is being taken very seriously.

If anyone wants to share their thoughts on this, feel free to drop me a line or set up some time. I would normally say “stop by”, but since we’re pushing for our final release candidate, I’m going to need to focus on that for the next few days.


...Don’t pay any attention to the emperor without his clothes on. Geez Mark, what page of "Management for Dummies," did you misread when you decided to send that email around.

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From: dsmart
2004-11-12 12:00 am (UTC)

Re: The master of reverse psychology at work

Standard company line response, so I don't see why this should come as any surprise.
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From: kc2keo
2004-11-11 11:50 pm (UTC)



Thank you for that insight on EAs employee treatment. I myself am trying to pursue my dream working for a game development company. I read every bit of your thread post here and took it to personal consideration. Wow how do you actually put someone through all of that? I picture a game development crew to be enjoying themselves with humor and sharing ideas. Not to be exausted and physically able to work. I myself have a hard time after school when i'm tired and frustrated on a bad day then I try to work on my program just for a hobby and I have a hard time. I cant function like that. Thank you for that insightful thread.

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

For what it's worth

That's EA on the blacklist along with nVidia's graphics division. I disapprove of their ethical practices, so I refuse to buy their products. And I was going to pick up a copy of NFS:U at the weekend too. Oh well. Ethics are more important than recreation.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:11 am (UTC)

Re: For what it's worth

I would have suggested Burnout3 instead, but wait there, no, EA bought them up too. That really sucks!

Oh well, you'll have to go for Flatout instead.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:51 pm (UTC)


Ubisoft = EA
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:53 pm (UTC)

someone should at least inform the union:

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:58 pm (UTC)
EA isn't union.
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