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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)
2004-11-12 05:28 am (UTC)
I thought I'd post because I have an interesting situation. I, too, am the wife of an EA employee. I'm also an ex-EA employee, and the daughter of an ex-EA employee, so I have seen EA from many different sides. Between the three of us, we've been on at least a dozen projects at three different studios with EA alone, and not a single one of them has been accomplished without significant crunch time.

On the one hand, I understand this and was prepared for it. My father started working in the game industry ten years ago. I've watched him go through all the highs, lows, huge payoffs, sudden layoffs, surprise moves, and general drama the industry has to offer. So when I decided to get into the industry five years ago, I knew what I was getting into. When I started dating a game designer, I knew we were going to have to be very level-headed about our careers and our money, if we both expected to stay in the industry, and expected to keep our relationship healthy.

So far we've been able to do it. We are both employed, though with different companies, and we try to stay as mobile as possible. We try to keep our lives as uncluttered and simple as possible, because of how much time we spend working. Basically, we work, and we spend time just the two of us. We play games together, we go see movies when we both have a weekend day free, and we go out to dinner and talk game design together. It works well for us.

But that's not to say everything is sunshine and roses, or I don't have a beef with EA. I think their practices of scheduling a project for half the time it should take to complete it is criminal. Working 60 to 90 hour weeks is considered part of the job at EA. If they were forced to abide by California law and pay employees for overtime, they would be a lot stingier with scheduling it in. What is better, a week of 40 hours regular time plus 40 hours time-and-a-half, or two weeks 40 hours of regular time? If EA actually had to pay for the overtime they are currently getting for free, the practice certainly wouldn't go away -- projects will still get behind schedule from time to time -- but it wouldn't be scheduled in from the beginning.

So show me where to sign up. I think a union for the entire game industry (not just programmers, or artists, or designers, or QA, but everyone) is long overdue. Maybe we can get help with this through the Academy of Interactive Arts & Sciences (www.interactive.org)? A union carries with it a lot of bad with the good, so I'm going to talk to some of my friends in television and film and see what they think of their unions.

Other than a union, a think a class-action lawsuit is the way to go. We need to make an example of EA, and prove that companies cannot continue to work their employees to illegal limits. If we could form a class action suit (or expand on the existing artist-based lawsuit), and extend it to include ex-EA employees, there would be a lot of people wanting in on that. The joke in the industry is that everyone eventually works for EA. That has certainly proven true in my family.

So show me where to sign up. I'm definitely with you on this one.


I also wanted to post a note to those of you who have been thinking about getting into the game industry but have been discouraged by this news. Don't be discouraged. The industry is broken in a lot of ways, but we can fix it. Having young people (ok, some of you are only a year younger than me, lol) entering the industry with their heads on _straight_ is a wonderful thing for everyone. Don't let anyone talk you into working inhumane hours! If you refuse to do it either, then the argument of "there are a dozen fresh faced 22 year olds waiting to take your job" will cease to be true.

I'll also tell you what my father told me, and what I am now telling my husband: There is life after EA. You can leave EA and get a better job. Better yet, don't start out there! Someone is always hiring. You might have to relocate to LA, San Francisco, Seattle, or Austin TX, but it is still possible to get a good paying job, working with talented people on a project that you love. Don't give up hope, if making games is what you love.
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-13 11:26 pm (UTC)
Hi,
My name is Josh Pastreich. I am a union organizer and am helping on the class action lawsuit against EA for overtime violations. I still have a lot to learn about EA and you sound like the perfect person to talk to. Drop me a line and maybe we can answer some of each other's questions. unionjosh@hotmail.com

Josh Pastreich
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:28 am (UTC)

Thank God I never took their offer

This is an amazing story. Reading it I realize that the same line they fed your SO regarding working long hours, was asked of me at least 9 times during my course of interviews. This was at EA Canada and everyone one of the people I met with looked like they had been run through the ringer. I left there with the biggest stomach ache! My decision to not take the job was good then but in reading your message makes me realize it was the best decision I have ever made. I would hope that people do not get wooed by their name and realize beneath their facade they are a sweatshop. I hope this word gets out more so they will be forced to deal with this publicly.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:31 am (UTC)
Well, sorry to come off harsh, but who cares? Really, do you need to spend time with your husband that much? I think that every Game Developer should be single, that way there is no attachment to anyone that will interfere with their work. Its passion, respect, and the drive to do something they have always dreamed about doing. At least that is the way I see it! What do you always hear? A woman nagging on something, or requesting so much attention that it gets out of hand. Then the Husband/Boyfriend get frustrated, and leave something they worked so hard for for someone that might leave them in the future? Whats up with that? Career comes first, then relationship. Well maybe you can call me selfish, but hey, I wouldn't want anyone to take something away from me! Sure, its not about the money, but its about doing something I love! That love lasts... Love between two people usually dies after some time, and then what you get? DRAMA! More DRAMA! Stress, and etc. Maybe we have different views on life, but seriously? What do you get when your wife leaves you? No wife, and guess what no job! Yep, wouldn't it be so much better when, he comes home after those long hours of work, and you treating him as he was gold? Saying "How are you honey?" "How about we get down to it?" give him the best pleasure you can possibly imagine, then he would be rested up for work next day! Or spend that quality time doing something else? Yeah, doesn't that sound more appropriate? Or you just seek so much attention that you don't know what you want to do with your self! Sure, if there are kids, well I am sure they miss they dad, but later on when they grow up, they will know that their dad was part of something big, something they can be proud of. I know I would! Anyway, hope everything turns out how it should, but please you dont have to bash EA, after all its your husband who took the big task, and he knew what he was getting into! GOOD LUCK!

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:35 am (UTC)
Wow, you really got the point of the article, didn't you?

Not.

Go back to playing your video games, little child.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:47 am (UTC)

This story is true, but extreme

I worked on Madden 2005,and the hours were crazy, but that is how the game industry. Anyone producing a blockbuster title goes this EVERY dev cycle.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 07:39 am (UTC)

Re: This story is true, but extreme

you've been brainwashed.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:56 am (UTC)
This is typical EA. They create 180+ person teams, build the product in 4 months, all the while burning their teams to a crisp. EA Redwood Shores, EA Maxis, EA LA - all the same. The most recent games where this development 'strategy' has been implemented are Third Age, Sims, and Bond Rogue Agent. There is a 20% turnover rate at EA, though I think it is a lot higher. It is correct that HR is not on their side, because they are flooded with green candidates willing to do anything to get in the game industry. EA, HR, they don't give a shit about you. you are simply a number on their spreadsheet. The problem is that there are people at EA who buy into this milataristic way of development, and spend 24/7 there to support the 'EA way'. The people that buy into this mentality are promoted to managers, and it is their job to set an example by being there. I am glad this is getting national coverage:

http://news.com.com/2061-1043-5449296.html?tag=rsspr.5449339

However, this will never change unless their studios are torched.

Anonymous,
11 years as a developer in the Video Game Industry
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:58 am (UTC)

Ex-EA Canada spouse

Dear EA Spouse,
Thank you for this post. I couldn't agree more with the points you made. It seems to have hit a nerve with a lot of people.

I am an ex-EA spouse, and I was never so happy in my life as the day my husband came home and told me he had been fired from EA. Over the two years that he worked there, I had grown to hate the place so much, that I couldn't even set foot on the premises. This was unfortunate, since it was the only chance I had of seeing him for months at a time.

For the first 6 months of our daughter's life, he hardly saw her, and I formed the EA Single Mothers club. I even had spouses with no children wanting to join. My husband has worked in production at a number of different companies for many years, so I was used to the "production lifestyle". I was completely unprepared, however, for the utter disregard EA has for their employees lives and well being. We had never seen anything like it before in any of his other jobs. EA makes up for their lack of innovation and gross inefficiencies by bullying their employees into working tons of unpaid overtime. They have created such a "culture of fear," that individuals are afraid to speak out. As much as I tried, I could never understand how so much overtime could be required for a game that was essentially the same every year.

I won't get into the details of my husbands termination, but we did consider suing for wrongful dismissal. In the end, we decided that EA was just too big to take on. In a nutshell, he took the fall for the inefficiencies and shortfalls of the supervisors of his team. The whole HR procedure for termination was ignored, he was even given the "heads up" about his firing from a friend working in another company. His supervisors were so professional!! He is now working in the film industry for another company, and our lives are so much better. Many members from his old team at EA are now approaching him looking for work, because they hate EA so much. Some of them are even taking a salary cut to get out.

In summary, if you can afford to do so, get out of EA sooner rather than later. Life is just too short!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:01 am (UTC)

just phuck them

Leave. Activision is hiring like crazy for some really nice high profile projects and at least they aren't scheduling for overtime as far as i know from my friend. Larry Probst's salary with bonuses for 2004 was about $1.4 million and his stock options are worth about $140 million with $22mil exercised, $99 million unexercised and $20 mil unexerciseable. I can understand though.. Those high end hookers are really, really expensive and they love flying around the world in private jets. Blizzard is hiring too, Epic is hiring and so does Naughty Dog and Namco. Namco seemed like a good company to me when i interviewed there (i hear it's good for programmers).
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:40 am (UTC)

Re: just phuck them

Trust me, Activision (from my experience) is just as bad if not worse. I am sure it does very from development house to development house under the main company, since a great deal of fault does lie within middle management, but I have some tales to tell that are even worse than what's been told in this essay.

But this isn't something that can really be solved by jumping around between companies. It's something that should have been addressed a long time ago, and now is as good a time as any to do so. Workers of any field, whether it's game development or not, deserve some rights when it comes to working overtime. The reason this is a big problem in the gaming industry is because companies are VERY careful not to come right out and say "we need you to work an extra 10 hours". They send out company wide e-mails "encouraging" people to work longer hours instead, and those who don't are conveniently disposed of and replaced with new workers. It's legal, but it sure as hell isn't ethical.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:07 am (UTC)

Ug, this is disgusting.

I can only imagine how this woman feels. If my father had to work under those conditions I'd feel absolutely horrible..

I for one am going to do everything I can to avoid buying games with the EA logo anywhere on them until I hear about this situation being rectified.
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From: (Anonymous)
2011-06-03 06:20 am (UTC)

Re: Ug, this is disgusting.

I understand you. Here I am, a teen thinking of being an animator only to find out that its like being in the military... Maybe worse. I'm going to have to find something else that inspires me... BUT I LOVE ANIME!!! But I also do want to spend time with my future wife. EA, PITY.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:16 am (UTC)

As a consumer

This is really offensive. I have been a loyal Madden, and NCAA buyer since 1997. That's $700 on just the two EA titles I buy every year. I also buy the occasional Knockout Kings,Tiger Woods, and Nascar games. I have been dissapointed at times at the final product that they put out, and now I understand why there are so many mistakes. I will no longer support this type of practice. I will not buy another EA title untill they completely resolve this issue in a way that is right by the employees. There is no excuse for these types of demands on the workers. I worked for a company that did pay overtime, but they worked a person till they dropped. I worked in the oil field, and I wouls work 5 15hr days, take a day off and come back to do it again. Never on the same day off, and sometimes having to work nights in there too. They wouldn't give me a raise, because they said that I was getting paid enough. (even though thay didn't have anyone else who would swap days and nights back and forth, and not miss any days. In the year and a half I was with them I took off 5 days that I was supposed to work. 3 after my daughter was born, and 2 after she had to go in the hospital. So I understand what it is to be overworked and underapreciated, and I won't support any company doing it to their employees. Good luck with the suite, and try to keep your SO focused on what's important. Your familly.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:22 am (UTC)

CNET News.com reporter seeking sources

I'm a reporter with technology news organization CNET News.com (www.news.com), and would like to speak with EA employees and other employees in the video game industry about work conditions. I wrote a brief item about the ea_spouse blog today (http://news.com.com/2061-1043-5449296.html?tag=xtra.ml), and plan to follow up on the story. I'm willing to keep people's identities confidential.

Please call me at 415 344 2821 or email me at ed.frauenheim@cnet.com.

Thanks,
Ed Frauenheim
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:26 am (UTC)

me too

a sibling of mine works for blizzard, and a friend works at oddworld. both have similar situations-though perhaps not quite this bad-and are vastly underpaid and overworked. my sibling has become sick over and over from overworking and has seen countless coworkers come down with flus, pnmonias, and other ailements. i think it's time for a class-action suit.
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-20 12:04 am (UTC)

Re: me too

Hi,
My name is Josh Pastreich. I am a union organizer and we are looking into running more class action lawsuits in the games industry. If your sibling or friend are interested I would very much like to hear their stories. unionjosh@local16.org

Josh
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From: ravidrath
2004-11-12 06:37 am (UTC)

Press Coverage Begins...

Well, I got one outlet to report on it thus far, and am contacting others. If you know any press people, please encourage them to cover this story!

http://www.gamespot.com/news/2004/11/11/news_6112998.html

-Peter


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[User Picture]From: mechanodroid
2004-11-12 06:43 am (UTC)

Re: Press Coverage Begins...

902 posts?

Holy shit is this the new fatbabies, or what?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:49 am (UTC)

WOW

I worked for EA Pacific (cnc generals) a couple years ago and man am I glad I left! They kept saying that the crunch was just for that project and that they had made a miscalclation somewhere and don't worry well never do this again.

One big thing is people who are supposed to be taking care of business are too busy trying to put in their 2 cents. I can't count how many times people in management would get it "their way or no way."

The BIG WIGS come down from ea corporate every so often to make everyone work overtime. They say it's for some demo or meeting but it really jus an excuse to make everyone work more.

at first i was really stoked to work with so many cool people and work on a really cool game but 85-90 hrs a week for 7 months straight made me wise up quick.

the industry is too small to start a war unless you got money to make it on your own. I couldnt afford to get fired then and i still cant.

i hope someone finally does something to help out all those people who are in my same position. my job now is still kinda crunchy but at least i get some ownership of what i do, and im not just a keyboard monkey.

everyone who thinks working on games is fun try working for mark skaggs. he used to talk about how the studio would be different from ea, but as soon as they gave him more power he caved like a bitch.
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[User Picture]From: cligammari
2004-11-12 07:00 am (UTC)

Its not just EA

Well it looks like finally something is being done about the insane work practices of the film/game industry. I say it that way because this is not only a problem of EA. Having been in and around the industry for a few years now...it is a problem everywhere. Everyone I know has worked at 3 companies in the last 4 years always hopeing conditions are better at the next place. It never is, so we move on again.

Oddly enough my SO is currently working at EAX and has never once been asked or had it implied that he should work overtime with no compensation (in fact he has never been asked to work overtime). In our opinion this a dream companie compaired to others. Not to undermine what looks to be a real problem in other places. But please bear in mind that if everyone is going to rise up and fight for the treatment they deserve, it should be done in all aspects of the industry INCLUDING other game and graphics studios.

Good luck and I'll eagerly be following the progress of what you've started ea_spouse!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 07:17 am (UTC)

Re: Its not just EA

Umm what does your SO do, and how long has he been there ? When i was there I clocked in 94 hours a week once, there was a guy there who NEVER left the office for 27 days..TWENTY SEVEN DAYS...that is the running record...for hours worked in a week it's over 110..so i can tell you for sure that EAX is no diff..and it was so poorly managed that you know what happned with their sports game the recent turn of events. EAX got ripped apart this year...everyone in the company knows that...or maybe it is that they are so dependant on the OT that things fell apart this year...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 07:11 am (UTC)

Hmm SoE (Sony online entertainment)

I wonder if the same is happening to SoE!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 10:06 am (UTC)

Re: Hmm SoE (Sony online entertainment)

no it doesnt. I spent almost 5 years there. you still get the *i can be easily replaced for no money* feeling and still have overtime but its far and away from what is discussed about EA.

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