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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 12:07 pm (UTC)

Are you people crazy?

Having some experience, I can't imagine working more than 36.25 hours per week, with paid overtime if overtime truly becomes necessary, comp only if there is nothing left in the budget, and no time to get an emergency budget in before the next cycle. Of course, we have an union to combine the employees negotiating power, and so both the employer and the employees get to share our success.

Currently I'm using the overtime we had to do, due to some truly unexpected things, not mismanagement, by taking three day weekends through the end of the year as comp time, so I'm really working 28.25 hours per week, meanwhile scoring 4.5 (1-5) in my performance reviews. ;-)

It's good to live in a European country where the practises described in the article would have landed the management in a comfy jail cell.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 01:01 pm (UTC)

Re: Are you people crazy?

I'm sorry to burst your bubble, but I collected 400 hours of overtime in a 1.5 year span. I also work in Europe (Germany) and in the games industry. 60 hour weeks are common especially around deadline weeks.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:29 pm (UTC)

Shacknews

You have the GAMERS support!

http://www.shacknews.com/ja.zz?id=8965013

Unionize, do whatever you must. Just don't cave.

Most of us at Shacknew will NEVER buy another EA game!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 07:14 pm (UTC)

Re: Shacknews

Holy cow, there are more comments there than on here and Slashdot combined. I am impressed.

Thank you for your support, and I extend that thanks to all of the other gamers who have posted here. Just about every developer is a gamer at heart... we have the same love for the medium. It's a tough crowd sometimes, but that's what you get from geeks. ;)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:31 pm (UTC)

Number of hits

I wonder how many hits this page has got now?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 07:14 pm (UTC)

Re: Number of hits

I knew I should have put a sitemeter on it...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:50 pm (UTC)

EA is......

I myself am a gamer, not a casual one either.

What I think of EA, I assure you, is not something to be released in general public(It would probably rate a Restricted - Age 30 and above) if there was such a ruling).

EA has been releasing pathetic games, despite all their propaganda of high quality. I MUST admit, that due to months of this crunchtime put in by the programmers that the said games have "good" graphics. In content, on the other hand, it has less atoms than a m3 of vacumn in space.

I encourage you to take up the stand in standing up against EA. I can assure you that the boycotting of EA products have been going on long enough. Most products by EA are bought by causual gamers who are reeled in by the flash and pompous advertising. (Unfortunately, the said causual gamers form up a giant part of the entire gaming community)

This may seem a bit of a hijack of the comment portion. But I feel that I must add this :

EA's practices, in fact, FUEL program piracy.
They(EA) may argue that pirated CDs containing their products are crap, but, who would pay for THEIR crap in the first place?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 12:36 am (UTC)

Re: EA is......

What do you consider NFS HP2 for PS2? Done by Black Box, which IMO was the best in the series. And how about the Underground games? Sure, I dont like CIVIC's and Neon's, but its a great game! Also, what about 007 Everything Or Nothing? You call your self a non casual gamer? Pfft... I see that you might be, becasue a Hardcore gamer plays it all, and knows it all, then it judges.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 01:02 pm (UTC)

Poop

EA likes poop. LUE LOVES INVASIONS!
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: dadarkmcse
2004-11-12 01:17 pm (UTC)

You've been PPCT'ed

Just wanted to let you know that your story has been posted on Pocket PC Thoughts, a rather large pocket pc enthusiast site, so expect to get some pretty decent exposure for your thoughts. After all, that's why I'm here.

I remember when I used to code software - nothing major - but I can't conceive of working that long without breaks. Holding a B.A. in psychology also tells me that you physically & mentally cannot work that long without taking breaks on the eyes & hands. I expect your SO probably is prone to developing some sort of medical problem from all of this work, which (while probably not the situation you'd want) would open the door to a rather interesting court case. After all, from what you've posted, it certainly seems that EA fosters what the courts would call "A hostile workplace" (especially adding what the anonymous poster had to say about 'firings' above) and what OSHA would call "An unsafe workplace".

Good luck in your struggle, I hope things improve.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 07:16 pm (UTC)

Re: You've been PPCT'ed

Thank you for your comments, and for the heads-up about the Pocket PC Thoughts post. =) For my own sake and my SO's, I am hoping that he does not develop any long term medical problems, of course. =P But there is no question that his health and his teammates' health has suffered significantly.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: shasari
2004-11-12 01:19 pm (UTC)

Unfortunately that sort of attitude

Is not just reserved for the electronic gaming sector. I worked as a contractor for a huge software firm a couple of years ago. 90 to 110 hour work weeks, sometimes even more closer to the release date were not uncommon. The comments about the headaches and stomach problems were all to familiar. To top it off, the managements approach to dealing with contractors was "You want better treatment? Well you are >just< a contractor and we can replace you" or less specifically "Hey, you're >just< a contractor, remember?". In addition there were some in the contractor group I was in who were urged not to bill the company more than 40 hours even though they were working 14 hours 7 days.

This article about EA reminds me so much about my time as a contractor. I'm sorry to hear that this attitude toward employees is that widespread.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 01:41 pm (UTC)
Total sympathy !
And this would explain why The Lord of the Rings the Third Age is full of bugs on my PS2 !!!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 01:52 pm (UTC)

industry gone crazy

Hello

I’m in a senior position at a smaller developer. This crazy inhuman working practices that has almost become the norm in the games industry is something that really needs addressing. As I read the letter from the “disgruntled spouse” it sounded disturbingly real to me. Some of the teams at my company have been doing 3 nights a week and at least one day in the weekends for the last year or more. Prolonged over-time like that has a real effect on people’s lives and is completely unsustainable. This is very common in an industry that is supposed to be a very highly skilled and high-tech environment. A lot of the companies demand free over-time, and I mean, “demand”.

The crazy thing is that this system is not benefiting anyone. The more hours you work, the less productive you are. This has been proven in numerous studies around the world. When they made me lead at my company I insisted that my team only do overtime when it is really really needed. The result was that they came in fresh everyday, did their work fast and with inspiration. Yes, art is not about the hours you put in but the amount of inspiration going into it. After two months we were the only team ahead of schedule in the company. We were waiting around on the other teams that were doing crazy over-time to implement our stuff for sometimes up to 3 months.

So did we get a reward for delivering our work on time…NO…I got called in and told that I do not do enough over time to be a lead on the next project. OK, doing chosen over-time is one thing, but being effectively forced into that situation for fear of loosing your job, must be illegal. Do anything about it and risk not working in the industry again?

I Like working in games and I’m good at what I do, but how can I seriously think of having a normal life with time to spend with my loved one’s in a industry that has gone out of whack. I feel really sorry for the poor people with children and the kids who never see their parent.

When this story got sent around at my company, this was the response from one of my the leads:

“Long hours in the games industry.... yawn yawn.... buy a crash helmet. Think of all those starving children in Africa and other poorer countries who have to work 18 hours a day to survive. Grow up”

Great, need I say more?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 02:10 pm (UTC)

Re: industry gone crazy

This culture of work long hours and get paid crap is inherited from Asia.

Those managers and bosses must've seen sweatshop IT house in Asia and wants to emulate them.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 02:25 pm (UTC)

What about media?

How's about getting some journalist investigating that stuff? Its a young industrie, which hits news usually with "Title Blabla earns more revenue than biggest holywood film ever"... And as we are in a time with political documentaries, i can't imagine that not one reporter or director would be interested in that topic. And no company should like being in news for slavery...?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: jif_1979
2004-11-12 02:32 pm (UTC)

Re: What about media?

you could try to reach the guy that did the 9/11 documentary (I'm really bad with names), I'm sure he'd love to be all over it :)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 03:02 pm (UTC)

EA made up of EX ACCLAIM execs

That could explain it all right there...
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 03:03 pm (UTC)
How about a company wide work stoppage? One day where everyone who is upset calls in sick. The nurses do this, they call it the blue flu. Might let the company know just how many people are really upset.

Thank you ea spouse for exposing this.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: unionjosh
2004-11-20 12:44 am (UTC)
My name is Josh Pastreich. I am a union organizer and I am trying to organize EA. Please send me an email at unionjosh@local16.org
Josh
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 03:06 pm (UTC)

Petition

Hi. I have created a petition in response to your post. I hope this can help raise a little awareness for this cruel practice of EA's. Best wishes to you and your significant other.

- Pear

http://www.webpetitions.com/cgi-bin/print_petition.cgi?99498777
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: kingfox
2004-11-12 03:26 pm (UTC)

Not to be cynical...

But an online petition isn't worth the paper it's... well... you get the idea.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 03:13 pm (UTC)

Yep, EA Orlando (Tiburon) is THAT plus a whole lot more!! :)

I worked there (EA Orlando) for FOUR years. Everything in the article above is 100% true. I remember when they even frowned upon hiring people who were married because they wouldn't have the employees devotion. Unreal.

Here's what they like: Hire a someone right out of college, ship him in, he has no friends outside of work, he has no outlet to meet new friends because he's always AT work, so he makes friends at work, so why go out and meet people to have fun because everyone he knows is AT work. It TRULY becomes a sort of brainwashing and you are COMPLETELY frowned upon if you leave work "on time".

The most ridiculous work environment I've EVER worked in.

Oh yes, and to top it off, there is MIND NUMBING politics, back stabbing, and brown nosing you gotta deal with too.

I left 5 years ago and NEVER looked back :)
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 03:47 pm (UTC)

Re: Yep, EA Orlando (Tiburon) is THAT plus a whole lot more!! :)

I whole-heartedly disagree.
I've worked at Tiburon for a year and a half now and seen NO politics, back stabbing, or brown nosing. My managers were delighted to hear it when I got married. Our team works together extremely well, and we can bring ANY issue to the managers.

Crunch time exists but it's NEVER been as bad as what ea_spouse lays out (which appears to me to be at another studio). And the entire company has been going through a pre-production reorganization workshop SPECIFICALLY to improve the quality of our pre-production and lessen the need to crunch.

5 years is an eternity in this industry -- I don't think you're qualified to judge what's going on here any more.

Nobody at the top of EA's ladder is sitting in a dark room cackling maniacally -- they KNOW crunch is bad for business in the long run. But a company as big as EA takes an immense amount of momentum to change ingrained behaviors.

My team is lucky enough to have a development director that will fight the producers to ensure they're not overloading us. Someone's got the coders' backs -- but not every team has a manager willing to do this.
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From: defunkt
2004-11-12 03:34 pm (UTC)

well said

someone needed to say it and you did. well done. :)
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