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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)
2004-11-13 04:34 pm (UTC)

EA

Reading this makes me sick! I can't believe that any company which makes that much money can treat employee's that way. As a serious gamer, and a indie game developer after having read this I plan to boycott EA.

The only thing these types of people understand is hurting their money. I think this needs to be spread all over the net to not only boycott it's game titles, but also warn future employee's to boycott them as well.

When the truly talented people stop working for them, and their products stop selling they will have no choice but to rethink their practices.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 05:57 pm (UTC)

Re: EA

that's nice, stop buying their products so that EA loses market shares and cash, so that they layoff tones of workers with lives, so that EA can stay competitive, then what?
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[User Picture]From: genrazn69
2004-11-13 04:42 pm (UTC)

Man, that totally blows.

I feel kinda sick for buying EA games now, but at the same time, i really don't want your SO's efforts to go to waste, so i'm kind of in a dillema. I want to support your SO's endeavors in making these wonderful games (I loved Everything or Nothing), so i'm going to keep buying EA games.

Isn't there a petition or something that we can sign to make this unfair practice stop?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 04:49 pm (UTC)

JAMIE KIRSCHENBAUM VS ELECTRONIC ARTS INC

http://openaccess2.sanmateocourt.org/openaccess/civil/civildetails.asp?courtcode=A&casenumber=440876&casetype=CIV&DSN=
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 04:50 pm (UTC)
Don't let anybody tell you workers don't need unions.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 05:19 pm (UTC)

Cheap Labor?

If i look at the two major gaming companies in my city (EA and UbiSoft), they do employ very young ppl. The main reason is salary and work hours. A youngster, just to be in the game industry, will accept to work 80h/week for 22k canadian. (yes, that is the salary ubisoft offered me. It ).

Its not because they are better programmers. Its because its cheap labor. They will gladly pay 1-2 guy 100k/year to manage/teach/decide, and 20 guys at 20k to program, for a total of 600k/year instead of 1-2 guy at 100k and 10 at 50-60k (800k) because the youngster are at least half as good as the oldies yet ask for ridiculously low salary because they a) dont know better, b) will do anything to be in game industry) and c) dont have family, will work long hours etc)
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 05:48 pm (UTC)

Re: Cheap Labor?

... This supports what others have said. The corporations (EA, Activision, etc...) know that kids are coming into the workforce who would love nothing more than to work on video games. They would be willing to take a 30-35% cut over what they could make developing IT related (business)software in base pay and then they will work double hours (thus, further reducing their pay).

If you make $40,000 a year and you're working 60 hours a week consistantly then you're really making $30,000 a year. Unless otherwise stated, the 40 hour work week is still implied as the "norm" and working over that period should be the exception (again, unless otherwise stated). Of course one of the reason businesses hire full-time employees is so they can get overtime work without having to pay for it (in the rare cases where it is justified and needed, the employee should be expected to give above and beyond the normal work week), but in return the company is providing full-time benefits and (at least the illusion) a more stable position than a contract offering.


(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 05:55 pm (UTC)

Hit them back, hard!

I don't know what posistion your SO holds in his development group, but if he can gather his entire team around his cause I suggest taking the compliant to upper management, nothing extravagant- just ask them nicely if they would be willing to change their practices. This will likely fail, then comes the fun (remember this is dependant on the entire team willing to cooperate), pick a milestone point that's past the Point-Of-No-Return, organize a walk out, but do so at a critical point so that the products ship date is in jeporody (Christmas time is an extreemly important time of year).

Also send out press release (pick up a copy of the Public Relations for Dummies, this isn't that hard) to the media to inform them of what's going on and of the walk out... the media loves news like this.

Make it a PR nightmare for EA. This is the best way to hit them back.

(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 05:58 pm (UTC)

Re: No-lifes and losers get a Clue!

The point I am trying to make is that longterm employment and cultural trends are created by people accepting things a certain way. All the guys who are saying "quit whining, you should be happy it's not worse..." and that kind of thing are not realizing that if we continue to take this "sweat shop treatment", big business might get it in their heads that this abuse is o.k. for other industries too. Next thing you know, here in North America, nobody but the wealthy have any rights...
Apparently some are misunderstanding my original post so let me elaborate:

I am asking people to take responsibility for the bigger picture! Even if they don't mind the hours, they owe it to their brothers and sisters to defend those of us who are really suffering under these conditions...people with families and responsibilities outside of work! We need the work too, and have invested a lot of time and energy into training to work in this field! So when you say, "Quit whining and walk away, you are asking us to throw away twenty or thirty thousand dollars in student loans and many years of time we've invested in our careers!

That's bullshit!

Anyways, what kind of assholes take advantage of the people they should be mentoring and guiding? That's backwards and it sucks. Youngsters should be treated better than that. Have some self-respect, all you kids!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 06:19 pm (UTC)

EA Spouse

Please do something about their illegal labor practices. Send your letter to congressmen and assemblymen in your area. There comes a time when we MUST stand up for ourselves and our families. I am a military wife and I see bogus stuff everyday. Don't let it go... do something!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 06:45 pm (UTC)

Careful what I wish for

I applied at EA a while back. Never got the job, despite being more than qualified. Now I guess I'm glad I didn't.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 06:51 pm (UTC)

no xmas eve at eala

very strong rumor has it that xmas eve is no longer going to be a day off this year for most teams at eala. i dont see why theyre doing that considering none of the projects are in any sort of crisis or should be at that point.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-13 07:41 pm (UTC)

Re: no xmas eve at eala

At a company this big, a lot of rumors tend to get circulated. Can you say where this is coming from, or whether it has any 'backbone' to it, so to speak?
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DUMB ASS! - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: the_scumbag
2004-11-13 07:00 pm (UTC)

Maybe its just me...

But if I was asked how I'd deal with long hours, I'd not complain when I experienced - get this - long hours. Yes, the hours you said are long, but everyone who works there signed on for it.

The question I ask is simple - had this not been EA (a business that, being successful, attracts the anger of all sorts of people), would this article have been posted? Me... I don't think so.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 07:07 pm (UTC)

Re: Maybe its just me...

A lot of people, especially the slashdot crowd, would blame Microsoft is doing this ... but they aren't. Yes, there are long workhours all over the industry, but for EA, working people over until they drop has become a business model and the "don't whine or they outsource to india" excuse doesn't cut it - there are companies that are doing just fine without doing that, like Radical, BioWare, Neversoft or MGS.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: the_axel
2004-11-13 07:02 pm (UTC)
I'm sure Larry is well aware of what he's doing.

But that's the nature of the corporation.

That is why our skilled labour grandparents, great-grandparents and great-great grandparents formed Trades Unions and fought and struggled and (in some cases) died to achieve reasobnable working conditions.

The Price of Freedom is Eternal Vigilance as they say.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 07:02 pm (UTC)

The answer is clear...

Thay are taking away your Christmas Eve because clearly, they are asking for it! These people are gonna keep giving it to all you suckers until you get together and help one another. ;)

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 07:08 pm (UTC)

Way off base, Scumbag!

Way off base, Scumbag!

These people have been suffering for over a decade and no one made a peep. If it was greed, as you suggest, or jealousy, EA would never have got so big so fast on their sweat and grief. It just took a bit of time for folks to wake up and grow up and realize they were getting ripped off bigtime of their dignity and enjoyment of life. You have it all inside out and backwards, my friend. And that is NOT COOL one bit. Tsk!Tsk!
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[User Picture]From: the_scumbag
2004-11-13 10:54 pm (UTC)

Hah!

>>And that is NOT COOL one bit. <<

Business ain't cool. Business is business.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 07:11 pm (UTC)
I am 100% supportive of this cause. As a gamer, I would gladly wait twice as long for quality games which were created in a sane, 40-hours-a-week fashion. However, I am in the minority, as most gamers are quite impatient and demand yearly sequels, updates, etc. The fact that a few humongous corporations kill all the small ones doesn't help, either. The employees don't have much of a choice. This situation needs to change, though, as the most "evil" compagnies are the richer ones, who could simply take their time to make the games and still rake in hundreds of millions of dollars. Sickening.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 07:13 pm (UTC)

"As a gamer, I would gladly wait twice as long for quality games"

Unfortunately, investors are not as patient.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
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