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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)
2004-11-17 07:15 pm (UTC)

John Schappert's contract almost up?

John Schappert, the weasel running EAC, has his contract up for renewal this month. If enough people "sing his praises" to guys like Don Mattrick, Larry Probst, or their ilk, maybe we can get him fired. Management loves nothing quite so much as a fall guy, and this guy could use a good fall.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 07:30 pm (UTC)

Re: John Schappert's contract almost up?

A weasel would not fire an other of his kind ;)
Schappert is not the root of the problem.......
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 07:37 pm (UTC)

Neil's Wee PeePee

Let me put some things in perspective: at EARS this year there were so many people going to HR to complain, the team HR rep quit out of frustration. EA hired an independent contractor to evaluate the situation; after a month of interviewing nearly half the team she said this was "the worst case of corporate labor abuse she had ever seen."

My work agreement says in bold print "40 hours weekly." During my interview I was very concerned about EA labor practices and was assured "crunch time" typical lasted about two months, never more than three. At first things seemed typical of this industry, but over the last two years the system has changed dramatically. Games are much more ambitious, and schedules are shorter. The current epic LOTR game had over 150 people in full crunch mode for 8 months. Last year's was exactly the same, and Bond was only slightly better.

EA's reluctance to handle the situation has made this lawsuit absolutely necessary. There is a mountain of evidence and there are more forces at work than just the named plaintiff. Nobody cares about the payout - any settlement will damage the employees stock price; this is not the issue. If EA made any kind of honest effort to acknowledge the problem this could be settled without lawyers. But they haven't.
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[User Picture]From: sonder
2004-11-17 08:05 pm (UTC)
Coming up on two years now, I worked for Activision, and I can totally identify with what you are talking about.

I am now a lead systems engineer at Microsoft here in Seattle, having decided I still loved technology, and creating things with innovative new technology, but I was fed up with being treated like a malaysian sneaker sewer (if you will pardon the correlation.)

As I see it, this is typical corporate 'big business' behavior. If they can fuck you, they will. And I think that those of us in the 60-70k bracket have gotten there because we work hard and care about the quality of our product. But I also think that if enough devs, engineers, etc. Take a stand, then some people might take notice.

I think the 'uppers' are under the impression that highly skilled labor and experienced devs are a dime a dozen. That's just not true.

We DO have a bit of power, and predatory work practices are just that.
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[User Picture]From: theevilcub
2004-11-17 10:38 pm (UTC)

ACTV

I was also an Activision employee for a while - at one of the smaller branches located in a fly-over state, where we mostly made hunting games. It was just as bad for us as this article describes. I got fired for complaining.
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[User Picture]From: kaolinfire
2004-11-17 08:40 pm (UTC)

a bit off connected oddness

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-19 10:46 am (UTC)

Re: a bit off connected oddness

Banal and naive.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 08:49 pm (UTC)
ignoring the legal side of things (becuase I've noticed a lot unclarity between countries and states/provinces)

I think a reasonable thing to ask for is simply salaries that reflect the amount of overitme put in, that managers be qualified, and that companies follow through with their promises 120% of the time.

I can see how some ppl are upset about OT pay being introduced will kill the atmosphere, but I think that could easily be fixed with highere salaires in the first place, because, let's face it, EA does have a lot of money that they don't want to give out.

and if they actually did what they said the did, employees would be happier,
and I agree that employees should excercise and enforce their legal rights

I like the post about people complaining to HR..if enough ppl at enough companies did it, enough HR ppl would quit from the stress and an some companies probably would get independent contractors to look at the situation, others would probably realise that their entire HR division is quitting, and I think they might pay attention to that a bit more, as I don't think HR has a very high turnover, or enough people wanting jobs in it (please correct me if I'm wrong)

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[User Picture]From: nbda1997
2004-11-17 09:09 pm (UTC)
What kind of hours do Japanese game developers work? From reading "Game Over", it sounds like the founder of EA hung around with that old kook Hiroshi Yamauchi a lot, so I'd assume that EA adopted some of its game development & labor practices from the Japanese.

Not saying its right or wrong, but the Japanese tend to spend a LOT more time at work than Americans do. The difference is that their superiors aren't "forcing" them to do so; instead, its simply expected of them to work themselves to the edge of exhaustion in that culture.

Just a thought...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 10:52 pm (UTC)

State of Japan

Judging by the fallout, I'd say it's wrong. The result of uncompensated Japanese loyalty to company has been a burned out, angry, isolated, and depressed society.
Japan went from the country that would rule the world to a country in crisis, with sharply rising unemployment and suicide.
This is what happens when people are treated as slaves by those they trusted to share success with them. I think we are emulating them, which will likely take us to the same place.

Leo
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Re: State of Japan - (Anonymous) Expand
Just one word - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 10:30 pm (UTC)
Sweetheart, I hear you.
My husband quit school the year after we married to make games. We were going to get rich in the tech boom.
12 years later he is finally out of the games industry. His first month at his new company (with a raise) he was cut in on a company bonus.
After 12 years of being promised bonuses that fell through after 80 hour weeks for weeks on end and stock options that turned into nothing as the CEOs golden-parachuted out. And the lay-offs and studio closings.

We have a child and are in our 30s now and I think about how we spent our 20s, unable to travel or take vacations because it was never a good time. And the general wear and tear on my partner, his cynicism and frustration.
And though we never received the recompense promised, even if we had - I can not imagine what sum would be worth the time that we lost.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 11:28 pm (UTC)

In a free market, sometime the only option is to vote with your feet

While not a programmer, I've worked on large ERP implementations, and fallen victim to pre go-live "crunch time," with all the same thoughts of unionizing, etc. going through my head.

I don't think unions are necessairly the answer, especially if you want to work with the best and brightest (which is where you learn the most). The union system is based on comping people for years of experience and degrees, not merit. It may be great to work 8am-4pm, but if you really are a superstar, it saps your energy just as quickly (I know, I tried it), especially when your rasies are senority-based, NOT merit based. Unions also increase costs, which means companies will look for lower cost options (i.e. off-shoring). Look how successful the unions were in saving the US Auto Manufactures in the 1980's if you have any doubts here.

The only answer, unfortunately, is to vote with your feet. It's very cold to say these things, but the employee/employer loyalty our parents grew up with is simply gone. As EA exploits you, exploit them. Take advantage of 401(k), tuition reimbursement, company paid travel, etc. to the fullest extent. Obviously don't break the law or company policy, but make improving yourself the #1 objective. Those who are worried they'll harm the company by having them pay for education, or that Fillet Mignon while your out on the road should keep a copy of this article in their pockets! Max out on educational opportunities, then take the big EA name to another company, or better yet, use that knowledge to break out of the "rat race."

This longer-term objective, which I'm currently trying to go after, is getting out of the "wage slave" business althogether. The person that mentioned the unused fancy cars and big house was quite astute: these are the things that drive you into debt and keep you coming back for more punishment. If you can save your $$$ to the point where you can work for yourself, and your money works for you, you have beat the game. I highly recommend a quick read through "Rich Dad, Poor Dad," as the author talks about this on a macro level.

I'm sorry to sound cold, but based on these reviews EA just doesn't care. I've seen my friends have their lives essentially stolen by similar companies, only to be escorted out of the building by security when they were no longer needed. It's an ugly game, but if you know the rules you can use them to your advantage.

Please with your hubby the best of luck and tell him there is light at the end of the tunnel!

Pat
http://www.patandmeg.com/pat
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From: bwingb
2004-11-18 12:15 am (UTC)

Re: In a free market, sometime the only option is to vote with your feet

Hi Pat,

Those are some very sound insights you have there. It's easier said than done, though, and not everyone can be independent-- but for those who have the drive and the aptitude, it's an option. Mind you setting up a small business takes an extraordinary amount of research, long hours and sheer hard work, and the chances of failure are considerable.

I really do think some kind of legislation ought to be devised to curb the outsourcing though. Especially considering that same country educational institutions are being licensed by the government to provide work force for these companies at a hefty cost to their students. Kind of a scam isn't it, to bill people so handsomely for a job that can be swept out from under them because of one false move? Kind of undermines employment legislation when this threat is preventing employees from having their rights. I am not blaming the schools, but the question does beg to be asked on a larger level. Is it just me, or isn't a country responsible for looking out for it's citizens' collective wellbeing?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 11:47 pm (UTC)

Blizzard is no longer standalone

They were purchased by Vivendi and went through some pretty radical changes. So scratch that off the short list of small shops.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-18 12:49 am (UTC)
I'm still trying to figure out how it is that working insane hours is somehow related to 'passionate about games'.

with either paid overtime or no overtime, the truly passionate people would work all the harder, as they have less time to do it, and more recharge time between. and I don't think that any law covers bringing your work home to do there, if you want to catch up or get ahead, and I know a few people who do that so they can work and still maintain a family life.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-18 07:05 pm (UTC)
The passion for games and long hours are related to the desire to make the best possible product. Even in the face of horrendous management / corporate decisions that make no sense and set the project back weeks at a time, the developers' eyes are still on the goal of how great a game they can make. They see the potential in their product -- this is how game development differs from standard software development; its goals are subjective and abstract at times -- and are willing to do anything to actualize that potential. There is a certain amount of defiance in overcoming the stupidity of decisions handed down from on high and still producing a great game. Some of this is self-interested... having a credit on an award-winning game is great for the resume... but mostly the game becomes the brain-child of the collective developers, and they are literally willing to injure themselves for it. On some level this is fine and it's what gives the game industry its fire (Hollywood is often similar), but when you have a large corporation recognizing this inherent tendency in developers and manipulating them into giving so much of themselves unnecessarily so that your product can gross $1.1 million instead of $1.0, there's a problem.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-18 01:07 am (UTC)

20/20

20/20 responded to my email regarding the EA situation. Seems they are interested in the story.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-18 02:03 am (UTC)

It's hit the Los Angeles Times

http://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-sweat17nov17,1,6881235.story

You have to register to read it.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-18 02:15 am (UTC)

Yahoo is carrying this article as well.. (No Login neccessary)

http://story.news.yahoo.com/news?tmpl=story&cid=2026&e=6&u=/latimests/20041117/ts_latimes/workingtoohardinanindustryoffunandgames
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[User Picture]From: xdoyourememberx
2004-11-18 02:32 am (UTC)
U R JUST JEALOUS CUZ MADDEN ROX.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-18 03:37 am (UTC)

ATTROCITIES GALORE!!!!

Setting tact aside, thats a big steaming load of horse shit! I was taken aback when I read this. You see, I grew up with the NES and I remember when the SNES was the pinicle of gaming technology, so you have to understand that I have (naievely I will admit) had this lofty image of gaming companies. Where celebrated nerds in Silicon Valley roller blade to work and are greeted by their managers with big smiles and green pointy hair. And these managers are overseen by CEOs that sit in thier modestly priced chairs and just ponder about what the common gamer wants on the screen. And that they spend at least an hour a day calling up random people all over the US to get their opinions on games.

Yes, I used to believe in Oz.

Your expose', however, has opened my eyes to the terrible reality of things. How tragic things have become.

I wont bore you with what I think we can blame for this bottom-line-driven attitude in the gaming brass. But I will say this, I think its time to form a software Union. And for some good old fashion strikes.

I know its easy for me to say this. But it has to start somewhere. Anyway, youre a gaming patriot for alerting everyone to this. And I proudly dub thee DEEPTHOAT!!!

Be strong, and remember that someday; All their base WILL belong to us!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-18 03:44 am (UTC)

Re: ATTROCITIES GALORE!!!!

Um, I mean DEEPTHROAT.
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[User Picture]From: tolaria
2004-11-18 04:07 am (UTC)
saw the article. Good for you! I spent a year thinking and feeling every single thing you mention, I mean down to the specific words and emotions-- and it is so great to know I wasn't crazy to feel that way at the time. Thanks.
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