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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)
2004-11-21 06:17 am (UTC)

note to all who are EA-bashing

please remember that this is not isolated to EA and perhaps a more widely spread 'gaming industry' bashing would be more helpful/accurate/appropriate.
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[User Picture]From: stardreamink
2004-11-24 11:14 pm (UTC)

Re: note to all who are EA-bashing

Okay, so who else should we cut the evil underbelly of? Which other evil gaming industry company should we bash first?

Atari? Activision? Infogrames? Vivendi?

Oh, can we also bash game company executives who got their jobs because they were executives at cellphone companies also owned by the big company that bought out the little game studio? Larry Probst and the EA upper management are not the only unqualified idiots ruining game companies and games for the past 6 years.

I'll go first I guess.


"Damn you EA for tricking Lord British and ruining Origin and using their employees up before firing them all, you jer--- oh wait, that one's still EA. My bad."


"Damn all the big non-game industry megacorporations that have been buying up game companies, and then sending their unqualified fatcats in to tell people how to make games. Damn you all, you're a soil on the industry we all love, and are ruining the lives of the game developers we gamers admire so much, just to sell us crappier games that are pushed out the door unfinished and poorly planned, just to make assholes on the stock exchange richer."

"Damn you, ye pricks, for buying Interplay, firing its founder and all the guys who knew how to make great games, replacing them with jackasses from other companies that had never even played games before, cancelling all the good games, closing all the studios and turfing the developers out into the streets, and running one of the pioneering companies of the industry into the ground."



(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 09:21 am (UTC)

EA

This situation is disgraceful and shouldn't be allowed in the so called civilised world.
I worked between 50 and 60 hours on night shifts for around 5 months, out of necessity after a marriage breakdown left me with debts. (that 'ex' accused me of being 'lazy' when working a 7 day 50+ hours week on two jobs) This took its toll on me,physically mentally and emotionally ..so I can well imagine what it must be like when you are under the sort of pressure that EA puts you under.
Anyone who abuses their employees in this manner has to have something wrong with their mental facilities or needs a good swift kick somewhere
where it hurts, in their greedy backsides.
Good luck in your fight...!



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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 12:06 pm (UTC)

Very similar to my own experience

This story echoes my own experience within the newspaper publishing industry, describing the same sort of nonsense I went through during the last three years I was there.

After working as much as 96 hours per week on a regular basis during our corporate-wide email replacement project between 2000 and 2002, I was told to keep up the long hours and no level of appreciation was expressed by management for my efforts. Nor was I given the new title or large jump in pay I had been lead to believe would be mine at the successful conclusion of the project. Within the same week, I was diagnosed with stress induced ulcers in my esophagus.

Perhaps you begin to see why I eventually quit and why the tech industry is quickly becoming youth-centric and out-sourced.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 12:47 pm (UTC)
How about you just don't work there?

EA does not have to take rubbish about long working hours. If they're too extreme for you, don't work there. If everyone did so, they would be forced to cut back on their hours. But no, people like you complain but remain sucking on the corporate teat.

Prat.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 05:57 pm (UTC)
You're the prat, you moron. READ THE ARTICLE. They are leaving.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 01:00 pm (UTC)

EA

I cannot believe that this kind of abuse is going on ( and apparently being allowed to continue by seemingly intelligent people) anywhere in the U.S. today....Seems like there are problems on both sides here with the major problem initiating with management practices.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 01:18 pm (UTC)

What can we do to change this?

Firstly having worked in several companies (including the big one) I acknowledge that this isn't a problem limited just to EA. However they do represent a majority of the industry and to a large extent if they can be forced to change their ways, everyone else might just sit up and take notice.

As far as overtime in general goes I see it as falling into two categories:

The first one is when Programmers and Artists, through personal pride in their games (or in some cases obsessive perfectionism), opt to occasionally invest a bit of extra time to make them even better. This kind of overtime is not particularly harmful as it is purely optional, self-initiated, and the project doesn't rely on it to get completed.

The other category - which applies in most cases to EA and which is the source of the problem in the industry - is when the staff are systematically pestered and bullied into working extended hours just to get a product to a merely shippable state and get it out of the door on time, so as not to get the project managers in serious trouble for missing the release date.

The thing I find utterly unacceptable is how the project managers at EA are allowed to repeatedly schedule unrealistic workloads, with seemingly no contingency and no real repercussions.
The reason they do this is because they know full well that when it comes to the crunch there is always the safety net of doubling the staff's work hours and audaciously telling them they need to try to work more efficiently.
Doing this does not increase the budget of the project, rather is goes mostly unnoticed outside the studio - and in getting everyone to 'pull together' to hit the street date on time and on budget the managers know they will be rewarded for doing their job well.
So why would they feel the need to change?

If EA knew that they had to pay overtime in full, then they would think twice about using it as a contingency. Right now the project managers have no incentive to become more effective themselves at planning and running their projects as they know for the price of a pizza they can always pass the problem down the line to the development staff when things start to slip.
If however the cost of a project suddenly doubled in overtime payments in the last 3/4/5/6 months of development, then it wouldn't take long for the senior exec. to notice they have a big problem. That would be enough of an incentive for the managers to become more effective at their jobs - with the knowledge that it was their asses and bonuses on the line should the cost of the project suddenly spiral due overtime payments.

I don't necessarily feel that unionization is the best solution, however it is a big problem that seriously needs to be addressed if we are not going to burn ourselves out before hitting 35.

All I believe that it will take is for all EA development staff globally to somehow unanimously and clearly say: 'We are no longer going to work unpaid overtime'. They can't fire everyone can they? After all managers don't make games, the workers do. (And I don't buy the notion that they will just move to outsourcing as a practical option)

So the question is how do they do that? I'm sure 100% of EA staff would be 100% in favor of not -having- to work for free, but individually they have too much to lose in instigating such an action. Does anyone have any ideas about how they can go about approaching this without law suits. It is too big a problem to do nothing about and will only get worse, but it would be good to think we in the industry have the power to change things ourselves.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 10:57 pm (UTC)

Re: What can we do to change this?

Unionize again EA? I can't agree more. But I don't think this will ever happen.

1) These people who work for Big Brother (EA) have families and use their wages to pay the bills; no matter how unfair it is that they are making $7/hr if you figure in the hours they work. Maybe slightly more $ if you are not a "team player" and go home at the 12th hour.

2) Organizing something that large will most certainly be intercepted and people will be made examples of, to "convince" the remaining emploies what would happen with their positions. EA is a modern day mafia family. We can only hope to catch them in a tax evasion fraud many years from today; but for time their muscles are bigger than our.

3) Big Brother will just get a team of recruiters and visit every university of hungry students and start the whole thing over again. That, with the addition of some extra $money for the top 5% talent to come back to work and they are back in business as usual. Because EA has such a following of gamers the crap that comes out the following year will still sell millions and that gives them 2 years to really get back on top.

4) Big Brother is watching!
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From: bwingb
2004-11-21 03:53 pm (UTC)

You'd better believe...

You'd better believe if everyone stuck together and agreed to walk out there would be big time press coverage. Maybe that's all that's needed to start the ball rolling towards change.

I say you all agree on a date and just do it.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 11:58 pm (UTC)

Re: You'd better believe...

They would have to wait for next years november 15th crunch.
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[User Picture]From: joggingguy
2004-11-21 04:04 pm (UTC)
I read an article this morning on page D6 of the Sunday Business section of the Houston Chronicle regarding your post and your situation. I had followed your journal posts, so I already knew what it was about. Publicity is a good thing :-)
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 06:18 pm (UTC)

Houston Newspaper

http://www.chron.com/cs/CDA/ssistory.mpl/business/2911507
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 10:21 pm (UTC)

New York Times Article

http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/21/business/yourmoney/21digi.html
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 10:22 pm (UTC)
no wonder ea makes such bad games
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 11:38 pm (UTC)
Yes, they're so bad that they sell millions upon millions of them and are the clear market leader on most platforms.

You may not like them, but I am sorry to say that you are sorely outnumbered.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-21 11:56 pm (UTC)
I heard about this blog entry a bunch of times but never actually read it because I have too many friends that already went through this shit. I luckily never had the misfortune of working for EA (because I always knew people that did).

EA's strategy is to just throw as many bodies as possible at a problem. They don't care about their employees (although I guess everyone at this blog already knows that). I don't think EA can get away with this treatment for ever. They are quickly losing talent and replacing it with junors. At some point they are going to lose their ability to keep up with the competition (they already lost the ability to inovate).

Anyways, there are companies that are good. Companies like Neversoft never make their employees work weekends. They do crunch of course (I think like 12 max day), but that weekend keeps their employees sane, their projects on schedule (no tony hawk game has ever shipped late), and low turn over. So I say, before signing your life away, do some research, because being "in the industry" is pretty worthless if you kill your self after a year.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-22 12:04 am (UTC)

A solution

There's a time honored solution for those who are overworked, and if not underpaid, paid less then is commesurate for the time, energy and sacrifice to their lives and the lives of their loved ones this sort of sweatshop like work entails, not to mention the disproporionate profits their toil brings to their bosses. It's a solution that has virtually disappeared from the American economic scene, along with a living wage, a graduated income tax, a decent pension, and time off for personal existence: it's call a STRIKE! That's right: you remember? Collective bargaining, a picket line, and death to scabs? Think about it, before they send you jobs to India and China.
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From: ex_juan_gan
2004-11-22 12:25 am (UTC)

unions

Guys,

As a former Soviet citizen and a former trade union organizer (back in the USSR) I have to tell you something.

Don't count on other people taking care of your problems. Either trade union leaders betray you, or you betray them, or both. That's what happens all the time; that's why I left the trade union in the USSR (rather hard thing to do).

Count on yourself. Count your hours. Even being exempt does not mean you have to work 84 hours a day. Learn your rights. And when you leave the company, THEN ask them to pay for all the extra hours. They won't; okay, go you can to the court.

I have a friend who was laid off after long hours on an urgent project - he got a pretty good package after just mentioning extra hours at the management request.
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-23 10:01 pm (UTC)

Re: unions

I'm not sure it is fair to compare unions in the USSR to unions here. Have you ever spoken to a union cg worker? At ILM for example. I am a union organizer for IATSE Local 16 which represents ILM workers. I ask you to contact any of them, ( I won't give you the name of a hand picked person, talk you anyone.) Unions have done a lot in this country to create overtime laws, end child labor, create the weekend (ever heard of one of those?). Now the games industry is totally non-union and it seems to me that they have many of the problems that unions in this country were created to solve. Am I begging the question? If you want to talk about this more I am at unionjosh@local16.org
Josh
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Re: unions - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-22 12:37 am (UTC)

EA company meeting and insight

Tiburon had a company meeting which is an annual Thanksgiving lunch-state of the union address. It was shameful how quickly and unprofessionally they dismissed this entire posting and all it's related press. Making jokes about who was "ea-spouse" and how this was not helping us. The suggestion was then for us to not post on here, but go talk to our managers and HR,as apparently they are here to help. So of course, nothing will happen as employees who speak candidly will be fired, and EA is going to brush this under the carpet because everyone is afraid to speak up without a unified front.
They are more worried about filling more open positions and how this is hurting their recruitment efforts. Not a word on us, the current employees who have sacrificed blood, sweat and tears, and all we are doing is training replacements. EA has to change their philosphy and make this a career for it's employees, not just a job. They also need true, trained management at this studio, not former programmers in charge.

Fair pay is also needed. Programmers make the most, but it's very varied, and then artists, followed by us producers and QA who are the bottom scrapers. It's a team, right? Why does management make the $70-120K range and all they do is hire more supplemental managers and go home at 6:00?
Plus shouldn't the pay be based on an EA scale? Living in Florida shouldn't automatically make us earn 35% less, it should be an added bonus and advantage. If my counterpart makes $80K in California, so should I, not half that.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-22 03:38 am (UTC)

Re: EA company meeting and insight

dude your probably getting jipped. Do what I did to get a raise... send our your resume and reel to other studios and force EA's hand. Your worth what your worth and EA won't pay you that unless it is forced to.

I went from making 55k to 78k a year just for sending out a few resumes. Oh and don't forget the severance package. 8-12 weeks severance + 1 week for every year you have been there. Severance makes it economically less viable to let you go as opposed to someone else.


cheers
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-22 12:55 am (UTC)

So What-------how bout the Dept of Defense!!!!

Big deal,,, at the shipyard I work at we have been working 300 to 1000 hours for the last 3.5 years.....the f###ing Bushy "WAR ON TERROR", dum dum dah
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-22 12:57 am (UTC)

Re: So What-------how bout the Dept of Defense!!!!

That Overtime by the way!!!!
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