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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)
2004-12-06 05:57 am (UTC)

Sniff Sniff

Seems to me the programers at E.A. are what we all thought of them in high school....whiny little computer geeks. Nobody complains on pay day I bet. If you don't like it....leave.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 06:22 am (UTC)

Nice...

... go back to sniffing your high school jock straps while dreaming of your glory days.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 08:17 am (UTC)

Sounds like UPS....

...and who knows how many more do this to their employees. Just check out this article http://www.lawroom.com/story.asp?STID=730&P=B
I've worked for them for five plus years and just recently started to get paid overtime as opposed to salary and working for free full time. Before they threatened us with our jobs if we didn't stay and work for free overtime. Now that they are forced to pay us, they can't seem to forget to remind us to go home quickly enough or tell us just how much overtime they are paying us weekly. Before we never had mandatory meetings of how many hours we were forced to work for free and now we do but only to remind us to pump out more packages in less hours or "else".
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 09:21 am (UTC)

Wimps!

An 85 hour work week is long? Trying developing TWO different products with ONE person SIMULTANEOUSLY on two DIFFERENT operating systems WITHOUT health insurance, and with kidney problems in which both kidneys are working at only 25% efficiency - at age 36. I'm pulling 90 on average and that's when I'm coasting. And I've been keeping up this pace since I was 23 - 13 years. Oh I did take off 2 months and finally take a vacation overseas in 2002. I felt like a complete slacker. Have you been to Japan? Where do you think the Sony PlayStation came from and how did it get invented? By employees watching The Apprentice? In Japan 80 hours is a normal week. Americans are the fatest, laziest people on earth. We want $80K a year, but we want it EASY.

Ever brought a cot in and slept under the cube so that you could get right to work the next morning with no commute and no shower? No? Then you're not a real software developer.

What a bunch of crybabies. Most projects are run by morons - get over it. All software is this way. It's a huge, mega-profitable, greedy business. Do you think those execs and shareholders are nice people? They're greedy pigs! Learn to love them for it, or else you're in the wrong industry.

It's up to the developers to work around the fatal plans of those who don't know what they are doing.

You either love creating this stuff so much that you can't get enough of it or else you're in the wrong line of work. If you want it easy, go get a 9-5 job at Costco selling pizza or something. People do this because they LOVE to do it. They love to do it so much that they would work 24/7 with no sleep if they could get away with it.

You should be thankful your SO has a job at all in this economy.

Stop whinning, turn off your TV, and go back into work and get something done.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 02:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Wimps!


I think the point is that the hours are killing the love.

I have to laugh at your definition of a real software developer. Dude, I don't want you anywhere near my code. A great software developer is one who can plan it and do it in a 40 hour week. Continually.

And exactly what sort of moron works to the point of kidney failure on jobs without health insurance, anyway? Evolution in action, I guess.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 09:29 am (UTC)

Look people......

The fact is Communists have taken over our big corporations. Don't believe me? Check out #37 here:

http://www.uhuh.com/nwo/communism/comgoals.htm

Why do you think they have to pay the HR director $240K? It's because no patriotic American in his right mind would treat people this way - or lay people off and replace them with cheap imported 3rd world labor - unless that is they are sucked in by an offer they can't refuse - like $240K a year.

The fact is the Communists are trying to destroy the American workforce and dismantle our industries. Communism isn't dead - it's just inside our house lighting fires instead of attacking us militarily.
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From: bwingb
2004-12-06 03:59 pm (UTC)

Re: Look people......

Communism? I think you are mistaken. And that link may be well intended, but it is grasping at some very scary and ill conceived straws, my friend. It is nothing more than a ghost from a very troubled past which most of us prefer to leave behind us.

This problem has more to do with unbridled greed and a lack of humanity and understanding. It is a symptom of a failing education system which breeds insecurity and persecution and rewards false values and sociopathic principals. It has resulted in a frightened, confused corporate culture which can no longer see it's own feet.

Capitalism and free enterprise have become shelved for a controlled, counterproductive culture which represses progress, innovation and profit in order to maintain an increasingly dubious ideal. All around us, people who faked it into power are hanging on by a string- because they are faking it through life. Not everyone, but a significant number of people. And friends, it only takes one in a group to ruin it for everybody else.

Please do us all a favor and desist in this unfounded and illogical fear-mongering. I guarantee it will cause more harm than good.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 03:54 pm (UTC)
A boycott would be a useless waste of time. After all, while there may be hundreds, even thousands, of people willing to boycott, there are MILLIONS who would refuse, and some would even go to the extent of buying MORE games in an attempt to make up the difference. And what would the marginal drop in sales accomplish? That's right...pay cuts, longer hours, and less benifits. Think about it, people.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 09:49 pm (UTC)

A boycott need not hit majority to work

You don't need to eliminate all of ea's revenue for a boycott to have impact. You don't even need to hit half. Just 10% would have a huge impact. Even 5% of EA's revenues would be a major deal because EA is looked upon as a growth corp.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 07:27 pm (UTC)

What's new..

Well What u Say and Cry about happen to h1b's all the time in US.

Welcome to the real world. It's nothing new except in your case you can leave the job not like many unfortunate others.

LOVE
h1b

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 10:16 pm (UTC)

7 Years of H1-B

This is what 7 years of H-1B and imported guest workers have done to the Silicon Valley economy:

http://www.1394watch.com/photo_gallery

Far from helping the U.S. economy, all imported workers are doing is carrying off America's wealth and producing nothing of value.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 10:18 pm (UTC)

7 years of H-1B

This is what 7 years of H-1B and imported guest workers have done to the Silicon Valley economy:

http://www.1394watch.com/photo_gallery

Far from helping the U.S. economy, all imported workers are doing is carrying off America's wealth and producing nothing of value.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 10:07 am (UTC)

Re: 7 years of H-1B

Sure. And Koreans are to blame for Japan's economic crisis...

Foreign workers didn't do this to Silicon Valley. Silicon Valley did this to Silicon Valley.

The dot-com's overpriced, overzealous, hyper-inflated bubble burst and all that remains are empty shells of buildings where start-ups, that relied on venture capital, died.

And I know, personally, several start-up CEO's, all Americans, who walked off with America's wealth and produced NOTHING of value : for their employees OR their share-holders.

God Bless America because noone else will.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 01:37 am (UTC)

I worked for Interplay back in the day. I think the conditions there were better, but I do recall that anyone who works for a company like that doesn't want to leave for ANYTHING. Even to this day I hate mundane cube-zoo jobs and would jump at the chance to go back into the gaming field...even if they treated me like shit. Just to be "in the industry," working on something I enjoy.

This is not be defending the crap they pull on their employees. This is just me saying rather sadly how easy it is for them to get away with this if because they exploit something their employees love to do...at least to begin with, and with no appealing alternatives. :/
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 01:39 am (UTC)

Dude. Not only did I get a new page...I got page 42! *dances geekily*
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 06:31 am (UTC)

Larry Probst could care less

Probst is out of the loop of normal species emotion so forget about appealing to his humanity.

When you hit his kind of paydirt and with the promise of much, much more you tend not to give a rat's furry behind about the pions who lifted you there. Funny human condition known as RICH AS F##K.

However the real funny about this guy is his failure to grasp the "always cheaper to keep the ranks mildly happy" flip of change ala chump. And please red circle the "mildly", because that's all they ask, those binary inputing hamsters, they're asking for a better grade of bitter seed. To be eaten at home once in a while.

And this hurts: If I'm wrong and you are not actually all hamsters, then for whatver reason you allow your very own soul's nutsack to be french fried and onion dipped.

I've plugged into your collective efforts and they are worthy. Lots of hum ding animation from the cats who bailed Disney, and what happened? Disney got better too. Thanks, Bailcats.

So Probst could care less. Who gives a fuck?
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From: ravidrath
2004-12-07 09:33 am (UTC)

Another Cartoon...

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 08:37 pm (UTC)

Same Scenario at Activision

This exact same scenario also exist at Activision -- not just within production but all across departments of the company. Guess this is the "Acceptable" practice in the gaming industry.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-11 01:09 am (UTC)

Re: Same Scenario at Activision

Former Activision employee here.
some departments didn't experience the long overtime hours. finance had the long hours for only a few quarters. However we accomplished our goals of cleaning up the balance sheet and documentation all the processes. We achieved consistent accelerated monthly closes while providing accurate and timing reporting throughout the company without having to work extra hours.

Our problem was management. They relied TOO much on the staff doing on the work and did not financially reward us. Some managers were pretty much incompetitent so the people who turned around that company left.
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From: ravidrath
2004-12-07 08:42 pm (UTC)

NPR Covers It...

Laura Sydell, who was here looking for people earlier, ran her story on NPR recently.

Here's a link to an audio archive of the story - good stuff.

http://www.npr.org/rundowns/segment.php?wfId=4206253

Enjoy.

-Peter
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From: ea_spouse
2004-12-09 11:13 pm (UTC)

Re: NPR Covers It...

That's a terrific segment. Thanks for posting the link.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 09:17 pm (UTC)

If only it were just the games industry...

Having worked for an enterprise software company for several years, the situation is much the same. As I suspected, our "reward" for meeting impossibly tight deadlines--the ones that followed the original schedule that no one believed--was to do the same thing all over again, only with the bar raised higher. Did quality suffer? Did employees burn out? Did the company have any idea whether it was giving its customers what they wanted? Did executives turn into venom-spewing alpha creatures, deflecting the pressures on them onto their employees? Are these rhetorical questions?
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[User Picture]From: mrferal
2004-12-08 12:17 am (UTC)

That was close

I only recently had an interview with a company that is under EA's wing. Everything went well, and I was confident that the job would be mine. I didn't get hired there, and I was upset about the fact, but after reading all this, I'm relieved that I didn't. I hope this lawsuit *stomps* EA.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-08 02:52 am (UTC)

Are there any decent software companies?

Reading through these posts, it seems like EA is the worst of the lot, but there are many other software companies that treat their employees like crap. Are there any decent video game or software companies to work with anywhere? This is horrible that people put up with this crap at EA just for fear of being fired/blacklisted from a high paying job, but then again, if it's not better anywhere else, what's the point of leaving? If there are any decent companies that people can personally vouch for, please let me know!
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From: ravidrath
2004-12-08 07:48 pm (UTC)

Re: Are there any decent software companies?

There are some that the IGDA mentions by name in its open letter to the industry. They are Blue Fang and Ensemble. I've also heard that Neversoft, makers of Tony Hawk, normally work four 10 hour days a week, and move to five 10 hour days when crunching, and never work weekends. However, I've also heard that this was in response to previously terrible working conditions and employee revolt.

Right now the IGDA is working on some kind of approval process for companies. Companies with good labor practices and quality of life will get this "seal of approval," which will help people decide where they should work before they get there. This is a great idea, and I'm looking forward to seeing it implemented - when recruiting is hurt at companies that didn't get the approval, then maybe they'll start reconsidering their practices in order to attract top talent once again.

-Peter
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