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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)
2004-11-11 12:00 pm (UTC)
It's also on Gamedev.net here (http://www.gamedev.net/community/forums/topic.asp?topic_id=281984)

As an aspiring game developer I am shocked by this news.
As a fellow person with a SO (not married tho) I cannot imagine what something like this must do to your relation.

I wish you all good luck, and hope that things turn to the better for you.
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: serioussam
2004-11-11 12:13 pm (UTC)
Wow! I work for an indpendent studio, and while the lack of a big powerhouse backing us sometimes feels a little hindering, budget wise, and the risks we can take -wise, but you sure put things in perspective. Talks are on with Eidos to publish our game, and I hope they are a better publisher.

My empathy is with you and your husband and his team. If there's ever talks of organised programmers or something, do let me know. I'd help out.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:52 pm (UTC)
Unfortunately this is the way almost every consumer oriented software product has been brought to market..

It is also the reason I got out of that sector of the business.

The main reason it is so bad is you do not have a "real" schedule. They are mostly underestimated so you end up killing yourself just to meet an insanely wrong schedule. For instance in typical 12-month schedule I did 18 - 24 months worth of work. The scary thing is I am a fast developer so the real schedule should have been close to 20 - 24 months.

The only company that I worked for that was different was "Sierra" and then only one division of them. The amazing thing was that our group shipped every product ahead of schedule with every feature asked for and NEVER hit crunch time for more than 1 month.

Bottom line is management needs to react differently and as long as people are willing to put up with it, they won't stop.

I got out when my son had to go to stay in the hospital for a few days. Friday - Sunday.... Now I was already working 7 days a week and averaged about 12 hours a day for the last 4 months or so.

When I informed my manager that I would not be coming in this weekend because I wanted to spend the time at the hospital with my son She went off on me asking me how I could put the project in danger... To put it nicely I was pissed...

That was my wake up call and about 2 months later, I found a job and ended the madness for my family and me. Oh yeah my bonus for all my effort, about $1,500 bucks and no time off.
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From: ridethefader
2004-11-11 01:02 pm (UTC)
I seriously cannot believe some of the people who are commenting on this thing and joking about starting a union, like that's an absolute last resort that no one would actually make happen. Certainly there'd be enough employees at EA alone to make that sort of thing feasible. It'd be an uphill battle but if it made even the tiniest impact it'd be worth it. I'd help out if I could but sadly living in Australia (not exactly in the thick of things) and knowing no one in the industry doesn't put me in the position to make much of a difference. I have a degree in Industrial Relations and I'm passionate about stuff like this. It really makes my blood boil to read about it, I feel so impotent and helpless. It also saddens me to see it happening in an industry that is more or less solely responsible for my entertainment ;[ If I can help out in any way possible I would love to, and I think the same would go for any single person who's read this post. Good luck with everything.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 01:40 pm (UTC)

Yes!

My husband worked for EA and Maxis over a period of 10 years. In the beginning, the hours and attitude towards employees was more reasonable. When he left 6 months ago, it was horrible. Our marriage came very close to disintigrating due to the number of hours he had to work. The boys didn't see their father much and missed him. I missed him. I'm amazed at the lack of management that allows games to be in "crunch" mode for 6 months at a time. Although I think it is not a lack of management, but rather the plan of management. The more games that can be released in a shorter amount of time = more money to those higher up in the company. They really have lost sight of the human factor in the company.
Luckily, he is now with Ubisoft and we are enjoying a more relaxed life :-)
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-13 07:00 pm (UTC)

Re: Yes!

Hi,
My name is Josh Pastreich. I am a union organizer and I am helping with the class action lawsuit against EA for overtime. We need people who are not afraid to stand-up to EA and compensated for the blood sweat and tears they put into this company. If EA is allowed to treat their employees like this it sets a standard for the entire industry. If, however, it turns out to cost more to exploit workers than to treat them like human beings that will set a very different precedent. We need your help. unionjosh@hotmail.com
josh
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 01:59 pm (UTC)

I agree...

I couldn't agree more with this article and it's not only happening in the game industry... It's all about $$$, corp don't care about ppl anymore. These day, you can easily be replace by a little indian that earn 1/3 of your salary and will work 24/7 non stop for it. Where are we going?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 02:52 pm (UTC)
1. If you don't like the conditions, leave.
2. If you can't find a position that will pay you as well, stay and deal with the conditions.
3. Move to Cuba/China where everything is "fair" I.E. Communistic. I hear there people work 80 hours a week for under $200 a month- sounds like a winner.
4. Organize into a Union so EA ships the jobs over to China/other countries more than it may have done now.

Yes, your family situation sucks. Yes current corporate America licks donkey Balls, but this is the society we live in right now.

And if you think this is my fault- Hell, don't blame me, I voted for the other guy.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:11 pm (UTC)
Fuck off. There are much better studios than EA producing higher quality games that don't kill their artists. You just to find them.
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[User Picture]From: snowyote
2004-11-11 03:05 pm (UTC)
I totally sympathize. I work for a small developer under VUG now, and our crunches are moderate (nowhere near the prolonged crunch your husband is enduring), but I was doing contract work for Impressions (again under VUG) and saw some serious crunch. It does take a concrete, observable toll on an employee's sanity and immune system. Sadly, after everyone worked their asses off for three years, the studio was dissolved pretty much immediately after they shipped the game.

Someone said above that crunch mode is the hallmark of mismanagement, and I completely agree. I hope you can find some place that's better managed.. they definitely do exist. The games industry is definitely getting to the edge of acceptable labor practices and there's going to be a backlash soon.
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[User Picture]From: snowyote
2004-11-11 03:06 pm (UTC)
Additionally: I hope you keep posting, too. :3
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:07 pm (UTC)

Other opportunities

I've heard this story before. Several of the folks I work with now (at a small studio that produces PC games) worked on C&C Generals and their account matched this one quite closely. I thank my luck that I ended up not taking the job at EA Vancouver which I interviewed for - an interview in which they led me to believe that overtime was voluntary and mostly only performed by the youngest and most inexperienced programmers.

All I can say to hopefully offer encouragement from another game programmer is that there are still other studios out there. Sure, there's Blizzard (another place with extremely long hours) or Id or Bioware - the powerhouses that are most likely to be stable. There are a host of less well known third party developers that may or may not be around in two years. My current company falls into this category. But there are also several "in between" companies - houses that produce maybe 5 games at a time. Radical. High Voltage. So as hard as it is - keep your chin up, your ear to the ground, and keep trying to shop that resume in the couple hours they let you sleep (you do know about the job pages on www.gamasutra.com, right?). Use the recruiters - several of them are quite good. And do be afraid to walk out - not like the bastards deserve your loyalty. Because the rest of us will value your experience and your abilities, and while I can't tell you that we don't crunch, we don't crunch like that.

Feeling your pain and wishing you the best...
-Kevin
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-13 07:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Other opportunities

Hi,
My name is Josh Pastreich and I am a union organizer and I am helping with the class action lawsuit against EA for overtime violations. I see this as the first step to cleaning-up this industry. But if we are going to make a real difference we have to stop these abuses everywhere. Please write me or pass on my email address to anyone you think wants to improve this industry.
unionjosh@hotmail.com
josh
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:14 pm (UTC)

Here is a link to Larry's Salary...it's public information

http://finance.yahoo.com/q/pr?s=ERTS

The "Salary" portion is actually his base salary plus bonus for the year. The option piece is how much he gross with the options he exercised. Of the exercised amount some of the money had to go to actually pay for the options.

I've known Larry for a long time and always found him to be a smart, fair, and a very good guy. I am sorry that you and your SO have had to pay such a heavy price for doing you he/she loves.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-14 01:18 am (UTC)

Re: Here is a link to Larry's Salary...it's public information

It's not Larry, it's the wide sea of middle managers and an incompetent HR machine.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:18 pm (UTC)
I have an interview with EA next week at one of their studios for Software Developer. I was extremely happy to have this oppertunity, and still am. However, reading all this stuff is putting some chills into me. The HR person I talked to told me that 45 hours/week is normal for pre-production, and that it can get crazy near shipping time, but that they are getting "better" at it. I don't have a family yet, but I can understand how that can be devastating for people who do. I know the gaming industry is not a 9 to 5 type of job, and I am willing to work my ass off. However, if it is as crazy as you say, I would like to atleast be compensated for my efforts. For people who know, what is a good salary expection?
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-11 09:39 pm (UTC)
It's hard to give you specific advice without knowing your qualifications, but in general, the best thing you can do is have a good representative -- a good placement company who can assess your skills and negotiate for you. Failing that, you'll have to use your judgement... what are hours like this worth to you? Legally speaking, you shouldn't be taking less than $90,000, but very very few are taken on at that rate. More than this I really can't tell you, except to negotiate fiercely.
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[User Picture]From: jerrica_benton
2004-11-12 05:08 pm (UTC)
Why don't you get a better job?
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[User Picture]From: oddigy
2004-11-11 03:28 pm (UTC)
uhoh. You've been slashdotted.

this should be all the exposure you need. :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:30 pm (UTC)

Unionization

I deeply sympathize with your situation. I am a game developer in Austin, TX, and have worked for Microsoft Game Studios and EA and Sierra. I can tell you this trend runs deep in all three, though MGS seems the most humane, ironically.

I am all for unionization of the game development work force. I often wonder what a full scale labor strike would do to a company like EA, who gets it's profits solely from game development.

The problem is organization, easy to find workers, and who is going to be the fall guy. Unionization caused major rifts between employees and employers during the labor movement. Workers in the game industry are easy to find as many college grads see it as some kind of Eden. No one wants to be the fall guy, to be Jimmy Hoffa, b/c that's what it's gonna take.

Being a game developers sucks balls, and I gladly spit at the feet of game publishers.

--js
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-13 08:27 pm (UTC)

Re: Unionization

My name is Josh Pastreich. I am a union organizer and I am helping with the class action lawsuit against EA for overtime violations. It is going to take brave people to change the industry, but if we are smart about it, no one will have to be the fall guy. Let's make it more expensive to abuse people than it is to treat them like human beings. You don't work at EA anymore, are you still scared of them? This lawsuit goes back to 2000. If you are interested in really making a change or just want to find out more about it, write me at unionjosh@hotmail.com.
change is possible
josh
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:36 pm (UTC)

Call a Lawyer

And find out what your rights are... Things like this happen because people keep taking it in the arse instead of being PROACIVE about it. I quit a job at a national compu-reseller for similar reasons, and successfully settled for unpaid OT/lost wage in the end. Explore your options, if you haven't. Your story doesn't mention anything about DOING something about it.
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