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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)
2005-06-11 06:43 pm (UTC)

Now I know for myself.

Working at EA, I can see that management does in fact build unrealistic schedules by under staffing their teams as a standard practice.

EA, instead of getting the proper staffing, relies on their hard working dedicated workers to make up the lost time, causing their team members to sacrifice their home/personal lives.

Making a unrealistic schedule and not hiring the appropriate amount of people to get the job done is just plain irresponsible.

Why aren’t the correct number of workers hired to accommodate the over ambitious schedules?

The only reason I can come up with is money.

If this is the case, in the end everyone will loose for the sake of the all mighty dollar.

The EA workers will loose time with their friends, families, and put their health and sanity in jeopardy all for the sake of a video game.

The consumer will also loose as well. Buying out your competition only to take a franchise and make minimal updates every year due to a development cycle that only allows enough time to include the bare minimum feature set can only work for so long.

EA is already showing signs of more innovative titles cutting into their profit margins. It looks like in the long run even EA might have a few losses of their own.

A small solution to the bigger problem.

EA has a huge wealth of talent/experience to pull from. They are probably on of the few companies out their that could really use their manpower to make everyone’s life easier.

Right now it seems since we don’t have the proper tool set to get the job done everything is being done by brute force.

In my mind there needs to be a way to share and reuse the work done by the various teams that form EA. There needs to be a unified engine that everyone should be using. (Renderware..... where are you?)

Renderware should become EA’s new next gen graphics engine.

If all of the teams in EA were writing to one engine then any tool, code or art assets could be shared amongst the different teams.

There are a few companies out there that are already making game development easier for companies by selling the graphics engine’s.

ID’s Doom 3 engine, Epic’s Unreal Engine and Valve’s Half Life 2 Engine are already making an impact on how game development is done in the next gen era.

Not having to write your own graphics engine every time you make a game will free up your team to make more innovative features for your game and not eat up all of your time just trying to get the basics in.


Reuse of assets.

If teams were able to reuse assets then EA could build an EA model, texture, animation, tool and code bank.

A unified human model could also be made that could be used to build a clothing and prop system for. Then any shirt, pants, shoes etc. built for game A could be used in game B, C or D.

There has even been research done on this very topic, it was even partially funded by EA.

http://grail.cs.washington.edu/projects/digital-human/

A realistic human in a football game is the same as a soccer game, hockey game, basketball game, baseball game, spy game, fighting game etc., etc.

I say work smarter, not harder.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-11 06:57 pm (UTC)

Re: Now I know for myself.

That's weird, because Alain Tascan of EA Montreal emphasized, during a presentation at the Montreal IGDA chapter, that one of the keys to EA's success was the reuse of assets. The example he brought up was the grass in Madden, which is the same as that in LOTR.

Are the working conditions better at EA Montreal, or other Montreal studios such as Ubisoft?


-- A Montrealer
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-12 11:36 pm (UTC)

After seven months...

So after seven months since ea spouse's first post, can someone who is better informed than me tell me a few things? How is lawsuit working? And boycott? Is there any chance that EA will bankrupt, change owner or be forced to change itself completely? Will there be any unions anytime soon?
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From: goodfortheego
2005-06-14 09:05 pm (UTC)

Are all game companies like this?

I've been a gamer since I was 4, and I want to work in the industry. I know somone that is a programmer at EA, and it seems like he loves it, but that during crunchtime, he would just sleep overnight there, since the schedule was so crazy. Then again, he actually is allowed to work at home now.

Anyways, are all studios so terrible? I know crunchtime is inevidable, but are all companies so inhumane? I plan to have a family, and I want to be sure to ahve a life outside my work. Any info would be great. Thanks!
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-14 09:52 pm (UTC)

Re: Are all game companies like this?

well man, as you've probably figured out - there are no absolutes. Meaning there are people that like it at EA, there are people that don't. Same for Activision, etc and so on. But the fact remains that crunch period exist for many developers, mostly because the tech seems to be a moving target and publishing milestones are aggressive to take advantage of seasonal opportunities and hardware and console opportunities. Unlike the film business, gaming accounting is hard to figure out - meaning, it's not widely known how much a title cost to produce. So if a developer takes a bath on a title, it's not widely discussed. And with a studio with multiple titles under the roof, you can take a bath on Catwoman and still come out way ahead on Need for Speed. To make matters more complicated, these might be the same resources your applying to both projects, making the accounting a real mess. With developers that have one title to produce, it's easier to track the success. Film studios have long been savy to this and they are notorious for "creative accounting" - meaning depending on what your intentions are you can make the release be a profit or a loss. Games are going that way too, as the industry consolidates. Who is going to be able to afford to produce a next-gen console game anyway? Big developers and that's about that. The PC isn't that big a market share.

So where does this all lead? Hard deadlines, big profits and tight schedules. Since no one really has a handle on the tech and you're always competing to make sure your game is cooler graphically the next guy's, there's lots of pressure to get these titles on a shelf in a store.

Your best bit is to find some small low key developer and roll the dice. You'll learn a lot and have fun.

good luck
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From: afterdark50
2005-06-25 08:40 pm (UTC)

Rick Giolito--scoop on his whereabouts

What's the deal with Giolito? I worked with this moron at EA in Redwood City in the late 90s and again (unfortunately) in LA. Heard he went on "sabbatical" late last year and returned this spring. But he left, very recently. What happened to the bozo? Did he get fired? Leave for another job? Can't say I'll miss the guy--but I'll miss seeing his hot wife visit the office. She is smokin!
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-26 01:56 am (UTC)

Re: Rick Giolito--scoop on his whereabouts

I've wondered that too. Someone posted earlier that he's forming some new partnership with Skaggs possibly called Trifecta. Hopefully someone in the know will respond with more info.

By the way, what made him so bad to work with?
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-07-08 02:52 pm (UTC)

most excellent whine ever!

please bring your best whines and rants to: www.925m.com and be sure to add link to this best ver cry baby post! pls. thx nycat
digital ad addicts check: googles groups find: digital- advertising blog, whine rant preach away, no link back to here? post will be deleted. got it? go get your whine.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-07-20 02:22 am (UTC)
so quit

wtf?
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-07-22 12:24 am (UTC)

time to move on

this site is dead. It's over.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-07-23 03:49 am (UTC)

THEN EA WINS !!!! THAT"S CORPORATE POWER!!

FINITTO! TERMINADO!! ENDED!!

EA RULEZ AND THE WHINING DID NOT CHANGE A THING!!!

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From: (Anonymous)
2005-07-24 12:09 am (UTC)

Re: THEN EA WINS !!!! THAT"S CORPORATE POWER!!

I thought your mommy said you could only post comments on this blog if they are intelligent?
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-07-24 03:16 am (UTC)

you can tell from the product

There are far to many comments here for me to read them all, so this may have been said before. But you only need to play a couple EA games to believe that this story is completely true. The games are rushed to the stores in time for Christmas or other deadline, and are unfinished (IE features stripped out) and full of bugs. Often a bug-fix patch begins being developed immediately after the release (or even before), they know full well the bugs are there and ship anyway.
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[User Picture]From: katsuyakaiba
2005-08-21 06:54 am (UTC)

Re: you can tell from the product

One word to support this: Catwoman
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-07-25 02:36 pm (UTC)

Unionise the workforce

I'd suggest that your husband and his workmate form a union. I'm certain that if you could get the actual workers that produce the game as a final product to form a union, then the industry as a whole would have to change, as they would lose their ready supply of victims for the grindstone.

Remember, it was unionism that destroyed Communism in Poland. It also destroyed oppressive work practices here in Australia. We have waiters that don't rely on tips to live, but on the wage provided by their employer.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-07-25 10:48 pm (UTC)

Re: Unionise the workforce

by most accounts, it was Pope John Paul that is attributed for Polish solidarity and the gradual fall of communism in the late 1970's. Not unions.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-09 04:24 am (UTC)

EA Spouse, how goes progress?

EA Spouse, with November three months away, marking one year since you posted your blog, was wondering if there has been progress and/or improvement with your SO's circumstances? Is your SO still working at EA? Can you give us an update? Thank you!
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From: ea_spouse
2005-08-10 12:24 am (UTC)

Re: EA Spouse, how goes progress?

Hi there. I can't give out specific information, but things are good and getting better. :) Thanks for your comment.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-15 06:45 pm (UTC)
Hello,

ea_spouse, I just learned about your family's inexcusable and ridiculous situation today through an article in the Toronto Star, a daily here in Canada. It was the front page article in the Business section, and after reading both the article, and your experiences here in your journal, it definitely sheds some light on the inhumane business practices that the industry, and specifically EA uses. I am not a game developer, nor even really a person who plays games 24/7 really, but just as a casual games consumer, I'm mortified by it all. If EA or any other game company reads this, I hope you realise that your employees' lives and the quality of that is INFINITELY more important than your bottom line of making money. If you gave them more time to do things and hired more people, morale would be higher, job loyalty would be greater, and you wouldn't have lawsuits or disgusted consumers knocking on your door. Respect the people who make money for you, and they will in turn respect you.

My heart goes out to all those who have to endure this type of abuse just to pursue a field that they are interested in. These companies should be ashamed of themselves.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-16 10:56 pm (UTC)

really

Boy, you go tell them!
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-17 10:21 pm (UTC)

well said

good job, someone has to say something about things like this...
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-19 12:44 pm (UTC)

Disgruntled spouse

What a joy to find these comments- I thought there was only me who got angry about these Dickensian working conditions.
My husband has hardly seen his children at all in this 6 wk school holiday- this is having a detrimental effect on them. His health is being affected but mine too as I have suddenly become a single parent with responsibility for absolutely everything.
WHO has the right to impose these conditions for weeks on end?
6am-12midnight (and with a 90 mile round trip home) is surely illegal?
I wonder who will be able to stand up and make a difference, without ending up oput of work, because there are always more young people waiting in the wings?
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From: ea_spouse
2005-08-21 04:36 am (UTC)

Re: Disgruntled spouse

Depending on where you are, those conditions can most certainly be illegal. If you would feel comfortable, please contact me, there can be something you can do. The comments that have hit me hardest in all of this are the comments from families with children. These working conditions are why my husband and I have not had children yet, and I know we're not the only couple in the industry that has made a similar decision. We were waiting for things to get better, with both of our careers, but the thing is that you can't just wait for change... you have to effect it. There are places that realize how foolish it is to treat one's workforce this way. Please drop me an email if you're interested. =) ea.spouse@gmail.com .
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-08-26 07:11 pm (UTC)

EA doesn't treat their customers much better

They release buggy software, blame the bugs on the users and then ban in a guilty before innocent world. I'm a 40 year old woman who plays their Ultima Online game and had 14 account for many years and no bad marks, no history of exploits and they ban me because they claim I dupe an item that gets duped in a hidden place, and I didn't even know I duped it. Another 41 year woman was banned for the same thing. They simply don't give a damn, they are making their money, and sitting high on the hill and don't give a damn about their customers. I was no doubt their single best customer gerating over 10,0000 to them, this year alone and they ban me because they can't test their software.

If your an older woman I recommend you avoid their games because they don't seem to understand our interests, like building and designing houses, and will throw you out the door if you happen to do it more times than they think is normal to do.
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From: thecanadianicon
2005-09-02 04:00 pm (UTC)

Good To Hear Things Are Going Well

I'm happy to hear that things are going well for ea_spouse. Since it seems many game developers have read/are reading this journal I would like to ask something becuase I really want to enter the industry: Since EA is a terrible place to work, who would be better and what do I need to get a job there? I know UbiSoft Montreal is good but like BioWare and other Canadian developers they only hire experienced employees. Much thanks to any who can help and of course ea_spouse.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-10-02 05:42 am (UTC)

Re: Good To Hear Things Are Going Well

I doubt things are much better at Ubisoft Montreal. I visited the place and it is this huge war room that would make Lister and DeMarco (authors of Peopleware) cry. You could apply for a junior position, game industry experience isn't required for those positions.
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