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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)
2006-06-22 11:25 pm (UTC)
Keep accurate logs of all hours worked and compensations recieved.
Even salaried employees are entitled to overtime compensation as per Federal Labor Laws.
Find a labor practives attorney and get what's coming to you.
I would suggest you do it as a group too.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-07-22 08:13 am (UTC)

ea spouse could support ea spouse

your site was just on BBC so if you had some google ad-words, maybe your poor husband could take some time off...maybe he has...i didn't read the whole post...
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-08-05 09:38 am (UTC)

The final straw

While coasting in auto pilot in a caffeine fog swirling towards some forgetten useless milestone on a title doomed to disappoint ( no time for quality) I was shaken up by the news that there was a bomb threat at EAC. And no one was evacuated. We were told that it was deemed a hoax and no one needed to be evacuated. Police dogs were seen throughout the morning but the message that we were safe did not arrive unti the late afternoon. My father in law, with over 20 years as an officer, says they ALWAYS recommend getting people to safety. I know where I stand now... fuck you. i quit.
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From: ea_spouse
2006-08-09 04:05 am (UTC)

Re: The final straw

I keep thinking that I can't be surprised by more of what I hear, but this comment brought me up short. I've been trying to find more information about this but have not been able. I am sorry that you had that experience, however. Best of luck finding a place to land. Feel free to drop me an email if I can help.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-08-09 02:05 am (UTC)

Thanks ea spouse

for costing EA finance people their jobs. to offset the verdict cost most of finance is now getting outsourced to India. Hope you sleep well!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ea_spouse
2006-08-09 02:23 am (UTC)

Re: Thanks ea spouse

Cry me a river, buddy. I'm sorry to hear about your loss, but blaming a blogger for your company outsourcing to India is idiocy. Do you really believe everything they tell you about their "management" decisions? Get yourself a nice helping of perspective and look at the net cost of the lawsuits compared to EA's repeated massive quarter losses and tell me again if you really buy their excuse (intended no doubt to bludgeon people into a fear of asserting their own damned rights under the law) behind sending your job overseas.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-09-03 01:35 pm (UTC)

Reason why EA games are getting more buggy

due to heartless heads of the sections, why dont EA think about producing LESS games with LESS bugs than to produce MORE games with MORE bugs that you can hardly even enjoy them wholefully?

if i were the manager, REST is the UTMOST important thing which is needed for a programmer to function properly in making a program or a game. like the old saying goes, "SLOW and STEADY wins the race" and since EA definitely aint racing much, why even force the employees so hard for? you have already gain the majority of market profits, what else more do you want? are all the profits in which we gamers give to you not enough to satisfy your greed for caviar and fast cars and nice houses and yatches?

maybe its time for EA to think about their future, since if this goes on and games that are churned out summer after summer are getting more and more buggy, i do hope that there will not be a day where people stop buying EA games because they are far too buggy to play with.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-09-04 07:58 am (UTC)

Re: Reason why EA games are getting more buggy

I cannot imagine working those hours in the states for anything less than 300k. I am currently working 12hour shifts seven days a week in Baghadad. Sometimes my shop lucks out gets to go to eight hour shifts but still everyday. Most of us spend 12 months to 18 months over here at a stretch. I can tell you that kind of treatment drives down the recruitment significantly, That is a good lesson to think about I had even considered working there. Thanks for the information, while the hours are doable they should be upfront and compensate for your effort.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: mastertwisted
2006-09-07 05:20 pm (UTC)
Back in the '90s I was a game designer in the roleplaying game industry. I coauthoured a few games and supplements, worked incredibly long hours, and had hopes of becoming a published author in mainstream fiction.

Eventually, the stress ruined my marriage, and I burned out. This is not the computer game industry we are talking about, but the parallels are very similar. And there will never be a dearth of replacements; young, energetic and naive writers, artists an designers who will accept the conditions for the miniscule chance they will make it big, or just to get a chance to make games for a living.

Shame on the corporate leaders who use their employees as fuel for corporate profits. And shame on us for allowing them to do it to us.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-09-09 08:55 pm (UTC)

Video Game Employees Union?

Came across this the other day. Looks like a small operation but it needs to start somewhere. www.gogaime.com
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-09-16 02:01 am (UTC)

Re: Video Game Employees Union?

Should I even bother trying to apply at EA Tiburon? My current situation is pretty chill (42-45 work weeks with free meals etc.) and only 25 minute commute.

I used to do Computational Geometry research in school and my friend offered to refer me to EA, which sounded exiting. Who doesn't wanna make the cool games? This site needless to say made me think twice about this. My friend mentioned that he was quite happy, but that he had to put in "60-70 hours for the past few months". Is there a way around that, can I pick a team where there are good people and I won't be behind all the time? Can I be compensated hourly? Is this pretty much the norm? Have things changed recently?

I am not what you'd call a hard core gamer -- I've played all my life but stopped for years and was never really absorbed in the culture. I am not sure that I will last, even if I try to adjust my lifestyle and everything else. I play soccer all the time and generally like to be active and out-going as much as I can (I also smoke pot so that's not always very easy :) ).

The job market in my town is very good and I could always find 60 here on ~3 years experience. Is this comparable to what EA pays? Is Orlando expensive? Could anyone tell me what a SE II starts out at? I've heard that SE I starts at ~50-60k + options and bonus.

Should I bother applying? How did the rehashing work out? Have things changed?

Let me ask you this: are they likely to be reading this?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: odorouspete
2006-09-16 02:07 am (UTC)

Position at EA?

Should I even bother trying to apply at EA Tiburon? My current situation is pretty chill (42-45 work weeks with free meals etc.) and only 25 minute commute.

I used to do Computational Geometry research in school and my friend offered to refer me to EA, which sounded exiting. Who doesn't wanna make the cool games? This site needless to say made me think twice about this. My friend mentioned that he was quite happy, but that he had to put in "60-70 hours for the past few months". Is there a way around that, can I pick a team where there are good people and I won't be behind all the time? Can I be compensated hourly? Is this pretty much the norm? Have things changed recently?

I am not what you'd call a hard core gamer -- I've played all my life but stopped for years and was never really absorbed in the culture. I am not sure that I will last, even if I try to adjust my lifestyle and everything else. I play soccer all the time and generally like to be active and out-going as much as I can (I also smoke pot so that's not always very easy :) ).

The job market in my town is very good and I could always find 60 here on ~3 years experience. Is this comparable to what EA pays? Is Orlando expensive? Could anyone tell me what a SE II starts out at? I've heard that SE I starts at ~50-60k + options and bonus.

Should I bother applying? How did the rehashing work out? Have things changed?

Let me ask you this: are they likely to be reading this?
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-10-09 07:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Position at EA?

As long as people are commenting, they're most likely reading, yes.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: king_gravewater
2006-10-20 09:47 pm (UTC)

The sad part is...

that the quality of EA's games has not improved one iota in the transition from small independent startup to Microsoft-like corporate tyrant.

I am old enough to remember when EA was just another player in a very diverse and crowded market. Games like Skate Or Die were just one of thousands of games my friends and I competed with one another at, and the sad part is that such games as SOD were actually fun. Hours and hours and hours of fun. This wass as much due to the differing games-corporate culture as it was the simple fact that games could not rely solely on graphics to sell. Put simply, if the gameplay was terrible (and that era had no shortage of its own terrible games), it did not sell, or even get played.

Today's games culture would have many of the children of the early 1980s shaking in despair if they could see it. So much effort and attention goes on some graphics engine that supposedly delivers photorealism, but things move about with such speed in a lot of genres that even assuming you do not have epileptic reactions, you cannot really see what is happening anyhow. It is as if the developers are masking so much of what they seem so proud of, paradoxically. Or maybe it is because if we stop gnashing our teeth in frustration at how we cannot seem to analyse and properly strategise in the game, we will notice how badly the gameplay sucks. It does not matter whether it is called Gran Tourismo 4 or Lord Of The Rings: The Third Age. They all feature massive glitches, they all feature levels that feel so rigged you just know they were designed to prevent all but the most hardcore gamers seeing the bits that the developers never got to finish, and they all feel more like a chore than a pleasure to play.

Anyone who has read my journal will know that I have a very low opinion of what social justice and societal bonds were in the 1980s (and today), so when I say that I would go back to that time in order to get a decent gaming industry back, it says a lot. With EA using worker relations techniques that would have got them shut down in 1985, it really shows me how much faith I should have in the law, anywhere. Had EA gone bankrupt in about 1988 or so, that would have been a tragedy. If they had done so in 1998, that would have caused me to do backflips.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-10-23 12:05 pm (UTC)

Your Games Programmer Salary

I've been a graphics programmer for many years, but I avoid the games and effects industries like the plague. Games programming is much harder than standard business application programming, where wages begin at about £62 (=$112) per hour on contract in the UK. And yes, you can work every day of the year. I thought I'd go through a few typical numbers based on hours worked in the games industry:

1 x months at 70 hours per week = 280 hours
2 x months at 60 hours per week = 480 hours
9 x months at 50 hours per week = 1800 hours
Total Hours = 2560 hours

Total pay at £62 per hour = £158,720 = $297,248

And that's just for relatively easy coding. Obviously, there are other tax and government dedictions and yes, if you're not on contract, maybe you take a bit less for the security. But..How does your games or effects coding salary compare against this ? Seriously, you are being ripped off. Get together and do something. If the games companies business model doesn't stretch to this, it just means they can't afford you and that's their problem. Don't listen to crap about 'normal for the industry'. You are in the software industry and a difficult, niche part at that.

(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2006-10-28 08:10 pm (UTC)

EA BOYCOTT

Do a web seach EA BOYCOTT OR BOYCOTT EA and join the move. The EA BOYCOTT is gaining ground. Post any were you can any way you can. WE CAN DO THIS.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-01-07 06:44 pm (UTC)

screwed up game

This Christmas I got the game From Russia With Love 007 from my friend. It was a brand new game, neverr been opened and I put in my regular Xbox and it said that it can't read the disc. I tried a few more times and eventually it started to load the game. I started to play the first level and near the end I was walking and there was n
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ttandc
2007-01-20 03:23 am (UTC)

wow

Wow EA spouse I can really feel what your saying here. Your use of words has opened my eyes to what goes on with EA. If you visit the Electonic Arts lord of the rings battle for middle earth 2 forum you can find me there. I for one can now understand why this game is in the state it's in. A lot of gamers there are actually talking about boycotting all EA games due to a severe lack of technical support and community response. But I can now see it's not the employees that are the problem it's the management and upper management. I hope this story you've told here has had a happy ending for you and your family.

Regards

ttandc
(Reply) (Thread)
From: ea_spouse
2007-01-20 03:45 am (UTC)

Re: wow

Hi there, and thanks for your message. It's good to hear from someone who played the game, I know there are so many, but I haven't exchanged much with the fans.

Any failings you're finding certainly weren't the team's fault. They were up against phenomenal odds and they worked like dogs on that game, I can promise you. They're great people and they did a tremendous job in spite of the conditions they worked under. It's remarkable, given the conditions, that the game came out as well as it did -- which is to say very well -- and is a testament to the skill and dedication of the individuals involved.

As I understand it, things are better at the studio now, and the guys immediately responsible for that particular project (though I think the overall responsibility chain does go all the way up to the top) are no longer there. Then again, most of the BFME2 team has also moved on from what I understand.

Thanks again for your note, and for stopping by. =)
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
Re: wow - (Anonymous) Expand
From: rlelln
2007-02-26 08:55 pm (UTC)

Working at EA was the worst job of my life!!!

Nikki Rohm needs a face lift!!!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2007-02-27 12:56 am (UTC)

Probst out

NY Times is reporting that Larry is out as EA's CEO and John Riccitiello is in.

http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/technology/AP-Electronic-Arts-CEO.html?_r=1&oref=slogin&pagewanted=print

The article carries this observation:

"But critics question whether EA is becoming overvalued -- and whether it's been resting too long on the laurels of established hits.

"They worry that scrappy startups -- which distribute games inexpensively on the Internet -- could generate more buzz and eventually dethrone the reigning video game leader, which makes vastly more money from shrink-wrapped 'off the shelf' titles rather than downloads. They wonder why Activision Inc. -- and not EA -- could come up with the delightfully quirky 'Guitar Hero.'"
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