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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?


===

This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:21 pm (UTC)
I think I'll start boycotting EA Games. EA is an extreme example of how corporate america works. Its set up to maximize profits for management and its owners. Everyone else is an object that helps them achieve this goal to be tossed away when their ends are met. Frankly, EA's behavior is disgusting but its common practice, partly due to pressures such as Wall Street and shareholder expectations. We also have a President which supports this treatment as he has eliminated overtime for millions of workers, supports and gives tax breaks on outsourcing. What we in the software industry needs is a union similar to the entertainment industry that dictates what managment can and cannot do. Will this encourage outsourcing? It may, but they can't outsource everybody. If everyone joins, then it will only benefit in the long run. Its time that the workers in this industry are heard and treated fairly.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:24 pm (UTC)

It's not always your manager that's to blame...

I completely sympathise with what you & your other half are going through, and agree with you that it's completely unacceptable. However, I wanted to add a couple of comments to some of the overwhelming feeling towards management that's been expressed here...

I agree that, broadly, management should be held accountable for not providing acceptable working environments and for signing teams up to unrealistic schedules. However, it should be noted that the majority of these kind of decisions are taken so high up the chain that the people you see as to blame may have very little impact or power to change these situations. In my case I was working with a talented team that were being pushed into an unrealistic schedule not through the wishes of the producers, managers, or even the studio head, rather through the demands of the COO at the distant head office who wouldn't sanction the hiring of enough staff, nor understood the pressure he was piling onto the team by agreeing unrealistic deadlines with publishers. We (as lower management) were absolutely powerless to do anything about it, except leave. Which doesn't help the team in any way.

Also, I'd like to mention that I know EA don't just apply this pressure to their own dev teams, but as publishers they demand ridiculous schedules and unbelievable crunch from the studios they sign up to do their projects. As they hold the purse strings even the COO of the dev studio has little or no say in the matter (at least in a dev environment where contracts are thin enough on the ground that your reliant on that EA deal to pay the bills). I'm not in any way excusing the dev co's managment for signing up to such an unrealistic dev timescale, but I did see first hand the pressure applied by EA to push the workforce into the ground with no care at all for their well being. Needless to say in this case most of the team upped and left at the end of the project, including a high number of senior management staff.

Oh, and the game was crap. Not because of the team's lack of talent, but because EA demanded so many unreasonable changes and demanded so many unthinkable feature changes (against which the dev team screamed in opposition) that the game was made virtually unplayable.

I wish you and your SO the best of luck in finding something better. And if the legal case is successful I hope you take them for everything they've got. I just wish that there were laws against that sort of overtime this side of the pond too.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 07:11 am (UTC)

Re: It's not always your manager that's to blame...

All of this is very true. I'm sorry I didn't respond earlier. Although there are issues with management, and I agree that the crunch could be avoided with proper management, the managers themselves are not given the tools to do their jobs properly (enough time, enough staff, stable design vision), and have to deal with bizarre decisions from those uninvolved with the actual gamemaking process.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:27 pm (UTC)

Don't Mourn, Organize

I'd like to think that "brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great" would be capable of taking a stand when confronted with a work environment like the one described. Perhaps if they took a look at the conditions coal miners faced in the early part of the last century, they would see some similarities and get organized, unionized, and fight back.

Of course, thanks to the Republicants of the universe "unionize" is now a dirty word and so many people who should otherwise know better seem to think that the best way to face the crushing oppression of greedy capitalist masters is to bitch about it but otherwise take it silently. Stand up and defend yourselves, kids. Maybe you'll lose your "wonderful" job, maybe a few of you will chicken out at the last minute and knuckle under and go back to work, leaving the rest out to dry. But if even a chunk of the workers stand together and refuse to be treated this way, EA will have to take notice.

Seriously, stand together and stand strong, damnit! Forget what you've been "taught" by the conservatives and libertarians. Worker unity is your last, best hope against this kind of treatment. Especially since the election has given the Republicans a "mandate" to strip away the last of the employment laws that those coal miners DIED FOR. Or, you can just shut up and remember when you had human dignity. You know, when you were still human.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:31 pm (UTC)

fucking deal with it

WELCOME TO REAL LIFE

PEOPLE IN INDIA CAN DO YOUR JOB FOR LESS MONEY THAN THEY PAY YOU, AND DO A BETTER JOB TOO

BE GLAD YOUR COMPANY IS STILL PAYING YOU AT ALL


IF YOU DIDNT WANT TO DO THIS, YOU SHOULD HAVE GOTTEN A SKILL THAT COULDNT BE LEARNED AND CARRIED OUT IN ANOTHER COUNTRY


AND STUPID PEOPLE SHOULDNT BREED EITHER
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:34 pm (UTC)

Re: fucking deal with it

So are you the CEO of EA or something?
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Indian made games - (Anonymous) Expand
Ridiculous - (Anonymous) Expand
People in India? - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:39 pm (UTC)

BRAVO!

All I can say - this article is right to the point and so true. From my personal experience: I got the job in the shiny EA office (with "fancy fish tank"), saw exactly what is described in the write-up and...left EA for another opportunity after few weeks.

The executive mentality there is "here's your EA T-shirt, now - your soul, please..." and I sincerely believe that no one, I repeat, no one needs to put up with that. There are plenty of other work around...


Conan
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 07:13 am (UTC)

Re: BRAVO!

Please contact me, if you would, if you're interested in speaking with other EA folk about this. =) Your anonymity can be protected. ea_spouse@hotmail.com
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:52 pm (UTC)

Rockstar is no better

My DH worked in video games for many years. finally ending up at Rockstar. They pay well but nothing is worth the 80-90 hour weeks or the hypocracy of having four weeks of vacation a year your not aloud to take.

If someone you love is thinking about a job in game, tell them to find something else where they can earn a decent living and still have a life.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-14 04:08 am (UTC)

Re: Rockstar is no better

I agree. I had an extremely bad experience at Rockstar. The publishers tortured us for months constantly changing their minds and setting deadlines that were absolutely insane. Unfortunately in games there doesn't seem to be anywhere else to go. Almost every studio employs these tactics in one form or another. The good ones will only make you crunch for a few weeks at a time. The bad ones can crunch you indefinitely. They keep the artists and programmers moving from studio to studio just happy to have a job even if it means taking antidepressants or anxiety medication.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:56 pm (UTC)

Get Your OT Money Back! (65 520$)

After having gone through some "unpaid overtime" issues with my company, I did some research. In Ontario, the basic collective agreement that all employees fall under is actually within the province's labour legislation. If the employee did not enter into another collective agreement, he/she should be protected under this one (check with a lawyer).

In this agreement it states the "Time and a half" rule.

If you can prove that you worked these hours, with the help of a lawyer, you can possibly get your money back.

You would have to prove that you didn't sign into an averaging agreement or another collective agreement. The price of the lawyer might be worth your wile. Check with one (free consult) and see what your options are.

If you were paid 40K/yr and worked 86 hours a week, that's 42 hours a week more than usual. That would be 20$hr normal time, 30$hr OT.

52weeks * 42hrs * 30$/hr = 65 520$ overtime pay.

You have up to a year (if i remember) to file an overtime sheet. Check for your local province on this.

This is the one for Ontario, i think most provinces (and states) have a similar legistlation.

http://www.e-laws.gov.on.ca/DBLaws/Statutes/English/00e41_e.htm#BK30
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:58 pm (UTC)

happening now

Aparently there is already a lawsuit sueing them for wages. Someone posted the info on page 3 I believe.
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not in bc - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:58 pm (UTC)

Wake up

I hate to break it to you...but this is how corporate america works nowadays---ESPECIALLY in engineering shops.

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(Deleted comment)
Re: Wake up - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: _burns_within
2004-11-11 04:59 pm (UTC)
all i gotta say is, welcome to corporate America.

unfortunately, little can be done. it's capitalism at its best. the average worker is powerless to speak their voice in a multibillion dollar conglomerate. blinded faces, we are. it is the future.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:01 pm (UTC)

Much Sympathy

As a games industry/dot-com survivor I have great sympathy for your plight. I was in the exact same situation as your SO and thankfully my wife managed to beat some sense into me.

Now I build websites for lawyers who handle class-action overtime and employment discrimination claims - oh the irony.

You sound reasonably well versed on the subject. All I can suggest is to try to get your SO and an employment law attorney in the same room for an hour to explore your options. EA is breaking the law and they deserve to be held accountable.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:02 pm (UTC)

This is beyond awful


It has always bugged me that video games cost as much as they do, more than $50 at release. And don't even get me started on MMORPGs. You have to pay $50 for the damn software AND pay a monthly fee. I understand the fee, so lay off on the price for incomplete software!
But I digress. I pay that much for the game, and they guys in the trenches don't even get compensated????? I was pissed before, but now im livid. If i were not such a video game junkie, I'd stop playing altogether. Go get em!!!!!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:08 pm (UTC)
Vote Democrat. Form a union. Take back your workplace. Be a human, not a salaryman. C'mon. Your life is worth it.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:13 pm (UTC)
Voting Democrat won't help, it was Clinton who started much of the offshoring of our jobs.

We need people who care about business but not at the cost of consumers and employees. Party affliation be damned.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread) (Expand)
(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:15 pm (UTC)

That explains it...

The qulaity of EA games has degraded greatly. Bugs that are blatantly obvious the first ten minutes you load the game up somehow make it past their testing phases. They are able to release games (MOH PA for example) with promises as good as the last one, you go spend $50 on it, only to realize you've been had, the MP gameplay sucks, and is full of bugs. EA has been ripping its customers off for awhile too, which I see now is a result of bad employee practices. Boycott EA!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:17 pm (UTC)

Um... So quit

I really don't get this. If people are this universally upset with the game programming world, then LEAVE! Get a job outside of the gaming industry. It's not like anyone's making you keep a shitty job like that...
(Reply) (Thread)
[User Picture]From: wackyvorlon
2004-11-11 05:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Um... So quit

Something important to remember, this guy has a family. He can't just through away his only source of income. It could be a year before he finds another job, or manages to get a job in some other field of work. The only real option is to organize.
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Re: Um... So quit - (Anonymous) Expand
Re: Um... So quit - (Anonymous) Expand
[User Picture]From: wackyvorlon
2004-11-11 05:19 pm (UTC)

Coal Mine

Welcome to the coal mine. Now you know first hand why unions where created, and why they are still necessary.
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