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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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Comments:
[User Picture]From: floatingatoll
2004-11-11 06:00 pm (UTC)

Re: Two things...

I think that Garage Games absorbed some of the residual Sierra programmers, and I know of at least one of them that's still in town doing computer work, too.
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[User Picture]From: grafxman256
2004-11-11 07:25 pm (UTC)

Re: Two things...

Garage Games has a bare handful of ex-Dynamix empolyees (most notably the founder of Dynamix). Pipeworks actually has more. And there are a couple of other groups still struggling to make it work. Most of us found jobs with other companies or left town. In fact, I think there are more ex-Dynamix employees currently working for Lunar Logic than for any other company.
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[User Picture]From: randvek
2004-11-13 10:47 am (UTC)

Re: Two things...

Amazing how many Eugenies show up to LJ entires like this...
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From: almightywhacko
2004-11-13 10:22 pm (UTC)

Re: Two things...

It's also funny how games have declined since the consolidation of the games industry.

For the record, I loved Starsiege it was a game i still remember very fondly. I also loved the original Starsiege: Tribes. Again a game I wasted many a year on. You could read the love the developers put into the game with the bonus materials packed in there with the CD... remembering makes me a little sad.

Tribes 2 was not so hot, and the 3rd installment, while entertaining lacks the depth and intelligence of the first two.

That being said. I don't own a single game by EA just because they have yet to make a game that really pulls my interest. I own many games by Origin, Dynamix (and later Sierra but not so much), and other developers that have buckled under the pressure of big business.

Many games are so predictable and boring these days that when one offers even a bit of inovation it is heralded as "Game of the Year." I remember when nearly every game was an innovation in itself.
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[User Picture]From: randvek
2004-11-14 01:44 am (UTC)

Re: Two things...

Just think about how many great series are out there that you have to say "well, those were great, but the company got bought out and that company went out of business, so who knows what's happening to the copyright?"
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-15 01:51 pm (UTC)

Re: Two things...

For example, anyone remember Jagged Alliance? How about Wizardry? The JA rights were bought by a company with good intentions, but not the business sense to back them up, and are slowly rotting away into a black humus as we speak.... Wizardy? ...who knows?
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[User Picture]From: corviddragon
2004-11-15 11:09 pm (UTC)

Re: Two things...

ULTIMA.
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From: thermopyle
2004-11-16 09:46 pm (UTC)

Re: Two things...

Ultima Underworld? Or better, the System Shock series? Which is now owned by EA who won't do a damn thing with it. EA has actually forced a game they own to die!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-24 05:57 am (UTC)

Re: Two things...

System Shock is owned by Sierra? ACK!
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-01 03:31 am (UTC)

Re: Two things...

My first wake up call to the practices of EA was when they sucked up Earth and Beyond, IMO the best massively multiplayer game out there. For those who were never blessed to get a look at this game, it was a MMO space opera, with some very good writing and atmosphere. It was new, it was different, it was nothing like evercrack or ultima online, and that made it a threat. EnB had 5 years of planned storyline and content lined up, and EA bought them out after just 2 years and shut it down. Oh, but if you send in your original cds for EnB, you get a free month of ultima online or the sims online. Free month? Worth the cost, EA thinks, to get the competing software out of circulation so no one releases a homebrew server. Any of the talented programmers at EA wanting some revenge? Theres how ;) Woops, was that my "out loud" voice?
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From: wild_bill_66
2005-05-01 03:25 am (UTC)

Re: Two things...

Yessir, You are Right, in my experience EnB was and still is the most Technically Beautiful MMOG to hit the web. Imagine, even in a fast TT ship taking a full 1/2 hour of hard running to deliver a load from the orsini mining platform to the fenris observatory or daring to make the smuggler's run which i succeded at only once of numerous attempts while alone, LoL. My hat is off to those who created this, but it ended up as Strike 2 for EA when they closed EnB.

Strike 1 for EA was Motor City Online, though not nearly as technically beautiful or complex as EnB, MCO provided a very satisfying gaming experience, and could even be called a vitural "cruise nite" and being a kid of the 70's brought back fond memories.

One more Strike left and it was used by EA with the Disappointment of experiencing online play in the NFS Underground. Was I asking too much for a little "cruise nite" gameplay experience from NFS ? It seemed that way. After this I promptly removed NFS Underground from my comp and returned the retail box to the store. Strike 3, EA You're Outta There ! No more EA for Me !

I did something I normally would not do though while in the gaming section of a local store last week , I picked up the nascar game from the shelf and after looking over the box, promptly put it back after reading that the online service would be shut down with 30 days notice or 30 days after the season ends. Why would I shell out $40 for something like that? I did practice proper hygiene by washing my hands with antibacterial soap immediately after placing the nascar game back on the shelf LoL, and scolded myself for that momentary lapse of reason, common sense, and good judgement.

This is a customer's point of view and mine is this, technically and artistically speaking, The People who created MCO, EnB and Yes even NFS Underground are Fabulous, it is just so unfortunate that the Business and Employee Relations Practices of Electronic Arts are stifling the Creativity of these People and the Video Gaming Industry in General.

There has been a "Follow-the-Leader" mentality throughout the corporate world in many industries for many years and although this industry is relatively still young, this mentality has moved in very quickly through consolidation and a general attitude called "sucking up to the boss". Walk through the halls of Corporate America and it's not too hard to see many brown noses, is this something they teach in biz school ? Brown-Nosing 101 ?

Everybody does and I am no exception, have families to feed, and obligations to meet, but we sometimes have to ask ourselves what are we willing to give up for that brand new car or other toy. Is that $300 Driver really going to improve our golf game or are we still going to slice like we usually do. Look at it this way, If Your working 80 hrs a week that driver will sit in the closet anyway. Yes, it is Their Fault , up to a certain point, but they will only do what we let them get away with.

So the solution is ? I have absolutely No Idea what would work for You, I just know what works for me, a vehicle with a few years on it which still gives good service, a smaller residence and not so many toys gathering dust. I did go and spend time with the kids while they were playing ball and we went to the local pizzaria after where I paid for the meal with paper, thank you and not plastic.

What can We do about EA? After reading through these threads all I can say is, Thank God I don't have to work for them. What do I do about EA ? 1) I do NOT allow EA products into my house, 2) I encourage others, friends and stangers alike to do the same. Last I heard we still have the right to free speech and are able to state our opinions.

These solutions may seem lame and pretty weak, and even suggest things that some may not want to do and that is take a hard look at ourselves, but I can just give my opinions on what works for me.


Well, My 2 cents has turned into a nickel, but I just wanted let You know that You do have the support of one disgruntled gamer who will not buy EA products, does research on the products I do buy to be certain EA has nothing to do with them, and encourages others to do the same. Thank You for taking the time to read this. Just 1 Voice in all the Noise.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-12-14 09:18 am (UTC)

Re: Two things...

Belatedly returning to this page... Lunar Logic, eh? Fascinating. Thank you.
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