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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: ingaborg
2004-11-10 11:01 am (UTC)
They need to get themselves organised and take action. EA (and other companies) only get away with it because game developers don't join unions, and take a foolish macho pride in working stupid hours. Also because historically a lot of them have not had anything better to do with their time. It really is time that game developers set the DTI (or California equivalent) on their employees.

For example, if everybody checked their legal rights and stuck to them, and if necessary sued for unfair dismissal, EA would find themselves in deep trouble. I don't think that a company can make you sign away your legal rights: you may sign, but it's not binding. Part of the trouble is that nobody wants to be the person who lets the team down by refusing to work silly hours, and that's what EA makes their money on. They don't have to manage projects better or hire more people, because they can trick their employees into breaking themselves while they take up the slack.

Form a union, folks. Or modern equivalent. Go see a lawyer or the Citizens Advice Bureau or an industrial tribunal or something: get advice on how what your rights are and the best way of getting them. Be prepared to stand up for yourself.
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[User Picture]From: squeekybelly
2004-11-10 04:15 pm (UTC)
Actually, the problem is that no one wants to be the whistle blower. They are all afraid that if they do/say something, then they will never be able to work in the industry again, which is probably right.

The problems stated are fairly common in the industry, although it seems that EA is pushing it to extremes. And yes, these practices are completely illegal. Most of the time, the requests to stay longer hours are done orally, so that there are no paper trails and when the employees do their time sheets, they are asked to put down only 40 hours, again destroying any kind of proof. If the employee complains, the company claims that they never asked and that the employee was doing it out of his own violition.

Hard to proove something when you have no physical proofs...

And, btw, EA is doing the same thing at its newly opened studio in Montreal...
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 04:18 pm (UTC)
It saddens me to hear that the situation is similar in Montreal. I had heard that EA Canada was being run better than this.

The interesting thing is that because of its security systems, EA itself electronically tracks the locations of workers in this particular studio, and workers have to sign in with security when they come in on weekends... so there is no obfuscation of hours worked here.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 02:11 am (UTC)

There is a class action against EA already

Someone already came forward there is a class action against EA! Look at the laters posts here.
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[User Picture]From: heygabe
2004-11-11 01:22 am (UTC)
Amen Brother!
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[User Picture]From: ingaborg
2004-11-11 10:08 am (UTC)
it's Sister, but thanks!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:35 pm (UTC)

won't work

It won't work, and I'll tell you why...

There are hundreds of other programmers that would like the job. If you create a union, EA will just replace each and every person with someone else. How many programmers do you know that would kill for a job as a game designer?

Ever wonder why most game programmers are young, fresh outta school types? Cause they get run down and leave... yet the corporation finds someone willing to do the work.

The executives opinion? You don't like it, you are free to leave. If you leave, I know I can find someone to work the same hours for the same compensation as you.

-Josh Marotti (marotti@gmail.com)
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[User Picture]From: ingaborg
2004-11-11 03:44 pm (UTC)

Re: won't work

Yeah, I do know what you mean, and I'm sure that's the main reason why the situation has arisen. I wonder however whether it would be possible to put the burden on the employer, e.g. by politely refusing to work silly hours for silly periods of time? If the employer sacks you, they can be put in all sorts of legal trouble.

Admittedly the law is a fickle friend: was it Walmart who recently persuaded the courts that they weren't really discriminating against women employees? Or is that the case which is ongoing?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:07 am (UTC)
My husband works in the game industry too. I can say from experience that those that complain, and try to unionize get fired. One of these guys is a game developement veteren who is well respected in the game community. He was let go for one of those vague, abstract reasons like not being a "good fit" with the company who fired him. Everyone knows that the real reason was that he was trying to unionize the workers.
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[User Picture]From: ingaborg
2004-11-12 09:45 am (UTC)
:(

It's interesting, I didn't think you could be fired for being "a bad fit" unless there were redundancies taking place. Perhaps I've been naive.

I suppose the only hope really is that since the population is aging, the proportion of young, enthusiastic first-time developers will fall...
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From: mad_max01
2004-11-13 01:49 am (UTC)
I've worked in EA for a whole year, and that year was like hell.
Imagine, no thanks giving holidays, no Labor Day holiday. And if you get lucky enough you just might get 2 to 4 days of the Xmas and New Year holidays.

I my self worked for 39 days straight one time...No weekends, and 16 hours a days shift.
And during that month we almost worked all night once, around 20 hours. And they still called us the next day to come to work.

All of our hard work as simply ignored, I remember one time going to a meeting when a top producer said "Whoa looks like we are hiring again" his said that cause the meeting room was filled with employees, but another guy from the top guys said "Don't worry they are only tempts" how outrages is that.

We even used to say, "You can complain, but remember you are easily replicable"

All of the hard work was ignored when the lay offs started. Even the top employees were laid off.
This also happens in EA japan and EA TW. This is got to stop, i lend my Full support to this case.
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From: pyrodice
2004-11-15 11:25 pm (UTC)

Unions?! :(

I'd recommend dropping back, yelling 'whose with me?' and quitting, before joining a Union. all a union does is keep workers pay LOWER than non-union pay. It's a statistical fact, sadly. :( Plus, I consider it a form of communism. She said there was a law in place making this illegal, it sounds to me like legal action could remedy everyone's situation, or, contrarily, blackmail could set them up for life... *grin*
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[User Picture]From: ingaborg
2004-11-16 10:33 am (UTC)

Re: Unions?! :(

I always think of Unions as one of those forms of socialism which serve or have served a useful purpose. But they may not be the best option in an individual case.

And the US employment law sounds pretty different to UK: the "At Will" contract shocked me, because if it works as described, then the employer can be as racist, sexist or any other kind of -ist that they like.

I think that we in Britain may have gained more by joining the European Union than we necessarily appreciate. Almost all our anti-discrimination laws seem to have originated in Brussels.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-02 04:28 pm (UTC)

Unionizing

the problem with EA is that they go outside the country for a lot of their recruits, also, they're not employees - they're contracted for a game. They, much of the time, are not covered by our laws simply because they're not citizens and they're contract workers. A BC born person, wouldn't put up with that too much - we can walk out the door and get hired by another company ASAP. The ones that are brought into the country are in a more tenuous position - they lose that job, they're also booted out of the country - and may still have to pay for a lease, etc. that will create a financial burden as well.

Perhaps, they should start having lawyers go over their contracts before signing them. AND/OR EA should have to hire more Canadian workers, or workers born or officially immigrated to the country (e.g. their LA & Chicago office would hire Americans) in which the office is so that they are covered by the laws, thereby, enabling them to be covered by the Labour Standards of that area.

This way, they would have to look at the reality of unionizing as a possibility and start treating their employees as a valuable asset, rather than a commodity that can be easily replaced.
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From: ext_128729
2008-10-19 10:24 pm (UTC)

Unions == Decrease in Jobs

A union won't do shit for the software industry. The only thing it will do is get the best to leave the industry, create a mediocrity of wages (they'll all go down) incur fees for the union bosses, piss off a bunch of people, and disenfranchise a lot of people in the industry.

EA games is ONE part of the industry. They run a shitty business but that doesn't mean the whole software industry is like that. If they don't like game programming, make a true statement, LEAVE.

There is a shortage of good programmers in this field, when enough start leaving and going to get good jobs the company will die or be forced to change its habits.

No need to chase even MORE of the work out of the country by forming Unions, that's just stupid. Unions are for blue collar, not white collar work, and in addition to that - look at how much blue collar work is left in country. I personally prefer to keep the US competitive in high tech. Forming unions will NOT do that.
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