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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
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?



This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.

From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 07:45 pm (UTC)

White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

I worked at EA for over 3 years and shipped alot of product for them. When I started my own personal revolt against the crunch modes that are specifically the result of mis-management I lost favor really fast and I left for greener pastures only to find that the same problems exist elsewhere. The average game company manager is quite possibly the worst qualified leader of people in the world. They couldn't get a job managing a McDonald's IMO.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 09:47 pm (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

I think part of the problem is that, as far as I know, anyway, people tend to either revolt in ways that will enable EA to find grounds to fire them (I'm not saying that you did this, only that I've seen it happen on this very project), or they leave quietly to another job. It solves the problem for the individual in question, though they tend to be a little careworn afterward, but the machine just keeps on grinding away.
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[User Picture]From: wilywombat
2004-11-13 02:46 am (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

Well, I can tell you I didn't go quietly. My team knew what my feelings were. I certainly wrote up a lengthy exit report, which I felt I owed the company, after all I had been there for 10 years. I also told the HR person exactly what the problems were that I had observed. I am also sure that those notes were never presented to anyone who both cared and could change the ways were done. I was finally tired of trying to make a difference and getting slapped for it.
Also, I know of at least a few others who left under similar loud circumstances. But it just doesnt matter. The guys who can change things have no incentive to do so. And they never ever meet those whose lives they are ruining. Maybe they viewed us as "dissendent Turrists".
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From: jj10
2004-11-17 09:16 am (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

Hi all,
I've worked for several years as Producer at Vivendi universal games in France.
It was my first experience as manager in this area and I've been very surprised by the "management methods".
I remember one of my projects for wich the delays were ok. The higher management asked me to incite people to come to work on week-ends.
Why ? I think it was a kinf of cultural heritage. People in this business must work night and day and week-end.
Bad habits in project management methods generate a lot of wasted time. But programers and designers behaviors are sometimes immature (Video games are all my life, being paid for playing is so exciting, etc.)

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:26 am (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

I had the dishonor of working for EA. As a coder I found it strange that such a sad and pathetic environment could be inhabited by such amazing and dedicated programmers. Given the opportunity to become a manager - I naively accepted. My wife warned me against it, but I really thought I could help shape the culture in a more positive way.


What I saw in the middle management ranks was even uglier than what I imagined. What I thought was simple incompetency was actually institutional training to view the employees as disposable "resources" to be maximized, traded, manipulated, and if need be, discarded when they were no longer a good fit. If as a manager, you refused to treat employees this way, you were seen as a being weak. As an EA manager, when you fired someone, you did so willingly and then boasted about how good it felt (errr...to other managers that is. What you'd tell the remaining employees was that it was an HR issue and weren't at liberty to discuss it).

Even more sobering was discovering that key members of Human Resources, the traditional check-and-balance and humanizing face of a company, not only tolerated this type of behavior, but was an active participant -- aiding managers trying to fire an employee w/o due process, transferring people from one fire straight into another ignoring the unfulfillable comp time and maxed out vacation time, etc.

My only consolation after being summarily used and disposed, is in knowing that the same, pathetic managers who work so hard to create this environment, have only each other as friends, and only their work as their lives.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-11 07:36 am (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

I want to respond to this if for no other reason than to draw some attention to it in the threads here, since it's sub-categorized under another comment. Thank you for posting your experience, all of this information is quite valuable. If you would be willing to speak with a reporter about your experience, anonymously or otherwise, please drop me an email -- ea_spouse@hotmail.com.
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[User Picture]From: wilywombat
2004-11-11 05:37 pm (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

Ah hah! I suspected as much. No matter what age we live in, there are always those who are willing to sell their souls to the job. Office Space - the Movie.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 03:27 pm (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

Put Eliot Spitzer on it...
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From: ammaoomoogla
2004-11-13 06:24 am (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.



Hehe. I don't know if his reputation is overstated or not, but that is an absolutely wonderful idea.


He seems like just the guy to clean up this crap. But maybe we should get him into a position with national power.. Attorney General or Justice Department? Though that'd probably have to wait for the next election at least. But hey, I can vote in the next election.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:54 pm (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

Yeah I worked for EA for about 8 months during late 96 / early 97. It seemed more like 3 years, honestly. 80 hour work weeks? I remember tallying up the hours during the final crunch month, I was pushing near 120 hours a week. 7 days a week for several months, usually dragged in the office around 10am, lunch around 1, dinner around 8pm, get home around 3 or 4 in the morning, sleep a few hours, repeat. Management promised the conditions would get better, but when I talked with guys who were with the company already a few years, they disagreed, things didn't get better for them. Management was extremely manipulative, they would tell is that this was the best job in the world and if I was to leave, I'd only find a job working on databases and be so bored that I would want to kill myself. Money was also used to manipulate the engineers, many of which were either straight out of college, some not even with college degrees. Fellow employees had two story houses, expensive cars, but those cars sat in a parking lot all day & night, the houses were empty with cobwebs and no furniture...not much of a life, really. And yeah, flat salary, my wages per hour were competitive with McDonalds wages when I broke it down to 120 hours a week.

To this day, I still can't play the video game I worked on, it gives me flashbacks of the past. In fact, its really turned me off video games entirely, I have a PlayStation 2 at home & I think I've played one game on it in the past year.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 07:25 pm (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

You hit the nail right smack on the head my friend. Managers (Producers) at EA when I was there were poor excuses at best for professionally trained management. A good manager motivates his crew... leads them and plays it straight with them. When you know the playing field and have a schedule that is working --- DON'T MESS WITH IT --- instead EA management always found a way to invalidate the schedule that someone worked hard on to adhere to deadlines --- and trash it in favor of seagull management... swooping in and changing everything and adding to the bloated now out of control schedule.
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-13 04:44 pm (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

My name is Josh Pastreich. I am a union organizer and I am helping with the class action lawsuit against EA for overtime. This industry isn't going to change until someone takes a stand. EA is setting the standard in the industry and it is a standard of exploitation. I would like to talk to you about what can be done. Please write me at uionjosh@hotmail.com.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-15 05:43 am (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

I think you might have misspelled your email address.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-01 08:21 am (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

There is a rumour that EA was a major player behind getting the BC Liberal Government to create the "Tech Clause" in British Columbia. Here is what's exempt:

Some of the requirements of the Employment
Standards Act which *do not* apply to ‘high technology
professionals’ include:

• Employees are not to work more than five
consecutive hours without a 30-minute meal
• Split shifts must be completed within 12 hours.
• Minimum daily pay.
• Employees must have 32 consecutive hours free
from work each week.
• Overtime pay.
• Employees are entitled to either a paid holiday or
extra pay when they work on a statutory holiday.

So EA has it pretty good up here north of the border. No wonder they're doubling the size of the studio in British Columbia.

Ref: http://www.pgchamber.bc.ca/updates/12-02high-tech.pdf
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-02 10:58 pm (UTC)

Re: White collar slavery is alive and well in the games industry.

If people don't like working at EA, why don't they quit?
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