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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)
2005-01-01 11:38 pm (UTC)

boycott info

For those who want to boycott EA, here's a list of addresses of corporate headquarters for major retailers and their CEOs/Board Chairmen.

If you want a boycott to have an impact, then let these guys know about it. Tell them straight: If they sells EA games, then you won't buy from them.

Circuit City
9950 Mayland Drive
Richmond, VA 23233
fax (804)418-8248
phone (804) 527-4000
CEO - W. Alan McCollough

Best Buy Co., Inc.
Corporate Headquarters
P.O. Box 9312
Minneapolis, MN 55440-9312
CEO - Bradbury Anderson

Bentonville, AR 72716
CEO - Lee Scott
(Note: I realize this address looks skimpy, but when you consider the size of this Arkansas town, and then the size of WalMart, then this may indicate that the only thing in Bentonville *is* WalMart's HQ.)

3100 West Big Beaver Road
Troy, MI 48084-3163
CEO - Aylwin Lewis
Board Chair - Edward Lampert

3333 Beverly Road
Hoffman Estates, IL 60179
CEO/Board Chair - Alan Lacy

(Note: This gets interesting. KMart purchased Sears in Nov. The companies will formally merge operations in March 2005. According to most recent news, Alan Lacy will be CEO of both companies and Edward Lampert will be Board Chair. The Hoffman Estates address looks to be HQ for both companies.)

Target Corporation
1000 Nicollet Mall
Minneapolis, MN 55403
Corporate switchboard (612) 304-6073 8am - 5pm (CT) Mon - Fri
email - Guest.Relations@target.com
CEO - Robert J. Ulrich

Wherehouse Entertainment
19701 Hamilton Avenue, Suite 200
Torrance, CA 90502-1334
CEO - Jerry Comstock

Now, for companies that have financial deals with EA:

280 Park Avenue
New York, NY 10017
Commissioner - Paul Tagliabue

Reebok International LTD
1895 J.W. Foster Blvd.
Canton, MA 02021
CEO/Board Chair - Paul B. Fireman

Proctor & Gamble
1 Proctor & Gamble Plaza
Cincinnati, OH 45201
(513) 983-1100
CEO/President/Board Chair - A.J. Lafley
email - go to www.pg.com and click on "Get In Touch With Us"

(FYI - I'm not sure if this is ongoing, but last year, P&G linked with EA to help revive one of its products: Old Spice deodorant sticks. To market to the 20-something crowd, P&G came up with Old Spice Red Zone, and EA incorporated the phrase Red Zone in their NCAA 2004 Football games. So, if this is correct, and if you want to send P&G your half-used Red Zone, you now have an address. That, and you can tell them that you won't buy their product in the future.)

Anyone is welcome to add onto or correct this. I tried to find email addresses when possible, but it was a pain.

Hope you have a better 2005, ea spouse.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-02 04:06 am (UTC)

Re: boycott info

Dude, get a life and give this a damn rest. This was interesting for a while but it's yesterday's news now.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-02 05:11 am (UTC)

Re: boycott info

If this is yesterday's news, then what are you doing checking out this on page . . . what it is now . . . 44?

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-02 07:35 am (UTC)

Re: boycott info

well, I check in from time to time to see if there is any new thread of merit, or if anything has progressed to give weight to the topic.

No such luck. Hence my comment. Hence the funeral. Move on.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-02 09:13 pm (UTC)

Re: boycott info

"I check in from time to time to see if there is any new thread of merit, or if anything has progressed to give weight to the topic."

Why are you the judge of merit and/or progress when you 'check in from time to time'?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-03 03:27 am (UTC)

Re: boycott info

Last time someone said this was a dead topic was near the end of November. The subject line said "Went away because there's no story."

Next thing you know, there's around 20 threads trickling down the page.

Pretty good stuff came after that, too. Props to the poster who dug up the emails from Larry Probst about work conditions at EA. And Ravidrath has been great about finding media links.

And now, here we are, January. We're still posting. And why is that? Larry's been a busy boy: exclusive rights with the NFL, Ubi Soft, etc.

All you developers, programmers, excuse me, slaves, here comes the whip!

Hence MY comment:

Maybe this thing would go away, but EA keeps throwing a monkey wrench in our works. Hey, who knows, maybe Larry noticed the site was getting a little dull so he pulled some off some deals. Gotta put up some smoke and mirrors to prop up the stock, 'cause sales are getting weak.

That happens when your product goes to hell, Larry, because you abuse the people who make your games.

Hence, the story is alive and well. Move yourself on, dude.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-02 04:40 pm (UTC)

Re: boycott info

It's yesterday's news because you've said so ...?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-02 05:05 am (UTC)

Re: boycott info + media contacts

For those who truly wish to make a difference and go on record with retailers/merchants and big business, send a copy of your boycott/protest letters to the local print media in the immediate market of that company's HQ. This can make a big difference and put some heat on the right folks. For that matter, also send a copy to EA. Larry ought to love that.

For Circuit City:
Richmond Times-Dispatch
300 E. Franklin Street
Richmond, VA 23219
Contact: Bob Rayner, (804)649-6073; brayner@timesdispatch.com

For Best Buy and Target Corp.:
Minneapolis Star-Tribune
425 Portland Ave.
Minneapolis, MN 55488
Nancy Barnes, Assistant Managing Editor, Business; nbarnes@startribune.com
John Reinan, Consumer Marketing Reporter; jreinan@startribune.com
Noel St. Anthony, Columnist, On Business, nstanthony@startribune.com

For Wherehouse Entertainment:
Los Angeles Times
202 W. 1st Street
Los Angeles, CA 90012
Contact: Alex Pham, Reporter; alexpham@latimes.com

For Walmart:
Northwest Arkansas Times
212 N. East Avenue
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Contact: Christie Swanson, Managing Editor; managingeditor@nwarktimes.com

Arkansas Democrat Gazette
212 N. East Avenue
Fayetteville, AR 72701
Roger Hedges, Assistant Managing Editor, Business
Christopher Leonard, NW Business Reporter
John Magsam, NW Business Editor
Matthew Walter, NW Business Reporter

Arkansas Business Gazette
122 East Second Street
Little Rock, AR 72201
email: info@alpq.com

(Considering that in Arkansas, Walmart is an 800 lb gorilla on steroids, it's understood that a local journalist would be prone to chronic ring kissing. With that in mind, here are a few other media options.)

Tulsa World
318 S. Main
Tulsa OK 74103
Attn: Managing Editor, Business

Dallas Morning News
508 Young St.
Dallas, TX 75202
Attn: Managing Editor, Business
email: dallasnews.com

For Proctor & Gamble:
Cincinnati Enquirer
312 Elm St. Lbby
Cincinnati, OH 45202
Bill Ferguson, Business; bferguson@enquirer.com
Brian Schwaner, Reporter; bschwaner@enquirer.com
John Eckberg, Business Workplace, Retailing; jeckberg@enquirer.com
John Byczkowski, Regional Economy & Business; johnb@enquirer.com

For Reebok:
Boston Globe
135 Morrisey Blvd.
P.O. Box 55819
Boston, MA 02205-5819
Attn: Managing Editor, Business

Boston Herald
One Herald Square
P.O. Box 55843
Boston, MA 02205
Business News - (617)619-6457

Providence Journal Bulletin
75 Fountain Street
Providence, RI 02902
Contact: John Kostrzewa, Business Editor; (401)277-7330

For the National Football League:
The Wall Street Journal

The Village Voice
36 Cooper Square
New York, NY 10003

New York Daily News
450 W. 33rd Street
New York, New York 10001
general tips and news: news@editnydailynews.com

I Googled the New York Times and the New York Post and ended up wading through their "Subscribe With Us" crap. When I clicked on "Contact Us" at their respective main web sites, I still got pimped. Feel free to leave a tip or contact address.

For the cities like Cincinnati, Minneapolis, Richmond, problems at corporate headquarters can draw immediate media attention. How corporate HQ responds to this depends on the volume of letters and the extent media are alerted. This is where gamers (and the rest of us) come in. The threat of a consumer-driven boycott makes every CEO and the reporters who cover them sit up and pay attention.

So let 'em know how you feel. Let 'em all know.
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