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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)
2005-01-03 12:20 am (UTC)

From the views of an EARS tester

I'm just going to tell about the practices and treatment I've observed as a newb to the game industry who worked at EA as a tester starting in early 2004. No one could tell me anything wrong about EA, as my head was in the clouds. Then the storm came rolling in.

Some of the testers have significant others and friends working in production or development over in the 250 building and some in the other two buildings, etc. Talking and listening to them being upset about not getting to see their friends/spouses/bfs/gfs hardly at all and about them having to literally live at work for almost a week or more at a time was just overwhelming for me. Being together with your team so close for months and months, you're gonna share your life with them, because you've made new friends with fellow gamers who aspire to be something more in the games industry. One example: a friend had to bring their significant other (in the production dept for a major title) clothes to change into after they had been at work for 3-4 days. I guess thats why EARS has showers on property, right?

Things like this occured constantly during 2004. I kept thinking to myself: "Why are all these people so negative?" (the testers). Sadly, now I know.

When I say I was lucky to work with the great people I did, I really was. I did OT on a few other games that were released last year, as well as my main one, but had a decent ride along the way and learned alot. Don't take this as whining, because testers are paid hourly, so we get paid for worked hours, but are not treated as people, IMO.

But other people (testers AND developers) did OT for most of their test schedules and contracts for the EA and EAP games released last year. My co-workers that just started on their game, about 3 weeks in, OT was started on Saturdays, and longer days during the week. Getting off at a normal hour on Saturday and being off Sunday was considered a "gift". Just about every game EA released last year, had OT for the test department almost as soon as the teams were formed for the duration till the game shipped and after for patches.

From the other testers I talked to, this was the norm, this info from testers who have done this for many years as repeat contractors (victims) for EA. I asked why they kept coming back. Some were hoping to move up. Some were just doing it as a side job to school or another job. Others have actually been in alot better positions in the game industry and other entertainment industries just to take a break from things, or to think about getting into/back into the game industry. Then there were the newbs like me with dreams to make fun games because of the art and love for it, no matter what.

What a reality check to those dreams. I haven't been discouraged, and I am not going to stop working on my goals and dreams. I just don't feel the creativity and vibe that I thought EA had, at EA anymore. From enjoying EA games as a kid (Starflight, Syndicate, Populous, Mutant League Football/Hockey, General Chaos, etc.) to actually getting to be at the center of my gaming universe by working for EA, all I see is the dark green black hole of greed. Listening to EA executives and full time employees at quarterly meetings, lunch, around campus, etc; it is all over.

Does anyone else not have a problem with this type of thinking? Does a company really care that little about ANY of their employees to treat them like cattle?

EA is not a game company. They are a software factory. I understand the need to make money, which takes money. But the love and passion for making fun games which others are drawn into, just doesn't seem to be on the radar for EA anymore (and hasn't been for a long time) and some other big game companies as well. EA's marketing people are the best in the industry. If EA ever loses them, they are screwed. I sincerly believe how EA is percieved among the average consumer by EA's marketing pros is what soley keeps them profitable. Sadly, there are people in OT now who are at the beginning of new product cycles for 2005.

Just make the best games you can, and do what's right for your family and happiness!
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-04 06:27 am (UTC)

Re: From the views of an EARS tester

EA is not a game company. They are a marketing company. Games just happen to be the "widget" that they are marketing.

People are not human to EA or most other companies for that matter. They are a "factor" (input) of production that creates an output. They are like the yeast in a loaf of bread -just one cog that is neccesary for the product.

x(InputA) + y(InputB) + Z(InputC) = output

A = artists
B = engineers
C = designers
output = the game

I am a lead(aka manager) at a competing studio

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-09 09:01 pm (UTC)

Re: From the views of an EARS tester

First off let me help you. TESTERS DO NOT MOVE TO PRODUCTION EASILY. This doesn't say it doesn't happen, it says the road to making games from QA is rough, stop testing now. Go to school get some education behind you and go into production.

Basically don't ask to be rehired, so the people who are still hungry for it and want to be in QA can get rehired. I am one of those people. Its not so much that I am cattle, I am a need, when that need is fulfilled, I am no longer needed. It would not make financial sense to keep 400 people year round when there are always lulls in activity. I understand my place in the machine. Everyone who complains about hours should look else where, I am temping at another company that doesn't require those crazy hours. Infact in crunch time we were even asked can we work this weekend, some people (regular full time people said no) and there was no ill will - and they got the time off. Even temps! So these jobs exist, but I like the atmosphere over at EA, until the temps start thinking they are bigger then the business.
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