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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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This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.
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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-09 03:02 am (UTC)

I WAS FIRED.......

I was one of the rebalanced at EALA and believe it or not, I am grateful that I was let go. Without giving away too much information about myself, let me say just a few things.

I heard about this blog and immediately checked it out...AT WORK, AT EA. I was gleeful, happy to see that the turd on the living room floor was finally being spoken about. I was happy for the negative publicity, if only to expose the obvious problem. However I knew that EA would brush it off and so they did. Neil Young made fun of it in the meetings, his screaming into the microphone passing it off as if it was really nothing, yelling at the top of his lungs in his crazed cocaine-esque stupor that made the Friday team meetings such a joy to attend. Nothing about what EA practices is new to really any industry, but the good thing is that people are speaking out and taking some action.

My time away from EA over the past month has revitalized me and made me realize how dead I was inside. I had absolutely no creativity and no motivation to make something better. I was just another cog in the wheel, a drone coming in every morning and leaving every night, just doing what I needed to....to "get by". That's what most people are doing there now and all of the new hires over the past year/year and a half, they don't know how bad it is yet. They are now the "old school" people who are either going to realize that they are being given it up the ass and get out, or they will stay and bend over, waiting to hear how much further they should pull their pants down. (sorry, it's graphic but it's the most appropriate analogy that i can give....)

If you were to work at EALA and pull into their valet parking lot, you would see Neil's spiffy $120,000 Mercedes sitting in the front row, one of his many cars. Beyond that, you might glimpse the large number of 7-series BMW's and other beautiful luxury cars that most people working at EALA can't afford. The people walking out of these cars are the middle managers or the administration, the CFO's, the CTO's. How did these people get into these positions that they hold? This INDUSTRY is rife with con artists who some how got a job MANAGING people, MANAGING lives. They have absolutely no background in business or training in managing groups of creative people (to credit, a small few actually do have some type of college education that includes business). If you were to look at the backgrounds of some, you might really start to wonder. One producer at EALA was an insurance salesman while another was a taxi cab driver for hookers in Canada. Moreover, EALA has a common practice of hiring family members, one of whom is Scott Probst, Larry's son. Does this make them more qualified? I guess so....they seem to think so.

For all of those let go at EALA, there are plenty of opportunities out there for you. You being let go can be compared to breathing in fresh air right after a rain starts. The smell is new, it lifts your spirits and somehow you are elevated. Thank you EA for letting me go, thank you for the experience and for your resources.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-10 09:10 am (UTC)

Re: I WAS FIRED.......

Who's the guy that was the taxi driver for hookers at EALA? That's a good one.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-16 04:04 am (UTC)

Re: I WAS FIRED.......

the producer at EALA whom used toi drive taxis for hookers is none other than the illustrious...Tarrnie Williams.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-17 03:44 pm (UTC)

Tarnie

And I can't say that I have the respect for Tarnie as I do for Scott. Tarnie has no clue how to choose which features to focus on and which ones to cut. And he certainly doesn't seem to mind adding another feature without adjusting the schedule, and just expecting his team to make it up on their mandatory Saturdays.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-17 05:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Tarnie

Tarrnie's a schmuck just like Charvat and Glosecki who think they are the shit. Everyone around EALA has a secret hate for this group of clowns, nothing a shotgun couldn't fix...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-15 03:58 pm (UTC)

Scott Probst

I worked with Scott Probst on his first project and can say, that he works hard and does a good job. He was an assistant producer and did a ton of junk work for the dev team. He stayed just as late as the rest of us and was "down in the trenches" as much as anyone else.

I'm sure nepotism had something to do with his initial hiring, and it may contribute to a quick advancement in the company, but he's not milking it. He's working.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-16 04:03 am (UTC)

Re: Scott Probst

scott probst works harder than 95% of the entire eala staff...he's the real deal.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-16 04:31 am (UTC)

Re: Scott Probst

Too bad he's a cog in an enormous machine that's not working properly and being driven by his father, Larry Probst, EA's Chairman and CEO.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-16 08:57 am (UTC)

Re: Scott Probst

tarrnie williams is also the result of nepotism. the point being made here wasn't that scott is a good worker or not, it's the fact that they hire from within "the family" rather than hiring others who might be more qualified to do the job. you didn't see scott probst or tarrnie williams being laid off in january.....wonder why......makes you think a little...
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-16 05:59 pm (UTC)

Re: Scott Probst

Just how high up were the layoffs in January? Designers, Engineers, Producers? or even Executive Producers? It would seem pretty crappy if some exec. producers got canned while lower employees in the "family" got to stay.
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From: ea_spouse
2005-03-16 06:20 pm (UTC)

Re: Scott Probst

Realistically, I think you'd be hard pressed to find a company where this wasn't the case. Family businesses do it, small companies do it, big companies do it -- the latter just play with a lot more chips on the table when they do so. EA, like many other companies, has a finder's fee employee bonus that encourages employees to bring in their (assumedly skilled) friends. It's a matter of trust. I'm not saying that it's right to hire someone you know over someone more qualified, but there are reasons it happens, and it definitely isn't limited to EA. Just my thoughts.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-16 07:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Scott Probst

The layoffs in January included engineers, designers, artists ( animators, lighters, character), audio. No development directors or producers were laid off. Turns out that some people on certain teams had more bosses than they did people within their department.

On another note, EA employing family members is, of course, not unusual. The point being made in the original thread was the background of some of the family members background was questionable and fairly public knowledge.
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