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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?


===

This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.
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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-17 09:41 pm (UTC)

Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!

From: Rueff, Rusty
Sent: Tuesday, March 08, 2005 7:25 PM
Subject: Direct Communication On How We Work #3: Overtime Eligibility

Team,

Late last year, we committed to providing you with periodic updates on what EA is doing to ensure this remains a great place to work. This is the third communication on How We Work and is specifically addressed to our North American employees because it details some changes we're planning for early in the new fiscal year.

In my last note, I addressed the November TalkBack Survey, which told us what you do and don't like about working at EA. TalkBack debriefing sessions are happening now and we're using your feedback to show the entire industry that there is a better way to make and sell games.

The next step won't be easy – it means changing how some people get compensated.

For more than 22 years, EA and other great Silicon Valley companies have run on a foundation of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. The employment environment at EA was built to allow you flexibility as professionals, with the expectation that time on the job could be managed without watching the clock. Unfortunately, labor laws have not kept pace with this spirit of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. Also, recent lawsuits against EA, Sony and other California technology companies have led us to re-evaluate how we classify certain groups of workers.

Regardless of how the lawsuits are resolved, we need to face the fact that the employment landscape is changing. Recognizing this, EA will change the compensation program for some positions to include payment of overtime.

This is a complicated undertaking and I'd like to explain what it means. First, let me highlight what doesn't change: the value of each person's contribution. For 22 years, we have prided ourselves on treating one another as professionals. That will never change at EA.

Beginning next month, some people who have been salaried employees will be paid as hourly workers eligible for overtime pay. The changes will not affect jobs that are now involved in class-action litigation (specifically Artists and Software Engineers).

While overtime pay will be an additional component of compensation for some people, it will come with tradeoffs. The newly overtime-eligible employees will have very structured work days and structured work hours. Managers will be trained to manage a tiered work force as efficiently as possible. Overtime-eligible employees will not participate in some of EA's variable compensation programs like bonuses and stock option grants.

Some of you will be happy with this change because it reflects your feedback in the November PayBack Survey. The results of that poll showed a majority of staff-level employees prefer lower-risk compensation (salary) as opposed to higher-risk compensation (bonus and stock options).

Others may not like this change. There is no perfect solution. We're going to work hard to ease the transition, but hourly compensation marks a profound change in the entrepreneurial culture of EA and Silicon Valley. On the other hand, we are in the fortunate position of being able to accommodate these changes without compromising our overall operational viability.

These changes are likely to create significant interest in the world of technology and entertainment. I expect there will be coverage and discussion in the media, on the web and at industry forums like this week's Games Developers Conference being held in San Francisco. We need to keep in mind that EA is in this position because we're the industry leader. The industry has identified a problem with the game-making development process; now they are looking to EA to find the answer.

I realize this e-mail will prompt questions about individual job status. We expect to have the details available within weeks. Please talk to your HR leader if you have specific questions. Thank you for your attention and I will send more information again soon.

Thanks, as always, for listening.
(Reply) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-17 09:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!

Unfortunately, labor laws have not kept pace with this spirit of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity. Read: so I guess we can't legally work you to death after all.

First, let me highlight what doesn't change: the value of each person's contribution. For 22 years, we have prided ourselves on treating one another as professionals. Hahahahahahahaha. *whimper*

Overtime-eligible employees will not participate in some of EA's variable compensation programs like bonuses and stock option grants. So...we'll still be worked to death, and get some minor compensation for the extra hours we work, but we don't get to be involved in any incentive programs to make us want to work harder or make a better product, and will be effectively making less money than before? Awesome!

Others may not like this change. There is no perfect solution. How about hiring competent managers, and coming up with reasonable project schedules? Sounds like a perfect solution to me.

Thanks, as always, for listening. ...must refrain from comment...
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-17 11:31 pm (UTC)

Re: Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!

Just as the days of the Microsoft millionaires is over. The EA millionaires of which there are hundreds fewer is also over. The numbers and strike price of options being handed out to the average employee is small at a high price or non-existant. Bonus's if their ever paid will never change your lifestyle. EA knows it can get ton's of gullible young people to work for what amounts to little on an hourly basis. They have given out the options that matter to people years ago and it's now only the select top people they are trying to entice that will receive anything that could change their lifestyle. It's done kids. If you want it go start your own.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-18 01:38 am (UTC)

Re: Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!

Amen
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-18 08:18 pm (UTC)

Re: Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!

so... exactly who is going to be eligible for overtime? And I wonder if it be up to the individual whether they are salaried or paid hourly.
It's still all a bit vague
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-19 10:22 pm (UTC)

Re: Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!


The employment environment at EA was built to allow you flexibility as professionals, with the expectation that time on the job could be managed without watching the clock.


From: Rohm, Nikki
Sent: Tuesday, June 17, 2003 3:39PM
To: MADDEN CONSOLES PROGRAMMERS @ TIBURON
Subject: Yikes - time to really kick butt is here

We have turned that corner and are heading down the home stretch now.

Hang in there with me guys. We are all tired but need to finish this off.

To pull this off I need everyone to step up to the plate now.

So we all need to be here from

11:00 a.m. to 2:00 a.m. (In by noon at the latest).

Sorry for the clamp down, but we are at that point.

If you have any concerns, pls stop by and chat.

Thanks,
Nik
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-20 12:32 am (UTC)

Re: Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!

nice!! i love the intra-company emails, they are the best!! i've personally kept all of mine, good for class action lawsuits.

(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-20 07:16 pm (UTC)

Re: Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!


The employment environment at EA was built to allow you flexibility as professionals, with the expectation that time on the job could be managed without watching the clock. Unfortunately, labor laws have not kept pace with this spirit of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity.

First, let me highlight what doesn't change: the value of each person's contribution. For 22 years, we have prided ourselves on treating one another as professionals. That will never change at EA.


From: Charvat, Jeff
Sent: Tuesday, September 21, 2004 4:54 PM
To: MOH4
Subject: Crunch definition

In an effort to get us all on the same page as to what is crunch… here are the MOH4 expectations going forward.

3 late nights a week. You choose ‘em. A late night is defined as a day that you leave after 12 or more hours after you arrive. If you get here at 10am then you leave after 10pm. And so forth. The non-late nights will be defined as leaving 9 hours after you arrive. If you get here at 10am then you leave after 7pm. Just like the bank. 1 weekend day. You choose. Saturday or Sunday. If you don’t care then please come in Saturday. There will be some exceptions where we need key people to rotate their days so we have full coverage both days. Check with your DD if think that might apply to you. Everyone out by 11pm. Working in to the wee hours of the morning only gets one thing accomplished: creates a fried developer who has difficulty being back by 10am and is anything but mentally sharp. Get out of here, get a good night’s rest and get back in here. Let your DD know what your default late nights and weekend day will be. This will help ensure balanced development teams. We will remain flexible as special events arise. But hopefully your default schedule will remain so most weeks.
Finally, expect exceptions to this generic definition. We will continue to have exec demos and big end-of-milestone pushes where we will ask people to put in a little extra to get us over the hump. But, hopefully, those will be exceptions and the flexibility built into this definition allows you to maintain a better outside of work life.

That’s it. Please let me know if you have any questions.

-jsc
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-04 09:03 pm (UTC)

Re: Let's find new ways to screw over the workers!

That’s it. Please let me know if you have any questions.

Yeah, how do I get out of this chicken shit outfit?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)