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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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Comments:
From: ravidrath
2005-06-03 06:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

I don't remember ever having "right wing conspiracies" in any of my previous posts - everything I said in there had been provided and backed up by numerous sources, including people that toured the EALA office as potential lessees.

And what about this?

http://www.gamespot.com/news/2004/06/08/news_6100195.html

And I didn't say they were going to kill MoH - they can let the current MoH team go without killing the series. Of course they will continue to churn out sequels, but that doesn't mean they all have to be from the current team. And given the reviews of the last two MoH games that seems increasingly unlikely.

...Of course, the above rumors have proven false, but I'm not sure why I should be called a "tool" and a "fool" by some anonymous guy for trying to provide the readers here with information. Perhaps I got carried away with my "analysis," but I hardly think that justifies namecalling.

-Peter
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-03 09:05 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

fair enough, no need for name calling to you and my apologies. That link you have there is attributed to corporate mouth-piece Jeff Brown, whom actually is a ridiculous (and pompous) right-winger and after this particular online posting, a bit of an embarrasment to the organization. I believe, although I had trouble finding out information, that Brown actually worked in some capacity for the Bush campaign in the past. He absolutely would love to link in the rise of EA in Florida with the continued political aspirations of Jeb.
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From: ravidrath
2005-06-03 09:17 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

...But wasn't that the "right wing conspiracy" I was lambasted for? And you're confirming it now? :)

And, yeah, I haven't heard good things about Mr. Brown. One press guy that called him as a result of these rumors said he "creeped him out" and that it was "like talking to Darth Vader."

Additionally, for layoffs to never happen, Jeff's wording was suspiciously vague. On Gamespot, he said "There are no plans for overall downsizing in Los Angeles. By the end of the year, employment there will be neutral or up above current levels." While that doesn't confirm EALA being shut down entirely any time soon, it does not rule out of the possibility of short-term layoffs. In the original Kotaku articles, Neil Young says he "can't comment on layoffs."

Maybe they're still raw and oversensitive after the original lawsuit/EA_Spouse thing last November, but between their extreme defensiveness, the head of EALA not commenting and the corporate guy using vague, longer-term speech, it does seem to indicate SOMETHING is planned and they were caught, like short-term layoffs at EALA. But maybe that's a bad read - all of these guys are snakes, but even those with a forked tongues can speak the truth sometimes.

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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-07 10:27 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

Even if the rumored layoffs didn't happen at EALA wasn't Young brought in to make changes. You don't make a GM change if things are great. EALA had some poorly received games late last year so are Skaggs, Giolito, and Gilmore still there?
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-08 06:02 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

Yes, Gilmore "the golden boy" is still there. He's an "emmerging leader"
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From: ravidrath
2005-06-08 06:13 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

I don't know who most of those people are, but Skaggs isn't there any more. According to EA_Spouse herself, he was quietly asked to leave some time ago and later they said he was on sabbatical. I've heard rumors that he was actually hoping to use the rumored layoffs to staff his own studio, but who knows what his plans are now.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-08 08:42 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

eala laid off more people yesterday, they are getting people as they get back from their pto break from medal of honor....
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-08 09:52 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

Wasn't the MOH guy also on "sabbatical" at some point. Similar story?
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From: ravidrath
2005-06-08 09:56 pm (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

Wouldn't know about that, I'm afraid.

EA_Spouse, if you're reading this, do you know anything about the MoH guy?
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-09 01:10 am (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

None of the creative and producting leadership from MOH: Frontline is still at EALA, with the exception of the lead designer.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-11 03:03 am (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

yes, most are gone except for chris cross, who as nice as he is......is in his own drunk stupor, and erik kraber...that's it. all quality people left to other developers or started their own thing....
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-12 04:37 am (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

I happened to see the EALA executives web page and noticed they'd recently taken off Giolito's name and bio. Thought that was odd since he's been there like 7 years or so.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-12 05:01 am (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

On Yahoo's finance page for EA you don't see Rusty's name under "Officers."

http://finance.yahoo.com/q/pr?s=ERTS

He used to be listed as Russell Rueff, Senior VP Human Resources. Is Rusty gone, too?
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-14 12:53 am (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

Rusty is going nowhere. And if he does, it will be to buy Angel Island or the Presidio in cash from all the stock options he's cashed in over the years.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-14 12:52 am (UTC)

Re: Probable EALA Layoffs Tomorrow...

those exec "headshots" for EALA online are fairly hilarious actually. Who is the loser wannabe Vanity Fair photographer that shot those? How many off-center exec headshots can you put on one page? Are they casting for a new Jet Li martial arts opera at EALA? That page is crap. Yes, Rick isn't on that page. He's actually photogenic. So is Neil. He even looks a bit "bothered" on that webpage.
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