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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: ingozi
2005-06-11 12:40 am (UTC)

you're all missing the bigger picture

People, people, people! can't anyone see the forest through the trees?
While I definitely agree that EA is too big for it's britches in treating it's employees like dirt, it really isn't any different on the majority of levels as any other money hungry corporation. The problem though is not the corporation itself, nor it's managers, nor the CEOs...It's us...everyone - it has been all along. Now that the economy is slowly collapsing in on itself (inevitably) and we've all gotten so used to our high and mighty lifestyle, why is anyone even surprised that abuses like this are happening? Sure the company cares about money - that's what it's designed to do. It itself is a slave to the shareholders - the banks - the private investors.. All want THEIR money. We are all guilty of this. Look at the society we live in. We are a service oriented society. How f&$#@#* long do you think a service oriented society can thrive before it succumbs to the natural rules everyone's been ignoring oh so blissfully? Well, not too damn long as you can see. If you think that this is somehow going to get better, that EA or for that matter ANY corporation is going to suddenly develop little powder coated tutti fruity angel wings and treat those that are still blind enough to work for them like heroes...WAKE THE HELL UP! Our way of life isn't going to get better until it is put down like the gigantic greed infested capitalist pig that it is. But oh, why am I so negative - I must be some idiot, some anti-american, some moron right? Well maybe, but even that doesn't change the facts. Open your eyes to the real issue here - look beyond the gripes and whines and accusations, and ask yourself, "how did we get here?" Better yet, ask yourself while standing in your 500 sq ft bathroom with it's 3 sinks and separate shower and bath with jacuzzi, or in your brand new gas guzzling SUV's lighted driver's side vanity mirror, or while gazing at the reflecting waves of your swimming pool.....All bought on credit. Then again, I doubt it would do any good - after all, it's not real your fault right?
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-11 01:04 am (UTC)

Re: you're all missing the bigger picture

Don't much such generalizations. I don't own an SUV, or a 500 sq foot bathroom, or a swimming pool. I recycle, eat vegetarian, buy environmentally friendly products, and do everything I can to make a difference in the world, on both a local and global level. Not everyone working at EA or for a corporation chooses to live the lifestyle you're portraying.

Pray tell, what is YOUR solution? I agree that a lot of the problems in today's society can be laid at the feet of ALL of us, but spouting an anti-capitalist diatribe doesn't actually fix anything. Come up with real, workable solutions, and people will take you more seriously.
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From: ingozi
2005-06-11 06:23 pm (UTC)

Re: you're all missing the bigger picture

Cool...I'm always happy (more so relieved I guess) when I hear of people actually doing more right choices than the norm. And I suppose I should also clarify if my statements came off a little harsh - well, they're meant to - but I live in and am surrounded by California...Southern California - rat race central West Coast. I'm trying to get out, somewhere with less all around. And I suppose in a way that is my solution. I know it's more a utopian dream but that dream is just blanketing the more distant goal. In short, Slow down, think smaller, and most importantly give back what is taken. i.e. recycle, etc. It's the immediate gratification mindset, the "it ain't my problem tomorrow" attitude that I just didn't point out in my original post. As far as anti-capitalist ideas? Well, truth be told I don't know. Honestly, but what I do know is what I see around me, and what is..Mainly Capitalism in my opinion is flawed from the outset. Democracy is the same way, if it is linked with capitalism. As soon as money squares itself into the equation, corruption sets in like a fever. It's inevitable. Need proof? well, we're living it.
I wish I did have an alternative...Really I do. And don't think a day goes by where I'm sorting ideas out no matter how small. But what I can do - and maybe it's not in the best of ways - is rant about what I see. People do have to let others know what is going on. You're right in stating that not everyone is the way I describe. I'm thankful for that, but more than the scales can carry are not. It takes less than what we would consider fair to really set things on their way to a conclusion none of us would want. But it has happened. Believe that.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-06-12 01:03 am (UTC)

Re: you're all missing the bigger picture

Well, I can understand to some extent where you're coming from (I'm the same poster as before). I live in SoCal too, and the word to live by here is "excess" -- it's probably worse than many other places, but I'm not sure it's unique to SoCal, though. I see the same thing in other places, especially any sizeable city. I find it disheartening as well. That mindset is shortsighted...I see people driving gas-guzzling SUVs while I drive by in my 8 year old Japanese junker that gets great gas mileage, and just wonder what they're thinking. There's very little thought of what they need versus what they want. In the long run, I think that's an attitude that's going to bite all of us in the butt...not today, not tomorrow, maybe not even in my lifetime. My kids' lifetime? Quite possibly.

But I'm not too sure what this has to do with the situation at EA ;) People think they pay us a lot of money. Maybe they used to, but they've been getting much more miserly over the years. Some of my single friends have saved up enough to buy a splashy sports car or an SUV, but that's about it. Nobody I know has 500 foot bathrooms or swimming pools or other things that are signs of excess -- except for the managers. I make enough to be able to afford a 2-bedroom apartment, and pay for two old cars for my wife and I, and that's about it. People assuming that workers at EA stay for the money don't quite get it -- yeah, we stay for the money, because everyone needs money from a job, LOL, and finding a new job sometimes isn't all that easy. It's doable, of course. A lot of people from EA have "escaped" as I plan to do as well, but it's not something that you can just do one day when you feel like it, and expect to find something right away.
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From: ingozi
2005-06-13 11:09 am (UTC)

Re: you're all missing the bigger picture

Most certainly not everyone can afford those things, in many ways.....but I won't go further on my point...I suppose I'll have to post my own journal. BUT I will say this, and it is relevant. "Escape" IS always possible - especially in the U.S.. There truly is ALWAYS a choice. (although it might not be one that seem "convenient" or for that matter painless. If a person comes to a point with an employer or anything or anyone else for that matter, that he/she feels stuck, it is time for some serious reflection. You have got to believe that life is too short to be unhappy for any reason. Also know that in so many parts of the world "escape" is truly a matter of life or death - so, what is working for a selfish corporation a matter of? credit card payments? luxuries? well, fine. obviously those "luxuries" must be worth the cost. Myself? I worked for a small (very small) publishing company that printed my High School newspaper and watched it grow into one of those "corporations" I was so sickened by the things I saw, well, morally sickened and hated it. I left and shortly thereafter learned that they are letting thousands of people go, just so they can keep churning out the money for those "investors" we never even know the names of and the CEOs flying their private planes to give their little "Pep talks" to the other schmucks about how they are all part of this "team". Anyway, I haven't looked back at all and am happy to spend time with my family. They are what is important. They are all that is important. So, again, if you feel that those "luxury" items that you buy, and the money that you buy them with is worth the 21st Century whipping that us pee-ons endure from those in the top offices - by all means stay and don't forget to save. Because they won't remind you when you get that inevitable pink-slip. For those who after reflection and two open eyes to what is coming - don't be afraid, do it. After all, this is still America and there are countless ways to keep living - happily ever after.

The end, (of me taking up the space with ranting replies)
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From: ingozi
2005-06-13 11:24 am (UTC)

Re: you're all missing the bigger picture

Oooops, one last comment.

EA employees, you people are smart! You have to be to be able to do what you do! I have always appreciated the talents you sum up in the fun games you bring out. The art, the coding, the creativity is all heads and shoulders above so much competition. So, maybe it's time to use that intelligence for yourselves instead of....well, you know.

That's all!
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