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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)
2005-10-08 07:02 pm (UTC)

We, the employees have lost, NOT EA.

I'm one of those EA Computer Graphic Artists whose job will be reclassified thanks to the recent settlement.

So some of you think that being payed hourly in this industry is good?
You are wrong. It's true we'll be compensated for overtime, but the remaining question is "how much overtime?".

We are creative people and the type of work we perform cannot be standardized and measured in hours. As developers work to solve problems and deliver results within deadlines. We work under a schedule, and our duties involve deep analytic and aesthetic decisions. We have to be productive, but we care about quality over quantity. Forcing us to work fast under a so called per-hour pressure will sacrifice the meaning of what a true software developer is in this type of industry.

Now that we are going to be hourly compensated, I foresee people being hired just to check how many hours and overtime we spend. And most important, HOW we spend our given hours. It'll be like working on a freaking retail store. I'm afraid I won't be able to go to the bathroom, swallow my lunch without heartburns, and most important, take time for family emergencies, because there will be a dude hired mostly to watch the clock over my back. Like in high-school, I'll have to play hooky if my kid is sick or in case of a home emergency.

Results and goals won't matter anymore. Hours will be the name of the game.

My stock options and the benefit of buying shares at discounted prices will be history. I've read articles stating that tech employees are no longer satisfied with this Silicon Valley stock tradition. They don't know crap!! I can say NO BANK can give me a minimum of %15 - %45 more returns on my investment, but again that will be the past.

Thanks to this settlement producers, artist and soon engineers won't have a word in EA. We'll be cattle and we won't be involved with Corporate life.

Developers, and I mean the real ones (not excel/paperwork based managers) won't have any vision or protagonism in the future of this company. Marketing will have all the goodies, still they just bla, bla and make false promises, but don't have a theorical or practical idea of how things are accomplished. Thanks to them and their (wise?) decisions we've shipped average and so-so products within short deadlines, with no time to polish or finish them properly.

From now on this Industry will praise the efforts of the people who is good in managing, marketing, PR and sales. They will get all the recognition for their verbal and written skills. In the meantime Rusty Rueff (VP of HR) will keep sending us emails with phrases like "we are making the best efforts to keep you happy because YOU ARE THE BEST OF THE BEST". And the media will think of us developers people with no character, ready to be used and thrown away. Why not? Our executives already think we are miserable dummies.

Your lawsuits and rants made this possible. I'm not blaming the fact that there was something wrong within the industry and someone like EA-Spouse and many of you had to vent and said a word about it. You are right in this point.

The problem is the outcome. They way that things have been solved and canalized. Lawsuits only helped make things worse for us.

This settlement applies to the HR categories Computer Graphic Artist I and II.
Many of us don't have a clue if we've been rated as CGA I, II, III, etc. HR keeps this information, and when you check for names on the company's directory, everyone (technical artists, animators, modelers, etc.) appear solely as Computer Graphic Artists. Nothing more. Who knows, they might put us all in the same bag.

I really don't want to claim my portion of the lawsuit. It's embarrassing, how much would it be? 5 or 10 bucks? Give it to charity! Plus I don't want to dirt my hands nor have anything to do with the people who ruined our vision and our self respect.

Jamie Kischerbaum's only concern was money. Not his quality of life, or his work environment. He is gone now, being an animator with salary over $70k and yet he whines. While many of us CGA hardly reach $60k. He might be celebrating in Honolulu, with now enough capital to start his own company or to start LIVIN' LA VIDA LOCA at the expense of the ones who remain at EA.

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From: (Anonymous)
2005-10-10 02:57 pm (UTC)

Re: We, the employees have lost, NOT EA.

Working late hours, weekends, holidays, and 80 hour weeks does not make you more creative. It stifles creativity. Being in a mad rush to cram in as many features as you can in an impossible schedule doesn't give you any time for any creativity. You will just have time to get the basics done before you rush off to the next thing. And all those hours will make you really tired which also destroys the creative thinking process.

We did not have much say at EA to begin with. Sure we can make recommendations but we were never able to make decisions. I've told managers time and time again that we need to cut some of our features so we can ship a solid game. Fewer features that are more polished and fun. But it never happens. That is because Marketing and Execs were already in charge and running the show. This was nothing new. Non-technical people that only care about getting their features on the box. They don't care if you have to work holidays to get it done. They don't understand that it will cause hundreds of new bugs and compromise the ship date. And that it will burnout employees causing them to make a mediocre game that they are not excited or passionate about.

You need to start looking out for yourself because EA does not have your best interests in mind. Sure maybe you don't mind 80 hour weeks for soda and pizza right now but in a few years you might decide to get married and have kids and then 80 hour weeks won't sound so appealing. Or you may just burnout in general. And if you start trying to spend less time at work, they will put the heat on you. They already have people checking what hours you work. Don't worry about that. And they know they can easily replace you with a new young kid dazzled by the big lights of EA who is ready to work themselves to death for no pay because they love video games.

If anything these lawsuits serve as a wakeup call to EA. To get their attention that something is wrong with the way they work. They aren't going to listen any other way. I agree that switching to hourly isn't going to make all the problems go away and is in some cases a worse deal depending on how the stock does. But ultimately we need to look at the core problems and this is the only way to get EA to do that.

I've seen so many good workers and friends burnout and leave. I want EA to be a good place to work and a place I would recommend to my friends.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-10-11 01:54 am (UTC)

Re: We, the employees have lost, NOT EA.

Man I am glad I dont work at EA NOW!

Clock in clock out just like a blue collar. bring your lunch cooler to work. Wait fo r the bell whistle to blow at 5:00 pm
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2005-10-11 02:58 pm (UTC)


I'm in QA, but luckily i decided to listen to ex-EA employees and steer clear of that company. It seems obvious that most of the people at the top of EA sold their souls to the devil a long time ago.
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From: union_josh
2005-10-12 05:47 pm (UTC)

Re: We, the employees have lost, NOT EA.

You are in the trenches and I respect your opinion, but I have to take issue with some of your points. As you said, CG Artists are creative people. EA is dependent on that creativity to produce a good product and people are only going to buy good products (unlike a retail store, where the creativity of the cashier rarely factors into my choice of store). EA is a little pissed-off right now about having lost the suit, but they will have to get over it and figure out how to treat workers in a way that will attract and retain the best talent or face the burn-out and turn-over that is plaguing the industry. If they have to pay for your time, it inherently makes them value your time. That can be a very good thing for someone who wants to see his kids once in a while. In fact, you are the first person at EA that I have heard say they feel like they “have a word in EA” or is “involved with the Corporate life.”

I agree that this lawsuit will not fix the bigger problems at EA. If workers want to have a real say in the company they are going to have to organize and sit down at a negotiating table with management as equals and work out a deal that both sides can live with. This settlement does not begin to achieve that, but to negotiate with someone; they first have to respect you. Maybe $15.6 million will make them think twice about how they make the rules that effect their employees. $15.6 million, by the way, is not a small amount of money. 5 or 10 bucks? Does EA have 3 million CG Artists in California? In fact, Jamie helped craft the settlement so that any unclaimed money will go to charity. Jamie risked his entire career to bring this lawsuit, made himself the target of the largest game company in the world and for what? A bunch of workers who all sign their blogs “Anonymous.” You may not like the lawsuit, or be happy with the results, but Jamie put himself on the line to try and make things better. Who else has done that?

Josh Pastreich
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