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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.

[User Picture]From: luckykaa
2004-11-10 12:34 pm (UTC)
I was in a similar position. The game was slightly behind, and so it was decided that one day a week would be the late night week.

I was in the semi-fortunate position of being on a temporary contract, and ahead of schedule. I figured I didn't really have a lot to lose by telling them "no". To do that, you need a certain inflexibility and pigheadedness. They can apply a lot of pressure. In my case, it lead to an uncomfortable discussion, but I was never given the impression that they would even consider getting rid of me. I would encourage your SO to make a stand, and simply go home at a sensible time, but I realise this may not be viable.

EA are being idiots. It's a bad policy. It just doesn't work. Software development isn't manual labour. Productivity plummets after a certain point. You end up spending more time putting in mistakes and glitches than improving things. And the next day everyone's stil tired. Nobody's enjoying the work. Everything starts to drag behind.

That said - late nights are sometimes worthwhile. I'll only stay late of there is somethign specific that needs to be done. In the past I have spend hours solving a single problem, and refused to leave until I've fixed it. This is something I refuse to make a habit of, and will not work more than an hour of overtime two nights in a row.

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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 09:44 pm (UTC)
Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do to meet a deadline, and the game industry is new enough to still be entrepreneurial enough that some of this will be necessary. It SHOULDN'T be necessary, with proper management, but sometimes shit happens, and the deadline won't budge. This is what makes a union tricky -- it would have to be a very special union sensitive to the needs of the industry, so that small studios wouldn't be crushed simply because they have to crunch at the end of a deadline.
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[User Picture]From: luckykaa
2004-11-10 10:31 pm (UTC)
Personally, I think the smaller developers need to form a union (or cooperative) as well. One of the reasons small studios have crunch issues is that they don't get enough funding from the publishers. I think the unions working for them would cause a knock-on effect where they would be forced to demand more money. Perhaps. I'm no economist, so I could be completely wrong here.
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From: ext_102548
2008-05-31 06:41 am (UTC)

What's ironic though . . .

. . . Is that the games that get delayed end up being some of the most fun.

I understand that there's a time when you have to ship, but if the game is behind, throwing your head against a brick wall over and over again won't fix it.

Nor is it going to make it better.

I remember one game (although I can't remember the title) that went though a lot of delays, but in the end it turned out awesome.

(I am only posting anonymously because I apparently do not have a liveJournal account... or I did but I forgot.
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From: ea_spouse
2008-06-02 03:21 pm (UTC)

Re: What's ironic though . . .

Hi there -- thanks for your comment.

What you're saying is actually true, but the reasons for it are not what you might think. Blizzard, for instance, slips ship dates all the time. It can do this because its brand is founded on quality games. Games that are not founded on quality -- games that are making most of their sales based on demographic or license value (tie-in games) don't fall under these rules. If a licensed game slips its ship date, it suffers catastrophically in sales.

So while it's true that "the best" games seem to be the ones that get delayed, this is a direct testament to the power of those studios to defy the shipping schedule. It's never a GOOD thing when a game doesn't come out on time, because you're blowing your marketing strategy, but the companies that are able to do this do tend to found more of their brand on quality, and also tend to be more hardcore-gaming oriented.

Nice website, by the way. Visit Gamewatch, and stay in touch. :)
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From: (Anonymous)
2012-02-16 01:56 am (UTC)
I really disagree with that.
The nature of game development and publication a) makes deadline estimation hard and managers should take that into account when they set them and be flexible when they're missed and b) makes fixed hard deadlines unnecessary.
Overtime should never be structural and always be compensated in time and/or extra money. Quite apart from the welfare of employees, people tend to screw up when they aren't getting enough sleep and free time, and sometimes they fall ill. It's one thing to tell your publisher that your release date was a bit too optimistic; it's quite another to have to tell them several key developers are ill in bed for the foreseeable future.
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From: ea_spouse
2012-02-16 02:08 am (UTC)
I agree with everything you're saying here (and it's been long enough since I wrote the comment you're replying to that I don't remember writing it :) ).

I don't think, though, that this changes the complex nature of quantifying game scope, implementation time, and contingency. I do think, though, that an employee's time is always quantifiable, and should always be tracked and have a value assigned to it. This is where it gets murky in terms of labor law as I understand it. At a certain point the laws cause salaried workers to intersect with hourly law when the salaried worker is making below a certain amount of money per hour worked -- so the more hours worked, the less they're making per hour, bringing them closer to problematic thresholds. So that failsafe is in place (though it has been moved several times, most notably in 2008).

The problem that is still raised by game developers when I talk to them is the thinking that this "excludes", essentially, younger developers from being able to compete. A younger developer who wants to take twice as long to do something as an experienced developer still wants that opportunity even if it means they're working at suboptimal or even flatly unhealthy rates. And there are enough young people who want to express a variant on this opinion (even if it's just a flat "we're too good for overtime laws" white-collar bravado) that the union argument is challenging. However, it does seem to have shifted in the last several years toward open-mindedness to unionization. I believe the last IGDA survey recorded something like an even 33% split between "pro-union", "anti-union" and "undecided", which certainly makes it a less foregone conclusion than it used to be.
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[User Picture]From: tgeller
2004-11-11 05:23 pm (UTC)
Your solution is exactly the one I employ. When 5pm comes, I'm out the door. That puts the burden of action on them. Most people hate confrontation, so it's easier for them to just acquiesce.
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[User Picture]From: luckykaa
2004-11-11 05:35 pm (UTC)
Well, I'm no clock watcher. I'll often put in 5-10 minutes, and sometimes as much as an hour. And the company I work for will occasionally pay for free drinks after major deadlines. It probably works out even.
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(no subject) - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 02:02 am (UTC)
I worked at a company in Britain that gave similar promises. When hours added up I finally said enough when we had a two day run continously. I called my parents and arranged for my return, said my piece and left through the door. I learned that two more left when the management stated I wasn't a team player. Kudos to them.
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From: playnow
2005-05-04 02:42 pm (UTC)
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From: harleychrystie
2008-08-10 11:32 pm (UTC)
" When Annie didn't respond, Dragon asked, "Do you have a. . . What do they call them these days. .
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From: royalpickles
2008-08-10 11:32 pm (UTC)
" When Annie didn't respond, Dragon asked, "Do you have a. . . What do they call them these days. .
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From: gretchenmcanna
2008-08-11 02:08 am (UTC)
" When Annie didn't respond, Dragon asked, "Do you have a. . . What do they call them these days. .
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From: aubreyszutko
2008-08-11 04:27 am (UTC)
" When Annie didn't respond, Dragon asked, "Do you have a. . . What do they call them these days. .
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