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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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This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.
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Comments:
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:29 pm (UTC)

BOO HOO ...

I work in the entertainment industry myself , a company that produces , 104 WEEKLY TV shows , and 15 additional shows. Thats 52 weeks a year ... thats EVERY WEEK. I work long countless , thankless hrs as part of the job.

You have to understand something your whiny ass seems to forget , thats part of the entertainment industry and the way it works. You are expected to give give and give , without any kind of thanks... Everyone that I work with is used to this. Trust me , I start on the road on Saturday Nights or Sunday Nights , and I usually dont get a chance to really sleep or anything until Wednesdays , my ONLY OFFICAL DAY OFF , and then it starts all over again as I work three days at home.

I have aged a bit my 3 yrs + back in the business , but , its part of life. I have a goal and I will reach it , to retire before 50 , 40 if I am lucky , and the reality IS I WILL BE ABLE TOO , and be able to afford it. Thats the key ... if you cant handle it , GET OUT. I absolutely refuse to be the old guy holding down the younger cats that can't understand why some old turd thats 65 or 70 is STILL working , and stopping the ascension of those more rightfully deserved cause he didnt save his money. Instead blew it , and has nothing but lint in his pocket.

I dont and cant have a meaningful relationship , does it matter , NO NOT really. I would like too , but its not the main goal. My main objective is to make the company as much money as possible cause I benefit from it in the end.

I will say this , this past yr , I placed absolutely every egg I had in the basket and worked from Wednesday to Sunday with UNDER 6 hrs SLEEP total for a show or as we refer to it a presentation. I totally re-wrote it from start to finish and it was over 4:30 HRS long.

We did the biggest one night total event revenue for this event in company history that night. 6 month later I collected a bonus check , that I wasnt really expecting , almost near 6 figures. All of that money went into my retirement trust.

The whole point of being in the creative end of the entertainment business , culminated for me that night , and not cause of the green pastures that it brought forth , but the satisfaction that for once I was happy with the end result. I was back working on the next show , the next day ... and it was business as usual.

I choose this line of work , and I will no doubt pay for it someday. I dont buy your complaining one bit and I think you dont get it just how lucky he is.

Be happy your able to most likely not live in poverty like a lot of people are , and that , your "OTHER" is not working for the man at a place like Wendy's , or a Taco Bell.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:44 pm (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

The whole point was that the SO wasn't getting adequate compensation. You happened to find a job that requires the long hours AND compensates you for it. You're right, there is no need for you to complain, it was your good fortune. Take away your bonus and equalize your compensation to what EA is giving out and see if you're still of the same opinion.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 11:49 pm (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

Almost a 6 figure bonus? Did you even read the post? These people are putting in crazy hours and getting NOTHING in return. First you say you work thankless hours and then say you got a huge bonus. You're a fucking moron.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 12:21 am (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

Moron. The whole point of this is that people are working like dogs and not getting compensated. People in this situation want one of two things:

1) Honesty that there will be shitty hours, AND compensation for said hours.

OR

2) Non-shitty hours.

EA is playing unfair in hiring people and telling them "Oh, we hardly crunch," then crunching like mad, and then not paying their employees for it. Get it straight, dumbass.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 01:47 am (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

"6 month later I collected a bonus check , that I wasnt really expecting , almost near 6 figures."

"...and the reality IS I WILL BE ABLE TOO..."

Maybe with all the money you make you can afford some grammar and spelling lessons.
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[User Picture]From: gavv
2004-11-12 06:47 pm (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

well, lots of people think the work schedule in WWE is pretty insane as well and that they should come up with a 'season' and an 'off-season' ^^
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 11:37 pm (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

I don't get it! What is it this guy is trying to say all these people don't get?

Is it that we don't GET, why you like your shitty, thankless, degrading job?

Man, go be happy about that crap somewhere else. What compels someone like you to tell people they "should be happy" about a situation they find terrible. Every person has a right to desire something better for themselves and their family. Dealing with it in an open, constructive (And you better damned well believe this is constructive) manner is just one of the many steps to achieving advancement of well being in one's life. Venting makes you feel better, and discussing a common issue with people who share your concerns or similar circumstances helps bring to light possibilities of corrective action.

You like what others don't? Fine, but what might be good for you, obviously isn't good for many others. And (speaking from experience) being unemployed and living in poverty could very well be better than working for EA.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 01:57 am (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

Frankly, you are the biggest idiot that has posted on this board. Get it thru your thick skull that this is working obscene hours with NO compensation. I know investment bankers who put even worse hours than this guy does on a constant year round basis, but the big difference is these guys have bonus's to compensate them for it. A friend of mine who is a banker worked 80+ hours every week on a regular basis and when he was working on a live deal this would go up to 100+ hours every week. Yes, it was horrible, but he did not complain as his bonus was $175,000 at the end of the year plus a base of $85,000.


Bottom line is that the problem here is the person is working obscene hours without the legal compensation that he deserves.

BTW- Maybe Taco Bell would been a better choice for him as he would of gotten the LEGALLY required OT that he deserved.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-14 03:49 am (UTC)

Lern 2 rite

Before posting your two cents worth on the world wide web for everyone to read, you might consider using a spell checker or at the very least, a plain old dictionary to review your spelling. It could give your post more "creditbility." Just a thought...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 07:48 pm (UTC)

Re: BOO HOO ...

You've missed what I think is a major point here. This is not just an "Entertainment Industry" issue. It's an "IT" issue. I don't work in the entertainment industry -- I work in Application Development for a global financial company and I am in the same situation.

The problem is the way companies treat educated, highly skilled IT workers.
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