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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: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 04:19 am (UTC)

Re: Why don't you wake up?

The person who replied before me got it right.

Wake up people! You don't have to convince anyone, just DO IT! No whining, no discussing just refuse to work without pay, end of story.

If you do this and they fire you, you'll win in court, if they don't fire you, there you go: your 8hour/5days a week job.
You got all the aces in your hand, now you just need the balls ...
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 04:25 am (UTC)

Re: Why don't you wake up?

While I agree with the overall sentiment here... I agree that the only thing that will end this will be people standing up for themselves... it is also just plain not that easy. This has been discussed in earlier threads. There are a lot of factors.

To just stop working, to not work the hours, gets you tremendous pressure not just from your managers but from your coworkers. And you are basically in a tacit agreement that EA WILL fire you, based on their previous history. Yes, it's easy to say "you can sue them" if they fire you, but not everyone is in a position to be able to sustain a lawsuit against a company this size. I am seeing first-hand that once you have the right placement, a lawyer might be willing to take your case on contingency, but that is not the case for most people. So if you refuse to work the hours (and some have -- some succeed, some don't) and they DO fire you, you're out of a job, which can be dangerous if you have a family; if they DON'T fire you, your work environment becomes hostile if others are doing the hours and you're not.

Again, I am not arguing against your basic principle (people need to stand up for themselves), but oversimplifying the situation (to say nothing of insulting them) is not going to get through to people.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 04:43 am (UTC)

Re: Why don't you wake up?

I see your point, but try to see it in another light:
What you described is in my opinion: the pure job hell.

If one is willing to keep working under such circumstances, ruin their lives, families and themselves, alright.

But I simply cannot understand why someone would do that? Even if you don't sue them. Better go through a (possible) rough time now than having yourself ruined for the rest of your life, because THAT is far more dangerous. It won't get any better if you do nohting at all.

It may sound rude to some, but that's the way it is.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 04:49 am (UTC)

Re: Why don't you wake up?

Like I said, I basically agree with you... just not the tone that's taken in several of these comments. If you tell them "JUST DO IT" you make your opinion easy to write off as not understanding the details... which is actually a truthful assumption on their part. The truth is that this is hard, and that's why it's been this way for so long. Without acknowledging the difficulties or offering solutions to overcome them (such as the information that some other posters have given as regards the legal situation, past history, etc), no one is going to be motivated to do something. Ultimately it doesn't matter to you, since you're not the one under the heel, so to speak, but having a bunch of voices calling people stupid and sheep is just not going to do anyone any good. I also don't mean to be singling you out, but there has been a growing voice on these threads telling me to shut up and these workers to either suck it up or quit, and the answers, whether those outside want to accept this or not, are just not that simple if what we're really trying to do is change the actual situation and not just look out for number one.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:17 am (UTC)

Re: Why don't you wake up?

Fair enough.
First if you are really gonna do someting about it, then I applaud you and apologize. Because then you sure are better then all the others who complain on the internet but still keep working.

What I would do is (it's very general I know):
- Get some information on a possible law suite should they really fire you, contact a lawyer, try to find one who would support you.
- Start looking for a new job, in case the law suite isn't gonna happen
- Make sure you can keep your head over water financialy should it get rough inbetween (easier said than done, I know)

If these things are clear, try the 8hour/5days idea. If collegues ask what you're doing, gently explain them. Don't feel guilty because you apperently are "betraying the project", because in fact you are trying to help them.
Important: Be productive while you are at work, no chatting around, no surfing just do your work, make sure that you are a valuable member of the team. Chances are good that you'll be more productive than those working overtime (because you get to sleep and in general will be healthier). And if you are one of the most valuable members of the team it's even harder for them to fire you.
And once they actually call you to discuss your behaviour (and the most definately will) you can show them how valuable you are and how much better things go your way. Should it get really harsh you can threaten to sue them.

Should they then still fire you, then you have two possibilites, sue them or not, depending on what the lawyer said.

There you go
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:29 am (UTC)

Re: Why don't you wake up?

But at some point you gotta do something... If you don't like the tone of some of these threads, you REALLY won't like what you'll hear if SO stands up for himself. But look at all the support you're getting. Here, on IGDA, and on Slashdot, well over 90% of commenters are on your side, and of the negative comments half look like trolls. Think of what the sentiment must be like among people working in EA! Especially now that this thing's become news. I'll bet every EA employee read this today and thought "Damnit, I hope she does something. I hope someone does something. I just don't wanna be first on the firing line..." At some point it will come down to "just doing it" and seeing what happens, and then all the worrying and niggling over details gets blown away. But "JUST DO IT" doesn't have to mean going in and beating up his boss or something, at least not the way I use it. It doesn't mean being stupid and going out in a blaze of glory. It means do something, take your time if you have to. Plan carefully. Get yourselves psyched for when the time is ripe to set your plan into motion.

It sounds like you've gotta either push for change or get the hell out of there, people here are already extending other job offers... So you may be getting a sense that even if things get hectic there will be life after EA. Make your contingency plans and then go full-bore with trying to shake things up. Tell him to have fun with it- Be an alpha-male. I know how hard it is for us passive, intoverted geeks, but it can be great FUN! Tell him to try to intimidate his managers! Make them fear him! They are used to dealing with sheep and getting their way because that's the way Things Are Supposed to Work in their world. They may turn into pathetic quivering lumps if someone (or some people, hint) goes all alpha-male on them. Take comfort in the fact that his coworkers will become hostile because he's DOING THE RIGHT THING and they resent him because they want to be like him but are too weak and insecure to follow suit. Every bit of hostility should feed the fires that drive him and affirm he's doing the right thing. I mean what's the fun in trying to fit in with a bunch of people that are weak and afraid to stand up for themselves? Are those role models these days? It's just not a good environment, and details or not, rough times or not, getting out of such an unhealthy place can't be bad. It's the fear and second-guessing that keeps him and his team working under those conditions- I'll throw in a personal favorite quote here:

"One of the symptoms of an approaching nervous breakdown is the belief that one's work is terribly important."
- Bertrand Russell

I absolutely don't think he should just suck it up or leave. He should stand up for himself and hopefully get some support from him team and try to get concessions. That would be so fucking awesome. But you guys have to be realistic about the possibility, if not probability, that they will try to get rid of him. In many ways the most psychologically powerful position he could be in for this is to decide that he's ready to quit or be fired, and consider any positive changes to be gravy... Having nothing to lose gives you options.

Watch Office Space a few times. That movie is the ultimate tribute to the power of just not giving a fuck about making stupid people happy.
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