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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)
2004-11-12 04:54 am (UTC)
So, I've been skimming through all these posts for the past day, and have left some of my thoughts here at there. Yes, I'm a whore for online discussions 'cause they intrigue and amuse me.

From the posts that I have read, I've gotten this sense of one-sidedness from the situation and I find it rather silly. Yes, it is good to question things and to bring into light the problems that do exist. But with the bad, there is still good. Here are my thoughts all in one post, I don't offer a real solution to the problems unfortunately, but again, the lure of online discussions... I'm sure that this'll get ripped apart soon enough too. But ah well, that's internet "debates" for ya!

The issue at hand is overtime. Overtime when made mandatory. I believe that it is all up to the individual to decide whether or not s/he wants to work extra hours or not. Unfortunately, there are leads or managers that will wonder why you're not doing those extra long hours if you decide not to 'cause they see it as the norm. But there are leads and managers that believe it is people first. If you have a problem with doing overtime, TALK to your lead/manager/whoever's above you about it. And usually something can be worked out if they're a reasonable person.

Then there's the problem of everyone thinking that overtime comes with the job. Overtime can come with any job. The way to avoid overtime in gaming is to make sure everything in preproduction goes well. Solid designs and all that nice stuff. Don't make any major changes after that. But I'm guessing most of the people posting here who are having problems, aren't in a position to decide whether or not changes get made or not. So communication is again the key. Bring up your problems rather than accomodating them and just doing the work like sheep then, if you're not happy. It all begins with communication. I'm not saying to stop there with your activism, but make sure you do that first.

(Note for the following few paragraphs: I, in no way, am a representative speaking for all EAC employees or EA in general. Just a singular human being with individual thoughts!)

I work at EA Canada and have had NO problems with overtime. I've been asked maybe 3 times in the last 2 years to work overtime. And if I had a reason to not do it, they understood it. Any other overtime I've done has been my own choice. Because I want to get the work done. My leads and managers have all been great to work with, but maybe I got lucky with the teams I've been with. I also point out that there have been some structuring changes made that are trying to reduce the amount of overtime and create more steady hours throughout the year.

As for QA, I've heard good and bad about it as well. I do agree that they aren't respected as much as they should be, both by the company and by fellow employees. There are a lot of dev people who think they're worthless, and I find it pretty sad. Because without QA, our games would never ship. I've already heard of them being gyped in holiday pay, or getting a week of pay a month later. That is unacceptable. For a company as big as EA, they should be on their toes about these things. Plus the extended periods of OT for them, it's quite unfortunate. But some people don't mind it, I'm sure. My idea to fix that is to have shifts, days and nights. That way QA won't get burnt out so easily...

(continued into next post...)

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 04:55 am (UTC)

Now I'm not gonna say that EA is THE BEST place to work for, but here in Vancouver, it's pretty damn good. Would I rather be doing sweatshop work at Mainframe, or being fired over an e-mail at Radical? NO. I do have my complaints about the company, but still, I have to admit I have it pretty good here (and no, I don't make 60k a year, drive a sports car or live in Kits). They do have practices that should be changed, I agree with that. I don't doubt for a second that these negative tales are true. But I just wanted to say that it's not like that everywhere, 'cause everyone here seems to be getting that mob mentality. "Oh, don't buy EA games!" "Oh, I won't ever work for EA!" Sure go ahead and do that, but you have to admit, we do make some damn good games. There ARE talented people in the studios. Pirating games is also NOT an answer. It's just childish.

Also, I'm guessing most of these horror stories are coming from the American studios... What's up with that?

So speak up when something isn't working out. That's the first step to changing things. Don't say, "Oh that's how it is and how it always will be," or "Well, if you don't like it, then find another job." We're here to make games right? Choose what is important to your life and stand up for it.

There ya go.

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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-12 05:02 am (UTC)
They're buried under many layers of comments now, but there have been other discussions about EA Vancouver, too. I have a couple of emails from folk who are in a similar, but less extreme, position to my SO, but for the most part, people seem to be happy up there and that's a good thing. There is definitely a sentiment at least among the discussion here that EA Vancouver is the exception to a lot of badness going on at EA right now.

It is also probably my fault for not coming down harder on the comments talking about piracy, but to be honest, I've been saving my energy for replying to the comments that have more substance here, and I haven't even gotten to all of those yet. ;) But you're right, calling for the piracy of EA's games is no solution for anyone.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:09 am (UTC)
Yeah, that's probably mostly all me talking about EAC, hahaha. :)

I just found that I had to stand up for the good that does exist. It shouldn't be in people's agenda to take down EA. It should be to change the way things are done. 'Cause taking down the studio would mean thousands of people losing their jobs...

And again, it's not just EA. If someone's gonna boycott EA, then they should go and boycott a whole lot of other gaming/visual effects studios too. 'Cause the problems that do exist are widespread.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:21 am (UTC)

piracy - semi-good or evil

oh but sure its fun and you dont spend between 50 - 60$ or so

funny though, game used to me tops 40 or 45$ 5 years ago.
now then can go up as to 100$ like movies and stuff

1) peoples salary hasnt increased significantly
2) infact it decreased in a lot of countries
3) the games are getting down to lower and lower quality (except on some cases) because there is more demand for quantity rather than for quality (both customer and industry fault)

why should we pay for games that are sometimes badly designed (rushes from the companies), that are overpriced and hyped and that most of the cases, throw out after a week cause it gets boring?

the thing is you really dont have a choice.
all your friends play the X game and if you dont, your not in their "society" (common for teenagers)
or your kids want that game. you know it sucks, but they want it badly
or you want it badly but you can afford it (you get like a 500$ salary)
or theres just nothing good out here and you havent played anything new in over a year and you really want to try new things without risking wasting cash on something you might not like...

so you get free illegal copies.
then IF you do like the games/software and like the companies that made them aswell, then you can SUPPORT them by buying those things (if you can afford that is)

i think that applies on those cases. im pretty sure you all know of some people that have like 2500$ or 5000$ or more cash burried in games from the past 5 years or so that they only played maybe just 2 days.
yep its common
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:25 am (UTC)
sure it doesnt solves it, but makes you feel better when you screw up that big fat company by your own ways
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:13 am (UTC)

WTF are you talking about

I work at EAC and have been at EAX as well, i've worked insane OT on the dev.team. EA Canada is no better and we get paid substancially less then some ppl at Mainframe. In case you haven't noticed we just lost a few top ppl to Mainframe in the last month.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:31 am (UTC)

Re: WTF are you talking about

Hey, as said, I'm just pointing out the good things as well. My team's been great, but I know others haven't been so great.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:38 am (UTC)

Re: WTF are you talking about

I know at least a couple of people who are at EA now and wouldn't ever return to Mainframe. From what I've been told first hand, they'd do their quota for the day, but if they wanted to go home, their supervisor would bascially be like, "What, you're not going to stay and do more work?" It was like they were expected to ALWAYS do more than they were required.

But I hear they are under new management, and it's quite possible that things are getting better. They used to be a great company to work for I heard.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 04:43 pm (UTC)

Re: WTF are you talking about

Ditto for me.

I also worked at EAX in downtown Vancouver and all I can say is that if EA in California is any worse, then employees must never see the light of day there.

My experience has been that crunch time typically lasts for 4 months, during which most people work 10-12 hours days, 6 or 7 days a week. My own "EA Spouse" was not too pleased with me or EA Canada during those four months (especially since crunch time always coincided with the four months of year where it wasn't raining all the time). Most of what I've read in these threads rings true about EA Canada; I don't think they are any exception.

One question is: is EA Canada doing anything illegal? I've read a lot of talk about California's labour laws on these threads, but to be honest I'm not sure what the legal situation is here in BC and in Canada with regards to overtime. It was always my assumption that overtime doesn't apply to salaried workers; only to hourly paid employees. One person's comment hinted that the laws are favourable to EA, and were made that way specifically as in incentive for technology companies to establish themselves here. Anyone else know the specifics?

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:20 am (UTC)

Then go to the media: TV, newspaper, radio


I work for EA.

If you want it fixed, get some attention on it.

Talk to KTLA, The LA Times, radio & TV stations. Use your smarts. Get some buzz around this and IT WILL make things happen. SOMEONE WILL LISTEN.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 05:23 am (UTC)

Re: Then go to the media: TV, newspaper, radio

Um...duh. There's a reporter from the LA Times that posted several pages back asking for people to interview. This is obviously already being taken to the mainstream media. Wait, let me find it...


If you're an employee of EA, might I respectfully suggest you put your money where your mouth is, and contact her?
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[User Picture]From: mofo_x
2004-11-12 12:34 pm (UTC)
a) which office do you work in? (burnaby or downtown)
b) what's your job?

This sounds pretty dead-on accurate to my time at EAC...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 08:03 pm (UTC)

Ummmm.... really?

I've never worked at EAC but my ex-SO did for 5 years (EA did contribute significantly to the deterioration of our relationship btw). He always had to work 2+ "crunch" phases per year of 1 to 2 months long and had to work 6 days a week most of the rest of the year. He did get paid overtime back in 1999 but nothing since except a week off after the project was done. It doesn't make sense to me that you have been asked so few times to work overtime when everybody else I know who works there does overtime all year long. I've always thought EA's treatment of its employees was ridiculous and possibly illegal. I'm so glad people are finally trying to do something about it.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 11:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Ummmm.... really?

You can believe me or not. But that's my current situation. Right now, I'm doing a decent amount of OT, but it's all been my choice to do it. My manager and my lead haven't asked this year at all. In fact, my manager always reminds me that if I feel burdened, to bring it up with him and something will be done about it. I've been asked to do maybe 3 weekends total in the past 2 years. Any other times, again, my choice. And we will be comped for it. Record your OT hours, if you don't think your comp is fair, stand up for yourself.

Also again, it's that thinking that OT comes with the job, that's a big thing that has to change. People shouldn't assume that it is necessary or expected.

Maybe your ex's superiors weren't so good about it. It also probably depends a lot on what profession it is. SE's tend to spend a lot more time in the office than an artist would. I'm an artist.

Just my situation anyway. Again, it differs with different people, teams and studios.

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