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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:
(Deleted comment)
From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 04:15 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

Yes, he definitely does not make enough for exemption, and neither do most of the members of the team. The $42-44/hour is the breakdown of the $90k annual salary required by Senate bill 88. Unfortunately, while he can stand up for his rights, it will certainly lead to dismissal... and an unfair dismissal case requires money. My personal conjecture is that EA rapidly settles cases like that when they appear, however... but it still leaves the developer in question out of a job. The larger issue is the labor practice of the entire corporation itself. The long and short of it is that with small studios collapsing left and right from pressure from the big companies, there are fewer and fewer places to go within the industry... so developers will increasingly take abuse. There is also the simple matter of a lot of them not even knowing their rights.
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(Deleted comment)
From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 08:46 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

There have been mutterings about a union in the IGDA for some time. I'm not sure what it would take to kick that into gear. I would like to talk to the labor commission if possible, though. I will contact you through Xanga when I get a few other things organized -- I would imagine that the labor commission would first want to know if my partner had demanded what was owed him? Unless, as should be the case, EA is first at fault by not addressing that before it became an issue of abuse/violation.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 06:50 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

If him and others like him won't stand up for their rights for fear of termination, then you're out of luck. A magic savior isn't going to come to your rescue.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 07:11 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

We aren't looking for a savior. We're looking for a movement. I don't have a lot of hope that one can actually be created, but there's only one way to find out, and that's to let as many people know about this as possible. Although there are of course tons of rumors around the industry about EA's policies, we never in a million years thought it would be like this. I am hoping that if specific details and a specific story are released and widely known, it can get EA's attention, or at the least, warn people about what they're getting into when getting involved with this company. As far as sticking up for ourselves, you'd better believe we will be, but we are two among many thousands, and we would be quickly steamrolled.
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[User Picture]From: obiwaynekenobi
2004-11-11 04:19 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

you know he doesn't have to go forward alone. Take your story to Jenn's contact at the labor comission. What they are doing is against FEDERAL law. if the federal goverment steps up and says "Fix this or we shut you down" it'll get fixed.

And it can be done anonymously most of the time.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 07:48 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

Actually, check around, a group of employees took XO Communications to court for these very same reasons. And the labor lawyers who did it took them on contingency for a percentage of the settlement if, and only if, they won. Which they did.
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[User Picture]From: epiphaniesrus
2004-11-10 04:26 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

The main problem with advising an individual to make demands to garner overtime is one of solidarity - EA probably would not bother to listen if this is a lone case and they can always hire someone else who is 22 and willing to work 80 hour weeks. I honestly believe that the only thing that will make them respond to these complaints is either a union or a lawsuit.

I know several people at EA who were extremely talented that either quit in the last 6 months or actually were driven to seek a new career. I've seen people be told that their bonuses were going to be reduced due to a tough year, followed by a press release that EA had a record profit quarter and $1.2B in the bank. Care to reward the people who actually MADE that money and worked 7 day weeks?
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 09:43 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

It's too bad that the comments are piling up such that this one is now under another 'cut', so to speak, because it's extremely relevant. It won't be enough for us to simply pick up and leave as individuals... people have been doing that for years at EA and nothing has changed, they just replace them over and over, pouring water through a sieve.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 10:27 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

This information is misleading.

The overtime pay regulations are not quite as simple as that, and there were new regulations put in place this August. Here's some information (http://money.cnn.com/2004/08/05/news/economy/overtime/index.htm) that explains the new regulations and how they changed from the old ones.

The heart of the matter is the third rule referred in the article above. If your work is classified as "administrative," "professional," or "executive", you are not entitled to overtime pay. Almost all peon jobs within the software development industry, whether it is games or other types of software development, falls under the "professional" category, and will therefore exclude you from being eligible to receive overtime pay.

It still doesn't excuse the horrible treatment of employees by EA. Any reasonable company would compensate employees for such long hours in some manner. I was in consulting (not with the Big 5, thankfully) for a long time, and we had some severe crunch times sometimes, but the company was aware of that and made sure they made your life during the crunch as comfortable as possible and made sure you got comp days + other extra perks for working that hard.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-11 04:05 am (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

At the end of the article you posted, it says:

Another factor that could dampen the impact of the new regs is state law. Some 18 states, including California and Illinois, have separate overtime laws that trump federal law, according to Amy Bess, an employment law partner at Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal in Washington, D.C.

That's an important distinction. California, where state law makes it far easier for workers to qualify for time and a half, has become the hotbed of overtime litigation. Federal rules, old or new, won't change that.


Given the timing of my post and some other clues in it, a few individuals have already figured out which of the EA studios I'm referring to. Your article mentions California -- I wonder if the overtime legislation applies to ALL of EA's studios, because the corporate headquarters is in California?
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[User Picture]From: jennconspiracy
2004-11-11 07:13 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

Interesting posting - my information is from last
prior to August 2004.

Still, I'll pass along my Labor Commissioner
contact's information to ea_spouse
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 05:02 pm (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

If this worker is in Canada, then it depends on the Province of Employment. And this is important for ALL HIGH TECH employees to know.

The BC Government (When NDP were ruling) made changes to the employment standards act These changes are:

"The following provisions do not apply to high technology professionals:

(a) Part 4, other than section 39, of the Act;

(b) Part 5 of the Act."

Part 4 and 5 are relating to Minimum wages and hours of employment and stat pay.

Here are links:

http://www.qp.gov.bc.ca/statreg/reg/E/EmployStand/396_95.htm#section37.8
http://www.qp.gov.bc.ca/statreg/reg/E/EmployStand/396_95.htm

This means that if working in the Province of BC, EA is NOT breaking any labour and employment laws. And if I might turn a little political isn't the NDP government supposed to be on the side of big labour, and the employee?

If you are a Canadian, you are from BC and in the high-tech industry remember this come the May election. Because, EA_Spouse, if your SO fits all three criteria, it was the NDP government that allowed EA do this to you.

And I am not a Liberal party member, or supporter, I am pretty fed up with all running parties, and I personally lean towards independents.

Also I am in BC and in the High-Tech industry, and have experienced some crunch times, but thank fully I can only remember one day in the last year where I needed to stay late, and the great company I work for compansated me for it. So perhaps a change of carreer for your SO is in order? Or perhaps your SO can start their own independent game company, with some fresh ideas, and fair working conditions?

Good luck!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-25 09:31 am (UTC)

Re: According to the labor commission

Starting a company is a dream for many I think, but in this industry it requires funding, and that funding is usually the cause of these outrageous conditions
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