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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)
2004-11-12 07:49 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

In Sweden, where I live, around 80% of the working population are members of a union. Do you believe those 80% are all useless employees?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 06:01 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Well, the only Unions I don't like is where you have janitors and bus drivers striking twice a year trying to get paid 20 dollars an hour and as many paid vacation and sick days as they want. That disgusts me.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 08:39 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Yeah, how dare those janitors and bus drivers demand an honest day's pay and the right to take time off when they need it. A salary of $22,000 breaks down to roughly $11 an hour. After taxes are taken out, well, there's not a whole lot of money there. Try raising a family on that. Most janitors and bus drivers don't make a heckuva lot more than that, so they have to work multiple jobs at about 80 hours a week in order to break even. Fucking unions, giving them a chance to have rights.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 08:53 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

i think the guys that are sounding a little anti-union are heading in this direction.

a union says "For a person that does this job, they get paid this ammount"

the problem with this system is that not everyone is the same skill level, or as professional, etc. i am neither pro or anti union, i can see both sides of the argument have valid points.

to put this in perspective, my family owns a construction company (i am not involved, i took up an IT Job). the pay for a union laborer is approx $28/hr last time i checked. with insurance and such, it's about $40/hr the employer pays. now if you get a worker who gets the job done, and is good at what you pay him to do, there's nothing to complain about.

on the other hand, alot of the laborers from the union hall act as if they have never seen a shovel before, and the thought that they should use it in any way is laughable.

the point, i guess, is as i said earlier, you can say "you get this much, for this job, and for this many hours" but that doesn't take into acount the quality of the work or the dedication of the individual.

just my 2 cents.../shrug
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-12 09:09 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Same guy who wrote the above. kinda sounded like a cold @$$ in that to me, so i just wanted to say i'm not standing up for EA at all, sounds like they are a bunch of money grubbing bastards, and somethings DOES need to be done to them. was just stating my veiws on unions in general.

I know i'm not gonna be buying any EA games for a while, till i hear this has been taken care of
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 09:56 pm (UTC)

Unions arent a threat

When we say union, look at Hollywood. Look at the way unions have made sure people that help create movies that make multimillions get payed something up front. We are educated skilled people with a lot of desire to do good work.

A good game (not even the big sellers) sell around 1.5 million units (read 75 million dollars retail) and see the developers see nothing of that. Video game developer make less money than other branches of software developement even though the games they produce pull down insame amounts of cash. Publishers will continue to abuse this process until someone stands up to them.

The sadest thing I have witnessed is the fact that most employees feel threatened by unions and feel they can do better by taking on the EAs of the world by themselves. That is how they want it. That is why profit statements are hidden. That is why you aren't supposed to talk about salary with your fellow employees. They play their employees and potential employees against themselves and reap the benefits.

Sure unions will make it more expensive to develope games. Hollywood probably made the same arguement when it got unionized back in the day. Somehow they survived and still make profitable movies in their era of unions. They had to plan better and be more realistic about the cost of developement to make these movies but that sounds like a good thing to me. Currently most of the people I know in the games industry are living pay check to pay check. How can that be when you consider the level of profit.

Publishers will come back and tell you that many games fail. Its true but these same publishers lack the structure and organization to give most games a chance at success. Why? because they dont have to plan. They dont have to have a realistic budget. By just working people longer hours at unrealistic expectations they can push games out make their quarterly reports and start the next project.

Publishers live by the "my way or the highway" philosophy. Many of these developers who consider it a career dont want to miss their opportunity so they agree to unreasonable conditions. Unions are there to protect the employee. These young enthusiastic people dont know how to write a contract to protect themselves. They dont have the power to stand up to unreasonable goals.

Even more so, young developement companies have no way of protecting themselves from unreasonable contracts. If you are unwilling to agree to the contract offered by the Publisher there is another company out there that will. Once again playing developers against one another.

This isnt a question of abstract ethics, the people that run these small dev houses have employees dependent on them. They need to eat, support their families etc so they dont have time or the strength to stand up to publisher and protect themselves. They cant hold out long enough to shelter themselves nor would it matter in the current business environment.

The solution, some people say is just leave the industry. We dont want to, we just ask the industry to be balanced with fair business practices.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 05:41 am (UTC)

Re: Unions arent a threat

Amen brother.

I worked in the hollywood world before getting into games. The hollywood union model works, and here is why; Imagine working on something really cool like a major motion picture, it's exciting it's rewarding and ...It's lucrative, yeah that's right you can make some good money especially when you are into overtime. Just to give you some rates as of 2001 when I left L.A. Assistant camera, sound, grip lighting..easily make $500 per day for TV Commercials, time and a half over 10 hours, serious overtime after 12..14 ..weekends. if you are "a lead" (head of department) you will make much more..

So does this promote a "lazy" work force who just show up and barely get the job done?..well that element will always be there but, I have definitely seen that attitude more in the corporate environment than in the 6 figure "blue collar" environment of hollywood. Most of the people in hollywood are are really into their Jobs and work the asses off to make the best product they can... and then they get time time off to spend with their families between gigs. And...the company execs are still making the really big bucks on the deal...


Go Games union!

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[User Picture]From: luckykaa
2004-11-14 08:54 am (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

But london underground workers are also striking all the time, and they're on something like £30000 ($54000), and strict limits on the hours they do.
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From: nigelknox
2004-11-14 08:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

I'm reposting this, so sorry for repeating myself....




Economic effects of unpaid overtime

Two startup companies company A and company B are competing for contracts from a publisher. The publisher wants games requiring 5 man years of work, to be in a year. It will pay $750,000 per project.

It takes $10,000 to recruit an employee.

Company A is honest. It plans to hire 5 people complete the project in a year.

Recruitment $50,000 5@$10,000
Wages $500,000 5@$100,000

Costs
$550,000

Income
$750,000
Profit
$200,000



Company B decides to hire 4 people.

After 6 months, the project is only 40% complete, so the company offers a %15 bonus, and tells it's staff to do 25% more work in unpaid overtime (semi-crunch mode, move to 6 day). This seems like a good deal (work 25% extra for 6 months, and get 15% of annual pay for a bonus). However, 4 people working 25% overtime means they are still only working at the same rate as 5 people. This means that the project will come in 90% finished. .So 3 months before the end date the project is put into real crunch mode. The employees are now working 175% of the normal working week (11 hour days, 6 days a week). At this stage, the employees have little choice but to comply, or they risk losing the 20% bonus, and walk away with nothing for their unpaid overtime.

4 people working at 100% for 6 months = 2 man years of work
4 people working at 125% for 3 months = 1.25 man years of work
4 people working at 175% for 3 months = 1.75 man years of work

Total 5 man years of work.

After the project half the staff leave, and have to be replaced, costing another $20,000



Recruitment $40,000 4@$10,000
Replacing staff $20,000 2@$10,000
Wages $400,000 4@$100,000
Bonuses $60,000 4@$15,000

Total Costs $520,000
Income $750,000
Profit $230,000

Company B's method is 15% more profitable than company A. Given this result is hardly surprising that companies who have used the free overtime, but bonus at the end model of development have proliferated. Companies that were honest have been driven out of business.
If this seems a little cynical, then I will point out that scenario B accurately describes every single project I have worked on except the last. ( I joined a union )
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From: nigelknox
2004-11-14 09:07 pm (UTC)

Re: Union ... only if self policing ...

Bob Crow should be ashamed of damage he and his ilk have done to the union movement. By abusing thier positions of power those self deluded neo-Marxists, have diverted attention from what unions are all about. Protecting thier members from abuse.

I've copied a post I've before to show what I mean. (see above). The problem is that the games industry has not been unionised. To the non-union member the cost of hiring a lawer to prosecute a company for breaches of law is prohibitively expensive. Companies learn that the worst an employee can do is leave. If they can make more money from breaking the law than it costs to replace you, then bad employers thrive, good ones perish.

I think about unions in the same way I think about house insurance. I pay a small monthly premium, in return I am insured against my employer breaking the law. This what unions are really about.

(Bob Crow is head of the RMT, the union which most railworkers are in)
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