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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:
[User Picture]From: luckykaa
2004-11-12 12:00 pm (UTC)

Re: Ma Ko Vas Jebe

XBOX? WTF IS THAT?

It's a more powerful better designed faster console that the PS2, that developers find a lot easier to program for.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 12:00 am (UTC)

Re: Ma Ko Vas Jebe

Because they are Lazy! XBOX uses DIRECT X API's and everything graphic's wise is done in HARWDARE! Its an Intel Architecture, Nvidia Board, and shared RAM between all the items... So tell me how is it better? When PS2 has such a creative custom design, and not to mention that Emotion Engine! The AI is so much better on PS2. Not to mention Physics, plus the fact that the game play is superb. I laugh at super good looking games on XBOX. Why you might ask? Well they look good, but play like crap! You might wonder where I pulled this off, well if you need the hardcore facts between them I can bring them up!
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[User Picture]From: luckykaa
2004-11-13 07:52 am (UTC)

Re: Ma Ko Vas Jebe

Yes. Please give me the hardcore facts between them. I want to know what I'm arguing against.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-20 08:14 pm (UTC)

Re: Ma Ko Vas Jebe

Lol, this entire thread of responses is some of the most ignorant logic I have ever heard.

First off, you claim they are lazy for using an API to access the hardware they had written. How is this lazy? This is support for their hardware to help developers. It makes it easier for people to use their hardware immediately. Some consoles have failed or hurt tremendously solely based on how hard they are to program for. If people don't want to program for it they will not. If they don't there will be less games and the console will fail, APIs are good things, and the DirectX api they use is a custom version skimmed down for the xbox. It is also an ongoing project they use and make better for pcs and the xbox.

Second sony already had a huge foot in electronic hardware market, creating all the components of their hardware wasn't as much of a stretch. Microsoft is a software company mostly so them using parts manufactured by intel and nvidia, who cares as long as the hardware can support the games and the interface to the hardware is reasonable to use (hence the API.. as mentioned they are a software company)

Shared ram is pretty common in consoles, it allows faster memory access by all devices without needing to transfer it. The system can update things in memory and the video chip can render them without the need to transfer it over the bus.. this is a good thing.

"AI is better on the ps2" and you go on to mention physics and game play. None of these things are created by the ps2, it is done by the developers. PS2 developers who happen to be from all countries including the US. It has almost nothing to do with the system. The differences with the system is how said things are programmed.

Responses to the original Ma Ko Vas Jebe
You ask how many other languages americans can speak and then for some reason exclude spanish. Is Spanish not a real language? Is it just a dialect of English? I agree that knowing other languages is important but excluding Spanish is only hurting your cause. Europeans on average can speak multiple languages because they need it. You drive 200 miles in europe and you can go through a lot of different countries. You do that in the US and your only in a different state. Europeans learning other languages because they are near others who speak other languages is the same as americans learning spanish because they are next to Mexico

When Americans become more civilized? Your claiming civilization is based on ones ability to speak languages other than English and Spanish in addition to the ability to make good video games? Kind of a weak argument, maybe you should flesh that out a little.

Lastly Japanese people making better video games than Americans is a thing of preference. Different cultures don't always like the same things, some likes overlap, some do not. Some countries aren't even big into video games *gasp*

As mentioned this is a concern for all game developers in all countries. Luckily some countries have better practices in work hours, but this is a current and ongoing issue in the US. It isn't spilled milk, it cannot just be wiped up and forgotten, it is ongoing and needs to be corrected.

Sorry my response continued along this unrelated to the original and more important topic.

I am just very glad that I work for a wonderful company that tries to avoid crunch time. The producer isnt trying to get as many hours from the team but rather helps us work with less stress and in less time.
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