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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)
2004-11-10 08:55 am (UTC)

Sounds like EA

That's really awful, and sadly sounds a lot like EA. :(
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 12:32 am (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

Just got back form doing hard time there for a month. 14 hour days, 7 days a week. I make less than half of that 90k salary I'd have to get in order to be exampt from overtime pay.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 09:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

And the people said AMEN!
In conversations and after reading a different comment here, I continue to wonder if it's just "this" studio. Does "headquarters" really know what's going on - or burying their heads in the sand (or the gold in this case)? Or is this studio left to its own "devices". We too have discussed legal action and labor union consulation... but those options have consequences as well. Could EVERY EA studio be run this way and still be successful? I just cannot imagine! I know game industry hours, this is ridiculous, and unhealthy. I do know there are a silent few with small amounts of power, who have their heads on straight and their priorities in check that are trying to make a difference... but it is slow... and tiring.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-14 03:36 pm (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

I worked there for a few years and we put everything into the projects, with reassurances from above. Then, the projects failed, almost everyone on the team was fired and the executive producer would move on to another project in the company. Look at Westwood (Command and Conquer, Earth & Beyond), EA Seattle (Need for Speed, Motor City Online), EA.com, Majestic. Maybe it's just the usual corporate crap, but HR at EA likes to promote it as a great place to work that values its people and got on the Fortune Top 100 Places to Work. EA went from a great place to work to a moneymaking machine run by a bunch of rich executives who are out to make money. Sure, shareholder value is good, but at the expense of people's lives? Maybe enough people will eventually get the idea and oust the leadership there. Or maybe we as shareholders of companies like these will continue to value the quick buck...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-14 06:45 pm (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

I am not a big supporter of Unions, however, this is the kind of situation where unionizing might help. Forward this to an AFL-CIO rep and see what they have to say. Unionizing the gaming industry could fix the problem real quick.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-15 09:43 pm (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

Oh...
I'm not really surprise to read that...
Since 10 years, we've this problem in a video game sector...
Here, in france and I think in all countries, this condition of work are identical...
I'm with you by the spirit...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 03:17 am (UTC)

Not Just EA

I work in the industry and have only just become aware of this lawsuit. This is an industry-wide problem, altho EA is definitely the most notorious. I think part of the reason is most of the workers are young single people with few responsibilities, it is a young industry with often inexperienced managment, and there is now a huge amount of money changing hands. It is something my long-suffering wife and I discussed a lot on my last project. If people don't stick together and stand up for their rights, then others in power with more greed-driven motives will take advantage - its just human nature. I am surprised now having worked in the US for over a year, just how most people here don't even ask questions, never mind stand up for their rights. It's easy to understand not wanting to rock the boat, but when you end up in Marriage Therapy and considering going into car sales because its an easier buck, after working so damn hard to achieve this career goal, then something is seriously wrong.
Dare I say it? We need a Union of Game Developers.
Good luck and keep up the good work
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-20 09:53 am (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EVERYONE

Long hours is nothing new. I am a programmer @ well know fps gaming house. We work on average 15 hours a day including weekends. I'm sorry to say it but there is no getting away from this reality - if you wanna work in the gaming industy you have to "suck it down".

Hey think of it like this - get that office with a window & you can gaze down on your red in the parkinglot :-).
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 12:00 am (UTC)

baby

tiny little violin playing
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From: xenoskeptix
2004-12-03 07:11 pm (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

fuck you
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-13 07:01 am (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

Has anyone heard about the woman who sued Peter Nygard for all the overtime hours she worked? She won. If all these programmers are working this much overtime, and it is in fact illegal, why don't they get together (or not, they can do it seperately as well), hire a lawyer and sue for unpaid wages and emotional/physical distress? A consultation is free and if everything in the story is true they ought to have a field day.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-14 03:33 am (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

Researching the Company's DEF 14, it seems that Mr. Probst earned $672,759 in salary and $781,000 in bonus for 2004. In addition to this Mr. Probst is the beneficial owner of 742,352 shares of common stock (currently trading at $58.29 per share) and the right to acquire 2,684,600 shares at a discount (this are options). It seems as though he is doing alright. This type of thing is discusting. I'm filling the same thing at my job although I'm not putting in 90 hours a week, we do have management that refuses to hire more people and adopts the additute of "if you don't like it, you know where the door is".
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-17 11:54 pm (UTC)

Re: The industry is horrible!!!

All these things said in the original post are true. I worked at Atari for 4 months until they eliminated all the 60 QA personell in the Massachusetts office. While our immediate managers were pretty decent guys, they still had to answer to corporate HQ, specifically the french CEO who of course hired his very young, underqualified son for a very nice position. We were required to work a minimum of 60 hours per week when our game was months away from code release. When the game was nearing the release date, our requirement didnt technically go up, but we were made aware that if we didnt work as many hours they deemed as physically possible(70-80 hours) we would not be hired as "Real" Atari employees, and either let go immediately, or remain temporary employees, without benefits or job security. The majority of quality assurance testers are in that position, sacrificing thier social lives, financial independence, and dignity, to get their foot in the door in an industry who makes it unnecessarily difficult to get in to. The QA dept was treated very poorly, and could be let go on a whim and from speaking to others in the industry, it appears this way throught the entire industry. We got paid so little money hourly, that if i wasnt still living at home with my parents, I would not have been able to support myself. The industry needs to take a long hard look at itself, and re-evaluate its labor practices, human resources, business models, and people vs project management.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-24 06:01 pm (UTC)

Why did I learn about this just now?

Why did I elarn about this now? If I had known this, my money would neevr have been wasted on SimCity, all the Sims expansion packs,The Sims 2, and especially not The Sims Online. I bet 10% of what I've paid to EA goes to the people who do the work. F*ck you, EA!! I'm banning your products now *smile* No more will be bought
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-04-18 03:29 pm (UTC)

Re: Sounds like EA

ya i work for a game company to, :( this is how i feel.

http://zavaz.deviantart.com/
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