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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)
2004-11-13 12:07 am (UTC)

QA

well, if your spouse worked in QA you could count on multiple crunchs, one right after another with barely above miniumum wage which would encourage you to not take any time off because you could not afford to and little respect from the rest of the studio employees to that list. granted, they do get overtime, but they also put up with no benefits, much longer hours (try several 20 hours days minimum, I have heard tell of 36 hour days even!) and even with the overtime you hardly make as much as most others in the company even though without QA the games would be unplayable or very buggy because programmers would have to spend their time finding bugs not fixing them.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 12:40 am (UTC)

Re: QA

I worked at EA for nearly 3 years (seems to be a common breaking period). I started straight out of college in the Technical Support group, answering customer calls for PC and PlayStation issues. This was back in 1998. The hours were regular, and the pay was decent at 12.50 an hour. Of course, nobody starts on the phones with hopes of staying on the phones.

Not being a gamer, my passion was towards the artistic side of the industry. I hoped to be a world designer or even a texture artist. I advanced quickly, by staying late (we WERE payed overtime, not being on salary) and helping CQC (Customer Quality Control - a group which gets the games just before release and is relied upon to find any issues that the QA process somehow missed) with their last push before the title was released. I had success there and was fortunate to work for this group for nearly a year. This was a great position and a team that was managed efficiently and and with consideration. Overtime was still expected on occasion, but only 50 to 60 hours at the most, one month at the most.

Unfortunately (for me), after displaying the ability to manage a small group of testers in CQC, we were recruited to lead test teams in QA. The QA process takes anywhere from 2 to 9 months for most titles. 9 months working on the same title. This was hell after the variety experienced in CQC. The QA "area" of the building is rarely visited by anyone not in QA. Only the lowly Assistant Producer will dare venture there... for good reason. Many gamers insist upon not taking showers, creating pyramids of mountain dew cans, etc... which EA is fine with... so long as you are willing to sleep under your desks on occasion.

Up until this time my relationship with my girlfriend from college has sustained wonderfully. Despite having been driving from Aptos to Redwood City (the old EA building), depending on the hour of the day, taking 2 to 3 hours round-trip... we were golden. We later moved to Mountain View, and things were still fine... until "crunch time".

Crunch time covered the next three titles I led... one of which was finished ahead of time, and "saved the day" for the company as were able to ship it before the end of a quarter... we saw nothing for it as a team, and during the meeting, Probst was quick to congratulate the producer and assistant producer, but there was no mention of the artists, developers, or qa. I averaged 60 hours a week, and enjoyed a couple of 100 hour work weeks, twice actually sleeping under my desk. I saw my girlfriend from 6 AM to 6:15 when she got ready for work and I woke up to her alarm.

We broke up 28 months into my EA career... what time we had left to spend together was often spent by me trying to justify the amount of time I was at work... that this was a career in a field for which my college degree wasn't any help... that I had to work extra hard to advance, yada, yada yada.

I then moved on to the ill-fated ea.com qa department... what a joke. I quit 2 months before the whole department was scrapped.

I'm still in the software industry, still in QA, not designing worlds, but not working much overtime (I will be coming in tomorrow, a Saturday)... but its no big deal because I haven't found any woman that compares to the girl EA took away from me.

The stock options are great, the 401K, the gym (I was one of the lucky few QA people that got to use it because I had been there early on) .. the cafeteria... but the hours and the pay are not fair... I still have a lot of friends there, and there are fair departments, but as an entry level programmer, artist, and especially QA rep, expect to suffer until something changes.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-13 08:14 pm (UTC)

Re: QA

Thanks for your comment. QA is indeed struggling to find its place within the game development world, and that sadly means that it gets stepped on by the other departments who seem to need the ego trip of thinking that they're better than someone. This is not universal, of course... a lot of developers do properly appreciate QA, but often the managers and corp level do not. Hopefully this is something that will change soon.
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