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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)
2004-11-16 05:29 am (UTC)

Think Again

Why is it that more current, actual employees are not posting? Don't give me the bullshit answer that they're busy working, because I don't buy it. For one thing, there are only a few teams world wide in crunch mode at any given time.

Has anyone ever met a SLAVE that made $60K-$120K+ (or even $40K and up) a year plus full medical, dental, vision, health club membership, subsidized or free meals and other assorted refreshments, and up to five weeks of vacation a year not counting sabbaticals or comp time (which IS given, regardless of the misinformation posted here)? Didn't think so.

Before you boycott EA products and financially hurt the vast majority of EA employees who have NOT posted here, ask yourself: EA has somewhere in the neighborhood of 5,000 employees worldwide. What actual percentage of those have posted here? Not their spouses, and not "former employees" - God knows why they are not there any more - but actual, currently working employees. Yes, people at EA work hard. Yes, it can be hard on them at times. No, they don't have to do it.

Personally, I tackle that hard work with pride, and I wouldn't work anywhere else. If you don't want to...no one says you have to.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 05:58 am (UTC)

Re: Think Again

Um...actually, several current employees have posted. Have you read through all the pages of comments?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 06:18 am (UTC)

Re: Think Again

I didn't say *none* have. Have you read the single post you just disputed?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 06:10 am (UTC)

Re: Think Again

I am a current EA employee and I assure you that I don't make anywhere close to $120k. I am sick of being forced to do 2 years worth of work in 1 year's time just to keep my job. From your email, I think that you're probably in management, the ones who don't play any games, but force the level designers to rework levels to your whim and by default force the engineers and artists to work every weekend to meet the unrealistic deadlines that you guys set in the first place. And yes, I'll be leaving this industry soon (I'm an 10 year vet). I know that my team feels the exact way that I do (30+ currently employed members).
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 06:20 am (UTC)

Re: Think Again

I'm sorry. Do you make more than $40K? Of course you do.

I wish you the best of luck in your next endeavor.

If you don't mind, I will not mindlessly accept your assumption that those 30+ current employees feel the same, just because you say so.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 06:11 am (UTC)

Don't you get it?

Anyone who puts in twice as many hours as they get paid for is a slave in my book. AND, of course you don't see more postings from the ladies and gentleman at EA you dork, they are busy WORKING. Didn't you even read the original post -- these guys don't have time to do their laundry, let alone post here!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 06:29 am (UTC)

Re: Don't you get it?

Like I said, which you more obviously did not read: there are only a handful of teams crunching, worldwide, at any given time. Where is everyone else that's not crunching?

Again, with the "twice as many hours as they get paid."

Slaves DO NOT GET PAID and do NOT get a choice about where they work. Period. Throw your hyperbole around all you want, but that doesn't make it true!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 07:02 am (UTC)

EA won't change because of a boycott...

... but when their titles don't sell because they suck, especially if the company doesn't raise the bar with the next-gen titles, then EA has got to re-examine the way they plan out their development schedule and the way they structure their teams.

We all work for the same company yet there's not a whole lot of shared development going on. Every studio and nearly every title has it's own unique way of doing things, there's a lot of redundancy- people on each team trying to solve the same problem. Plus ridiculously short schedules. I mean, 6 years may be a little extreme, but Half Life 2 looks awesome.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 07:08 am (UTC)

Re: Think Again

You're quite the asshat. Go stick your nose further up EA's ass, why don't you?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 08:21 am (UTC)

Re: Think Again

Amigo, settle down. The point being is that there are some "radical" "crazy" organizations where "weird" computer artists work that get all those benefits you cited, along with competitive pay AND overtime pay. Perhaps you've heard of Sony Imageworks or Dreamworks, those crazy kooks paying OT. Those are some great pieces you mentioned, except that wild concept of paying folks for overtime.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 10:33 am (UTC)

Re: Think Again

"Has anyone ever met a SLAVE that made $60K-$120K+ (or even $40K and up) a year plus full medical, dental, vision, health club membership, subsidized or free meals and other assorted refreshments, and up to five weeks of vacation a year not counting sabbaticals or comp time (which IS given, regardless of the misinformation posted here)? Didn't think so."

it seems that if these people are being worked as hard as it seems they are. i'm not sure at what point they'd be able to enjoy a health club, let alone take an hour or two for a doctor's appointment.

and even at my lowly job i get medical benefits and holidays plus a few days vacation. I don't see why you're trying to act like these are gods gift to man kind. where as obviously EA isn't the only place that offers such benefits. I however, work my schedule and get paid for overtime. it seems that if even at a job where clearly the employees are less educated and technically trained such a thing can occur and companies still make a profit. all the more a company of smart good working people should be able to do just as well.

it seems like the conditions EA sets down are just barbaric. and if you can't notice that, then perhaps you don't have any friends, a family, or a dignity to miss. Not that you have to miss it per-se. it's just odd that you don't is all.. :-s

any way.. good luck with that money stuff. I hope you drive a nice car. and never have any time to relax and read a stimulating book or see a movie you really wanted to see, or even see the sun for that matter. :-)
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 05:06 pm (UTC)

Re: Think Again

Look, you obviously don't work there, so don't claim to speak for people who do. Is there anyone at your job who doesn't like the place? I'll bet there is.

The point was that people at EA are NOT slaves...they are free to go at any time, and they are well compensated for their work, overtime or not.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 12:32 pm (UTC)

Re: Think Again

There are many current, actual employees (myself included) posting their experiences here. Hence all the publicity it has been gathering. Just read the first paragraph of this article that was recently published.

http://www.examiner.com/article/index.cfm/i/111204n_ea

First off, where the fuck do you get off saying we make $60-$120K+? The people who end up working the longest hours are the grunts. The Modelers, Animators, Software Engineer I's, and we make $40K at best. That may sound like much but EA choosing nice locations for it's studios also means a higher cost of living. Rent in my area is at least $1200 a month for a bachelor. Medical, dental and vision is pretty fucking standard at most places.
Free meal? My fucking ass it's a free meal, it's a free meal ONLY if you stay late. Like a free dinner is supposed to compensate for all the extra hours I work?
5 weeks vacation? We get two weeks around Christmas (and unless we come in on Remebrance Day we have to work Christmas Eve), any other vacation time is bullshit because we always HAVE TO WORK!!! The only Comp time I am ever given is to replace all the fucking statutory holidays I was forced to come in and work. Sabbaticals are only given after what? 7 years of working?
I guess you really haven't been paying attention around work either. You say there are only a few teams world wide in crunch mode at any given time? Part of the complaint stems from the fact that Dev Cycles are getting shorter and Headcount is getting lower. Less people making the same game in less time. This means Crunch is no longer the exception but the NORM!

I hate working here...but where the fuck in a 90+ hours of work a week am I supposed to put together a porfolio and reel to find another job? If I quit-how am I supposed to pay for rent? For food?

Then there's the people who work on contract hoping for a permanent position. No headcount means no positions. That means the artists on contract bust their ass with the belief that their hardwork will pay off with a job. They are asked to come in same as everyone else. Work overtime, work weekends, and work holidays. They got NO benefits-that means no Health, no Dental, no Vision, no Bonus, no Comp Time and in the end their reward is NO JOB.

Do you ask them to tackle that hard work with pride too?

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 03:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Think Again

Sorry if I sound skeptical, but I think the author of this comment was making a good point. We really havent heard from many CURRENT EA Employees as to the working conditions. And I would argue, that between the current employees who have been posting, it's mixed reviews. The only people really complaining are the ARTISTS and QA department. Not to sound mean, but artists should be lucky to have their jobs because it's hard to find work as an artist. Also QA is a job anyone can do, No offense, which is why they are underpaid and overworked. Can we please get some PROGRAMMER testimonials as to the work environment?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 05:25 pm (UTC)

I am just curious which of EA's HR departments you work in?

How can you NOT know what the artists, programmers, designers and QA teams are going through? Oh yeah, HR, marketing, and finance are out the door at 5:30 pm, so how would you know!? You are the only ones who get to enjoy the health club -- which BY THE WAY employee spouses are NOT allowed to use, thank you very much.

I am so disgusted by your post and seriously wonder which department you work in? Was it in some managers meeting that you all decided that you would get together and try to do some damage control on this board?

Suck it up -- you can't treat people the way EA has been and NOT have the stuff it the fan. You kept your eyes closed, now enjoy dealing with the ramifications when the media gets on the story.
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