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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)
2004-11-16 06:54 pm (UTC)

Save us Jeebus

I used to work at another poorly managed company on a super high-profile "3rd person action platformer based on a major movie license!" It was, you guessed it, EA published and it was their red-headed step child until they saw that the movie it was based on was not going to be a load of crap and, infact, looked like it could trump the Star Wars franchise in its epic qualities. (Lo, it did!)

At this point EA changed gears and lit a fire under our collective behinds and the project, a year and a half out from completion, kicked into overdrive. The red-headed step child was now expected to be a "AAA" performer. (I'll note that it was in the end a AAA performer but it had little to do with EA's slave driving mentality or heavy handed yet mentally retarded management style.) Immediately the hours began to ramp up and 5 day weeks became 6 days weeks. 6 days became 7. 8 hour days became 12 hour days which begat 16 hour days. But the sad part was that the hours the tema put in were never enough. It was never enough dedication to be satisfactory. We were "lazy" and unmotivated." We "didnt care about the game" and "had not pride in our work." Wow, how very motivational.

EA will have you beleive, very successfully I might add, that they made this game. For all of you who think this game was made by EA, (if you know which game I'm talking about), think again. This game was made with the blood sweat and tears (literally on all three accounts) of the hard working and dedicated to the point of insanity development team. No thanks to EA. They footed the bill and got in the way. That's about the lot of it.

Anyway, I digress. EA felt that the game wasn’t moving fast enough (despite it being on schedule) and wanted to add more and make it bigger. This is a common approach by them, I've learned. "Oh, its on schedule? SWEET! We can fit more in then!" To ensure that that happened, they moved in. Literally. At the protest of our company's managers and development team, they physically moved into the office, Set up cubicles, drank our coffee and peed in our toilets.

That wasn’t the bad part. It was the one producer to every 3 or 4 development staff approach. Each one of them making their own schedule for each person. TPS reports and memos flowed from their garbage spewing mouths like so much water over a falls. Every direction from one "producer" was met by a contrasting direction from another. Features and tasks were heaped on at an alarming rate and any suggestion of the impact on the schedlue was either scoffed at or met with a speech that went something like: "For the good of the game! Dont you want to make it the best ever? In the end you'll have the satisfaction of balhblahblahblah..."

Their tyrannical grip on us tightened with every passing day and people began to snap. Good folks with great demeanors became mean, strong people with go-get-em attitudes became weak, the proud became depressed. On and on.

I realize this sounds overly dramatic but it was truly this way. I'm leaving out more than you know because the story is the same as every other one in this post. Anyone who thinks that EA is a decent place to work is dead wrong. I simply cannot illustrate how awful they are, how poorly managed and underhanded they are.

I'm glad all this is going down and I hope a judge slams them and slams them hard. This pattern of game development must not be allowed to continue or it will propagate to other companies (it already is.) We are not the film industry and never will be. We cannot work like this. Its time to stand up to it! I dont know that the class action suit being levied at them right now will have any affect but we cant just stand by and let them abuse us good people like this.

To all of you who have left, made a stand, spoke out, I applaud you. The more that happens, the more EA and its clones will have to take heed. It will be a long road but we'll get there faster the more we stand together.

Keep on keepin on.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-16 07:28 pm (UTC)

My Advice

my advice would be to "secretly" alert the media, form a union, hire a lawyer and sue the pants off of them, or move to more respectable companies such as Ubisoft, and Nintendo (they may not be the best, but they are a hell of a lot better than EA)
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-17 03:05 am (UTC)

Re: LOTR?

Haha I had never thought about the peeing in our toilets part.
I wonder if I was the good, the strong, or the proud...
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From: unionjosh
2004-11-23 05:57 pm (UTC)

Re: Save us Jeebus

This is the time to take a stand. Stand-up and fight back. Make them pay for every hour you worked and get a contract so you don't have to go through a big fight to know you're going to get paid for every hour going forward. Would they be more thoughtful about what they asked for and how they scheduled it, if they actually had to pay for it? My name is Josh Pastreich, I am a union organizer for IATSE Local 16. We represent cg workers at ILM. It can be done. I am at unionjosh@local16.org
Josh Pastreich
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