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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 05:57 pm (UTC)
My favorite things about EA are the fact that they are trying to be "the #1 people company" and "a one-class society." HA!

Does it surprise anyone that EA dropped off of Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2004 after it debuted at #91 in 2003? I was shocked they even made it on the list in the first place.

How much money did EA spend erecting that labyrinth on its main lawn? If they'd taken that money and, instead of wasting it on superficial gestures, used it to improve the lives of EA employees in a tangible way, wouldn't that have gone much further towards being "the #1 people company?"

But there's a reason why EA didn't. It's because EA doesn't really care about being "the #1 people company." They just want to give the appearance of being "the #1 people company." And the most tragic thing about it is I suspect they've swallowed their own bullshit enough not even to be cognizant of that fact anymore. It's a shame.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 03:28 pm (UTC)

they circumvented this one


They changed "the #1 people company" to "the #1 people company for high performance individuals and teams" a couple of years back.

I took that as "if we treat you like crap it's because we don't think you're working hard enough."

Wild horse couldn't drag me back there.

- Five year veteran.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 09:53 pm (UTC)

Re: they circumvented this one

Out of curiosity, did you find a nook in the gaming industry that was better or did you just get out of the industry entirely?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: unionjosh
2004-12-16 07:06 pm (UTC)

Re: they circumvented this one

Have you contacted the lawyers involved in the class action suit?
Josh Pastreich
unionjosh@hotmail.com
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 05:33 am (UTC)

Greedy Self Serving Corporate Executives

This is in a way an indirect reply to the all the previous posts regarding the current corporate culture. I served in the military for 24 years, followed by various jobs after retirement.
After experiencing the military environment where caring, compassion, teamwork, and concern for subordinates welfare was an institution; joining the civilian workforce was a real eye opener. What I saw were self serving, uncaring, greedy, manipulative, incompetent managers and executives who cared only about the bottom line which was their pocketbooks. Lip service was commonly given to the core business values of leadership, integrity, devotion, and dedication supposedly espoused by these "wonders of management".
Management provides as few resources as possible for you to accomplish the mission but reprimands you when you can't do the job for lack of them. When explaining why you couldn't effectively do the job due to the lack of
resources, you are given the ubiquitous saying "we are on a budget and have to watch expenses, but do the job anyway". Meanwhile management is on another one of their many business junkets at another so called "convention" lounging
around in a $200.00 a night hotel enjoying all the luxuries of life.
Meanwhile we continue to work long hours frequently under less then desirable conditions, and very often for peanuts while what little pay
and benefits that are tossed our way are inexorably marched to the corporate bean counter cutting board while the pocketbooks of CEO's and other top level executives continue to experience the "bloat syndrome" (Hey Bernie Ebbers, Andrew Fastow, Jeffrey Skilling and others of the business mafiosa...are you listening)? These "wonders of leadership" can be characterized as being apathetic since they are too busy either golfing in the Carribean, jet setting in Europe, or entertaining a congressional committee member in an effort to
legally sanction the continuation of their business practices.
Yes we are given the standard party line which is either to toe the line or leave. However, When will executive leadership/management wake up and realize the total cost to the organization resulting from low morale, low productivity, and high turnover with it's accompanying retraining costs is more then what it would be if they cared about the plight of their workforce by providing adequate resources and compensation to those who work the hours so the ones who make the millions can walk on our backs as one respondent so eloquently put it.
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From: ammaoomoogla
2004-11-13 06:03 am (UTC)

To the person who posted the above

If you check back here at all. What was the military like, and what did you do in the military? I've considered the military as an option for a while but recently one of my friends signed up with the Air Force, went to boot camp, and came back because he couldn't take it.

The sentence about caring, compassion, etc. sounds really nice, and there are some great benefits being offered by various military branches, but what do I have to go through in boot camp and training? What is it like when you get out of training and serve in the military?

If the anonymous person or anyone else who has served in the military would like to talk with me about that, feel free to email me at ammaoomoogla@hotmail.com
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[User Picture]From: baxil
2004-11-13 08:29 am (UTC)

Re: To the person who posted the above

If I were you, I wouldn't worry about boot camp and training. If you sign up for the military now, you WILL be sent to Iraq. The question for you is: Are you willing to head over there and spend nine months or more at a stretch in the desert heat, figuring out ways to kill people who are out to kill you back?

There may not be face-to-face fighting depending on the branch of service you join, but there's certainly risk involved.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: hav
2004-11-17 07:57 pm (UTC)

Re: To the person who posted the above

Bah, four days late but here's hoping.

Most Air Force personnel don't go to Iraq. The closest bases that they get deployed to on a regular basis are in Turkey, Korea, and Japan, with a chance at Kuwait. As long as you don't go into the Security Police squadrons, you'll be safe more or less.

There's also the Coast Guard. While not considered a branch of the military by most people IN the military, it does offer the same benefits as all the others with a decided bend on Homeland Security. The only folks who really have to worry about going to Iraq are the Marines and the Army. Most of the major air wars are over (and the people who fight them are officers anyway, airwise), so technical fields tend to stay out of the hot zones.
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From: wild_bill_66
2005-05-01 06:27 am (UTC)

Re: To the person who posted the above

what do I have to go through in boot camp and training?

I can't Speak for the USAF because I was Navy. Went through Boot at Great Lakes, Ill in the mid-80's and this is the reason for Boot Camp then according to the nav. "To Teach the Recruit to pay ATTENTION TO DETAIL while under extreme pressure". That's the reason for the marching, close order drill, inspections and all that typical boot camp stuff. Boot is 1 large mind game focused on Attention to Detail.

As for Training, there were still Fire and Security watches to stand ( as if any force was going to storm the Great Lakes Naval Hosp, North Chicago LoL ) But for the most part it was life as is on any campus. After Boot Camp though , Training is a Breeze, and then in the Nav You head to the fleet.

A Person considering the Military as a option should really take some time to ask themselves if they are cut out for it.
Some people are just not, and only the individual can decide if they are.

5 1/2 months later, there's the short answer, hopefully You will see it someday.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-30 03:02 pm (UTC)

No. 1 people company baloney

You're dead on the money about these magazine-sponsored contests, where employees fill out surveys and the corporate brass courts the editors and reporters doing the piece.

It's all fake. Trust me. I worked for one of those companies that made the list.

FYI: I just heard on NPR that J.M. Smuckers is closing a plant in CA. and laying off 150 people. Smuckers placed first on Fortune's Best Co. to Work for List last year.
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From: ollieroye
2008-08-10 11:31 pm (UTC)
They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it's money they have and peace they lack.
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From: joanladdell
2008-08-11 12:29 am (UTC)
They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it's money they have and peace they lack.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: terencepederse
2008-08-11 12:39 am (UTC)
They'll pass over the money without even thinking about it: for it's money they have and peace they lack.
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