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EA: The Human Story [Nov. 10th, 2004|12:01 am]
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?



This article is offered under the Creative Commons deed. Please feel free to redistribute/link.

From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 10:26 am (UTC)
Wow, that puts my experiences in perspective. :(

EA isn't the only company to do this kind of practice but it's certainly the most extreme case I've ever heard of.

Where I sit, it seems Sony have similar ideas about how to treat employees but I 'only' did about 50-60 hour weeks for 4-6 weeks (I can't remember exactly how many weeks it was - they all blurred into one another at the time). That was horrific but still not even close to what you've been put through.

I'm headed for a smaller company and hoping that the publisher doesn't screw it over. :/
Doubtless, there'll be another fresh-faced newbie to replace me when I'm gone.
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[User Picture]From: direwolf109
2004-11-10 01:20 pm (UTC)


Been there, done that, and currently hoping for the same lack of screwage.

There's another problem here that hasn't been mentioned, and that is how you get into the industry in the first place. Small companies (quite reasonably) don't feel they can afford the risk of taking on someone without significant experience. That means young programmers who want to get into games pretty much have to go through the giants in order to have a chance to get that 2-3 years and 2-3 titles. That's certainly why I was at Sony.
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[User Picture]From: kaolinfire
2004-11-10 01:30 pm (UTC)

Re: Yep

Yeah. I'm going the long, slow, and even more uncertain route of trying to do my own projects, slowly building them until they're something a small company would be proud of. Chances are I'll have a small company by the end of them. Then, chances are I'll stop after game two or three and never make a cent.
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 04:22 pm (UTC)

Re: Yep

Going in through one of the big companies is one way to get in, and it's probably the easiest, but there are others. It's easier if you're an artist, whose skill is clear from one glance at a portfolio... but basically what will happen in the future and what is already happening is that designers, writers, and programmers will have to start creating portfolios of their own. I've worked for a couple of small studios and talked to many others, and most of them would quickly snap up any programmer who had their own small portfolio of self-made projects -- it shows initiative and follow-through to take even a small project to completion. You would be amazed how few people actually do this, though. The catch-22 of getting into the industry, I think, was more difficult in the past ten years than it is now, in part because the whole industry is bigger and in part because it is becoming more aware of the need for new talent. The other thing is the presence of the IGDA and growing hub of game conferences, which are tremendous networking tools that weren't available before.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 08:58 pm (UTC)

Re: Yep

Someone posted this to the IGDA quality of life section - hopefully it'll get spread around. Good luck with your spouse. :)
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From: ea_spouse
2004-11-10 09:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Yep

Thanks for the heads-up, and for the well-wishes. =)
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-13 01:48 am (UTC)

Re: Yep

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Re: Yep - (Anonymous) Expand
From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-10 08:51 pm (UTC)


you're really lucky then. Sony is much much worse than a 50 hour work week for a month. My husband spend an entire year, that's right, I said year, working at least 50 hours and then near the end of the year when the product was supposed to ship (solely in Japan I might add) for three months he worked 80-100 hours a week. a few times he simply was not able to come home (we live 20 min away from his office). He had to live on Japan's schedual and if they said that things weren't done and needed to be debugged he was required to stay in his office until they said things were alright. often he just slept there because if he left they would call him back at any hour of the night. in the end, he was rewarded with a two weeks paid time off for christmas, but if you average it out that is nowhere near close to making up for the weeks and weeks of overtime that he had to suffer through.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-11 04:27 am (UTC)

Be careful

I went the same route as you. Be aware that smaller companies get screwed pretty regularly, and it results in an already small, understaffed, underbudgeted team in working the exact same hours described in ea spouse's article. Our tiny team just came off approximately 9 months of crunch, of which at least 70% was 9am-10pm, monday through saturday.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-18 06:39 am (UTC)
I know of another organization that does the same thing; promises of shiny things, good food, your own apartment, decent pay and time off when they're trying to get you in, and then once you are in, all the promises disappear in a cloud of vapour.

The organization in question is called the Sea Org and the "company" they work for? Why, the Church of Scientology! They have to sign a "Billion Year Contract" (lucky your SO didn't have to!), work for about $8 - $20 a week, working sometimes 18 hour days and a half day of "liberation" (timeoff), but only if their stats are up. If they don't perform, they are sent to a rehabilitation gulag and fed a diet of beans and rice and have to do extremely hard labour in the same 18 hour day. Gee, sounds a LOT like EA to me! Perhaps EA is under the sway of Scientology's business front group WISE?

Sea Org info: http://www.xenu.net/archive/so/index.html
WISE Info: http://www.xenu.net/archive/infopack/13.htm
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-06 10:04 am (UTC)


This sounds like EDS business practices.
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-01-29 08:44 pm (UTC)

That's so cruel!

OMG, i cant believe that i have a lot of EA games, i love videogames and im trying t work in videgames industry, but...
I dont like this, i cant believe that a biggest company was a biggest crap,
I really hope that your SO go out soon and found a better Job. For him and for all tha people around him.
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From: brigittabogomo
2008-08-10 11:48 pm (UTC)
I really do, because from my perspective, I have heard him say over and over for you to just shut up and go quietly.
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From: kateshiflett
2008-08-11 12:26 am (UTC)
I really do, because from my perspective, I have heard him say over and over for you to just shut up and go quietly.
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From: mmuxina
2010-04-21 09:42 pm (UTC)
oh, i think it's inevitably
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