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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)
2004-11-29 02:28 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers


Heh, there are some interesting, and illuminating, themes in this post.

First, the entire theme of testers being a low skill job. That may be the case at EA, but it's because they've chosen it to be that way. You look for "low skill" testers and you will find them. You get what you pay for.

One gets the sense that there's also a well entrenched caste system at EA. There's definitely a sense that testers are second class citizens. I'll say, for my part, that if I were given a choice between a top flight developer and a top flight tester, I'd have to stop and think for a while. I can make do with average developers, but a top flight QA analyst is worth their weight in gold. I think EA's attitude in this regard is self-defeating.

I'm also a little amused at the implied rebuke that testers don't find all the bugs. Who the hell put the bugs there in the first place? EA sounds like a shop where the coders have forgotten that QA is essentially cleaning up their mess.

I bet the developers and testers don't even sit on the same floor at EA facilities? Right? And people wonder why there's a quality issue.

What's also funny is that the organizational disfunctions at EA almost certainly contribute to the current working environment. It doesn't have to be the way it is there. But, cut a few corners, treat testers as disposable grunts, allow developers to think their job is code (as opposed to tested, working code), and you start to see this happen. I suspect a lot of the crunch time you see is rework and dealing with quality issues.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-11-29 07:34 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers

Hi,
Thanks for the comments about my post. I was only there for 7 months, as I said, but I would agree that the impression one receives is that there is a well entrenched caste system in place within the company.
I think the degree of interaction between the developers and the testers is dependent on the franchise. One does get the impression that the caste system may act to inhibit the development of potential talent within the company. I think that its a shame, particularly because I met some very intelligent people working in quality assurance that eventually left the company because they recognized that if they stayed they would find it very difficult to develop their skills, and in all likelihood they would find themselves working long hours, for very little money and in the end, not really getting anywhere with their own personal development.

It seems to me that the company wins if it uses the quality assurance department as a viable talent pool, however, its difficult to envision how such a strategy could be implemented.

I would also make one additional comment about the suggestion that the job is low skilled. I think that even though one does not have to go to school in order to learn how to be a tester, in order to do the job well the company does need to find people that pay careful attention to detail, possess strong communication skills and can work effectively in teams. I think it is unlikely that anybody off the street can do the job, because in fact, if that were true then I think it would be unlikely that the hiring process would be so rigorous, which it is for a job that apparently requires no skills. Furthermore, testing is very similar to any other type of job. The longer a tester is there, the more efficient he becomes, the better he is at spotting problems, but also anticipating where potential problems might develop and as time goes on, a tester starts to recognize that when fixes are applied to specific areas of the game, specific errors can be introduced into other areas of the game. Its an interesting learning process because even if the worker does not know how to code, after a sufficiently long enough time testing, the worker can start to anticipate how the code might work thus improving productivity and efficiency.

I would also add that the development teams might want to consider tapping the quality assurance department for more concept ideas. I say this because, in effect, the quality assurance department might be interpreted as one giant internal focus group as well and it stands to reason that given the quantity of time the testers spend on the game, in all likelihood they develop some interesting perspectives and ideas about the software that they are working with.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 09:00 am (UTC)

Re: Testers

I agree and disagree.

Yes, there is something of a ridiculous caste system...this seems to be common at all game companies.

Testers (at least some subteams of them) are often co-located with the development teams. If floor space were not an issue, this would be more common.

"I'm also a little amused at the implied rebuke that testers don't find all the bugs. Who the hell put the bugs there in the first place? EA sounds like a shop where the coders have forgotten that QA is essentially cleaning up their mess."

Now who's contributing to the adverserial climate? Test and Dev are a *team* working on making a clean product *together*. If you read what I wrote carefully, I don't fault Test for not finding everything...I have been a tester, and frankly with the complexity of just about all modern games, I don't think completely bug-free software is possible. That's all I am saying. I was simply disagreeing with one point that the original respondant made.

Your last paragraph is spot on, but EA *is* also starting to try to foster the attitude that code is not done until it's done and unit tested by the coder. From my experience and friends around the game industry, this is unfortunately still a fairly novel concept. If you are proposing that programmers should always be able to discover all the interactions between whatever part of the code they're working and all the code generated by the ten to fifty other programmers on a game, not to mention how it interacts with the work of all the content creation team, then you obviously not qualified to carry out this debate.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 02:33 pm (UTC)

Re: Testers


No, I'm not proposing that programmers should always be able to discover all the bugs. But, any plan (won't call it a project plan) where success depends on some magical integration of all of the products of this 10-50 developers is, how shall we put it, "sub-optimal". That's not a programmer failure, btw, but a project management failure.

I would think that a simple measurement, such as the percentage of time spent on fixing problems in the code, would pretty clearly show the damage extended overtime can do. I wouldn't at all be surprised if some weeks saw a net negative contribution to the project plan. The developers at EA are going so fast, they're actually traveling backwards.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-04 06:40 am (UTC)

Re: Testers

We have reached agreement. :)

The good news is that the company IS starting to collect that kind of metrics at least for some teams...hopefully it'll change things.
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