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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)
2004-11-30 07:04 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

In regard to that EA humane story. She indicates that EA pays well and the benefits are good. First of all, I used to work at EA of over 11+ years, I left to pursue other challenges, but regreted ever leaving. I'd wished I never had left. It was the best job and company I ever worked at. I was there in the beginning when the company was small and watch it grow into one of the biggest entertainment companies that is out there today. I know what benefits EA has to offer and there is not one other company out there that offers what EA offers....

Secondly, she said that the pay and benefits was good, then she mentioned that EA doesn't pay OT, Comp time, and doesn't give people (team) time off. So, which is it? Make up your mind! If your husband is not happy, then tell him to quit! and find a job that is hourly. Then find another job in the same entertainment field that is better.

Thirdly, I was there when EA bought out Maxis. Any kind/type of take over, there will be harsh feelings with the employees involved. Just keep this in mind, if EA didn't buy out Maxis where would Maxis be today?? That would go for any other of the buy outs that EA had purchased through out the years.

Last but not least. You babies have to stop crying and live in the real world. It's a dog eat dog world and we all need to just deal and if you can't deal, then get out of that type of business period.

I could on and on, but I said what I needed to say.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-01 08:37 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

"Need to stop crying and live in the real world"? Take some of your own advice, pal. Employers who destroy individuals and families so that their stock can go up a quarter of a point have no place in this world. None whatsoever. And when a company gets as big and monolithic as Electronic Arts has become, it's a BAD THING.

I don't know what part of "happy employees are productive employees" it is that you don't understand. The longer you can keep your team onboard, the more experienced they get. The more experienced, the more focused they are, the better your product. So many studies suggest that EA could be doing -more- with -less-. Who should we believe -- the splendid results from developers who treat workers well (i.e. Bioware) or someone like you?

And with regard to your own last sentence: "I could on and on". Forget something there? Little glitch creep in unnoticed? Funny how reading your writing feels like playing any given EA release.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-17 02:40 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

Here's the deal. I'll take your position. I served in the military, and I know about long hours. And I'll do better work than you do. I won't complain. I'll push myself as hard as humanly possible until I break, because I'm very aware of my breaking point. Once I've reached that point, I'll move on to another position or company.

I live to take jobs from people like your spouse. I love to show I can perform above the low standards of the common worker. You set the bar, and I clear it.

Please, please keep on whining. It keeps me gainfully employed.
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From: premedios
2006-05-02 12:00 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

Ok. I'm not a professional game developer, per se, but a hobbyist game developer. I'm also an avid computer game fan. From what I read from story and responses, there are mixed feelings about the consequences of "crunch time"...

well...I will say the following and everyone better listen to this damn it...

There is one consequence and that is the consumer. I am not going to pay 50 dollars for a bland game. Up until 3 years ago I used to play alot of EA games. Then I began noticing that they were bland and boring. That's when I started playing games like Neverwinter nights from Bioware and Warcraft from Blizzard. Maybe Bioware and Blizzard also have people "crunching" but maybe not as much as EA does!!!!!! Now I know why the games from EA are not that good anymore.......keep up the good work, EA management, because if this goes on and there are more consumers like me who scrutinize games by playability, EA won't sell anything.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-02 05:31 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

You are such an idiot. "You babies stop crying and live in the real world."

What are you talking about? Who makes the world? We do. We control the vertical. We control the horizontal. EA has made a conscious decision to go down a bad path. I believe in the win-win and I work at companies who endorse that thinking. Now I don't work in the games industry (I just play the games), and after reading this thread figure I probably never will. I work long hours and I work smart. But the conditions outlined here are a joke. Somebody's making a buck on somebody else's back. Time for the programmers to unionize I reckon.

Adam
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-02 04:22 pm (UTC)

Re: EA

what's more - EA just made it in the Top 25 companies to work for in BC - http://www.bcbusinessmagazine.com/

Go figure... I dated a guy from EA - trying to begin a relationship is hard as well. It seems ingrained in the company culture that having a relationship outside of EA is frowned upon - it takes them away from their work. I'm not the only one - several girls in the office have dated EA guys and have had the same experience. Either they're too exhausted to do anything, or they're working, or on a company 'function'. Now, most women I've spoken to if they're 'approached' by a guy working at EA, they say 'thanks, but no thanks' and walk away. Sad, but true.

I thought I wanted to work there - now, I really have better places to work that appreciate balance. I'm in the process of a career change into online game/testing development, I have no plans to ever apply to EA for a job in that area.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-04 11:57 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

You couldnt unionisethe industry. nice idea as it is but if you tried the first thing that would happen is EA and all big publishers/devs would ship thier opperations out to india and that would be the end of the industry in the west.

They dont care about us, just product on shelves, and not that fussy on how they do it.

the only way to change this situation is a take over of the upper echelons and run the company in a more humane way.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-10 12:52 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

"if EA didn't buy out Maxis where would Maxis be today?? That would go for any other of the buy outs that EA had purchased through out the years."

perhaps if publishers weren't constantly trying to get AAA titles in 6 months, and then closing said companies down (by default - with no funding) when their ridiculous development schedule and meddling external producers (who have wangled their way to the top from a QA department) finally result in yet another copycat no-sales no-brainer.

Good things take time, regardless of how big your marketing spend (and marketing mouth) is.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-02-13 02:24 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

EA has become a huge media giant that should fall. EA is absorbing these smaller companies, like Maxis, and then dissolving the employees to something else. Take Westwood for example. They made some of the most influential games in the industry with their Real Time Strategy games. EA bought them out, let them make C&C Generals (a pretty mediocre game) and then dissolved it. Mr. I used to work at Maxis, you are most likely either a lackey of EA, a disgrace to Will Wright, or both. EA is cutting the competitive edge out of gaming. Remember EA, giants are eventually charged for monopoly.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-04-21 12:38 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

To the person who identifies this world as "a dog eat dog world." I feel sorry for you. To think that you honestly believe that we need to live in a "real world" that involves 14 hour work days 7 days a week makes me sad. Have you even tried to listen and understand this person's situation before you impose your own judgment here? I actually find your response to be hurtful. It's fine if you think working an insane amount of hours is okay for you....however, you are not in the position to impose your brutal labor practices on others. Furthermore, it's people like you who perpetuate these illegal acts and create a disfunctional society.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-09-28 06:19 pm (UTC)

Did you read what she wrote or did you make it up as you skimmed

Her husband was told the benefits were good, and was decieved into thinking he recieved the good stuff like comp time and OT. And you were there when the company was small, as more money gets involved more people get skrewed. If you also read what she wrote, she mentioned and cited documents that state its illegal what EA is doing.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-01-06 02:18 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

Personaly to me this sounds like a Jump in under a guise name and Stand up For EA, Are you employed by EA per chance?......
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-07-17 02:14 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

"That would go for any other of the buy outs that EA had purchased through out the years."

I remember a certain company called Westwood Studios. Heard of them? Most likely since they created the greatest RTS series to date. They were about to make Tiberian Sun 3, the final game of a great trilogy within the Command & Conquer universe. Then EA took over their studio and cracked out Red Alert 2, a poor sequel to the ingenious original. Where is Westwood today? It doesn't exist anymore. A nice trip to westwood.com reveals an EA website with next to no content. EA destroyed one of the greatest RTS studios in the world.

I would have liked to see the end of the Tiberian Sun story...
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-09-08 03:38 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

Bet u were hired by EA as a voice of EA?
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From: (Anonymous)
2007-06-22 05:38 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I used to work at Maxis

Tis is absolutely insane! Those kind of hours are nor "par for the course in the gaming industry", no one should ever be expected to work like that.

"You babies have to stop crying and live in the real world" It appears you are the one who needs to live in the real world, I have worked in the programming industry for over 20 years now and NEVER have I ever been expected to put in anything close to those kind of hours, even when a deadline is looming. This is just insane and asanine.
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