Log in

No account? Create an account
ea_spouse [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]

[ userinfo | livejournal userinfo ]
[ archive | journal archive ]

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: unionjosh
2004-12-03 06:25 pm (UTC)

Re: What it is like to live on the other side...

I don't know how you got your hands on this, but give me a call. unionjosh@local16.org

Josh Pastreich
IATSE Local 16
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-03 07:52 pm (UTC)

Re: What it is like to live on the other side...

Judging by the URL it seems to be public domain?
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-04 12:53 am (UTC)

Hey, don't take this the wrong way but...

I know there is ALOT of suspicion (actually equal parts suspicion and skepticism)regarding Unions.

Does your Union have a website and/or can you provide any more information here? Perhaps in it's own comment (so it is not buried inside of this one or another).
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: unionjosh
2004-12-04 01:15 am (UTC)

Re: Hey, don't take this the wrong way but...

We have a website at local16.org but it really just deals with traditional stage craft. Our sister local 839 has a better site and actually includes our contract for ILM. (Please note all wages are paid at time and one half after 8 hours. Big difference.) Some workers from EA have said they are going to try and put up a website to explain the union but they have just been too busy so far (and that is not my expertise).

In terms of general information, We are a democratic union. Union officials are elected by the membership. All contracts are voted on. Changes to dues rates must pass with a 2/3 majority.
In short, the union is you. You and your co-workers will decide what to ask for at the negotiating table. You and your co-workers will vote to accept or reject any agreement. You and your co-workers will elect workers to serve as on-sight stewards to protect workers rights and handle problems before they fester. You and your co-workers will elect your local union officials. In turn, those officials along with the officials of the other locals elect the international officials.
That is what a good union is; democracy. Don't be suspicious or skeptical of taking some control over the place where you spend the great majority of your working hours.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-10 11:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Hey, don't take this the wrong way but...

I've seen a couple of unions posting here over the weeks since this whole thing came out. I have one simple question that not one of the unions has been willing to answer:

Does your union really want us???

What I mean is, I've seen unions for animators, unions for screen productions, unions for stage production, etc etc. I have not seen anything for any type of electronic entertainment, games specifically, or the tech industry generally.

Will a union for people who work on stage or screen productions really accept people who work on electronic entertainment?

I have emailed around about this, and not gotten a single solid response. I'd be more than happy to join an existing union -- it seems to be better than sitting on my hands waiting for someone to form a game industry union -- but before I do, I want to know that I won't be the lone game designer among hundreds of lighting technicians (or animators or actors or whatever).

Can you tell me simply, is the IATSE interested in representing the game industry as well, despite its name?

In addition to this, I think that if we, as an industry, are going to unionize, we should try to get as many people into the same union as possible. So if we are going to go with the IATSE (assuming they'll actually have us), we need to decide that and do it as a group, rather than having some people join IATSE and some people join an animators union, etc.
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)
From: unionjosh
2004-12-13 06:58 pm (UTC)

Re: Hey, don't take this the wrong way but...

The IATSE has evolved over the years. When television was invented, many people thought it was a flash in the pan and wouldn't last. Then the union had to get off it's ass and organize. Then cg came to the movie industry. That too has been an industry that has grown-up largely non-union. Fortunately, ILM was unionized and set a good bar for the other companies. Now, as games have taken center stage in the entertainment industry, the unions are again having to play catch-up. I think it will be easier to join an established union rather than re-inventing the wheel and I think animators and cg artists from the movie industry are the closest fit (all of these are part of the IATSE). However, I think games and cg workers for movies should have their own local. A local that is run for and by workers in the industry. In turn, their reps. will go to the international conferences and fight for the allocation of resources just like everyone else (but I think as a growing and untapped industry the argument will be particularly strong).
You raise some important points and if you would like to discuss these issues further, please give me a call at 415-441-6400
Josh Pastreich
(Reply) (Parent) (Thread)