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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)
2004-12-06 03:11 am (UTC)

you too can be a big publisher

The organization is caught in a catch-22. Because of earnings forcasts and revenue expectations, the studio is in the position to either put product on the market or adjust revenue forecasts to reflect diminished revenue. Luckily, EA has a host of bread-winning franchishes, mostly Sports titles, that it drops on the market place in predicatable patterns quarter to quarter. They are not in a fail-safe climate - the studio must release these titles at the designated time, as has been the historical basis and consume/stock-holder expectation. Not shipping Madden would be a catastrophy, and it won't happen.

Well, as we all know, EA diversed it's license portfolio years ago, mostly through acquisition. Smart move. The sports niche had built an incredible war chest of funds and it would be years before competitors would (or ever) catch EA in that area. In addition to acquiring studios, it also began to develop properties based on mass market consumer appeal in other namely, namely film.

Again, dipping into the war chest, they could purchase weighty franchises such as Bond, Lord of the Rings etc. and develop competent games across all consoles.

Perhaps the greatest stroke of genious was to develope the BIG sports line, diversifying the sports licenses even further for a series of imaginative games built upon the loyal fan base for the EA brand, and leveraging in-house know-how to put these titles on the market.

The catch-22 is somewhat nebulous. The studio is in the public position of satisying tremendous consumer and stockholder expectation - based upon their own forecasts and breadth of game offerings. They are in no position to stretch development times to ease the hours developers work. They must sustain growth at the forecasted level. Very few companies are able to do this, in any sector. Typically, consumer and client based demand sustain the company, and it tails off after long periods of growth. Witness Cisco.

EA is a state of perpetual and renewed public demand and it must meet that demand by shipping product. The studio is all about product. Titles. Putting it on the shelf. To do so under the deadlines it imposes (upon itself), it builds large development teams to handle the load. However, as we all know, large teams are precarious in moral (takes time to gel, takes time to train) and are management nightmares.

If EA is to seriously examine work-lifestyle balance they need to FUNDAMENTALLY rethink how they develope their products. I, for one, don't believe they have arrived at the moment. I'm being kind with that soft comment.

At best, they will make some cursory, superficial adjustments to respond to the outcry about hours. They need to keep the talent base intact. These posts have had a tremendous impact. Don't underestimate what has happened here. It will change the industry. But they will be kicking and screaming along the way. Why? They are not built in 2005 to accomodate sweeping change.

Also, the studio hasn't truly come to grips with next generation development. They don't fully realize that it will be MORE complex to ship a game on the next consoles, not easier. EA is not in a position to ship a game like Jak - it is too sophisticated in level design and art. When that title hits the next generation EA will not have a product in it's portfolio to compete. You laugh. Jak right? Well, just watch.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 08:41 am (UTC)

Re: you too can be a big publisher

Absolutely true. I have worked in game development for the last 8 years and have seen technology outpace the studio's ability to produce content. I was there, at EA, when they made the jump from "sprites" to 3D characters. They slipped, and it was NOT without its pains.

Now, I am with a smaller company, and we are lucky to have almost 2 years of development time. However, we and our publisher are realizing that 2 years, with our given team, is not enough for a multi-platform release for next generation. The bottle neck isn't coding - although it could be. It's content: more specifically, art assets.

But the tools to develop art have not progressed nearly as fast as the need to produce it in a timely fashion. So the knee-jerk, and common response, would be to throw man-power at the problem.

This is where EA steps in. They are very good at this...very VERY good at this.

When they can't hire more (because of head count, which shows up in the financials and affects stock prices), they are forced to work groups OT.

So while I regret that people are burning out, as they will when worked this hard, I also feel the need to look at the whole as a system. Scheduling and management, good or bad, are just a part of the problem (cause and symptom) of the whole process.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 09:20 am (UTC)

Re: you too can be a big publisher

Thanks for the affirmative. Larger development teams is a superficial reaction to art assets and levels that have accelerated production schedules. EA is very project management centered, and I suppose the reasoning goes if there are twenty vehicles to build in two weeks, if the BG artists are doubled in rank we can arrive at the milestone earlier. If X level has X amount of assets, X number of said "artist" are needed to hit the mark.

Woe to the game developer that creates content in such a manner. However, in my estimate, EA has watered down the game-making process with too many extraneous "creative" voices. I don't mean your garden variety executive producer that weighs on gags and story. The process is also suplemented by a gaggle of writers (screenwriters) - or "creative executives", pre-production artists, and senior producers.

Rather then letting the game designers drive the storytelling, the studio has placed a litany of creative voices into the soup. The resulting stew has had some real misteps. I thought Rising Sun was the first title out of the gate that really had the thumbprint of a creative committee, namely the emphasis on a "hollywood polish" to game design. In fact, the hollywood creatives that were a part of developing the Rising Sun title have since been phased out. However, there is still a cadre of pre-production artists that work lockstep with the ranking producers to drive the content.

You need one conceptual artist in the studio. You need an ace team of game designers. Rather, because the narrative of these titles, specifically the FPS shooters, is in a rigorous creative tug-of-war throughout production, there are a host of false starts, dead ends and dark alleyways that burn production time.

The result has been large teams to churn out assets. There simply is no other way to tackle the scope of some of the levels in the time allotted. The creative takes so long to pin down, is such a laborious process, frought with "hollywood" style power struggles, the role of the Designer has been diminished and it becomes a frantic race to the finish once content is locked down.

I see no indication this is changing. The pre-production phase is as loose as a can of campbell's soup and the release date is a permanent fixture on the calendar, like root canal.

I've seen these death marches or whatever you want to call them a few times now. I can assure you, if the process was solid and there was a strong vision for the title driven by a few creatives, not a boardroom full, it would progress much faster.

Boy do they have a long way to go.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 08:12 pm (UTC)

Re: you too can be a big publisher

It's gonna be interesting to see how the EA approach of "just throw more people at the problem" is gonna hold up, once Playstation 3 and XBox 2 hits the market. With the specs we know of now, graphics are gonna be close to photorealistic, the potential for AI and physics/dynamics so much bigger than today. Mind you, this is something that's gonna be here in 1-2 years.

According to David Coak of Free Radical Design (TimeSplitters 1 and 2) and Janos Flösser of Eidos-owned IO Interactive (Hitman series), it's gonna take development teams an effort of 2-3 times more than what is done today, if they are to capitalize on that kind of potential. And as someone else commented, the tools available today just doesn't cut it.

If EA is already today bad at managing projects without excessive crunch time, and just throw more people in the mix when the talents doesn't fit the bill, this is going to be even worse.

The tendency of having a lot of people involved in decision-making is not limited to the gaming industry.

This is widespread in todays corporate world and is probably the number one killer when it comes to focus and execution.

This practice is perpetuated by corporate cultures where trust in talent and clarity of vision is non-existant. So control by having a massive number of managers, coordinators, directors and what have you involved in the decisionmaking process, is enforced.

And whatever nimbleness, focus and execution could be won by having the right people, is sacrificed by a applying a giant control apparatus where everyone is more concerned about justifying their reason for being by covering their own ass, leaving their fingerprint and making others look bad so they can advance themselves.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-06 10:50 am (UTC)

Re: you too can be a big publisher

It is easy to look at the p.r. letters and offers of the individuals at the top and make assumptions for the company on the whole, but it is important to remember that though the higher levels of management may be clueless as to the needs of next generation development, the employees who staff the teams that lead the studios future development (Tools and Libraries, Central Technologies) are not clueless. No matter what anyone may say about EA, the fact of the matter is that the studios all look to their Central Technologies group to guide them, and the individuals in those groups are some of the smartest, innovative individuals in the field.

These people realize the demands for next generation titles as well as the pressure put on the teams, and they are working to develop tools and pipelines that will help teams create the volume of content they need to without having to double and triple their resources. Their entire job is to make things smoother for all the teams through the utilization of knowledge of future technologies. Addressing the issue of solid tools and pipelines will alleviate much of the pressure for game teams, and EA is wise to have a group at each studio to handle this.

This falls apart when the high level management creates sweeping changes to the design, and takes the control of game development from the hands of the team. If this did not happen, tools would not remain in a state of flux, and game teams would be able to continue their prescribed path.

In the end, the truth that EA needs to realize is that once the design is created, it needs to stay it's course and only minor gameplay needs to be altered. Even if the high concept design may be mediocre, the tweaking of gameplay to perfection can bring a mediocre design to perfection. Given the current state of flux of all the design, as well as the inability of any director level management to commit to an asset (art, programming, sound, etc) as finished, there is no possible way for a game team to complete a project on time and expect good reviews.

There were numerous meetings about pre-production for the new generation of games from EA. The plans set forth by EA for this phase of development are sound and quite necessary. However, pre-production is only worthwhile if the team is allowed to execute on the plan it has developed. Experience with EA shows that high level management has little trust in the choices of the game teams, thus the constant change of game design in the midst of the project, creating chaos for the game team and oftentimes, a shoddy product.

EA needs to put faith in the talent it invests in.
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From: bwingb
2004-12-06 03:39 pm (UTC)

Re: you too can be a big publisher

Hi There- From what I understand, this is always a problem in environments where you get an executive board of directors on one end and a highly specialized team of talent on another.

While business people like to consider themselves creative, I find time and again that their aptitudes and business conditioning do not allow them to grasp the basics of the creative process as it applies to development of a creative product. They wish they were creative, but the majority of them simply aren't equipped with the basics.

Somehow, they think that a grasp on trends and the 'latest look' enables them to meddle with production. But this is equivalent to a parent sitting in on a bunch of preschoolers' playtime and 'showing them how it's done'. Those kids already know what they are doing; they are pre-programmed by higher forces to have intimate knowledge of the ins and outs of preschool psychological processes. When an adult steps in and 'directs', there is a kind of violation taking place which becomes counterproductive, and ultimately will undermine the childrens' development.

And if you balk at my analogy, please consider I am coming from a perspective which has a very high regard for children and play- I think we as a society need to learn to back off and let nature do it's thing. Sure- step in and provide some initial guidance, but then for heaven's sake, show some restraint and have enough faith in your guidance that you can let it manifest of it's own due course while using a tremendous amount of restraint in terms of meddling and undermining. You will have much better results if you are a competent leader who knows how to motivate without meddling.

This is why I find it so appalling that people are being treated like human refuse here. It goes headfirst against the very _laws_ of creative psychology- morale is SUCH A HUGE PART of people finding that place where things just click into place creatively. Once you destroy the morale of your people by underestimating and riding them into the ground, you are doing THE EXACT OPPOSITE of what needs to be done in terms of finding economy and progress in your manpower.

For God's sake, people! WISE UP!
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 06:18 am (UTC)

Re: you too can be a big publisher

I hear you but I don't believe central tools is going to develop any tool to circumvent what assures to be large levels, high-poly count models and vast terrain on the next-gen of consoles. And if they are, they must be visiting Hogwarts on a regular basis. The simple fact is levels will get so big and complex there will be a tremdous volume of work to create.

Additionally, with the larger poly counts invovled, many artists may simply not be scalable in migrating to denser environments. Unless these worlds will be populated by cloned geometry, which I doubt, teams will either need to be especially senior (they are not, the studios is pushing into universities), or they will be larger.

They will be larger. EA has already stumbled with Rising Sun, the game was rail thin in breadth of game environment. It's not an area of expertise in the studio. Again, Jak is not a game that EA has the capability to develope. Scripted, linear FPS titles is the niche.

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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 04:13 pm (UTC)

Re: you too can be a big publisher

What is it that you imagine Tools and Libraries is doing at the EA studios then? You'd be surprised what can be achieved when a few individuals put their collective minds towards the issue of massive datasets, and all the other issues surrounding next generation development. There are already major efforts to address all these issues happening within every EA development studio, and the solutions are beginning to work within their control groups. Also, if you haven't noticed, both Jak and Daxter and Ratchet and Clank make extensive usage of "cloned" geometry. Any game that does massive streaming levels instances geometry. As for artists not scaling to denser environments, show me a game artist that doesn't scale with tech, and I'll show you a game artist that isn't going to last long in the business. This isn't something that only happens at EA, this is the case at any company making a next generation title. Remember, EA's weakness does not come from it's developers; it comes from it's upper management's inability to lead, trust and commit.
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