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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: poe_diddley
2004-12-07 05:35 am (UTC)

Re: ha! tell your SO to try working as a tester for EA

you're awesome. i don't really understand why you ever responded to any of these threads if you don't feel EA was in the wrong at any point.
i gather that you are defending their actions, because you seem to be bashing all my statements.
do you feel like you've always been treated fairly by them or something?
the only thing i've ever tried to say was that it's not just artists and programmers getting the raw end of the stick on the overtime/crunch time issue.
QA gets the raw end as well, and they don't even get paid salary. all i've tried to do was bring to light some of the experiences we had, but you seem to be concerned with my capitalization, and for some reason you seem to think that testers should be seasonal goofs that can just be paid whatever for their time, effort, and skills. yes, i said skills. i would love to see some of your bugs you claim to have written, since you "started on the bottom rung as well".
maybe the studio you worked for did hire uneducated people they could just fire at the end of each season. personally, i dont care. the testers I worked with all had educations, and yes, a LOT of them deserved to be in production. but getting there isn't so easy. and yes, it blows when you see meet someone that just got hired into production that doesn't know SHIT--if you know someone that works in production, it's ten times easier to get on. it happens all the time and you're a moron if you think it doesn't.
my point is simple, if the artists and programmers are gonna be part of a class action lawsuit, then somebody definitly needs to check on the hours and conditions myself and other QA members put up with. with no salary or benefits, how can you say it's fair to make them put up with the same or worse conditions?
if you have a bunch of uneducated testers writing your bugs, i feel sorry for you. those days should be over with. it should be professional on both ends, testing and dev. Tiburon actually tries to do that, all the people i worked with were great and knew their stuff. but no one got fair treatment or pay, i don't care what you say.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 08:30 am (UTC)

Points of Agreement and Disagreement

Allow me to separate where I disagree with you from where I agree.

Points I agree with:
- Excessive overtime, paid or unpaid, is a big mistake that creates many little mistakes.
- EA sometimes treats some employees unfairly. This has, on occasion, included me, but I have hung in there anyway. On the whole I have been treated far more fairly than unfairly...but I have always taken a fairly active role in adjusting how I've been treated.
- Testers should get a crack at some of the side benefits and amenities that dev does. This seems relatively smart and, in the big picture, inexpensive and I don't understand why it doesn't happen.
- Testers have skills. Test is a skill. Bug writing is a skill (that not all testers have, unfortunately). Bug discovery is a skill.
- Test is hard work and it's also difficult work. The reasons it's difficult have more to do with repetition and monotony than they have to do with skill.
- QA is sometimes looked down on by some members of Dev. I tend to look down on anyone who behaves unprofessionally, and I see THAT in both QA and Dev on and off. Projects I've been on where QA and Dev have meshed better and had more respect for one another have gone more smoothly and produced better results for it. Projects where either side treated the other unprofessionally (and please, let's not foster the myth that it's unidirectional) tended to be plagued with problems.

Points I disagree with:
- Test is a highly skilled field. Trust me, I wrote quality bugs. Eventually I also helped fix them, and that was how I got into dev...not by browning my nose.
- Test is undercompensated for the skill provided.
- Test should be paid more because overtime pops them into a higher tax bracket.
- Education=Professionalism. Some of the most educated people I've worked with have also exhibited some of the most unprofessional behavior, and vice-versa.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-07 08:30 am (UTC)

Points of Agreement and Disagreement (continued)

Points of which I am unsure:
- Working conditions for Test are illegal. I'm guessing we will all soon find out...I would not assume, as you seem to have, that either EA or its opposition would only look at a couple of disciplines.

Contradiction:
- You noted that Test does not burn people out, yet you also noted that no one ever wants to stay in test. Some questions around that are: how long should people be asked to stay, if they don't want the job? What do you consider "qualified" for Production? What makes you qualified to make that determination besides a strong opinion? You know the saying...

The company (which was not EA) where I worked in Test had a fairly high turnover rate for testers, but they were non-exempt full-time employees. We made barely above minimum wage. Many of my fellow testers were fairly uneducated, a handful had college degrees. If Tiburon is headed in the direction of better-educated testers then that's great, but I still contend that the job doesn't require it - and EA's job requirements for being a tester (completion of high school, no college degree necessary) back me up on that point. If you have a college degree you are overqualified for the average Test position, but this does not mean you are automatically qualified for a position in production or elsewhere in Dev. Do I claim that no tester is? Of course not.

If your opinions about who is and is not qualified for Production and other positions are valid, then I am honestly sorry to hear that the good old boy network is alive and well at Tiburon, if that's what is happening. Seeing someone hired ahead of you that doesn't know shit sucks at any level, but companywide that practice is definitely not aimed strictly at keeping testers down - it's just plain dysfunctional.

My advice fell into the other subthread of responses to your post...apply at the job you want, because Test is generally not going to further the skills you want to end up using and you end up victimized by the too-prevalent adverserial attitude between Test and Dev (which is generally perpetuated by both sides, in my experience). You're better off going somewhere else and doing what you had your heart set on, and either eventually finding yourself happy in that somewhere else or eventually becoming more experienced and better able to apply for a similar position at EA. If that's what you're trying to do, then I sincerely wish you luck at it.
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From: poe_diddley
2004-12-07 04:08 pm (UTC)

Re: Points of Agreement and Disagreement (continued)

now i see where you're coming from a little better.
and i agree 100%, if a production job is what i want, then that's what i should apply for.
but it ain't that easy to land a job like that with little or no experience out of school. do i think an education guarantees me or is a sole reason to hire me? of course not. i'm not an idiot. but when i and my teammates see people with no related education or work experience land ANY job in production over a far more qualified person in QA, it's tough to swallow. that happened a lot while i worked for EA. you meet people on lunch or smoke breaks and find out they never went to school to learn computer graphics, or anything related to games and for that matter barely know what a megabyte is...it's just sad to me how much they pass over the talent they already have on staff, but will most likely never see a desk in production.
all i'm saying on that note is that it's just retarded for them to pass over MORE qualified people that work in QA that at least have a first hand knowledge of the gaming industry. this is a ludicrous practice, and EA is guilty of this without a doubt. you can read the posts from others saying the same thing.
it shouldn't be this way. and i DO feel like working in QA does further your knowledge and skills of making video games. it's damn hard to keep your chops up on the art or programming skills one may have while working for QA, but you can't tell me it doesn't help to understand the process further. hell, if you ask me, everybody that works in Dev should have to put a year in as a tester. it would pretty humbling, and it would kill a lot of the dev vs. QA attitude. sounds kinda like the military, but i would just love to see some of those programmers stuck behind a screen for 18 hours on the same level, knowing that if you don't put up with the BS, you really won't be able to pay the rent or make it in the video game industry.
that's the only reason i ever did it, so that i could try to open doors for myself, but it really didn't do much more than stress me out and make me not want to play games as much or be affiliated with a big company. they just don't care about their employees as much IMO, but make BILLIONS off of their skills and labor.
i don't boycott EA games or anything silly like that, they make great products and many of my good friends still work there. maybe someday i'll go back and try for a production job if i feel like things are better (if they don't snag my IP address and blacklist me that is..).
but honestly, i don't feel like the hours we worked were fair. 80 hour weeks are not unheard of in QA. if you work that many hours, i'm sorry, you SHOULD be on the same level as any other full time employee, and you should get the same benefits.i was sick plenty of days while i worked there, but i sure as hell couldn't afford to go to a doctor AND pay my bills. forcing someone to be classified as a temporary employee in order to get out of paying them equally isn't right, whatever the reason. that talk of it just being a SEASONAL job is just silly-it's just not true for a company like EA. for smaller studios that only do one title a year, you're absolutely right. but in a studio like that, you're not gonna have year round dev either. there's always gonna be down time for someone.
like i said, i know people that worked like this for 3 years before they got any benefits-is that right? and yes, i feel like it's probably illegal, regardless of what they made us sign-i would have just about signed anything to work there.if you had truly happy people working in QA, there wouldn't be such a high turnover rate. slaving out college students for a few months and then letting them go isn't the way to get a qualified knowledgeable staff or make anyone want to stay there. i'd rather have educated, experienced folk testing my game.
it takes skill, creativity, and dedication to come up with 10 new quality bugs every day, especially near the end when you're trying to get the game out, and all the obvious ones have been found. that's when u really see who cares about the job and who doesn't. i'm not saying that testers should make $40,000 salary starting out or anything nutty like that, but it should be a little more balanced if you're gonna work those hours.
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