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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: (Anonymous)
2004-12-08 02:41 am (UTC)

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

as another tester from tiburon, altho i still work there, i wanted to say thank you for posting and for obviously seeing what we are up against and what we go through and what little respect we get. may i ask, did you leave voluntarily or go down in flames?
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From: poe_diddley
2004-12-09 09:32 am (UTC)

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

down in flames my friend. they created a reason to fire me. i spoke out against a certain lead in the reviews, and within 24hrs i was canned. they used the old "lying on a checklist" reason. sadly, on paper, they were right, but when i tried to defend myself A-Plow contradicted me and said that i had NOT written the bug on the same checklist question (which would have proven i wasn't trying to lie, it was just an honest mistake during a crunch time). the checklist in question was completed each day by myself and my teammates, so we had done it about 5 times within the past week. they picked the FIRST checklist to use as evidence, but on all the following checklists i had correctly failed it. honestly, i was so bewildered by their accustations and Ez was in his usual robot mode, giving me his cold circuit treatment. i tried to tell them that there were questions about the bug, and we had a discussion on our team about the subject, and initially we were told it passed. Ez basically told me that was impossible, we don't do discuss things as a group, it is either pass or fail on paper. sadly he never spends anytime on the floor, so i'm bewildered as to how he would actually know what goes on. he depends on aplow for his news on the floor, which just has to be tainted...
i wrote the bug for the question, but failed to change it on paper.
but basically, no matter what i said they told me i was wrong in their eyes, and then clocked me out and escorted me to the door. they wouldn't even look up the bug in the database to see if i was lying or not, i guess because Aplow said that someone else wrote it, and i was just wrong, dammit. we had been on 10+hour days at that point, so i was so out of sorts that i even believed for a minute or two that maybe they were right..
i had some friends go back in and check the database. they called me an hour later and told me that i had in fact written the bug, and gave me the bug number.
i tried to contact Ez to set things straight, but by the time he called me back he just told me it was too late and he had made an example of me in an emergency QA town hall meeting on the subject.
strangely enuff, my bad review for said lead suddenly vanished, as he got some kind of award from what i understand. see, i ripped him a new hole by filling out the sheet with specific examples front and back of the sheet on how he had slacked and taken credit for things he didn't do in order to make himself look like the dilligent employee to his supervisors. in fact, he was probably the slackest lead of the bunch, and rarely took care of his team unless someone happened to be watching him-usually he was playing other games besides the one we were working on. he slowed us down, and took forever to get back to us on questions (the bug i got fired over was a good example). not to mention his favorite passtime, tattle telling on whoever he could find dirt on. now that genius is working in production.
the really shitty part is that i was tied for first place in bug count for the game i was on, and i had been trying to be the perfect soldier so i could make super kewl senior tester, which had just been created about that time...oh, and we had just gotten a raise that kicked in that week.
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From: poe_diddley
2004-12-10 11:07 pm (UTC)

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

and when i say they "created a reason", i mean that they could do that for anyone on the floor. i guarantee you that somewhere at some point anyone who's worked in QA at sometime has missed something in their paperwork. 10-12hour days, countless checklists, bickering and fatique can lead to anyone to mis-interpret a question on a checklist the first time they read it. chances are, it won't be the last time you see that checklist, and the following time you might read the question differently and see a problem.

in my case, everyone had concerns over the question i passed. i distinctly remember all of us talking about it. it was a PC game, and the question was concerning registering the product. the register prompt "do you want to register the game now or later" came up BEFORE the game began to install, instead of coming after the install was completed. the question asked if the registration section worked correctly, and actually allowed you to go online and register. it basically read: " At the end of installation, make sure that the registration section functions correctly and allows the user to go online and register the product successfully." Well, the registration worked fine, and we all knew it, as we had tested that even before we recieved the checklist. We all talked about it and asked our super intelligent lead. He initially said that it was fine, and all we had to worry about was whether it worked or not. Before we did the checklist a second time, we found out from ANOTHER lead, that it indeed had to come AFTER installation, so i went to the database, and entered the bug. Then we all failed it on paper. I didn't go back and change the answer like everyone else did on the first revision of the list. But i wrote the bug on the issue, so i figured it was ok, or maybe i just forgot, as it didn't seem to matter since it had been reported to dev, who NEVER actually sees our checklists.
Aplow was our senior lead, and also the boss of my lead, who i wrote the bad review on. We did our annual lead reviews, and i decided to give management an insiders perspective on my lead, since no one seemed to really see his short comings, since he changed up his tune when one of his bosses were around. He slowed us down, and rarely got back to us when we had concerns, like the one i got fired over. So we turned in our review sheets, and Ez left for the day. His office, however, was at that time left unlocked so that Aplow and the other seniors could access it for whatever reason. That night, i saw my lead get called into Ez's office along with another lead by Aplow. Whatever they were talking about, it was a heated conversation that involved my lead, as the arose with Aplow telling him "I told you not to let this be a problem MONTHS ago..." my lead arose with his tail noticeably between his legs.
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From: poe_diddley
2004-12-10 11:08 pm (UTC)

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

The following day, i got called into Ez's office for the termination meeting, where Aplow suddenly revealed that the studio who was developing the game we were testing were pissed and it was a big issue, b/c we passed it the first time we did the checklist. (keep in mind now that dev never sees this paperwork, especially since the studio for this game was in California, and we were in Florida). I was stunned, since i remembered writing the bug, and recalled all of us discussing the issue. That didn't matter, and Ez never looked in the database to see if i was lying or not. I personally believe that Aplow was just boldfaced lying, and he figured if he acted like a dick and made it into a big deal that i wouldn't know how to react. That studio probably never called and said shit about that issue, but he did know that if my review of my lead went thru that it would reflect on him, since my lead was under his wing.
I tell you all of this not because i hate EA or anything like that, but because QA has to put up with this shit al the time. QA managment and whoever the senior leads are get reamed over an issue, and they have to pass the buck somehow. What better way to do that than firing someone who is considered temporary? It makes it look like the problem child was eliminated, and upper management gets satisfied for the time being. QA managment is more concerned with their reputation to upper management than it is with it's employees. I'm sure you can see this by the hours, pay, no benefits, and the number of times someone gets canned for something retarded. I KNOW they still do it, as another friend of mine was backed into a corner and given the "if you don't quit we'll try to fire you or you can spend the following year as a senior tester, and we won't make you a lead till god knows when" speach. It's even easier for them to do this now, since some genius decided to have everyone sign that paper that said you could quit or be fired anytime you or they wanted for whatever reason.
This sounds fair doesn't it? It sounds like a great place to work, huh? Don't you want to put in 80 hours a week for these people?
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