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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)
2004-12-09 01:19 am (UTC)

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

I work for a major cellular service provider in the United States, and we have policies in place that encourage employees to have the desire to work overtime.
You can sue.
The company is somehow managing to be sued for lost time due to employees doing work related things during lunches, during breaks, etc.
There is no reason why you should have to work uncompensated 85 hour work weeks just to work in the gaming industry.
Unionize. It's doable. They said the Communication field couldn't be unionized, and it has been. Unionization has been the American way to protect the laborer from the beginning of time, and I know that one of the demands of my union is that should layoffs be required, non-union employees be the last to go... and outsourcers out in India just don't get covered. So sorry.
The law is there to protect you.
Stand up for yourself.
Take 'em to court, and I'll bet every single gamer worth his or her salt would step away from games. Boycott. You heard me.
EA can shove it, and I know every player out there would be disgusted to hear about this.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-09 10:23 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I work in Paris;) for EA

Hi!
i agree with that someone said upper about "unionize" and "take them to court".
I am french, and i work in video game for 6 years, and the company which i currently working for is developing games for EA.And i would like to say that our working condition would be the same than EA's employees's working conditions if we haven't forced our boss to slow down the production when we feel EA and him want to exploit us!
In France people hate to be exploited by companies which do not respect the labour's laws and by consequent, their employees.
We know that there is laws that protect us, and we use them before they disappear!
I Hope that my english is understandable for you, and i wish all of you a merry xmas and a happy new year.
best regards,
a french virtual warrior.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-15 06:23 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I work in Paris;) for EA

I'm not surprised that the French author agrees. I've seen first-hand the effects of "french work ethic" - the shortest work week in the western world, beauracratic, socialist mentality - no thanks. This is not a reflection on the french worker; rather symptoms of the nanny society that has evolved over time.

Unionized software development? Unions were created to protect unskilled workers who had no means to prevent explotation, a condition that disappeared several decades ago in industrialized nations. You're highly-skilled and feel your company is taking advantage of you? Leave. or better yet, make yourself better first and then move on.

I totally believe in putting family first - it is *way* more important then shipping the next version of Madden NFL. The beauty of the situation is that it's within your control to initiate change. Do some companies take advantage of their employees? absolutely. Make them pay the most effective way - leave them high and dry.

Ultimately unionization may have the desired affect on targetted companies - all of the highly skilled workers will leave in disgust.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-17 05:13 am (UTC)

You're out of your mind

Unions are not there to protect unskilled workers. They are there to make sure that no one gets exploited. Highly skilled workers have unions so that there time is met with the proper amount of compensation. It's about guarenteeing time and pay the proper amount for services rendered. We have a name for people who undercut unions, called "SCABS"... These guys are the underskilled guys who work for a fraction of the union fee and usually end up screwing up the job so badly that they end up having to call union guys in to fix the situation. I dont think that you should be bashing anyone, especially if you dont know what you're talking about. I am not in a union, but I do know people who are. They are professional people who make a very nice amount of money. Trust me, unionizing in this situation is brilliant. Because once they see that they cant get the same quality with a bunch of towel-headed degenerates, they'll come back and negotiate.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-27 09:41 am (UTC)

NO MY MAN you are out of your mind!!!!

i totally sympathise wit the EA employees and agree that every one has a life outside of job (I know cause i do too). But i am an indian and will not take it kindly that you call us 'towel headed degenerates' so cool it tiger and concentrate your anger on EA's HR Policies and shit. Kapeesh?
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-17 09:50 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I work in Paris;) for EA

This is the most stupid and bigot thing I read for a very long time. Socialist mentality in France?, please.. are you living in the past? Bureaucratic ?, ever tried to import anything into the US ? Is it a bad thing to have "the shortest working week in the Western world"? I think it is a great thing, as it proves that you try to work smarter, not harder. Actually your statement is wrong, as we have the shortest working week here in Denmark, and strangely enough we also have the best welfare system.

I have a highly skilled job, I'm IT Manager,and naturally I'm in a union. Who else should take care of my situation in case I get into severe troubles with my company? My boss in in a union, he's an employee just like me, he's hired by the Board.

Have a look at the situation in the US. The strongest unions have created the best salaries and working conditions, those outside unions have the worst - as shown in this case.

But dream on, keep thinking that you are the lone ranger riding into the fading sun. And be just as lonely as him first time you hit real trouble.
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-20 04:10 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I work in Paris;) for EA

Geez, it takes about 2 minutes to prove this guy wrong. See http://www.ncpa.org/ea/eajf93/eajf93a.html . France is #2 in the world in worker productivity. For a French worker to be that close to an American, with "the shortest work week in the western world", a "beauracratic (sic), socialist mentality", hmmm... could it be that they're doing something right? Tsk, those nasty socialists, and their nanny society...! Actually sounds like a nice place to live; at least, they know how to work smarter.

From the link, "The most important factor in determining productivity for a specific industry is how much freedom countries allow for competitors to enter the market and to offer services at unrestricted prices."

Methinks the author of the previous posting was unsettled by a populace that are actually able to relax and enjoy themselves...
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From: (Anonymous)
2004-12-22 10:02 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- Ex. USSR

I underline the main theme of this discussion: exploit renders final result a disaster. Experienced people burn out, quit, leave for a less paid job, but where they can give theif precious free hours to their families.

I'm a young IT company manager from ex. USSR and I doubt someone here would work more than 8 hours a day, six days a week (usually we work five days a week, if not in a crunch). I don't even meet $4000 annually (lack experience), but money is not an option here. I won't apply to a company with larger worktime schedule even for a better payment (for me it's like they just can't manage their plans). Make me work 12 hours six times a week and I will make vast mistakes after a month of such rallying. What for? Eventually anyone with such a pressure will drop his workforce to zero and quit. You want to speed up your projects - make your developers happy, because time is not an option. Life is.
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-03-18 09:46 am (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I work in Paris;) for EA

Are you high? France and Germany have DOUBLE-DIGIT unemployment. They're not productive at all, and whatever "study" you're talking about is obviously spinning one fact here, another fact there, and calling it scientific.

As for you union people - join the present, ok? In case you hadn't noticed, only 12% of the US's workforce is unionized, and it's been declining since unions first started. There hasn't been a single year in the last few decades where that number has gone up. Why? Because it's an outdated and unnecessary practice.

Laws are already on the books to prevent the crimes that unions were created to prevent. If you've got a rational, reasonable basis for taking your employer to court (which they obviously have for EA, and I hope EA goes down in flames), then do so. Don't scream and cry about unions.
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From: (Anonymous)
2006-07-23 10:04 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I work in Paris;) for EA

Uhuh... Take a look at the French economy though.. their largest industries (agriculture, automotive etc..) can only exist on the basis that they are underwritten by huge government subsidies.

In France, it is nigh on impossible to fire anyone for anything short of criminal neglegence. French workers expect (and tend to have)a job for life if they want it, regardless of whether or not they're actually any good. With outsourcing to China and India on the increase, the French government have started to realise that they're about to end up in deep s**t if they don't change their employment legislation. If you follow international news, you'll know that there was recently a sizable riot in Paris as a reaction to the government trying to make these changes.

As far as unionisation is concerned, take a look at British industry over the last 50 years.
The unions in the coal and automotive industries became so powerful that they were almost calling the shots by the time that they'd contrived to destroy their industries and end up unemployed.
The unions effectively destroyed a lot of British industry, and damaged the country quite badly in the process. You might see a short term gain, but if the unions become too much of a thorn in the industries' side, don't you think they'll feel like they have no choice but to outsource the whole shooting match to India?
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-01-12 09:32 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I work in Paris;) for EA

Remember that the US is one of the biggest nanny state out there. We just don't call it that because we don't like to see corporate welfare as being welfare. Welfare for the corporate execs and make sure that they can still make a profit and damn everyone else. Wealthy people are seen as people that need to be protected from the insane mob of people just trying to survive. Steal from the poor and give to the rich. Subjugate the majority to prop up the minority (the wealthy). This story shows just one of the many tools that we use to do it. Just about any other civilized industrial society would not tolerate this.

Unionizing is the most effective way to fight this, it has been proven time and time and again in US history (and in other countries as well).
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From: (Anonymous)
2005-04-26 05:46 pm (UTC)

Re: HOW TO COPE -- I work in Paris;) for EA

You're highly-skilled and feel your company is taking advantage of you? Leave. or better yet, make yourself better first and then move on

I used to get emotionally stirred by the attitude of corporations and the treatment of their laborforce, but nowadays, I employ the above quoted attitude. I give my employer what he wants, I take what I want, I find ways to take even more, then leave that employer for better opportunities elsewhere with the experience, knowledge and benefits I gained at my last job. Sure a lot of people aren't in the position I'm in (no children), but for those of you who are, don't hesitate to look elsewhere while you are still employed (just don't get caught, trust me!!! :0)

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