November 11, 2004

Crunched

by Andrew Stern · , 12:45 pm

An anonymous “EA Spouse” writes an impassionated plea for better quality of life for game developers, describing how his/her spouse has had to work such insane hours for months on end to finish a product, that it’s upended their lives. The 400+ comments include several other very unhappy spouses and developers speaking up, several of them bitter EA employees. A parallel discussion ensues at Slashdot Games. IGDA’s Jason Della Rocca (Reality Panic) has been addressing this Quality of Life issue lately.

This comes back to need for a viable independent game development scene, of great interest to us on GTxA. Not that working at a startup company will reduce your workload, but at least as an indie you’d be slaving away for yourself.

9 Responses to “Crunched”


  1. Grand Text Auto » Getting a Degree in EA Says:
    [...] EA as a whole has a lot of truth to it, although this season’s heavy crunch time has been overly brutal in many’s opinion. Whether you’re in academia or industry, [...]

  2. andrew Says:

    Jason Della Rocca, who is organizing a Quality of Life Summit at GDC05 this March, posts a bunch of interesting links pertaining to this situation. CNet news has already picked up on this, and Gamespot has discovered the possible beginnings of a class action lawsuit on behalf of a group of EA employees, to recover overtime pay owed to them. Apparently last July a Sims 2 designer already filed his own lawsuit.

    There’s talk of the need for game developers to form a union. Jason warns that a union could have the side effect of further squelching creativity and innovation in the game industry — which in many’s opinion, including some of us on GTxA, is too low as it is…

    I have a friend who works at the film sfx company ILM — he’s been one of the zillion workers on the new Star Wars films, among other projects — and I remember being kind of shocked that he was forced to sign a 3-year contract which bars him from working for a competitor of ILM for 3 years, should he decide to leave ILM! Considering that making film sfx can be at least as grueling as making games, I wonder what kind of overtime practices they have in place there. Maybe film industry animators are union, like actors have SAG.

    At PF.Magic making Dogz, Catz, Babyz, we pulled some very long hours, like most people do in the game industry, especially when they’re passionate about what they’re making. The half-serious joke motto from one of the company founders was, “If you’re not coming in Saturday, then don’t bother coming in Sunday.” :-) From 1996-1998, I probably ate dinner at work on average 30% of the time (paid by the company), more so in the fall months near Xmas shipping time, often getting home at 11pm or midnight. My S.O., who was a grad student then, remembers those days as a lonely time.

    But I loved it. We were working hard and making cool products that we knew a million or more people would soon be playing. It was thrilling, really. Maybe you have to be a workaholic-type to enjoy the long hours, and maybe you need to be in a situation that is more personally rewarding — not part of a huge, huge team where you’re something of a cog in the machine.

    I don’t think unions are necessary here. I do think the culture of large companies like EA does have to change some — to essentially pay their employees more, if they’re going to demand long hours. Odd that the company that has the highest revenues in the industry by far, EA, seems resistant to do so.

    Let’s not forget that there’s a reason that these long hours are needed — games are very time-consuming products to create. Many of us want more richness and variety in our interactive entertainment.

    Ah, perhaps now I see the real solution to all of this — more generativity in games, to avoid having to manually create all those game objects and animation and behaviors in a brute force manner, that requires hundreds of people killing themselves for months on end. (I always manage to spin these posts into something about agency or generativity, eh?)

    (but at the same time, bigger isn’t necessarily better…)

  3. josh g. Says:

    This sums up my thoughts on the matter quite nicely, and I’m glad to hear it coming from someone with a lot more experience than I have.

    Fortunately, I’ve been hearing some acknowledgement of this issue from EA execs internally, before this whole ea_spouse PR fiasco came up. If their actions live up to their words, they might be already on their way to improving things.

  4. andrew Says:

    Good to hear. To the extent you know and can talk about it, do the majority of EA employees tend to agree with these sentiments, particularly among the rank-and-file? Is it just a minority that feels these accusations are overblown or untrue? I’m trying to understand how much of this is actually just a smallish number of bitter employees who had it particularly bad, for whatever reason.

  5. josh g. Says:

    I have absolutely no numbers, and only a vague idea of how much I can talk about it. If it’s true that EA as a whole has a 50% turnover rate, that largely speaks for itself given that EA pays reasonably well for a game developer.

    If I had to take a guess, I would say that the EAC studio I’m at is probably no worse than the industry average in terms of poor quality of life for employees. I don’t have industry experience anywhere else, but I’ve heard my share of bad stories.

    Some projects are worse off than others, some are better – I came on for the last three months of a project with a three month crunch time, so I got to see some of the former. There were other projects that were much more reasonable, and one in particular that finished ahead of time with only a handful of days of pre-emptive overtime to meet milestones. This is far from a statistically-sound cross-section of EA as a whole, so take it only for what it’s worth.

    Personally, I chose to stick with this project through the next cycle because I think EAC, and EA Sports especially, is the best place for their newfound commitment to good quality of life to grow. Franchise sports titles are a perfect place to solidify good practices like incremental development and consistent re-evaluation of feature sets. One team finishing ahead of schedule without death-marching is great – the whole studio doing that next year could change the industry. (Being the biggest studio in the industry should be good for something there, right?) I don’t think it’ll completely happen overnight, but I think it’s realistic to say that we could get more than halfway there in a year if it’s taken seriously.

  6. andrew Says:

    I wonder if the overtime policies are different at EAC (Vancouver, B.C.; also Montreal, Q.B.) than the American studios (Redwood shores near SF, LA)? Do the Canadian labor laws differ in any significant way, which would affect things? (For example, is the standard just 2 weeks of paid vacation a year, like in the US?) Or perhaps the EAC studio have this problem a bit less because the titles they’re developing have a bit less design/technical unknowns/risk than the titles developed at EARS or EALA, I don’t know.

  7. josh g. Says:

    Well, first of all keep in mind that a three-month crunch time for a sports title with a 12-month development cycle (such as the EA Sports titles) is more significant than a three-month crunch time on a 2+ year project. Both are bad, but if the former happens every year, that’s twice as many months where your wife wonders where you are.

    I don’t think Canadian labor laws (or labour laws, I suppose I should say) make a significant difference here. Paid vacation time is 2 weeks, and I think the usual benefits policy within the company is identical here as it is south of the border. In fact, I’m told second-hand that B.C. recently passed a law which exempts high-tech salaried employees from required overtime compensation. So labor law here (in this province at least) might actually be more of a problem. I don’t know what the case would be at the Montreal studio.

  8. andrew Says:

    “[D]eeply disturbed by this vicious cycle”, the IGDA has released an Open Letter acknowledging that “the immaturity of current business and production practices is severely crippling the industry . The recent frenzy of discussion over impassioned testimony about the horrible working conditions within much of the industry attests to the reality of this often unspoken disease.”

    Wow, that’s pretty strong language.

  9. andrew Says:

    A rehash of all this has bubbled its way up to the NYTimes. I know it’s also been in the LATimes. EA can’t be terribly happy about all this unflattering PR.

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