Answering my own questions since 2001

Game Developers Work Hard

From a labour perspective, the game development industry is becoming more and more like the film industry. This isn’t surprising, as they’re on equal footing (that is, big money) in the entertaining marketplace. Kotaku points to an online journal by the spouse of an Electronic Arts employee bemoaning the gaming lifestyle:

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.

This shouldn’t come as any shock to anybody who works in the gaming industry–long hours are the standard. I think the gaming industry should embrace the film industry’s model–long hours and high pay. If that doesn’t appeal, there are plenty of less intenstive ways to make money as an illustrator, animator or programmer.

For my money, there’s something kind of ingenuine that this guy’s partner is writing this piece. Despite their use of the plural ‘us’ and ‘we’ throughout the piece, it’s not as if they’re working seven days a week. Woe is me, my partner works hard and makes lots of money.

While there are a number of interesting comments from fellow workers in the gaming industry, I’d like to see EA wade in there. For example, is their engineer turnover 50%? I sincerely doubt it, but unless they offer comments to the contrary, people will believe it.

UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for their comments. Kotaku has an update on this story, regarding an impending class action lawsuit.

UPDATE #2: Here’s what I’ve been looking for: an apparent first-person account of working for EA: “Many nights working till 4am when we finally had the ok to go home, only to be expected to return by 10am.”

UPDATE #3: This story keeps running and running. Slashdot references a whitepaper that “talks a lot about the culture at EA and could indirectly explain the previous stories covered by Slashdot.” The PDF is currently unavailable, but there’s some interesting (if spiteful) discussion in the comment thread.

UPDATE #4: Brian D. Crecente speaks to one of the lawyers in the EA class action suit.

22 Responses to “Game Developers Work Hard”

  1. Rog

    There is a fair amount of turnover at EA. I’m not sure of the numbers, but I certainly know a lot of people that ~used to~ work there and on top of that there’s a steady stream of eager younger employees at EA, just a glance around the place

    The trouble is that working at EA is a “dream job” for many teenagers. That creates an easy revolving door.

    Well, that and our wonderful provincial gov’t passed the legislation that videogame companies need not pay overtime in the same manner that other companies are required to.

    Oh, and maybe it is kind of like the film industry. I’ve heard that both Disney and Lucasfilm start people off on very low wages as “apprentices”.

  2. Nick

    Someone died at EA about a month or two ago.
    He came down with pneumonia and due to their corporate standard he ignored the warnings from his co-workers to go home. He stayed and he ended up dying from his illness.
    I’ve heard of other people playing networked games during O.T. hours, to make it look like they’re working late.

    But, it really comes to proper planning and RnD, if things go wrong it shouldn’t be the developers paying for it.

    Kinda sad, because if they fight this and attain a union, whats stopping their CEO’s from relocating their studio to India.

  3. Arwen

    My husband works for EA, although is not a programmer (he’s in IT). I am not writing on his behalf, as he looo-ves his job, and also, I have no urge to see him dooced. Overtime works slightly differently for him than for the engineers.

    I also have many many many friends who have worked in the film industry.

    There is one MASSIVE difference – a film shoot may be six days a week/16 hour days, but it is a finite, extremely well paying gig for most of the positions. Then you have the option to find more work, or take your cash and take a break. Most of those that I know have done 2 months on/1 month off sorts of deals: or work for 9 months, off 4. Also, in many of the positions, extra work means extra money, with overtime and double time coming into play: which is very different than “You’re going to give us everything you are for a set salary”.

    This freedom of movement is very different than those at EA, where it is work until you quit. There is drift from one game company to another, but the pay is not so great that a non-single person can necessarily bank enough to work a quit/rehire deal with HR. As a programmer, I personally wouldn’t go there regardless of the pay. The pay at EA is also pretty standard for the industry as a whole: go to Monster.ca for all the figures, but they’re not big bucks. ($45,000ish for new hires, & EA likes ‘em young.) Most of the other overtime careers (doctors, skilled film folks, lawyers) get recompense for extra time worked.

    I can’t attest to engineer turnover or anything else: but as a graduate of UBC Comp Sci, I know that EA has a bad name in terms of hiring and retention practices on campus.

    Further, there’s a gender issue here. I keep hearing over and over ad nauseum, “What can gaming companies (and computer science in general) do to attract female engineers?”

    Can’t speak for ALL women, but I can speak for a number of other women who I’ve groused with. We have other lives. Busy lives.

    Further, (not EA specific), many coding houses have a culture of non-work in working hours. Long lunches. Long game tournaments. Sports. Blogging. Web Surfing. Building of Can Sculptures. Writing of Witty Haiku. It’s necessary for people’s brains, but it does really make me wonder if all the extra hours actually lead to extra PRODUCTIVITY. I want to work when I’m working, and then leave.

  4. Andrea

    About 4 years ago, the provincial government changed the Employment Standards Act. As a result, high tech employees are no longer entitled to overtime, compensation time, standard work weeks, breaks, minimum daily pay, or 32 consecutive hours free from work each week, etc. They can work really weird split shifts. Of course, the Act exclusion only applies to certain high tech companies AND certain employees within those companies. But plenty of companies misinterpret or misapply the rules. I know of one company where someone used an anonymous comments box to ask why the company was enforcing these rules when fewer than 50% of employees qualified as tech workers and when they were pushing them on people who worked in sales, marketing, HR, customer service, etc. The company sent out a bulletin saying that this was all garbage. People tried posting copies of the rules in the lunch room, but they were removed. Lots of companies do the same thing. People can say “no”, but it takes a lot of energy to find a new job or re-train when you’re working 12- to 15-hour days, and you can’t always quit, if you’ve got a mortgage, student loans, kids, or other commitments. And that’s what employers count on.

  5. Dean

    Interesting. I hadn’t seen the document you posted, Andrea.

    If I’m reading the document right, EA is violating the Employment Standards Act. The factsheet states that overtime is payable at time and a half if the average worked per week averages over 40 hours over the term of the agreement.

    My own employer gets around this by insisting that we take the time off.

    What the standards are really trying to allow is the flexible scheduling that so many geek types favour. Personally, I do my best work between six AM and noon.

  6. David

    Interesting. But it’s not much different in the Ad word – working silly hours. I’m in an interactive agency and it’s the pre-Christmas season and it’s just nuts. Sad thing, if company a doesn’t do it, company b will. Bad cycle.

  7. Darren

    Arwen: That’s why I’m saying that the gaming industry should move to the same model. Accept that long hours, high pay and killer deadlines are the norm. Accept that industry worked are going to work, say, 4-6 months on, and then take 1 or 2 months off. Enough people are willing to do it in the film industry, so why would games be any different?

    Paul: I have worked a bit in the gaming industry over the past seven years or so. I interned at Radical Entertainment for a couple months back in 1998, and I did several writing contracts for Black Box Games (now part of EA) in 2000 and 2001. So, I’m not a long-time employee or anything, but I’ve got some firsthand experience.

  8. Paul Allen

    Good to hear. High pay is not the norm in the CG industry, only for top flight skill sets. Even top tier skills aren’t any type of security (ask any veteran Disney artist that has been ‘laid off’ unexpectedly or asked to take an unforseen drastic pay cut.) The way I look at it is: Your job/personal time should be treated like a business. Why should it be acceptable for your to reduce your overall hourly worth by not being fairly compensated in some way? (Perks, bonuses, flexible hours, the semblance of a management structure that cares for employees?)

  9. Andrea

    Dean:
    Since I only have access to third-hand information and I’m not a lawyer, I can’t say that EA is violating the Employment Standards Act. However, from what I understand of the ESA, companies can only make you work unpaid overtime if they give you a truncated work week at some other time within the agreement. So you could work 50 hours this week and 30 next week, for example.

    Personally, I think a lot of companies — in gaming and in general high tech — rely on workers to put in long hours, so that the companies don’t have to hire more people. Get four employees to work an extra two hours a day, and you don’t need to hire a fifth person. I think a lot of companies do this on purpose. (Of course, if said employees are playing pool or networked Doom for 3 hours a day, then that’s their own problem.)
    Another high tech industry exploit is the line about needing to hire foreign workers. I did an article for a magazine a few years ago, and discovered that the skills shortage was not so much about a shortage of skilled tech workers as a shortage of employers willing to pay market rates. :)

  10. harp

    the film/TV biz is just about as bad…that is, what’s left of it since the dollar’s gone up so high. If you do take the odd month or two off, some of your clients could wind up replacing you in that time with some keener. And there’s plenty of lowballing being done by big studios for the new youngsters as opposed to the older experienced types.

  11. Chris

    I worked at EA for 4 months (a co-op term), during “crunch time”, and quite liked it. I wouldn’t mind going back for a few years. It’s definitely not a job for a 35 year old with kids and such, but I’m only 23. I really enjoyed what I was doing there, and never watched the clock (which I’ve done for other jobs).

    That said, I’d support unionization of the employees there. People DO work too much, and although some teams get a lot of time off when the project is done, a lot of people just get transfered to a different team, so there’s no break at all. That’s just not right – EA makes approximately 1 bazillion dollars a year, so I’m sure they could manage a bit of overtime pay.

  12. Paul Allen

    UP

    Shove it up your @$$
    (Anonymous)
    2004-11-11 22:53 (link)
    Boo-hoo indeed. How dare anyone complain about their working conditions! I mean, someone else is guaranteed to have it worse! Instead, lets all just keep our mouths shut, and make it even easier for a few people to become millionaires on the hard work of others.

    Give me a f**king break. You people are absolutely ridiculous. I work in a call center, making crap wages, wishing I could get a job at a game dev studio. And I still have empathy for these people.

    So either give a damn about other people, or take your selfish attitude, follow the subject, and put in an application for management at EA. I hear they like to hire a$$holes.

  13. Big Brother is Watching

    I have to take issue with one or your statements: “For my money, there’s something kind of ingenuine that this guy’s partner is writing this piece.”

    As the spouse of someone who works at EA, I can vouch for everything in the original article. I can think of 8 people off hand immediately that have quit from my husband’s current project within the past 6-8 months; is that 50%, I don’t know, but it’s a lot from a single team.

    My husband hasn’t had a day off since early October. Yes, that means he’s worked straight for at least 4 weeks. That’s not just working 7 days a week, that’s being worked like a slave.

    He’s gotten home around 2am for the past week and a half. Before that he was working from 9am until 10:30pm (6-7 days a week, only occasionally getting a Sunday off), for the past 3 months. [sarcasm]That wasn’t too awful.[/sarcasm] We haven’t been able to go out to dinner or a movie or do anything remotely resembling time together since early summer.

    So yeah. His wife wrote this piece. You know why? Because her husband, like mine, is at the complete edge of mental exhaustion. He’s probably so exhausted he can barely form a coherant sentence, never mind writing something as moving and important as what she wrote.

    Like her, I’m pissed as hell. We have a right to be. Our husbands have the right to work in the gaming industry (which they really want to do, so being told “Get a new job” isn’t very helpful) without being pushed to a point that damages their health, their families, or their marriages.

  14. Darren

    BBIW: Thanks for your comments. In particular, I appreciate a second opinion that can confirm the details of the original article.

    I don’t know why an EA employee didn’t write this article. I wish they had–it would’ve been a lot more effective.

    From what you’ve said, it sounds to me like “get a new job” is excellent advice. “Get a job in management” may be another viable alternative. I gave the former advice to my friend, who was in a different industry and not being exploited nearly as much. After all, your husband and most every other EA employee are highly employable. They’ll have lots of opportunities elsewhere, whether it’s in a more employee-friendly gaming company or a related sub-industry.

    You’ve outlined precisely why your husband should leave his exploitive work environment, regardless of his affection for the industry. Short of some massive, wildcat strike by game developers, the industry isn’t going to change any time soon. It seems obvious to me that there are only two alternatives:

    1) Work like a dog in the gaming industry.
    2) Don’t work in the gaming industry.

    That’s unfortunate, but it’s true, isn’t it?
    That’s why I suggested the film industry model–intensive, high-paid, intermittent work. This model is clearly acceptable to thousands of workers.

    And before we talk about how “important” the original piece is, let’s apply some perspective. This is hardly a sweatshop in Thailand. EA employees are well compensated, with a quality benefits package in a extremely attractive working environment. Yes, I believe that EA is unfairly misusing its workforce. However, on the global scale of workforce exploitation, these issues look pretty minor.

  15. Big Brother is Watching

    Sure, on the grand scale of the world, it’s not that important. That doesn’t mean it should be ignored or just brushed aside as a minor problem.

    And frankly, I disagree with your notion that if my husband doesn’t like it, he should just leave. That’s just shuffling the problem onto the next poor schmuck that gets hired. There needs to be change in the industry — for that to happen, people first need to realize that there is a problem, and that others are on the same side of the issue — and then get the world at large aware of the problem. That’s why the original post is important. Not to you, perhaps. Not to poor starving people in China. But to those people who are trying to affect change in this industry, it is.

  16. Darren

    I concur that there should be change in the gaming industry. What do you think of my film industry suggestion? The two industries are looking increasingly similar from the outside. Admittedly, games have a longer development period, but not so significantly that the model can’t work.

    It just seems to me that, given the number of people willing to work in the gaming industry, unionization and legal action aren’t an option. Development houses will just be offshored. However, if you can make a financial argument for a more rational approach (and clearly the film industry has done so), the jobs would stay here and everybody would be happier.

  17. Arwen

    Darren ~ Since I don’t think anyone has directly replied to your film industry suggestion: I think it’s a fabulous idea. A lot of film folks are unionized, though: I don’t know the history of the industry very well, but I wonder in the absence of unions how you’d get the employers & government to play along.

    EA or anyone else, in terms of profit margin, would be idiots enough to willingly make the change over, though. As it is, all that they have to do is point to software developers that are sending R&D to India. Why pay $50,000 to a developer for a 6 month contract and one game if you can pay her $50,000 for a year, get unlimited overtime, and switch her from game to game?

    Although I absolutely know that in the world as a whole, the white collar folks at EA (and other gaming companies) have it pretty good, we’re privileged enough in the western world to imagine the culture we live in without the forces of necessity breathing down our necks. I hope we would work at making the rest of the world a better place to live in, rather than our slice of the world crummier. Thailand, for example, has a rep for sexually exploiting young girls: but I don’t think that should have any bearing on how we deal with sexual harrassment in the workplace. I am not sure how the global referrant applies to the relative importance in our (Canadian) workplaces, or how minimizing the trends of worker usage in our labour market helps the third world in any way.

    BC provincial legislation supports this use of tech workers: it doesn’t put any caps on overtime, allow for recognition of stat holidays, or MINIMUM DAILY PAY for the tech sector. If you look at how the legislation reads, you’ll see that a “technology professional” could mean the BCIT lab grad, not just the University grad. Once in a while is one thing, but there’s nothing to prevent it being all the time, everyday.

    All that said, there is a cachet in Gaming that allows for exploitation, and a culture of Asperger’s that sometimes questions the need for outside life. The culture will change when the (skilled) workforce tells the employers, “no”. If they won’t, we’ll have to leave gaming to 20 somethings and Asperger’s folks, and if our culture keeps buying their goods, then our culture deserves what it gets.

  18. Sue

    Evan’s article is terrific.

    I work in the consulting industry, and I have had to make an active choice and sacrifice earning potential to avoid working for firms where “crunch mode” is the norm.

    There are so many people out there who are parroting the whole “work/life balance” line, but why is it always the middle managers who are bold-faced hypocrites about it?

  19. Gecko Bloggle

    I’m not saying, I’m just saying.

    Lifted from GameSpot’s post (found via the Klipfolio add-on, Google NewsFeed (with “Electronic Arts” as the keyword).

    Open Letter from the IGDA (International Game Developers Association).
    See Also
    Quality of Life White Paper, also from the IG…

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