For developers, it's not all fun and games

Employees at game software makers are speaking out about demanding hours, challenging companies to change their ways. Photo: Family time for former EA worker

To Joe Straitiff, it was clear that video game giant Electronic Arts expected its employees to more or less live at the office.

His manager hung a neon sign that said "Open 7 days" and "constantly sent out e-mails to his whole team, saying that he'd see them over the weekend," said Straitiff, who worked as a software developer at EA for about a year and a half until being fired a few weeks ago. Straitiff says his termination owed partly to his refusal to put in 80-hour weeks for months on end.

"You can't work that many hours and remain sane," Straitiff said. "It's just too harsh."

Brutally long hours are nothing new in the software business, where programmers are used to demanding schedules. Job-induced fatigue comes with the territory. Shipping a new release--whether in the game industry, the commercial software business or corporate IT--often means relentless hours of programming with little or no time off.

But employees at EA and other game publishers are speaking out. They're saying, in essence, that the game industry is crossing the line when it comes to reasonable work hours and are challenging it to change its ways.

A number of former EA employees charge that the company--one of the largest game publishers in the world, with $3 billion in revenue for the year ended March 31--regularly pushes its employees to work 80 hours or more per week. The company is being sued for allegedly failing to pay overtime wages.

EA declined to comment on the lawsuit and did not immediately comment on specific charges made by current and former employees.

"As the industry leader, EA generates a lot of attention on issues common to all game developers," the company said in a statement sent to CNET News.com. "Everyone who works in a game studio knows that the hard work that comes with 'finalizing' games isn't unique to EA. EA remains committed to our customers and our employees, and will continue to do all we can to ensure EA is a great place to work."

Criticism about EA's work practices comes in the wake of a Web log posting last week that made about the company and sparked a flood of complaints about EA and the game industry in general. The comments depict an industry that expects employees to put in many work weeks of 60 hours or more, with little attention to helping employees balance work and family needs.

EA isn't the only game company accused of having grueling work demands. A developer who works for a studio owned by Atari, for instance, said in an e-mail that the game developer expects its employees to work 50 or more hours per week for months at a time. "Once it starts, it doesn't let up until the game ships, which can be up to two years away," wrote the developer, who asked to remain anonymous. "It starts with 50 hours, then 60, 70, 80...they don't want people to have lives or families."

An Atari representative declined to comment on these claims.

Jason Della Rocca, a program director at advocacy group the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), said that despite the industry's focus on creating fun games, it has a not-so-fun underside of exhausted and stressed-out workers.

Regarding EA, Della Rocca said some of the company's units have less-than-excessive work hours. But he said that pockets of the company demand overly long hours and that work conditions in the industry overall seem to have worsened as game projects have become more complex. "The games industry is a ticking time bomb for labor relations disputes and related problems."

Not everyone sympathizes with game industry employees, who sometimes pull down six-figure salaries.

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