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

Ed Frauenheim Former Staff Writer, News
Ed Frauenheim covers employment trends, specializing in outsourcing, training and pay issues.
Ed Frauenheim
8 min read
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 similar accusations 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.

"Go to (McDonald's) or a factory, then back to your air-conditioned offices with free coffee," one responder to last week's blog posting wrote.

The business of fun
Computer games have gone from the plaything of geeks to a mainstream product raking in billions of dollars. U.S. computer and video game software sales grew 8 percent in 2003 to $7 billion--more than doubling industry software sales since 1996, according to the Entertainment Software Association trade group. Last year, more than 239 million computer and video games were sold, or almost two games for every household in America, the association said.

EA alone last year sold more than a million units for 22 game titles, including "The Sims," "Harry Potter and The Chamber of Secrets" and "Madden NFL Football 2003." The Redwood City, Calif.-based company has 4,400 employees worldwide and operations in California, Texas and Florida, as well as in Canada, the United Kingdom and Japan, according to its Web site.

Making modern computer games can involve the work of a number of different specialists, including animators, software programmers and musicians. "The most talented people in the industry come to EA because we make great games. Additionally, we offer competitive salaries, bonuses, stock options, health care and a wide variety of other benefits and work environments that are second to none in our industry," the company said in a statement.

In addition, EA said it conducts a biannual survey, letting workers anonymously say where the company should make improvements. "We take this survey seriously because it comes from current employees who know first-hand what it's like to work for EA," the company said.

One current employee said he and co-workers responded to such a study in 2001, making it clear that long hours were a problem. But the employee, an image production specialist who asked to remain anonymous, said he recently finished working 80 hours a week for several months straight. He said his team is facing an even more demanding schedule. "If anything, it looks as if the crunches are going to get worse before they get better," he said.

The author of the original blog posting last week, the fiancee of an EA employee, added that EA recently said it no longer wishes to offer developers a few weeks off at the end of a project.

In an interview Tuesday, the author said she is looking into creating a "watchdog" Web site to keep track of workplace abuses in the game industry. She also said she was surprised by the outpouring of responses to the posting. "It was a powder keg. I didn't realize how upset everyone was about this," she said.

More than 2,000 comments have been posted in response to her essay, with a number of responders saying EA isn't alone in the way it allegedly treats developers.

The comments echo findings from a survey earlier this year conducted by the IGDA. Game development is "all too often performed in crippling conditions that make it hard to sustain quality of life and lead too many senior developers to leave the industry before they have had time to perform their best work," the association said.

Almost three developers out of five report working 46 or more hours in a typical week, according to the survey, and more than 95 percent of respondents said their company experiences "crunch" time. Over 18 percent of respondents reported having experienced crunches of two months or more, and more than a third of respondents said they work 65 to 80 hours a week during crunch time.

People in the game industry generally acknowledge that "crunch time," involving unusually long hours, is often needed before major deadlines.

But game industry employees argue that months-long crunches are too much. One former EA employee in Canada, who asked to remain anonymous, earned more than $100,000 as an art director but said the company expected an oppressive amount of work hours. He said he once worked for four months without a day off and put in 80 to 110 hours per week for about eight consecutive months.

EA uses a ruthless management style, the former employee said, recently firing nine people whose team delivered its game behind schedule.

"They've basically created an atmosphere of fear," said the former employee, who resigned about a month ago because he didn't think he could balance family and work pressures. "Pretty much everyone at EA is scared for their jobs."

An industrywide issue
The IGDA's Della Rocca said work schedules that grind down workers don't make sense. "Happy workers are more productive," he said. "Happy workers are more creative." He said the industry fails to devote enough attention at the beginning of game projects to create prototypes, which can determine what is really fun about a game. Without such initial research, last-minute interventions can be needed that increase the burden on workers, he said.

Games also are becoming more complex, Della Rocca said. A decade ago, five people working for six months to a year with a $100,000 budget could create a game. Now a team might be composed of 200 people working for more than a year on a $25 million budget. But management training to handle these more complicated projects is lacking in the industry, Della Rocca said.

He said EA and other industry players are setting themselves up for potential challenges related to stress-induced health problems and unpaid overtime.

A tangle of rules governs what types of employees are exempt from overtime pay and how it is calculated. In California, an employer must pay premium overtime rates to an employee working more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week--unless he or she qualifies as exempt from overtime pay. Certain administrative, executive and professional employees are exempt. Salaried workers are not necessarily exempt.

The lawsuit against EA, filed in July, claims that EA improperly classified image production employees as exempt from California overtime laws. Those employees, defined to include animators, modelers, texture artists, and lighters, are "assigned to duties inconsistent with exempt status," the suit claims. Among other things, the suit asserts that image production employees "do not customarily and regularly exercise discretion and independent judgment," part of the state's test for determining a "professional" exemption.

EA image production employees "regularly work more than eight hours a day and 40 hours in a workweek," the suit alleges. "They work on weekends and occasionally on national holidays, and are not paid any overtime compensation for such work."

In the wake of the initial blog posting last week, there's been chatter about the possibility of unionizing the game industry.

The IGDA has also joined the debate. On Tuesday, its board of directors published an "open letter" that, among other things, called on game developers to take some responsibility for bad working conditions. "Developers are sometimes just as much to blame for submitting themselves to extreme working conditions, adopting a macho bravado in hopes of 'proving' themselves worthy for the industry," the letter said. "Our own attitudes towards work/life balance and production practices need to change just as much as the attitudes of the 'suits.'"

Straitiff said he's in the midst of balancing his home life and career. He is "getting over the burn-out" of long hours at EA and is enjoying playing with his 20-month-old daughter.

He also muses about returning to a field he's loved since he was a kid. Armed with a Commodore home computer, he wrote his own games. He later took a pay cut to come to EA's Maxis division because he was drawn to the "SimCity" game. But EA was snuffing out his passion with the hours it demanded, he said.

"You shouldn't be able to ask a person to work 12 hours a day, seven days a week for months on end," he said. "You really fry a person working like that."