EA In-Depth Part 2: The Widowmaker

In November of 2004, a blog post that claimed to expose the extraordinary work conditions at Electronic Arts gahtered and galvanized the attention of gamers, and eventually found its way into the mainstream media. The famed "EA Spouse" set loose a firestorm of criticism against the publisher with her passionate description of working conditions within what she described at the "money factory" of EALA, and likened the schedule to prison with occasional "time off for good behavior". What, on cursory glance, seemed to have happened in the following months is that the blog generated a labor uprising of a kind, and EA, perceived as a monstrous sweat shop adrift in a PR nightmare, relented and settled for millions of dollars. It was quite a remarkable chain of events for a corporation that had been listed in 2003 as one of the hundred best places to work , and it certainly appealed to the schadenfreude crowd that revels in the little guy sticking it to the big guy. And, let's be fair, EA was almost certainly abusing the laws of the state of California in pushing their employees toward 80 hour weeks without overtime, but like most lawsuits that seem entirely cut and dry, things are a bit more complex below the surface.

This week we take a deeper look at the infamous overtime lawsuits, the EA_Spouse Blog, and how the aftermath has changed the industry as well as a first-hand account on the conditions at EA from someone working there now.

In an industry rife with unpaid overtime and extraordinary work requirements, EA found itself in familiar territory as the center of controversy and defacto villain. Within two years, EA would be forced to settle two lawsuits for roughly $30 million, reclassify hundreds of its employees, and adapt to industry employees who wanted to do more in their youth than just make video games and sleep in a cot under their desk.

A timeline, though a bit tedious, may be helpful:


Timeline On EA Overtime Lawsuits:

July 29, 2004 - Jamie Kirshenbaum, a member of The Sims 2 Design Team, seeks to file a class-action lawsuit in San Mateo Superior Court, alleging that EA had "improperly classified some of its employees ["…] as exempt from overtime compensation." This lawsuit was largely filed on behalf of various graphic artists.

November 10, 2004 – An anonymous blog entry is posted at ea-spouse.livejournal.com detailing an extended crunch-time work environment at Electronic Arts that requirs many workers to put in 7-day/80 hour work weeks with no overtime pay, additional vacation or comp time. The blog entry is widely picked up by media outlets.

February 25, 2005 – A second class-action lawsuit is filed against EA by engineer Leander Hasty (source: Gamasutra). The complaint seeks undisclosed back pay, damages, and pnalties for himself and fellow workers on the reasoning that they "do not perform work that is original or creative, and have no management responsibilities and are seldom allowed to use their own judgment."

October 5, 2005EA settles original Kirshenbaum graphic artists lawsuit for $15.6 million. (Source: Gamespot)

April 25, 2006EA Spouse revealed to be Erin Hoffman. Her now husband, and fiancée at the time that of her blog post, is Leander Hasty, the original plaintiff in second EA overtime lawsuit.

April 26, 2006EA settles Leander Hasty lawsuit for $14.9 million. EA reclassifies 200 positions as eligible for overtime pay.


Innaccuracies and Hyperbole - The Press Reports on EA

It doesn't seem that terribly complex a chain of events when put in those terms, but in researching this story, and reading the news articles reported at the time that the events were unfolding, there was what would turn out to be a lot of inaccuracies floating around. For example, the Gamespot news post from October 2005 which I linked above mentions, regarding the settlement of the Kirshenbaum lawsuit, that the "settlement brings a notorious chapter in EA's labor relations to a legal close--a chapter first brought to light by the blog of the "EA Spouse", which outlined working conditions within EA." There are numerous problems with that conclusion, not the least of which being that the Hasty lawsuit brought about in February 2005 was still outstanding at the time that the Kirshenbaum case was settled, which is hardly a legal close of EA's labor relations. It also erroneously gives credit to the EA Spouse blog for bringing the issue to light when Kirshenbaum's lawsuit was filed 3 months prior to the posting.

Even the Gamasutra article I linked above reporting on the filing of Hasty's lawsuit, erroneously reported that Kirshenbaum's initial lawsuit "argued that Electronic Arts' game designers are entitled to overtime." The lawsuit did not address game designers at all but graphic artists. It may seem like nitpicking, but that the first suit was so limited in scope is the reason why a second lawsuit needed to be filed at all. Gamespot and Gamasutra are both generally recognized as the more accurate and fastidious bastions of gaming journalism, and that they slipped so might give some indication as to the wild inaccuracies and assumptions floating around at the time.

The point here is not to somehow proclaim EA unduly persecuted (and prosecuted), but I do think it's fair to say that flawed and, in less professional outlets, hyperbole laden reporting often colored the public's perception of the two lawsuits at the expense of accuracy. The gaming media was quick to judge and report without having the story straight. EA's labor practices were extreme to say the least, though it remains undecided by a court as to the legality of EA's actions, but their corporate environment is not entirely surprising, evolved as it was from a decades old industry culture that not only permitted but encouraged such practices. That conditions in other major publishers and developers, conditions that would later generate their own undereported lawsuits, were nearly identical to those at EA was unexplored as breath and keystrokes were expended in volume criticizing Electronic Arts. The unbiased truth, if one were to imagine such a mythical creature, was probably somewhere far removed from the perception encouraged within the gaming community, and sadly the reporting of the time.

While EA was certainly the most visible lawsuit in the industry, the fact that both Sony Computer Entertainment of America and Activision ended up facing similar lawsuits seems to have gotten lost in the ensuing shuffle. In fact, El Segundo California based CSC, an IT services company with over $14 billion in revenue FY06, was forced into a $24 million settlement with its tech support workers on overtime classification in late March of 2005, a full half-year before EA would settle its first suit. The results of the CSC lawsuit, which likely had far more of an affect on EA's decision to pursue its own settlements than even the most widely publicized blog entry, went virtually unmentioned.

The real story, however, is in mindset that seems to be leading a traditionally over-dedicated gaming labor force into the mainstream. In the past it has simply been a reality of the industry that long crunch time hours, exhausting schedules, and work-loads that, from the outside, seemed Herculean were the norm.

Why would someone subject themselves to those kinds of stresses? Well, I'll let the EA Spouse Erin Hoffman answer that question from her recent article in the Escapist where she points out that, "In fact, most of our quality of life problems actually come from the fact that working is generally so much damned fun." It's important to keep her comments in context as a continuing proactive agent of change in the industry. She goes on to point out that despite the fun the industry needs to adapt to a labor force that does more with its life than simply make video games, "we need to restrain our creative id and actually go outside once in awhile." And, she is certainly not excusing the giants of the industry who use the culture as an excuse to trample on labor laws, but she does point out that for many the hours are worth the remarkable creative outlets and the uniquely fun environment offered by designing video games.

As with aging generations of gamers, the industry is struggling to find a balance between video games and reality itself. As those working in the industry move to a broader and more mainstream work force, many companies have been slow to adapt. As for EA, it's simply relevant to point out that it is only example in an industry-wide dilemma.

The Inside Story

In the wake of the lawsuits, I approached an EA employee to find out how work life had changed since the lawsuits. This employee, on the condition of anonymity, agreed to speak about the culture now. I have edited his comments slightly to ensure his confidentiality.

In the past, EA development policy was definitely of the [.] throw-bodies-on-the-fire sort. There were huge teams, mind numbing crunch and, unfortunately, a lot of mediocre games as a result. It's hard to aim for quality when you're pulling 18 hours 6-7 days a week. In other words, at the time we were listed as one of the top 100 people companies, we probably didn't deserve it - while on the surface, the perks were good - we have great benefits, competitive pay, gyms, good food at the cafeteria etc. - none of it compensated for the fact that, well, everyone was killing themselves without really achieving much of anything.

As a caveat, this was no different from my industry experience elsewhere
- whether at a tiny indie dev or a behemoth like [edited], those sort of practices were (and are still, in many cases) the norm. That isn't an excuse
- I think the industry is going to run itself in the ground if these practices continue - in general, it just doesn't, lead to good games. EA just got targeted because we're the biggest fish in the pond and everyone expects us to be evil.

However - and this was before the lawsuits - around '04, there appeared to be something of a sea change in management thinking. We're run by a bunch of very smart people and I think they realized you can't make good games in a sweatshop. You burn people out, lose quality employees and, well, don't make anything good. To be honest, the class action suit was really just a confirmation that a change in thinking was necessary.

That change in the thought process has had a sweeping effect on how we work, how we produce games. We try to avoid crunch - and if we do, it's usually self imposed and rarely sustained over long periods. Rather than run people into the ground, we set realistic schedules, manage them closely and make sure the scope of the game fits the development time frame.

The result - better games.

At this point, I think we actually deserve to be on the top 100 people companies list. I have all the perks from before, but am also treated with some respect, and allowed to both make good games and have a life.

But, at the risk of ending on a down note, it's important to recognize that the entire discussion thus far is limited to the state of California and its labor laws. There are some indications that instead of changing its practices EA has simply moved many employees to offices in Florida and Canada locations, some claim, with more flexible and corporate-friendly labor laws.

Electronic Arts, despite a now checkered history, has a unique opportunity to recreate the video game development environment. And, as Erin Hoffman points out toward the conclusion of her Escapist article, the real frontier is in developing new concepts of gaming management. With a labor force now emboldened by numerous successful settlements, the industry may have little choice.

Next week, in the final insallment of EA In-Depth, I want to look at the often acrimonious relationship between EA and those who describe themselves as gamers.

- Elysium

{Read Part 1 of EA In-Depth here}


This is certainly encouraging to hear the positive changes EA has at least made in its CA-based offices in the way it treats employees and follows better labor practices now. That alone was one of my largest points of contention with EA.

Any way we could find out more regarding the out-of-state offices? Any contacts you could speak with in those?

I'm also watching carefully to see how the acquisition of Mythic turns out. The other big contentions I've had with EA's practices have been the acquisition and subsequent gutting/destruction of other developers (Origin being the most notorious), and their anti-competitive (monopolistic) practices. If all three of these things were addressed or at least well-mitigated, I would have no real grudge against EA.

I love this kind of information, as I can slap it in the face of the unknown and feel superiour and such. Great work, Ely!

I like to point one thing out about these lawsuits.

The companies settle for large amounts of cash. However they still deny wrong doing. So for instance, my friend still works at CSC, got some money from that settlement, but it still required to work overtime without additional pay. Only approximately 20% of the plaintiffs in the original lawsuit got moved to Hourly work. I would be curious if the same thing happened at EA.

Another great installment. Bring on chapter 3!

Nice reporting Ely!

So for instance, my friend still works at CSC, got some money from that settlement, but it still required to work overtime without additional pay.

A condition of the EA settlement seems to be the reclassification of many in at least the California based locations, but, you're right, which is why I mention that no court has had the opportunity to rule on EA's wrong-doing. I imagine at some point we will have a ruling on this, but it doesn't look like EA will be at the center of that.

The Widowmaker


Editor Note: Made a few adjustments to the quote from my source to protect that person's identity.

Also made minor formatting changes. NO substantive content has been edited.

A close friend of mine just quit at EA in canada. Long hours, being on call every weekend, being on call or at work every holiday, apparently isnt very appealing to crap out the same poorly planned sports game every 6 months.

They have a high turnover with 2 camps from what I can tell. The old school work all night all day, "my job rules!" holdouts. And the extremely creative, extremely smart developers that get frustrated and leave.

Its definately the "throw bodies on the fire and hope a game comes out", keep in mind that alot these bodies are fresh university grads, so it isnt a slow burn its a flash fire.

Again, great follow up.

Nice. Looking forward towards Part III. I longe not so much for more vilification of EA as for the exposure of types who wail about EA killing Bullfrog/Origin/DICE/NFL/Baby seals/Baby Jesus, but continue to buy each new Madden game anyway.