On November 10th, an anonymous writer posted an open letter criticizing Electronic Art’s labor standards, wages and hours. The post, written by EA Spouse, would open an industry-wide debate on the treatment of employees, lead to three class action lawsuits against EA and fundamentally change the way some industry employees were treated and paid in California.

Kotaku was one of the first sites to break news of that original letter and followed its fall-out for years. Below you’ll find some of those early stories, most of which I wrote.

Two interesting side-notes:

All of these stories occurred during a time when Gawker didn’t allow comment and didn’t allow bylines. (I and other Gawker editors fought to have both added to Gawker Media sites. We eventually wore Nick Denton down.) While Denton never fully explained to me why he didn’t want us to have bylines, the suspicion was that he wanted to make it easier to replace editors of sites without having to worry about losing audience to where ever that writer went.

After breaking a series of these EA Spouse stories, Denton emailed to tell me in very direct terms that I should not be covering “industry news.” I ignored him, and continued to do so throughout my time at Gawker. On my last day at the company, after seven years of growing the site to about 10 million readers, over a lunch with Nick, I reminded him of EA Spouse and how annoyed he was about my industry coverage. I also noted some of the other big stories Kotaku broke covering the industry, from E3’s expensive, short-term move to Santa Monica, to Rockstar’s treatment of employees.

“Remember how much you hated Kotaku covering industry news,” I said, smiling.

“I still do,” Nick replied, not smiling.

November 10, 2004

Fear and Loathing At Electronic Arts

An anonymous significant other of an anonymous Electronic Arts’ programmer is railing against what they call the “unethical and illegal treatment” of employees by the multi-billion dollar game company.

Most of the SO’s anger seems directed at what they say is EA’s practice of milking their production teams and not paying overtime or giving comp.

Put up or shut up and leave: this is the core of EA’s Human Resources policy. The concept of ethics or compassion or even intelligence with regard to getting the most out of one’s workforce never enters the equation: if they don’t want to sacrifice their lives and their health and their talent so that a multibillion dollar corporation can continue its Godzilla-stomp through the game industry, they can work someplace else.

EA’s motto, if you recall, is “Challenge Everyting.” Just not EA’s labor standards, wages, or long hours, I guess.
EA Spouse [EA Spouse’s Live Journal]

 

November 12, 2004

EA Faces Class Action Lawsuit

More details are emerging about Electronic Arts’ alleged mistreatment of its employees, following yesterday’s post about a blog entry from the spouse of an EA employee.

In the blog, the spouse complained about EA not paying overtime for hours worked and not giving employees comp time.

Electronic Arts is the world’s leading independent developer and publisher of interactive entertainment software, according to their site. Some of their top game franchises include Madden, James Bond: 007 and The Sims.

Thursday evening, a source close to EA tipped me off to a class action lawsuit that was started on July 29 against the game publisher. The suit, which alleges overtime abuse by EA, has not yet been certified as a class action.

The suit alleges that EA “improperly classified some of its employees, including animators, modelers, texture artists, lighters, background effects artists and environmental artists as exempt from overtime, and therefore failed to pay those employees overtime compensation,” according to a letter sent from EA to its employees and then leaked to Kotaku and several other websites.

In the memo, EA denies the claim saying that it treats its employees fairly and lawfully and that it has properly classified its employees within the meaning of the law.

The EA memo ends with this:

“EA will not retaliate against employees for exercising legal rights, including by participating in the proposed class action.”

We’ll keep you informed as this develops.

 

November 12, 2004

EA suit could change the face of the industry

A victory in the class action lawsuit started against EA by their serfs could spur sweeping changes in the industry.

I had a quick chat with one of the attorney’s representing the employee who filed the initial complaint. Todd Heyman said they have already cleared the first hurdle, with the judge decline to throw the case out. The law firm and EA are now in the discovery process, he said.

It will likely be a few months before any discernable movement happens, but if the judge rules in favor of the employee it will likely mean all of the gaming companies in California will have a new set of rules to play by.

“Depending on the nature of a positive judgment, other employers with similar job descriptions would most likely be required to start paying their employees by the hour and paying overtime,” Heyman said.

When asked if employees from any other gaming companies had contacted him about filing their own suits, Heymen followed a short pause with a pat: “No comment.”

We’ll make sure to keep you up to date with any new information on this case. I wonder if a victory for the employees could lead to a gaming industry exodus from California?

 

November 12, 2004

Former EA employee speaks out under real name

Today sees more angry Electronic Arts employees and more angry posts, but this time at least one with a name attached. In the wake of the EA Spouse diatribe and news of an upcoming class action against the world’s largest game developer and publisher, Joe Straitiff has decided to go off on his former employer. Straitiff, a former Software Engineer III, worked on The Urbz until he was fired. He details the chain of events that lead to his firing. It’s an interesting and seemingly honest view of work at the Mothership. My favorite quote: You can’t spell exploitation without EA. Nice.

Joe Straitiff’s Journal [Live Journal]

 

December 3, 2004

EA promises change in leaked internal memo

We got our hands on a hot little internal memo written by EA Senior VP Rusty Rueff that amounts to a mea culpa to the company’s sweatshop employees. In it, Rueff promises that changes are coming, including reclassifying more employees so they can receive overtime.

For those of you who have some how missed out on the EA scandal this is it in a nutshell:

An anonymous letter written by EA Spouse complained of the treatment of employees by EA and their Byzantine overtime practices.

An employee filed a suit against EA, asking for it to be classified as a class action.

An on the record employee complains of EA’s treatment of employees.

Which brings us to the Memo, which I now present to you in full:

The last few weeks of reading blogs and the media about EA culture and work practices have not been easy. I know personally how hard it is when so much of the news seems negative. We have purposefully not responded to web logs and the media because the best way to communicate is directly with you, our team members.
As much as I don’t like what’s been said about our company and our industry, I recognize that at the heart of the matter is a core truth: the work is getting harder, the tasks are more complex and the hours needed to accomplish them have become a burden. We haven’t yet cracked the code on how to fully minimize the crunches in the development and production process. Net, there are things we just need to fix. And the solutions don’t apply to just our studios — the people who market, sell, distribute and support the great games that our Studios create, all share a demanding workload.

Three weeks ago we issued our bi-annual Talk Back Survey and more than 80 percent of you participated – much higher than the norm for a company our size. That tells me you care and are committed to making EA better. In the next 30 days we’ll have the survey results and we will share them openly with you by the middle of January.

Your feedback in the Talk Back Survey will help us make changes in the coming year, but we’re not waiting — some changes are already in the works in the Studios. Here are just a few:

The Studios will be moving to a consistent application of the Renderware Platform. We bought Criterion because we believe there is no better technology platform (25% of all games in our industry are being built on RW). Having a standardized technology approach will save us from having to re-invent the wheel over and over. It will save time and effort we used to spend navigating technology issues.

Every member of the Studio will have gone through Pre-Production Training by the end of December (Tiburon will be going through their training in January when they move into their new facility). We understand the toll taken on our teams when we change directions late in the process. We are putting more teeth in our preproduction discipline to ensure that we more fully define and agree (at all levels) on what the features of the game will be before we scale up teams.

We’ve started a Development Process Improvement Project to get smarter and improve efficiency. Just as we have revamped the Pre-Production process, we are now creating a Product Development Map that will provide earlier decision-making (on SKUS and game features), improve our consistency of creative direction, and lessen the number of late in the process changes, firedrills, and crunches. We will be rolling these changes out over the next year.

We are looking at reclassifying some jobs to overtime eligible in the new Fiscal Year. We have resisted this in the past, not because we don’t want to pay overtime, but because we believe that the wage and hour laws have not kept pace with the kind of work done at technology companies, the kind of employees those companies attract and the kind of compensation packages their employees prefer. We consider our artists to be “creative” people and our engineers to be “skilled” professionals who relish flexibility but others use the outdated wage and hour laws to argue in favor of a workforce that is paid hourly like more traditional industries and conforming to set schedules. But we can’t wait for the legislative process to catch up so we’re forced to look at making some changes to exempt and non-exempt classifications beginning in April.

So, there are things in the works short-term, longer-term, along with those ideas that will come from you over the next few months.

Here is what I know about our progress as a Company.

First, we have the best people in this industry and arguably in the entire entertainment industry. Globally, we are now over 5000 strong and we continue to win in the market place. Year after year, our games finish at the top of the charts with the best ratings. We like to compete and we like to win.

Second, we’re doing something that no one has ever done before: No entertainment software company has ever scaled to this size. We take it for granted sometimes, but it’s important to recognize this fact. Every day is a learning day with new competitors, new consumers, new people working on bigger teams – and all of this amid rapidly changing technology. We experiment, we learn from our mistakes, we adapt and we grow.

Most important: we recognize that this doesn’t get fixed with one email or in one month. It’s an on-going process of communication and change. And while I realize that the issue today is how we work – I think we should all remember that there are also a lot of great benefits to working at EA that are not offered at other companies. With some smart thinking and specific actions we will fix these issues and become stronger as a company.

Thanks for taking time to read this.

Rusty

 

December 3, 2004

Exclusive: EA confirms memo is real

I was able to reach EA today and they have confirmed that the memo from EA Senior VP Rusty Rueff to EA employees wordwide is in fact authentic. Unfortuantely, they were unwilling to comment. Here’s the entire email from Trudy Muller spokeswoman with Electronic Arts Corporate Communications:

Hi Brian,
It is a real communication, yes.
I don’t have any additional comments on it.
Thanks Brian.
Trudy

It’s amazing to me that a company of this size is willing to bite the bullet and admit they screwed up and to do so in a way that they had to realize would leak out. This could go a long way toward fixing the increasingly unbearable work conditions at many of the industries largest companies.