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Coffee Talk with EA_Spouse
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posted by: Gary Wong
date posted: 12:00 AM Sun Mar 13th, 2005
last revision: 12:00 AM Sun Mar 13th, 2005

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It's the dream of every gamer to follow in the footsteps of the luminaries of the industry - Miyamoto, Kojima, etc. - and work on game development.  What happens when that dream is less a dream than it is a nightmare? This happened to one developer at EA and a cautionary tale was penned by his significant other, EA_Spouse.  Her original article, EA:The Human Story, was written in November 2004 and struck a chord with developers and industry people alike.  GamesFirst! talked to her over a series of e-mails in early March 2005 about the mainstream reaction to her article, EA's recent market moves, and GameWatch, her new project to illuminate quality of life issues in the game development industry.

GamesFirst!: For those who don't know who you are, tell us about yourself and the situation you found yourself in that ultimately led you to write EA: The Human Story.

EA_Spouse: Well, there's not a lot to tell about myself that the pseudonym doesn't indicate. I'm a spouse of an EA worker and I was pissed off.  My spouse's health was degenerating, his mind was virtually gone, and the pressure continued beyond the bounds of humane treatment for his entire team at work. I was at a loss for what I could do about it.  Because we had taken a financial loss to relocate near EA, he couldn't quit, because we required both of our incomes to stay afloat in this rather high cost-of-living area. He could refuse to do the overtime, but they would fire him -- they did exactly that to someone else at the studio. So we had no money, a lease, and no feasible way to escape. I was angry, we were both miserable, and I was filled with a sense of disbelief that any of this could be happening, and had been happening for a very long time. I decided to see if the rest of the world shared my disbelief.

GamesFirst!: When you wrote EA: The Human Story, was it your intention to cause such a stir in the gaming community and, subsequently, the mainstream press?

EA_Spouse: "Such a stir" encompasses an awful lot, and it's hard to say what I could have intended before all of this became such a big deal. I did intend to "cause a stir", but I had no idea the response would be so fast and gain so much attention. I had no idea the mainstream press would want to become involved, and was very surprised when the LA Times contacted me fairly shortly after the story began gaining momentum. Alex Pham was the first one to catch wind of it, and emailed me within days of the original posting, which is quite impressive to me just because I didn't expect this to go beyond the gaming and game development community. I guess, basically, I wanted a result, and the "stir" was part of the process of getting that result, and still is.

GamesFirst!: Was your significant other involved in the writing of the article?

EA_Spouse: Not in the writing, no. He read it before I posted it and offered comments, but that was it. He was really too burned out at that point to be doing much besides blinking.

GamesFirst!: Has EA discovered your identity as well as that of your significant other (though I guess that if you figure out one, you get the other)? If so, has there been any retaliation on their part against your significant other?

EA_Spouse: Not that I'm aware of. They haven't contacted either of us, if they do know who we are. Certain statements that have been forwarded along to me indicate that they don't know. So no, there's been no retaliation.

GamesFirst!: A few weeks after your article was written and was starting to make its rounds around the web, an internal memo from EA was leaked.  The memo promised changes would be made with respect to their work practices.  What have you witnessed so far in terms of the changes they promised?

EA_Spouse: EA makes lots of promises. You would have to ask workers at the individual studios what their rate of claim-to-delivery is. So far there appears to have been a shift in public relations message, which hopefully indicates that EA does genuinely want to change their operations practices, but it's too early for anything concrete to have materialized. There are teams that have crunched and/or are still crunching.

GamesFirst!: In the three-plus months since you wrote the article, there have been several more people working in game development who have aired their grievances publicly in journals similar to yourself.  Does it surprise you that there are so many others with stories similar to yours?

EA_Spouse: I'm glad that people are coming forward and finally addressing some of these problems. The industry is a relatively young one, but it's reaching that point where it should be maturing and looking out for its own stability. I'm glad that people are thinking about these things, and thinking about the future -- it's always a good thing. I'm really hoping that all of this genuinely has been good for the industry, though. It got so big so fast that there wasn't a lot of time for second thoughts. It doesn't surprise me that there were/are similar stories. We've been involved with the industry enough that you hear about these things. Developers talk about them like war veterans.

GamesFirst!: The Game Developers' Conference being held in March has planned by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) a one-day seminar on the "Quality of Life" issues game developers are facing.  It's not like the issues they face are new to the industry so why has it taken this long for it to be recognized on a wider basis?

EA_Spouse: Quality of life is a difficult issue in the game industry, mostly because developers love what they do. There's a fine and often vacillating line between busting tail for something you love and believe in and committing self abuse for the wrong reasons. We would all like to believe that we're mavericks laboring for some great existential cause where our endeavors alone determine the life or death of a work of art... and that kind of mentality works on a team of, say, three developers. But when you're talking about teams of fifty or more people, that attitude doesn't cut it anymore. You have to be smarter, or everything will crash and burn. And what we've been seeing repeatedly over the past several years is a lot of crashing and burning, with the front line developers taking the brunt of the consequences. Still, most developers are romantics, and many employers capitalize on their tendency to believe that they MUST sacrifice themselves for the good of a project. Change will come when more people realize that this is foolhardy at best and dangerous at worst... but no dreamer likes to be reminded of reality, even if it's good for them in the long run. Also, in many cases it's plain complicated to control the big sources of serious abuse without bringing down damaging penalties on the small startups -- that gets into foggy legal territory. For all of these reasons, and the simple additional fact that people are often just too busy working to be thinking about the meta-conditions of the industry, things have been building toward a change for a long time, but haven't quite reached the brink until recently.

GamesFirst!: Do you believe that unionization of developers is a viable option?

EA_Spouse: I do, but I don't believe there is an immediate route to unionization from where we are now. If it comes, it will come in stages. I don't think it's as scary as its detractors make it out, but I also don't think it's as easy as its staunch supporters would like to believe.  Basically, I see the path toward improved quality of life as one with an end goal but many forks between. In an ideal world, the outcry for better working conditions would be enough for businesses to place an emphasis on humane labor and the problem would be solved there, as businesses with better working conditions out-competed others by retaining a more efficient and skilled work force -- but I don't think it will be that simple. I think that if things continue as they are, a union is inevitable, but obviously I hope that it won't be necessary.  The end result will be the same, but a union would be a laborious (forgive the pun) process for everyone involved, and I'm sure the corporations wouldn't much enjoy it, either.

GamesFirst!: Your article makes mention of the few standalone studios that are still thriving under their own autonomy.  Of course, the key word is few.  How much does it concern you that in the last few months, EA has gone on a spending spree with the hostile takeover attempt of UbiSoft, the exclusive five-year deal for licensing rights to the NFL, and the exclusive 15-year licensing deal with ESPN?

EA_Spouse: It concerns me a great deal, not so much for the sake of the developers, even, but for the sake of the games. Historically it has never been good for creativity or excellence in a product for one entity to dominate an industry; there's such a thing as healthy competition. UbiSoft has its own problems, but in the long run I don't think it's going to help either company for the two to merge, and it certainly doesn't look as if it will be good for the games. I was a bit flabbergasted about the NFL and ESPN deals, but so was everyone else.

GamesFirst!: Let's talk about Gamewatch.  Describe the basic premise and goals you have set for the site.

EA_Spouse: The basic purpose of Gamewatch is to provide an open forum for the discussion of quality of life issues across a huge database of current and past game development companies. There are people in this industry who are absolutely fantastic to work for, and then there are people who are not. We want to provide a stage to recognize the former, so that someone looking for a job in the industry can search through our database and find the highest-rated employers. Ideally, this will provide an accelleration of the process I described above, where industry talent can easily find paths to the best companies to work for. We'll provide message boards and company dossiers, as well as profiles for individual developers. In the long term, we may eventually review the highest-rated companies and give out some annual award for the best companies to work for in the game industry, similar to an in-industry version of the Fortune Magazine ratings. . . .  I don't see Gamewatch taking direct action so much as facilitating communication between developers specifically on the subject of quality of life with a direct utility focus. This is in contrast to the excellent Quality of Life Committee with the IGDA, which produces and sponsors a great deal of very useful material, but in and of itself is not a searchable open forum.

GamesFirst!: When can we expect to see the site go live?

EA_Spouse: All of our workforce is volunteer, so none of our dates are rock solid, but I would like to have basic site functionality -- user profiles, company dossiers, verified testimonials -- up and running by the end of June 2005.

GamesFirst!: Finally, how is your significant other faring these days and has his work schedule returned to a pre-crunch state?

EA_Spouse: He's doing all right. It's been a long road and I think neither of us really knew what we were getting into when all of this started. No regrets, though.

GamesFirst!: I'm all of questions but if there's any final words you'd like to say concerning the gaming industry, gamewatch.org, or anything else, here's your chance.

EA_Spouse: Only that all of these efforts are sustained alone on the effort that individuals in the industry are willing to put forward. I think that it is absolutely critical that these issues be considered before conditions worsen any further. Companies are a lot of things, but it is important to remember that it is not the primary function of one's
employer to maintain the individual health of its employees. A good employer does this as a matter of course, recognizing that healthy workers produce better products, but even in this ideal case, worker welfare is not  a corporation's prime directive, and it will never be.  It is OUR responsibility to watch out for ourselves and each other, and it is more important than just about anything else we do, on a really basic level. You can't make games if you're dead, and life is just a lot better when you're healthy. It's not too much to ask, and the situation really is this serious -- I would encourage anyone who thinks otherwise to see a doctor, and I'd be willing to bet many would be in for a serious wake-up call. I just hope that all of this is enough of a wake-up call to effect real change.

GamesFirst!: Thank you very much for your time.

EA_Spouse: My pleasure. =) Thank you!

EA_Spouse's original postings can be found on her LiveJournal.  There you can find more information concerning the game development industry as well as updates concerning Gamewatch.