A minute past midnight on November 10th, 2004, Electronic Arts labor practices came under fire in a Live Journal post titled “EA Spouse.” In the weeks and months to come, the anonymous EA Spouse was found to be Erin Hoffman-John, author and wife of an EA developer. In the first full paragraph, Hoffman asks, “I have a good challenge for you: how about safe and sane labor practices for the people on whose backs you walk for your millions?”
Prior to EA Spouse, in June of 2004, Sims 2 developer Jaime Kirschenbaum sued EA for unpaid wages, a case settled in October of 2005. Payouts exceeded $15 million in overtime due. After EA Spouse, in February of 2005, EA Engineer Leander Hasty sued EA for unpaid overtime wages. EA settled that suit in April of 2006 for a total of $14.6 million (those funds spread across their employee base) and implemented changes in employee structure.
Internally, EA Spouse challenged a determined EA culture, and even with long hours, some refused to let go of the ingrained crunch culture.
EA’s crunch culture, demanding 60 to 90 hour weeks without overtime pay, was seen as a necessity, even a positive in terms of cranking out better games. “One of the running jokes that was talked about through the halls frequently was, ‘Hey, are you guys working Sunday yet? Oh cool, we can still add another feature,’” says Jeff Peters, supervising producer on Tiburon's Superman Returns at the time of EA Spouse.
It’s not just a mindset, but in some form, exploitation of lower level staff. Young programmers and artists were determined to move up the ladder and show their willingness to go all out. Bob Nystrom was one of those when he came to Tiburon, beginning work on the Madden and NASCAR teams in 2003. “When I started, the work/life balance was shitty. I was in my twenties. I didn't give a damn. I would work insane hours and it was fine.”
“I worked those hours because I was young and no kids and I really loved it. I have three kids now. If I had to go through that with kids, there's no way,” says Ian Cummings, former creative director on Madden.
Part of this fell at the feet of Tiburon, EA's Florida studio responsible for a plethora of the EA Sports output. “Tiburon always considered itself to be the outlier, the renegade, the not-EA studio. Tiburon always felt like that concept of crunching, it was part of game development and it was what led to their excellence,” says Peters.
Whether development crunch works is debatable among some staff. Long stretches, months at a time, begin to wane in terms of actual productivity. “After a few weeks of 60 hours weeks, you can crank out a bunch of stuff and it's awesome. But if you know it's going to be going on for several months, what ends up happening is, people roll in kind of late. They fuck around for an hour or two. Take a slow dinner. Eventually it's like, I'm only getting 40 hours a week [of work] done. The work is done now, but I'm burning 20 hours of my life. That was kinda stupid.” says Nystrom.
With EA Spouse in the public eye, internal changes began to occur at EA, albeit slowly. New policies were put into place regarding overtime hours and managers began to take control of scheduling.
“People had to start working overtime and logging overtime hours. Lot of new managers joined to try and ensure work/life balance was being met. There were a lot of growing pains that happened all in that one year,” says Cummings.
“There was no way this problem was something that was going to be fixed in a year. It wasn't that somebody had an idea and that they did it. It's that putting a game out, it takes a lot,” says Brian Graham, Tiburon's director of product development for seven years.
“When the EA Spouse thing happened, you could tell they did try to improve it. The shit didn't turn very quickly, but they were trying to make improvements. It's like any organization. It's really rare to see any significant cultural change in a large company no matter what type of forces you try to put on them. They were still trying to crunch. They still had lots of bad habits,” says Nystrom.
An example of the post-EA Spouse EA comes from the troubled development of Superman Returns, finishing in late 2006 as the lawsuits began to settle. “My recollection of the last nine months on Superman [Returns] were, I think they were asking us to do 60 hours a week. 12 hours a day, five days a week. ... They would cater in dinner every evening and they had the stereotypical crunch culture. It's stupid, right?,” says Nystrom.
Others don’t blame EA, but themselves. “As a developer, if I'm sitting at my desk at midnight, I'm participating in the dysfunction just as much as any manager is. If I'm not doing something to change that, then I don't know why I would expect anyone else to do that,” says Anthony Marinello, developer at Tiburon on Superman Returns.
Indicative of this mindset is former Madden producer Rod Moye. His personal feelings toward EA Spouse reveal thoughts of a hard working developer, disinterested in hours worked but what came as a result. EA Spouse, to him, was a disruption. “If you think you're going to do anything great in life, it doesn't happen in 40 hours a week. It just doesn't. You don't get great at anything doing what everyone else does. You get great by spending more time doing it than everybody else does. EA Spouse was frustrating to a lot of us because for me it came from an area of if you want to be doing this, then let's do it, but don't complain about it,” says Moye.
EA Spouse took time to seep into EA culture and for courts to work through employee complaints. “To not get any overtime pay or bonus when you're working like that, yeah, they deserved every bit of what they got,” says former EA employee Ian Cummings who worked at Tiburon as the lawsuits were settled.
Things started to change as time passed. Most this had to do with natural corporate turnover. Higher-ups moved on. New managers came in. Labor laws took hold. “The people I know that work at Tiburon now, the culture's changed, the leadership has changed. In fact, all of the leadership that was there at Tiburon when I was there, everybody is gone when you look at the last 10 years. It's nothing like what it was back then. The whole culture shifted. There's much more positive stories about the working conditions there, at least at this point which is good,” says Peters, who left EA in 2014.
Others caught themselves in the act and personally made a change. “I have not crunched since Superman [Returns]. It's just the decision I've made to not do. Turns out I've been employed that whole time,” says software engineer Anthony Marinello who continued to work at EA until October of 2013.
After EA Spouse, Erin Hoffman-John and her husband founded GameWatch.org together. The concept was to be a mediator between developers and the studios in discussions over labor practices. However, the organization closed in 2012. “After [EASpouse], there was a lot of focus for a few years… then it felt like it faded in the spotlight,” says Graham. We reached out to Erin Hoffman-John and she replied that she is supportive of the developers but no longer commenting on any issues pertaining to EA Spouse. We also reached out to EA and Tiburon and will update this story if they respond.
Today crunch culture remains a part of game development, whether at EA or other studios. In some cases, it's expected by employees.
“[EA] tried to their credit for a long time to try and minimize that as much as possible. There's still a problem,” says Graham. “I'm not going to say [EA is] any worse than anyone else. I don't think they are. They're not the best from what I've seen but the people I know who do work there do try.”