30 April 2006
Are you a game programmer? Do you know what statements like
mean? We used to offer a programmer discount but it has been discontinued.
You can still take the test though. Simply
click here to register and qualify.
Note: The test is ten rather difficult questions.
My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. I received it as a
Christmas present while I was in junior high. Officially it was for
me and my brother but my brother wasn't nearly as interested in it as I
was. Within a couple days I had written my first computer
program. It didn't do much, all it did is count backwards from 10
like a rocket ship blasting off. It was enough though, ever since
then I knew I wanted to be a computer programmer. Specifically, a
computer game programmer.
Several of my college friends changed majors once or twice. Not
me, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, I had my first
game programming job lined up several months before I graduated.
I hadn't even considered the possibility of doing something other than
game development. I remember having an interview with Microsoft
scheduled. This was before Windows so nobody but computer nerds
knew who Microsoft was. I thought to myself "Self, do you want a
job programming a stodgy old operating system, or a job MAKING COMPUTER
GAMES!!!" At the time, the choice was obvious. In
hindsight, maybe I should have chosen differently.
Anyways, I spent the next decade as a game programmer. The early
years were a lot of fun. I worked my way up from entry level
through lead programmer, shipping many different titles in the
process. It's thrilling to go to the store and see something you
made on the shelves. People were envious of my job on more than
one occasion. As an experienced software engineer, I was in big
demand. If my bosses ever pestered me I used to tell them I'd
quit and find a better job on the way home. This was in the late
90's and back then there was a severe shortage of qualified programmers.
When I started, a game development team was anywhere from four to a
dozen people. Every single person on the team made a big
difference in the look and feel of the game. Nowadays, a
development team can be 200 people or more. Even a senior
programmer has very little say on a project that large. The
entire process has become less creative and more industrial.
The hardest part about game development is the long hours. Any
time a deadline approaches the team will enter crunch mode.
During crunch mode it's normal to spend 12-16 hours a day, 7 days a
week working at a frantic pace. The company will usually bring in
dinner so that nobody has to leave. I've slept on the floor in my
office on more than one occasion. In the early years crunch mode
would be maybe the last two or three weeks before a project
shipped. It eventually involved into two or three months at the
end of a project plus several weeks at every milestone along the way.
There are a couple reasons for the grueling work environment.
First, the games industry is extremely competitive. There are
lots of bad games out there and not so many good ones. If a game
doesn't look like it will be a top seller it will often get cancelled
before it ever hits the shelves. A really good game can make
piles of money while all the others lose money.
Another reason is that most game developers don't mind the long
hours. Gaming is their life. Many people in the industry
are savants at gaming and not interested in anything else.
They'll do whatever it takes to work in the games industry.
Unfortunately, the games industry has evolved to take advantage of this
young, eager, hard working labor pool.
As time moved on I became less and less tolerant of the long hours and
endless deadlines. The sexiness of game development had lost it's
luster for me. Even working on a Lord of the Rings
title didn't do it for me any more. I was near the top of my
field but was unhappier than I had ever been. So I quit. I
had tried to talk to management, to maybe fix things, but they weren't
interested. From their perspective there was a vast pool of eager
replacements. So I came into work one day, wrote "I quit" on a
post-it note and left. I had no idea what I was going to do next
but I knew I didn't want to make games any more. I was burned out.
Looking back at my college days, nobody ever would have expected that
coffee farming was in my future. In hindsight, I should have made
the transition much sooner. I've always loved the outdoors.
I remember looking out my office window at EA and watching some
construction workers pour concrete. I actually envied them.
Sure they were working hard, sweating and getting dirty but at least they
knew when their job would be done. They'd quit around 4pm, go home
and have a beer while my day wasn't even half over.
Just recently, CNN and Money magazine published this article:
Best Job in America
Basically, they rated several different jobs and decided that software
engineer was number one. Among software engineering they decided
that game programming was number one. Among game programmers the
person they interviewed worked upstairs from me at Electronic
Arts. Our jobs were very similar. I didn't work with him
directly but I saw him around the office plenty and I was friends with
people that worked with him. Let's just say that the journalist
could maybe have found someone a little more competent to
interview. To top it off, the guy is more of a manager than a
programmer. Someone in his position can earn a decent salary but
certainly nothing spectacular compared to a doctor, lawyer or Alaskan
This isn't the first time I've been amazed at how wrong the press gets
a story. Articles like this often mean nothing except that the
company has a well funded PR department. I'd say that is
definitely the case here. When choosing the best job in America,
Money Magazine didn't bother to mention that the company in question
had several class action lawsuits brought against it by it's employees
concerning the bad work conditions and huge quantities of unpaid
I wasn't the only one to quit the company when I did. It was
common for the company to give new employees a signing bonus if they
agreed to stay for at least a year. It was also common for
employees to stay one year and not a day longer. The starry-eyed
newbies would quickly learn that their dream job wasn't really all that
dreamy. In fact, it really sucked.
Shortly after I quit I heard rumblings about the beginning of the
lawsuit. I chose to not get involved. Primarily because I
hate all lawsuits and prefer to avoid them if at all possible.
Also because I was salaried and according to my understanding of
California law I was considered exempt from overtime pay.
On April 25, 2006 the lawsuit was settled.
Electronic Arts agreed to pay $14.9 million for unpaid overtime.
$14.9 million sounds like a lot of money until you read
which states that Lawrence Probst, the CEO of EA, earned $12.59 million last
year. Apparently he gets paid plenty for his overtime.
Update: The lawsuit has been settled and payments have been
mailed. The following information is no longer current.
If you worked at Electronic Arts as an Associate Software Engineer or
Software Engineer Level 1-3 between February 14, 2001 and February 14,
2006 then you may be entitled to participate in the settlement.
Preliminary court approval is scheduled for May 16, 2006. If the
court agrees to do so, notice will go out to the class members.
The notice will explain your rights under the settlement, how to submit
a claim form and how to object or opt out of the settlement if you
would like to preserve your right to sue EA individually.
The relevant web pages for the law firms representing the plaintiffs are:
California labor law
states that companies do not have to pay overtime to software engineers
if they earn $41 per hour or more and engage in advanced work that is
creative or intellectual in nature. EA management certainly
didn't treat me like my work was advanced, creative or intellectual but
it's unclear exactly what the settlement states.
EA is a public company (ERTS) so bad press can hurt the stock
price. I've heard that the company has made some changes since I
left. They now pay overtime to entry-level programmers, in
exchange they took away their stock grants and bonuses. All other
programmers are still exempt from overtime pay so this change wouldn't
have affected me. I've heard that the teams need manager approval
before they can work on weekends. Since it was management
demanding the overtime in the first place, I don't see how this will
change anything. They also moved major deadlines from Mondays to
Fridays. They used to love Monday deadlines because it implied
working all weekend.
Even if the games industry really has turned into a 40 hour per week
job I'm still much happier as a Kona coffee farmer. Sure, the pay's
not as good and I have an overwhelming amount of hard manual labor that
needs to be done every day and when done with the day's work I have a
long list of paperwork and website work to do at night, but I actually
get to see my wife and kids now. If I get a strong urge to go
jump in the ocean in the middle of the afternoon all I have to do is
clear it with the boss: me! Seeing a game I made on the shelves
was thrilling but hearing people rave about coffee I grew is even more
thrilling. Just yesterday I was having some of our coffee milled
and the miller, who sees lots and lots of coffee, kept telling me how
good our beans are. That's a much better compliment than I ever
got from company management.
I still have plenty of friends that make a good living as software
engineers. Most of them are happy with their jobs. Deciding
to quit "The Best Job in America" wasn't an easy decision. Being
a computer programmer definitely has it's good points. But being
a Kona coffee farmer in Hawaii ain't so bad either. I'm happy with
|Here is an interesting set of Wikipedia articles on the video game industry:|