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In defining company culture and separating quality of work from quality of life, one of the sharpest issues of contention is the subject of internet access, and what level is optimal.

My first encounter with the internet issue was, it might seem strangely enough, via one of the “Kudos” posts on Gamewatch. The thread was titled “Big Up for Relentless Software,” Relentless being one of the new growing game houses out of Brighton, U.K. Contrary to their name, if there was one thing the studio wasn’t relentless about, it was work hours; according to the poster, these were the studio “rules”:

  1. You check in at 9, we kick you out at 5. Have a life.
  2. When you’re at work, you give us 100% of your time.
  3. No internet in the office, except through public “research” terminals. And honestly, exactly how much research do you really need to do in a working day, hmmm?
  4. Real bonuses, real time off, real tangible rewards for success, partners always included.
  5. Teams ship regularly on hard, 6-week milestones, defect free, delivered in person to the publisher.
  6. Don’t take the piss.

This was the first of the Gamewatch forum posts discussing the internet issue, and it unwittingly set off a quick series of discussions not just in that thread but in others across the site as to how much internet access was the right amount.

Fundamentally, this issue gets down to the question of how much “culture” we as game developers want in the workplace. Project managers understand that this is a slippery issue, because the more time people spend on personal stuff at work, the grayer the area between work time and off time becomes, and therefore not only is productivity more difficult to track, it’s more difficult to enforce. The slippage works both ways, and one of the major dangers of descent into deathmarch is the then necessary intrusion of personal activities – paying bills, doing laundry – into development time.

Game studios run into this problem more squarely than other forms of software development, both because the very creative nature of what we do requires a certain pull from real life (frequently filtered through the internet) and because many game programmers will argue that being able to stop and take a break actually assists in productivity.

How much of this is legitimate theory, and how much is malleable habit? Studios that have tried the all-work style have found it effective, and some of their developers have been among the most vocal in speaking up in favor of their employers.

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But the consensus at least so far from within the industry seems squarely in favor of open-ended internet access. When I polled professionals on LinkedIn, the results showed a striking dichotomy: Industry developers were 100 percent in favor of an open internet policy; non-industry software developers were 100 percent in favor of some kind of company control restricting internet access in the office. Many particulars, from specifics of the development process to accepted status quo to different flavors of general company culture, could cause this result, but it emphasizes a striking difference in attitude and expectation between the game industry and the greater software development environment.

Regardless of its origin, one issue high in developers’ minds and in the minds of entrepreneurs out to create companies was one of trust and company culture.

“No company that I’ve worked for has ever restricted total internet access, although like you, I’ve heard stories of this being done quite successfully in Europe. I think it comes down to the developers; by its nature, creative work requires the occasional break (working 8 solid productive hours with no breaks is simply not realistic), whether that break takes the form of a quick walk around the office or a trip to a favorite website or playing a game. Like anything, breaks can be abused; there’s a difference between playing one game of Spider Solitaire for 10 minutes, and playing a marathon session for half a day. And ultimately, it comes down to having the people and the culture where one small distraction doesn’t balloon like that, where people willingly focus themselves on getting the job done. I doubt that a strong work ethic is something you could force on people by corporate sanction; rather, be rigorous in your hiring procedures, and if you’ve got the right people on your team then you won’t need such restrictions.”
– Ian Schreiber, Game Designer, Visiting Professor at Ohio State University

From top to bottom the trust issue is key, not just in the formation of positive company culture, but in the related creation of an environment that makes developers feel motivated to put their best work forward for the studio. The creative element of game development means the attitude with which we approach our jobs can be as critical as the technical skills necessary to execute on project objectives.

“Working in the games industry or pretty much anything creative, any internet restriction is a bad one. Not only does it create distrust but such policies are enforced by management, who may not understand the creative needs of the team. I have looked at web sites on the clock that would get people in other industries fired but they were the best source for the texture reference I needed. Likewise, I use YouTube all the time to find reference for animations.

Any restrictions (and this applies to any industry) just tells me that the people who hired me aren’t trusting me to do my job. Results speak louder than any hour by hour monitoring.”
– Ryan Duffin, Senior Animator at Guerrilla Games

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Pride also comes into play, as it frequently does in creative industries. One of the game industry’s strengths is how good developers generally feel about their jobs and their own personal competency. This level of satisfaction with your own performance is what leads game development to avoid many of the Office Space-style bureaucratic pitfalls that plague the larger software development world.

“Restriction is not the answer to improving productivity. It’s all about turning threats into opportunities: What impacts productivity more, someone sneaking out of the office to go to the bank or doing the same operation online? Someone leaving early to do the shopping or doing it from your PC (and without the queues)? If you treat your employees like kids, restrict their access to the real world, and try to put fences on the fields, what kind of response will you get? What would be next, restrict the number of times they can go to the toilet? And do you remember back in the old days, where there was no internet, people not getting distracted?

Everyone likes to be treated well, and the better the atmosphere, better the chances that people will try and do their work the best that they can. And above all, it’s a fact: Most people play online games during work hours, including executives (who happen to play even more).

It’s refreshing, recharging and makes people feel better afterwards.”
– Jorge Gómez, Production Manager at Pyro Studios

Because these issues do come down to corporate culture and, ultimately, the way we feel about what we do, the bad news is they can be hard to quantify, but the good news is there are no right and wrong answers, only what works for an individual studio. Because the issues are of trust and professionalism, if the “no-internet” policy is executed in a way that makes sense, respects developers and encourages them to respect each other by not extending work hours beyond the established workday, more power to it. Many studios have shown positive results from the less intuitive but testable practice of placing clear delineations between studio time and personal time.

Studios that have implemented these and other productivity strategies effectively have used the collective brainpower of their developers, not just for meeting deadlines but for analyzing the way those deadlines are met. Most game studios are of a size that favors flexibility and quick iteration of process strategy, two invaluable abilities that allow for rapid testing and refinement of the development process. All we need to do is stay awake.

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