In this second installment of The Inside Job, I’ll be turning over the quality of life discussion to an assortment of developers who have kindly agreed to answer that most ponderous of questions: What is “quality of life”?

The curious thing about quality of life is it can tend to be such a low-simmering issue (until something really serious happens), but I’ve found that most people actually really like talking about it. Starting up a conversation about how the working environment can be improved is enormously satisfying and often leads to simple little things – like an office chair adjustment – that can make a world of difference in how we do what we do. And when we improve that “how,” we improve the “what” – the games.

So I asked, “What is your ideal working environment?” I asked for the nitty gritty. And this is what they said.

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“My perfect working environment is a 24-7, anywhere-at-all-environment. As an artist, I often get inspiration in the middle of the night and want to work, but can’t ’cause I need to be passably coherent at the office. Other times, I’ll have the strong urge to work away from home – such as up in Vancouver, B.C. – but my personal machine isn’t networked to the office. Sometimes, I need paint or leaves – so I’ll want to go and get them at my leisure, but then I have to worry about a too-long lunch.

“Of course, there are some issues with my ideal scenario, but I’ve found I’m much more productive and a lot happier being free to do what I need to do for the work I love.”
– Jaimy McCann, Environmental Artist at Amaze Entertainment

This is a familiar story and one of the primary bugbears in game development. Creative people of any stripe can be particular about their expertise and the optimization of their output:

“At least one big step in the direction of ‘perfect work environment’ is knowing when to let people do their job. I think what really kills a working environment is micro-management. Ok, yes, we’ve all seen Office Space (I hope) and we all know the whole TPS reports gag, but it wouldn’t be so funny if it wasn’t so accurate. Nothing can be more infuriating than management that is more concerned with rules and protocols than the actual work that’s getting done.”
– Steve Rhoades, Instructor at the Art Institute of Las Vegas; Level Designer

By piecing these two together, a character sketch of the game developer emerges. And a big part of that character is his penchant for nostalgia, the experience it continually aims to recapture:

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“I tell people that the highlight of my career was making Midtown Madness 1. It was a small team that, due to the loose management structure at Angel Studios, allowed us to really own what the game was and where it was going. The team took this ownership ran with it. Although there were lots of hours, they weren’t forced. We enjoyed making the game, occasionally looking up to notice it as dark out, going home, thinking about the game, solving problems in your head while taking a shower and waking up early just to rush back in and try your idea out.

“Large teams cannot build the same sense of ownership as a small one can. They key is finding areas that small feature or functional teams or can take ownership, even beyond a given game.

“Functional teams provide support for the organization. These are tools, engine, R&D, etc teams. They are usually not cross-functional as much. The feature teams take ownership of a key feature and are cross-disciplined. They might even support a feature across multiple teams. Neil Young (from EA) described these at a GDC talk he gave a few years back. For example, you might have a squad AI team that can take ownership and pride for that feature that would push the envelope on that feature for multiple teams. The experience, focus and skill of those teams stay persistent and can continually improve far beyond a similar team only formed for a single project.”
– Clinton Keith, CTO of High Moon Studios

“Ownership” is the one thing everyone misses and says their quality of life would improve if more teams could “own” what they work on. It comes down to personal investment and importance.

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“Justin Achilli told me one time: ‘People keep jobs for two of three reasons. The job is important, you enjoy your job and/or you are compensated well.’

“Example: Doctors have an important job and are typically compensated well. They do not however enjoy the high stress. The industry is not ‘important,’ but we enjoy our jobs for the most part. Granted, videogames [are] a higher stress environment compared to us over in [tabletop].

“So that leaves us with ‘compensation.’ I agree with ‘citruspunch’ about get more, spend more, but I see a lot of young families and money is definitely important. … [But] while money is important, it’s the perks that encourage teambuilding, etc. that make the biggest impact on morale.”
– Oscar J Garza, Organized Play Coordinator at White Wolf (via Gamewatch forums)

Achilli’s statement is apt in that it is common for workers to accept even one of those three elements, but good jobs offer all three. Judy Tyrer, frequently vocal on what she calls “from the ground up” quality of life, maintains that developers always have a choice to do what they know is right for themselves and the companies they work for.

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“Another interesting aspect of my life is that I was sole financial support for a family of four, basically taking the father role in the family while my husband stayed home and raised the kids. I know the stress of bearing responsibility for raising a family. But you have to weigh that stress against the stress of getting up in the morning and hating where you are going, hating what you are doing all day and coming home too miserable to be with the family you are supporting. What good is supporting a family when they leave you because they hate who you have become?

“I was taught from an early age that to negotiate anything, you want to be in a position of power. You have to be willing to walk away rather than compromise beyond your own boundaries. I learned this playing Monopoly with my dad. I learned it buying new cars. I learned it in love. There is enormous power in walking away.”
– Judy Tyrer, Network Engineer at Red Storm Entertainment

The breadth of response when I asked about quality of life is truly astonishing. I began with simple questions: What would make your (working) life better? And the answers are as diverse as the people I asked. But through the breadth of these responses, there are certain consistencies:

  1. Developers want to be asked these questions – think of it in design terms: we are offering them the chance to make choices about the things that are most important to them in their lives;
  2. Developers do not want to have another person’s perception of quality of life imposed on them;
  3. Developers light up when you offer them the chance to make choices about their destiny and their environments, and they rapidly move their creativity and intellect behind the efforts when offered the opportunity;
  4. Developers are passionate about the importance of these questions, often to the ironic end that they can feel frustrated discussing them if they feel they do not have the power to change their destiny.

These issues are not unique to the game industry by any stretch, but this industry is unique in its close community and its rapid ability to change, adapt and implement new strategies. If we want to solve these problems, we can. If we want to better our lives and our careers, we can. And discussion is the starting point.

As with any complex issue, with sufficient time and energy, a comprehensive approach is possible but rare. We know the lodestars; so where do we go from there?

We start small. Ask simple questions. Ask how you can improve quality of life in your environment – whatever that environment is – using less than $10 per head. But ask. As Wolfgang Hamann found with Critical Stage Analysis, buy in is critical, and the ability to make decisions and be heard is an improvement in quality of life in itself. Start having these discussions, and lives get better. It really does just happen.

I’ll close with one last quote from a developer at Motorola. We know what’s important to us; the next step is acknowledgment of our ability to achieve it.

“A bit frivolous, but here we go:

“A real office, with walls. This is so A) I can turn the lights down to the level I prefer; and B) I won’t bother anyone else with my music (which almost no one else likes).

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“Lots of flat surfaces, where all the paper and reference books will accumulate. (Note: This accumulation happens whether the flat surfaces are present or not, so best to have them in place ahead of time.)

“A comfy chair. Yes, this is a subjective measure. However, if you spent less than $75, it’s almost certainly not a comfy chair.

“Lots of power outlets, with a lot of Amps behind them (for the PCs, prototypes, oscilloscopes, logic analyzers, electric tea kettle, etc.).

“As many network drops as I need/want. In other words, I don’t want to hear static from the IT department about plugging in an unmanaged ethernet switch so I can get more ports.

“Internal NNTP and/or Wiki server, for those long, drawn-out group discussions that make people hate their email in-box.

“No Windows requirement by IT. This means all company-wide “intranet” services must fully support IE, Firefox, Opera, Safari, Lynx, etc. (Yes, that includes NetMeeting-style Webcasts.)

“Senior and executive management personnel should be accessible to employees. A certain amount of transparency in decision-making is also greatly appreciated.”
– Leo Schwab, Senior Staff Software Engineer at Motorola”

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Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.

A new Inside Job will appear in this space every other Friday.

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