This week’s Inside Job will strategically deviate from the normal rhythm of these columns to address feedback from a recent revisitation on quality of life presented by Paul Hyman over at Gamasutra.

Because quality of life issues impact all developers across the broad and deep industry space, it is crucial to consider a maximum sample size of opinions and passions when making statements that potentially alter our collective expectations. I offer below a collection of comments posted to Gamasutra by individual developers as an important touchstone delineating current concerns in industry quality of life.

Production Methods Still a Concern

Production methods are certainly at the top of most developers’ lists when it comes to addressing quality of life. It’s important, however, to normalize the overall perspective and also account for the basic nature of analytical professionals – or, as a friend of mine recently put it, realizing that part of being a game developer is intrinsically about questioning authority.

“The problem is the industry is geared up for the young 20 something who has less responsibilities and more freedom to work longer hours. They usually embrace this type of thinking and management takes advantage of it. 30-Somethings and those with families have a more difficult time committing to those standards, and rightly so.

I think SCRUM and other management type of business models need to be addressed by management in the games industry. Also realistic scheduling, not what you think your publisher wants to hear. Until this is resolved the problem will persist.”

The measures being taken by the IGDA Leadership Forum are some of the most important things currently being done to address quality of life, but we need to be careful not to chase silver bullets; empirical data, wherever possible, should be carefully gathered to quantify and analyze progress made. Buzz words can make you feel warm and fuzzy, but the devil is in the details, and in the end result. It’s also important for all concerned to keep an open mind about what works, and the fact that different methods will work in different ways depending on the team in question. I generally hear about as much suspicion and resentment toward the ‘cult’ of Scrum as I hear enthusiastic support for it, which ultimately doesn’t help anyone.

“What bugs me is that the essential problem and its resulting bottleneck(engineering crunch, and subsequently design crunch later down the line, which I’m now seeing some of) was never resolved, just “troubleshooted.” Everyone who could make an early decision to save our time by drawing up a new plan – the lead designer, the producer, the engineering team – put it off and let it become a crisis. Hence we’ve restarted on doing simplistic puzzles more than once and are way off track for our original ship date.

While I respect everyone at the company, it gives me a poor impression of the industry to see some really basic failures of planning.”

Designer Angst

A new element came up in the aggregate of the comments provided by the recent quality of life quick-and-dirty barometer provided by Paul Human’s article – a distinct sense of chaos surrounding the role of design on a project:

“[A] lot of the crazy indecisiveness from designers could be solved by not designing from on high. Distribution of power is key to making a good game. Let the people in the trenches who are aware of the most pressing issues, and have the least amount of leads meetings to attend make the low level decisions. If you’re worried about inexperience ruining a project, get some sub-leads who have some experience to oversee. You almost always get better ideas from a diverse group anyway. The worst thing we can have is everyone waiting on a single person to make a decision. This throws production schedules into chaos.”

What’s interesting about these comments is the unfocused but clear blame being placed on the role of the designer as project architect. This has always been a role closely integrated with production and the leadership of a team; smaller projects traditionally have the designer filling the producer role, with an executive producer from the studio or publisher level overseeing top-level goals. With the strong trend toward organized leadership from a production level, it now appears that designers are coming under fire for not having this same training.

“Almost every day I see the lead designer, the guy who has years of industry experience on me, waffle and handwave away things that he should come to decisions on immediately or very soon. A few days later it gets dragged out into a meeting taking twice the time it should have, because that’s when he finally makes the decision, and with no written document it becomes a terrible back-and-forth “oh, I did not think of that” process. And so we lose more time.”

While frustration toward designers is nothing new in the industry, this level of focused criticism of the designer-as-producer role is an interesting variant that will likely become more important as time goes on. As game production increasingly becomes a force in the shipping of a game, the overlap between producer and designer will become increasingly strained. Methods of negotiating where creativity ends and product delivery begins will represent a new and more poignant challenge that ultimately impacts quality of life from the top of a project downward.

Fear Culture and Blacklisting

“No one would take legal action out of fear really. It’s a small world in video games and no company wants to hire someone who’s been splattered over the news papers for taking legal action against a developer for doing exactly what everyone else is already doing; overworking their staff…In truth, it would take a massive joint effort which (in these days) could easily be done virally online. Though most developers would sooner just replace you with the next hungry sucker than listen to what you have to say.”

There have been, in fact, been numerous lawsuits concerning overtime against all of the major developer-publishers, but this comment reflects a very common perception among developers that still hasn’t changed. What I would say to these developers is that a company that will refrain from hiring you because you’ve defended your legal rights is not one that you want to go anywhere near with a twelve foot clown pole. If anyone should have been blacklisted from the industry over troublemaking, it’s me, and the job offers didn’t cease or even trickle once I went public. It is still the case that talent and skill trump politics in this industry, and I hope it always is.

Despite the overall litigious nature of the American public as compared to the populations of other companies, an unfair stigma against filing labor-related lawsuits exists in this country. The facts of the matter are simple: Businesses rely on the law in order to function, society to provide their marketplace, and labor to generate their product. EA, Sony, Microsoft, and all of the rest rely on legal protection to safeguard their businesses, protection that they are not at all shy in seeking when it comes to defending what is legally theirs. It is simple hypocrisy for them to resent game developers, or anyone else, for doing the same.

Company Culture

Discussion of company culture is a core quality of life issue, and arguably, from a developer standpoint, a question of finding your perfect game culture match; the Inside Job has previously discussed a theory toward cultural ‘types’ in development studios.

“I work in the “trenches”. I think the games industry as a whole has a lot of really unprofessional people working in it across all disciplines. On one side of the coin we might say it helps us to be creative if we keep extreme flex hours, have lots of toys in the office, play games at lunch that regularly extend back into work hours, etc.. But the other side of the coin is that these things make us all less efficient. They set up an environment where it seems ok to come unprepared to meetings, or even show up late. I’m not saying Soviet era strictness needs to be the norm, but we should definitely be making more efficient use of our time. If we set up a professional work environment we’ll not only be more efficient, but we’ll taken more seriously by production, and management.”

“Interesting article.. Anonymous (above). You mentioned your ‘not popular’ opinion but in some ways I might agree. I’ve always been a, ‘sit down, work, then go home’ type of person. I don’t even smoke to cut out those wasted 15 minutes on the hour spent away from my work. Though I enjoy gaming immensely, I don’t think it’s the most productive in a workplace. I actually have no problems with the younger guys gaming through lunch (and often a little over) because they stay in the offices til 2am to make up for their lack of experience and wasted time in the day. What bothers me only is when management will group guys like me with guys like them and expects me to work til 2am even though I’ve been at my desk for 9hrs already.”
Benjamin Quintero

“In response to the 12:45 anonymous and Benjamin:

You’re both right, there is a lot of unprofessional behavior from people in games. But does the chicken come before the egg? Maybe some people don’t put their nose to the grindstone because they know that no matter how hard they push themselves or how ahead of their schedules they get, they’re still going to be asked by management to come in on Saturday?”

The discussions on company culture continue and will continue into the future. Mainly, from a broad standpoint, this is an issue of identification. What’s important is not that different methods work for different folks, but that we currently lack a clean means of identifying company culture prior to entering into that work environment. Ideally, this is done during interviews with the company one is wooing, but frequently developers find themselves surprised by company culture and standards once they begin the actual work. Too much of the gauging of a variety of company attributes is done through word-of-mouth, and this is one reason why most industry jobs are achieved through connections; there’s a certain effectiveness in allowing the social networks of individuals to shape hiring, because it utilizes the intuitive engine of individual personalities to determine compatibility. In short, if I like a work environment, and we’re close friends, chances are higher that you will like my work environment.

The problem with this is that it is both xenophobic – oppressive to those breaking in and to parallel talents from outside the industry deepening our pool – and inefficient. There’s no pat solution now, no way of categorizing game studio cultures – but it’s a direction worth considering.

Economics of Scale

Many of these considerations ultimately come down to top-level shifts in the industry.

“In the early days when companies were small and pioneering, putting in long hours was our sweat equity. But when a company grows up to managing larger groups and teams you have to balance the hours against profit. I always thought the long hours not only diluted a person’s salary, it also diluted the value of the product. The company wasn’t getting anything for free when they burn out their most valuable resource.

‘Ah, more blood oil for the machine’ as been my more caustic welcome to new graduates. I also know if you want to do games nothing is going to stop you, so I’ve made it a priority to let these new hires know their rights. I’m glad to see employees ‘wise up’. No one should feel bullied into working obscene hours. If that’s the case, let the managers up their skills and do the work.”
Maurine Starkey

Her last comment inevitably brings to mind Jonathan Coulton’s “Code Monkey”: “maybe manager want to write / goddamn login page himself…”

The problem, and the challenge, in this case is, as we can see from the comments presented, that the lines between management and development become thin venturing on invisible. Some of it is culture; some developers want to be in control of their destinies and have design and management input; others want competency at that level so that they can do what they’re best at. These dynamics are nowhere near being sorted out, and ultimately come down to the decisions made for individual studios over time, but we can learn much by inspecting the long view of the industry’s development and use that view to chart a course into the future – which comes back to the value of veterans.

Quality-of-Life-focused Niche Markets

Some developers are leaving the industry entirely:

“I left the commercial games industry because of the many issues detailed in the EA spouse letter as well as others stated in this article. I have moved into a Serious Games field where the hours are much more regulated due to the nature of govt[sic] contracting. Employees often work EXACTLY 40 hours a week; no more, no less. This is to maximize what they charge to the contract since overtime is unpaid by the govt unless explicitly approved….Working overtime in video games seems to have gone from a labor of love to just plain labor. A mandatory right-of-passage for anyone in this industry. I think that everyone should go through it once and witness just how bad their life could be; it puts your life into perspective. I would not however make a habit of it or even put up with it for long.”

Another recent development and side effect of the expanding size and value of the industry is the insinuation of game development jobs into fields like education, research, and even corporate training. Game development experience is valued across a much wider array of professions than ever before, which means developers who care about quality of life can find that quality of life and still do what they love, if at a less “rock star” level. This is good for those individual developers, but bad in that it gives an impression that if you want good quality of life you just have to leave the industry – which ultimately leaves the business as a whole continuing to lag behind quality of life standards in the outside world.

Crunch and Logical Fallacies

There is a basic logical fallacy that runs core to human nature itself: because we’ve always made games this way, this way is obviously necessary to make games in the future. One poster succinctly addressed a major failure in this line of thinking:

” ‘There is a reason all the great games that come out go through crunch time’

If everyone does crunch then it’s normal that great games go through it – just like bad games do. The naive thing is to say that great games are great because they crunched, or that that without crunch they wouldn’t have been great.

I believe that if the people developing a game are passionate about it then the game has better chances of being great. I also believe that when people are passionate they will work more hours and/or with more intensity, because of their own choice and desire. That’s not crunch. Crunch is mandatory overtime for an extended period of time, often planned (explicitly or not). Wonder what that does to your passion and your productivity, in the short term but especially in the long term? It destroys them. You will cut corners to go home before 10. You will hack solutions that will bite you in the ass next month. You will hide problems that someone else will have to deal with. Your ability and willingness to communicate with your teammates will diminish. Way to make a great game!

In various projects, I have crunched on my own will, I have crunched against my own will, and I have asked other people to crunch. But you will not convince me that crunch is a necessary part of developing a great game. Crunch is always the result of creative and technical management mistakes. You can argue that the ability to use crunch to work around those mistakes is what allowed some great people to complete great games without proper management skills. Everyone has a first time full of doubts, mistakes, etc. and you do anything you can to make it happen… but that’s something that you also have to grow out of or you won’t be making any great games soon.

Point me to a crunch success story and I will point you to a couple dozen miserable failures that also crunched.”

QA, Resources versus Human Resources, and Scoping Crunch

“While fairly new to the industry, I’ll have to say that as far as the type of department I’m working (QA on the publisher side), life is tough. It is expected that crunch/overtime will happen; we all accept that and we don’t mind it …. While, fortunately, we have someone working to change that, the OoL for those in the trenches from my end isn’t all that great. We love the job so we stay (or at least, we know we need to stay for the experience)… but we all know that we’re getting a small stick and taken advantage of. More than a handful of people have quit for other companies, non-gaming and otherwise, for the simple fact that those companies aren’t asking constant OT for just above minimum wage.”

Even this is just a small sample of the feedback from Paul’s article, where the discussion still continues, indicating that there is indeed a renewed sharp interest in these issues. And, of course, it always lives on Gamewatch .

In closing, I would offer (since I can) a further explanation on some of my comments to Paul for the Gamasutra article.

Regarding EA, I do believe that it has made a tremendous turnaround in many of its studios. Multiple media articles have quoted me saying as much, and the in-total reduction of my current quality of life comments seem to soundbyte into that message. As with all soundbytes, however, there’s a bit more to it.

I do receive reports regularly from developers in situations both good and bad. Gradually, the messages coming from EA employees have drastically spun around. From being one of the most out of control deathmarch companies in the industry, EA seems to be now turning a corner to emphasize the message at its founding, that developer talent is at the crux of its business model and its business success. There was a recent statement made by CEO John Riccitello on the company’s 2008 fiscal year that I found especially interesting (emphasis is mine):

“A year ago, we committed to an aggressive change agenda at EA. Our employees stepped up to the challenge and we finished fiscal year 2008 with non-GAAP revenue up 30 percent to $4 billion – a record for any third-party publisher.”

This represents an important realization by EA on the connection between its developers and its destiny. EA went through a very dark period, and I would argue it is not yet completely out of it, in which it forgot that it is in fact a game developer studio and not just a retail product manufacturer. I hope that EA can retain this new remembrance and continue to improve its still-lagging studios.

I do believe that the ’cause’ has moved forward significantly since 2004, and that it will continue to do so. There is no ‘forgetting’ these issues – it’s hard not to give a damn about the basic level of satisfaction one has with one’s life. It’s also an ongoing process. We’ll never be ‘done’ – but there’s reason for hope, and reason for praise as well as critique.

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