in Project management

All Work No Play, Makes Jack a Dull Game Developer (Part 1)

This article has been a long time coming. It should be abundantly clear from past articles I’ve written (and from my rants if you know me in person) that I feel very strongly about quality of life issues in the games industry. It pains me to see rampant overtime be commonplace, and the truly ironic part is, I’m convinced it doesn’t help the final game any. As a matter of fact, it probably makes people be less productive and makes the game suffer for it. Ah, but they crunched some impressive hours. They have something they can feel proud of.

In the meanwhile, people are finally starting to wake up and say enough is enough. As most people are probably already aware (after hitting Slashdot and all the major game news sites), a few days ago the brutally honest blog entry from ea_spouse caught everyone by surprise. To throw fuel in the fire, another great entry by EA ex-employee, Joe Stratiff, quickly followed. Judging by the amount of attention they’re getting, people are clearly very interested.

It has since then made it to the national news, hitting the New York Times, the San Francisco Mercury, and many other national newspapers. I suspect the effects of these developments will be felt for the new few months with other follow ups in Game Developer Magazine and GDC presentations. There is even talk of a game development union. Whatever the direct results, those blog entires already accomplished a lot: raising the awareness of the working conditions of the industry. Putting an ugly truth in front of people’s faces.

The state of the industry

Those blog entries only dealt with EA. What about the rest of the games industry? EA is the major player in the games industry. They are the largest game development company, and they are one of the main publishers. In other words, they’re the big bully in the playground. If they do something, chances are it’s going to affect other people. Even worse, if they do something and it ends up being successful, other companies are quickly going to follow suit, or at least use it as a justification for their decisions.

But unfortunately rampant overtime and major crunch mode are not limited to EA. Most game development companies expect some level of crunch, usually about 65-80 hour weeks for up to a couple of months at the time. That’s not a one-time crunch either, but repeated multiple times during the development cycle.. What is worse, a lot of companies operate in a constant “crunch” mode, with 60-hour weeks being the norm. You can get all the detailed stats and lots of insightful commentary from the IGDA quality of life whitepaper.

As is often the case, variety is good, and variety within companies in the games industry means that it is possible to find different working conditions depending of where you go. There are four types of companies with respect to crunch mode:

  1. On one end of the spectrum, we have companies like EA that just require overtime as a matter of fact. To be fair, not all EA studios operate under that mode. Apparently the one mentioned in the blogs was the LA studio. Several people are reporting that the situation is very different in EA Canada for example.
  2. Some others will only require overtime when the project is in trouble of not meeting a milestone or a delivery, but of course, to anybody know knows how projects are run, that means that the project is in crunch for most of its development cycle.
  3. Going further away from that, we have companies that don’t require overtime, although they certainly encourage it from their employees.
  4. Finally, on the other extreme, some other companies either actively discourage people from working ridiculous hours, or they’ll accept it if somebody really wants to do it, but won’t encourage it in any way.

If there is a silver lining to all this mess is the fact that this is bringing companies in the fourth category to the limelight. IGDA has identified several companies, including Blue Fang Games and Firaxis, as companies that respect their employees’ lives and actively try to avoid crunch or overtime. Blue Fang has even been proudly advertising that fact in their job listings. I can only hope that more companies will stand out and identify themselves as being in the same category.

Perhaps that’s even something that IGDA can mediate, with game companies submitting their candidacy for the “quality of life IGDA seal of approval”, and IGDA can then send someone to verify their claims and add them to a publicly-available list of companies that avoid extended crunch time and meet all the quality of life requirements.

Dali clock

Finding a good company

Unfortunately, even though companies like that exist, they’re still far from the norm. You really have to dig deep to find companies in categories 3 and 4. Until IGDA creates an extended list, how do you go about finding one?

Word of mouth is a good approach. Network, find someone who knows someone who works there. Ask them about their work conditions, their typical work-week, how late people leave the office. You’ll find that most people are extremely open about it. One thing to watch out for is information that is several levels removed: If the roommate of their friend’s coworker had some bad things to say about a company, it might be greatly exaggerated by the time that information reaches you. Try to go with first-hand, or at most second-hand accounts.

Also, take anything that an ex-employee says with a grain of salt. Don’t ignore it by any means, just don’t base your whole decision on their opinion. People leave companies for all sorts of different reasons, and it often colors their opinion of the company as a whole.

If you don’t know anybody who works there directly, try asking in some of the industry forums. For example, if you’re already in the games industry, you might want to check out The Chaos Engine. They have a whole forum called “About Company X” just for people to ask opinions about different companies. They have quite a large membership, so it’s very likely you’ll find someone who is currently working at that same company. But the usual dose of salt applies: The forum uses a semi-anonymous format, so anybody is free to say whatever they want without consequences.

Finally, assuming you liked what you heard so far about a company, you went ahead and applied there. If all went well and you got called in for an in-person interview, this is your time to be pro-active about it. You will meet a lot of people during the interview. They’ll ask you a lot of questions, but they’ll also let you ask a lot of questions as well (after all, interviews are a two-way street–you’re trying to find out as much about them as they are about you). Make sure you come prepared with a lot of questions, but make sure that one or two of them are aimed to find out more about their crunch habits. Some good warm-up questions are “What is your typical work week?” or “What is the usual time for people to arrive to work and leave for home?”. If you get fuzzy answers to that, or you suspect there’s more than what they’re saying, ask them straight out: “When was the last time you crunched?” “How long was it and how many hours a week was it?”.

Make sure you ask those questions to everybody you talk to. You’ll be surprised how different people will answer the same questions sometimes. Don’t be shy about asking those questions too. Any employer who thinks less of you for asking that probably won’t try to avoid crunch time, so you probably didn’t want to work there anyway.

I’ve already noticed that people are asking about crunch time a lot more frequently during phone interviews since the whole EA Spouse blog hit the news. If nothing else, that is already doing some good to the industry.

Why does it happen?

So, why is crunch time rampant in this industry? Is there something inherent to games that requires bursts of activity? Some people will argue that games are a creative activity, just like movies, hit or miss, entertainment industry, yadda, yadda, yadda. That might be true for the design part, but there’s no excuse in the engineering part.

The ugly truth is that crunch is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy. It happens because people walk into game projects fully expecting to spend half of it crunching. That also means they can goof off for the first half. Call it procrastination. Call it human nature. Call it whatever you want, but that’s really what happens. It’s ingrained in the game industry culture due to its cottage industry roots. About 20-30 years ago, games were all about two kids spending crazy hours in somebody’s basement. For some reason, the industry is having a hard time letting go of that image, and that’s hurting everybody: the people suffering those hours, and the projects suffering those burned-out, tired people.

The worst part is that it really is so ingrained in the culture, that not only do people expect it, but they feel proud of it after it’s done (if they forget about the 20 pounds they gained during that time, the fact that their kids are two years older than they remember, and that they need to go to the divorce court next Wednesday). I am disgusted every time I read a postmortem in Game Developer Magazine or Gamasutra that lists “team pulled together and worked insane hours during months on end” under the “What Went Right” section.

As long as some people feel that way, it’s very difficult to break out of that mode. It’s very hard to walk out of the building when the rest of the team is in “hero” crunch mode, even if you know you’re not doing anybody a favor by staying more hours in the building. That’s particularly true when it’s your boss who thinks that crunch time is a natural part of the process and is essential to ship a quality game. Trying to keep sane hours can easily cost you raises, promotions, or even your job.

The million-dollar questions are, is crunch time really inevitable and does it really help a product? I’ll tackle those with my unpopular opinions and theories in the second part of this article.

  1. Slack

    Nice to know that someone in the in the game industry cares about the development process and ‘peopleware’. Noel Llopis got a good blog called ‘Games from Within’.

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