18 April, 2016
I’m Interrupting my series of posts about tabletop RPGs to post on a topic that is generating some buzz.
Once again, the issue of work conditions in the game industry has come up in discussions. And once again, we see some poor soul trying to defend the status quo, explaining that the industry is fine and nothing needs to change at all and that game developers who “can’t love all 80 hours/week of it” shouldn’t even be in the industry.
Yeah, someone actually wrote an article saying that. So, let me work to counter some of this toxic ideology and explain why life outside of work is fine.
The “wage-slave” mentality of wanting fair treatment
The article in question decries a “wage-slave” mentality of not wanting to work long hours. The tl;dr version is that people who work in games should feel privileged to do so. You should demonstrate the type of passion that makes you enthusiastically work 80 hours per week, otherwise you’re just taking a job from someone who wants to show that type of enthusiasm. Working long hours is just the price you’re expected to pay for working in such an amazing industry.
The article also says that you can’t fit the creativity of game development into a “into a 9-to-5 job”. Game development is inherently entrepreneurial and games are “art” that can’t be contained in mortal bounds
Let me stop here, as I don’t think I can roll my eyes any more without straining them.
Bonus sexism and abuse
People on Twitter also pointed out the same author wrote a presentation where he claims that you need to retain wives or girlfriends of engineers, not the engineers themselves. The significant others are the ones who will get frustrated or upset with low pay faster. And, the woman always handles the finances, right? Besides making the ugly assumption that engineers will be straight males, this also makes a lot of assumptions about what is “normal”.
On top of that, he advocates hiring “the undiscovered Asperger’s engineer” because they “work like machines”, don’t complain, don’t play politics, and won’t change jobs. The presentation explicitly decries “spoiled kids who know their value” in today’s job market. It calls out “real engineers” who don’t see coding as “work” because they’re just so darn passionate! And, of course, you hire those few special snowflake female engineers because ovaries give you superior social skills; I guess the bright side is that they get to be management in a culture that explicitly looks for people to exploit.
The same old excuses in a convenient new article
This is hardly a new topic. In fact, one of the first posts on my blog (almost 11.5 years ago now!) was about crunch in game development. Crunch is a nuanced topic as there is “good” and “bad”, but I think anyone who says, “you must eagerly work 80 hours/week to be a REAL game developer!” is pretty much advocating what I call bad crunch in that post.
The reality of why bad crunch exists is twofold. First, the existing system is incredibly profitable for the managers at the top of the food chain. That presentation about “hiring giants” all but says that you don’t need to pay your engineers well if you hire the neural atypical and promise them “potential money” which the value more than “actual money”. We can also look at the large game companies and see that game development is incredibly lucrative. Large companies hold billions of dollars in assets and generate hundreds of millions of dollars every financial quarter. Changing the status quo means changing how profitable game development is.
Yes, to be fair, game development is a risky, hit-driven creative industry. But, game development is not alone in this regard. Especially at larger companies, the risk is spread out over multiple projects. And, we’ve seen that it’s pretty easy to generate regular returns out of a franchise that has been proven to be a hit.
The second reality is that management in the game industry is, as a rule, pretty terrible and enforced crunch makes up for the shortcomings. There are shining exceptions, but for the most part the industry suffers from poor project management and poor management of companies. The whole reason why I wanted to write a book on business and legal issues is because I saw how important business was to the creative process and I wanted to understand it better. Even now I’m reading more about leadership because I want to be a better leader and not fall into the same game industry traps. But, as we see the industry has notorious examples of managers making poor decisions affecting the lives of employees.
I think some managers feel a level of frustration when creativity can’t always be produced on a predictable schedule. In the older days of the game industry with long lead times for print media and shipping physical media to stores, missing a deadline could be a huge financial hit to a company. But, times are changing and management is not changing with the times if they expect people to routinely want to work 80 hours per week.
The industry’s age problem
One of my friends once joked that the problems with the game industry perpetuate because there is “an infinite supply of 24-year-olds”. Meaning that kids who grow up playing games and thinking that making games is going to be like playing games get into an industry all too happy to take advantage of their youthful enthusiasm and naïveté to maintain profit margins. It’s no secret that the game industry pays very low wages in exchange for the “privilege” of working in a cool industry like game development; in fact, there are a lot of misconceptions about the game industry that work in the favor of the entrenched companies. There is little perceived need to improve the conditions of the workers because people who burn out can easily be replaced with younger people.
Unfortunately this also means that the industry doesn’t tend to value experience as much as they should. In the “Hiring Giants” presentation, even though he claims they are useful for the company, the author still calls experienced people by derogatory names like “old goats” in their “dotage”. Their job isn’t to do amazing things anymore, but to guide the young engineers eagerly working 80 hours per week. But, this means that typical life things like having a rough spot in your marriage or deciding to have children make you a lesser person in the eyes of some managers. Yet another reason why those 24-year-olds are so desirable: they’re less likely to have kids or relationship ennui, and working them 80 hours per week means they’re not likely to have kids. (And even if you do, you just give meaningless awards to people and they’ll happily miss their child’s birth in order to ship a product!)
So, what is the problem here? If someone wants to throw themselves 110% into working on some match-3 mobile game with microtransactions, why not let them? Besides the fact that they may not have the experience to understand what tradeoff they’re making, and the fact that industry marketing makes it look like an amazing thing to do, the problem is that it denies people the opportunity to grow as people.
One big problem is that when you’re working a lot of hours in a week, it tends to drain you and make it harder to do things that would help you grow as a person. If you’re working 80 hours and getting a full, healthy 7-8 hours of sleep per night, that doesn’t leave you much time for hobbies or cultural pursuits. Why does the engineer with Asperger’s not deserve to go to a museum, see an opera, or spend the day getting sunburnt attending a Japanese street fair in the nation’s capital? Why don’t game developers deserve to collect and appreciate something they can’t just order from Amazon? How about letting people with the least social skills have the opportunity to grow as people and make friends in the offline world?
When the game industry trade group publishes a whitepaper about the issue, this isn’t just people with “wage-slave” mentalities wanting an easy job. It’s developers understanding that people deserve a chance to be people. That something as common as having to focus on relationship troubles or wanting to have kids should not mean the end of your career. And, frankly, it’d be better if more game developers got out and experienced more life has to offer; this experience might inspire the next genius who creates a whole new popular genre of games like The Sims which appeals beyond the stereotypical game audience.
A question of ownership
Note that I’m not saying that working a maximum of 40 hours per week is the only acceptable answer. I certainly worked more than 40 hours per week when I ran Meridian 59 under Near Death Studios, and even when working at 3DO. The difference was, particularly at NDS, a question of ownership. See, I had a lot of creative freedom at 3DO because the game was small and few people really cared. After 3DO, I owned Near Death Studios and if the game saw tremendous success, I would be richly rewarded. (It didn’t and I wasn’t, but that’s still fine.) I was an entrepreneur and I was taking a risk. Although I didn’t walk away rich, I did walk away with a lot of great experience I applied to other projects.
Rami Ismail points out that employees are not entrepreneurs. Employees want stability, security, and a regular paycheck; as much as the game industry can provide, at least. Entrepreneurship means taking huge risks with the possibility of huge rewards if you make something the market will reward. Not everyone can or even wants to take such risks, and expecting every game maker to also be an entrepreneur is perhaps a great way to weed down the supply of game developers, but it ignores the fact that games are a serious business.
But, to the entrepreneurs out there who want to forge their own paths: go for it! Yes, it’ll probably take a lot of long, hard hours. And, yeah, a small company facing a hard deadline may have to put in long hours to accomplish its goals. But, just because you and your initial team who got pieces of the company did it doesn’t mean everyone must do it for as long as the company exists. Once you grow to a larger size, your new mission becomes to treat your employees right and help them grow as game developers and as people. Realize that the game industry today isn’t the game industry of 20 years ago, and that the reason for making people work long hours is more often than not really just a failure of management.
A new future?
Given that I’ve written about the harmful effects of crunch and improving work conditions many times before, it is a bit frustrating that we’re still rehashing this topic. On the other hand, I am heartened by the fact that there has been significant outcry about this article rather than beleaguered resignation I’ve seen before. Like Rami, I love games and have dedicated my career so far to making them. I want to see games grow as an art form and become a better industry with good business practices.
And that’s no contradiction. We can do it, but it takes the right leadership and the right moral stance to let people grow and become well-rounded game developers that will carry the industry into the future.