Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

18 April, 2016

A life outside of work is not a sin
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 10:41 AM

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!)

Being well-rounded

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.


  1. At the risk of victim-blaming (which I am loathe to do for a number of reasons, not the least of which is I have been one of the victims!), crunch also takes advantage of the fact that developers take pride in their work and don’t want to do a half-assed job. So we push ourselves to put in the extra time to polish because we want to achieve a really high standard with our content.

    That sort of behavior should be recognized and applauded by leadership, and in good companies it is. But what can also happen is that it becomes the norm that leadership expects for free on top of the scope they’re asking for. They don’t back off on the scope because they’re getting the results they want… so why would they?

    Due to the nit-picky nature of the developer (driven by need on some level for players not just to consume our content but to LOVE it), we fall into the trap of driving ourselves beyond the limits of what should be expected of any reasonable occupation.

    In small, targeted doses, I accept it… maybe even enjoy it. Being honest, in any creative endeavor from woodworking to film making, an artist pushes to add that special touch of magic to make their work stand out. And when you’re in the trenches together, a kind of camaraderie forms that can create lifetime bonds between developers. When it becomes unhealthy is when the systems in place to manage workflow are designed to require this behavior just to meet baseline expectations. Worse still, when there is no clear picture of what you need to achieve in order for the overtime to end, or when your goal becomes a moving target based on the whim of some executive.

    Our desire for our work to be loved and admired by peers and players just feeds the machine and can be used against us. But yeah, blame the abuser, not the victim. I JUST WANT YOU TO LOVE ME!

    Comment by Steve Danuser — 18 April, 2016 @ 11:07 AM

  2. Yeah, in in the blog post I link in this post I talk about “good crunch” vs. “bad crunch”. Good crunch is when the developer wants to put in some extra hours to make something amazing. Bad crunch is when management figures, “Well, if people are going to work over 40 hours per week, might as well build that into the schedule!” The idea of “good crunch” as been controversial for some people I’ve talked to, but I think that when you want to do a great job it happens spontaneously.

    So, I don’t think this is necessarily blaming the victim. And, I think there’s a world of difference between building an atmosphere where people want to spend extra hours to give it their all, and an atmosphere where people are expected to come in extra hours. But, I realize it can be a pretty fine distinction.

    Comment by Psychochild — 18 April, 2016 @ 11:18 AM

  3. Your descriptions of the industry basically sound like my descriptions of retail in the U.S. in general. And the person in question sounds like a propaganda artist born into the system and thinking because he was born into this system, it must be the best system there is. He’s also likely just looking at the dichotomy with a very limited view – not taking into consideration many other governing factors.

    Comment by Jeremy Stratton — 18 April, 2016 @ 1:29 PM

  4. I think more than two weeks of crunch is directly counterproductive. I think there’s lots of research that backs that up. I think it doesn’t matter how passionate or creative people are, fatigue and lack of sleep takes a toll, people make more mistakes, or just go through the motions, suffering a degradation of alertness. The one or two week crunch is something that I’ve done in the past, and may need to do, and have other people do in the future. But permanent crunch renders the 2-week crunch useless.

    At the same time, “analysis paralysis” is also deadly. It is much better to do the simplest thing that might possibly work than to sit around trying to anticipate every issue, and every scenario that might come up. Eliminating analysis paralysis is an important job for leadership, but it requires a culture that doesn’t do any finger-pointing or blaming. You can’t just change one thing, you have to change everything.

    Comment by Toldain — 18 April, 2016 @ 1:38 PM

  5. What a colossal wanker that Venturebeat writer is. The day I quit the games industry for good and went back to working a real job at a real company was one of the happiest days of my life, and its the attitudes of arseholes like him that made it so.

    Comment by carson63000 — 18 April, 2016 @ 1:46 PM

  6. What an incredibly ignorant and ultimately harmful article at venturebeat. As a gamer who used to be a teacher and then actually went into management recruitment and labor law, it makes me cringe from all sides; as a young teacher I had to fight old ideas of how teachers have this “higher calling” (like priests or something..) and therefore have no life besides school, no evenings, no weekends. Nonsense – teaching IS a job and it deserves to be treated as one! I was supposed to do that much more for hardly any privileges and low pay. No thanks, and no it’s not enough to “just like children”. /eyeroll

    I switched careers and ended up speaking for things like equal and fair pay, work-life balance as well as working case managements to bring sick and burnt out employees back into the work place. As you pointed out rightly, there is absolutely a difference between management level personnel and employees; if anything, long hours and extra work load should fall on the shoulders of the first (they also are the ones who benefit more). It is inacceptable to exploit young workforce and general staff by making them slave away in lowpay jobs for the privilege of working for you. What a complete absurdity. It bespeaks poor employment ethics and frankly irresponsible and bad management.

    As a gamer I was appalled when I heard about crunch time for the first time and this is absolutely NOT how I want my games to be created! I don’t want a part in such poor working conditions for devs, programmers, designers who are all people like you and me and deserve fair payment and time for recreation – no matter if they’re assistants or seniors. And the ‘art card’ is the weakest excuse I’ve ever heard in order to underpay jobs, it’s frankly offending my intelligence. I can’t believe anyone perpetuates such standards which hurt the people who are at the heart of this industry. And this industry can function exactly like any other….crunch time is necessary, puhleeze? :D There are plenty of complex, international multimillion dollar business ventures who (have to) manage too, meat milestones and rollouts and whatnot without making their staff cancel real life “cuz art”. Games are business, whether they employ artists or not – and anyone who wants them to linger in a weird twilight zone between art and business is basically trying to screw with people to accept shady employment practises.
    This is why I like small indie games and direct publishing so much more btw – the smaller the biz, the less middle and background men who want a share of the pie too and squeeze out what they can.

    Long rant over!This really annoys me :)

    Comment by Syl — 18 April, 2016 @ 4:25 PM

  7. I was going to say something smart, pithy and to the point, but other people got there first. Whew!

    Comment by Ysharros — 18 April, 2016 @ 6:09 PM

  8. Syl makes a great point about indie games here. While indie devs have to work massively long hours, since they usually have day jobs, at least they reap the bulk of the rewards. Unlike big game publishers where it’s the share price that benefits from forcing punishing hours on their employees. It’s one of the many reasons I’m favoring indie devs these days.

    I also suspect this is probably more a US phenomenon. Here is Australia the labor laws wouldn’t allow an employer to get away with underpaying an employee (as we have minimum rates for professionals, not just a minimum wage.) It’s also really hard to sack someone for no reason, and there’s a process if there is a reason. I figure this is also the case throughout Europe.

    Comment by Stropp — 18 April, 2016 @ 9:16 PM

  9. The only thing I can add? s/games industry/tech/g

    I’m absolutely certain the games industry is the worse of the bunch, but much the same attitudes and arguments can be heard all over startups outside of games, too.

    Oh, there’s a difference. Usually you get lip service for “work/life balance” (a terrible phrase to begin with), but then you’ll get emotionally blackmailed into trying to fix management mistakes with crunch time over and over again.

    In the end, I don’t think it makes much of a difference.

    Comment by unwesen — 19 April, 2016 @ 7:33 AM

  10. unwesen wrote:
    The only thing I can add? s/games industry/tech/g

    Yes, I think some of this is echoed in the larger tech industry. But, I think games in particular are bad about this because of the cachet that working in games has. There’s this aura of “cool ultra-creativity” around working on games. Every time there’s been a new platform in the last few years there are often breathless pieces about how someone working in their bedroom just made a million dollars coding up their first game. When the reality is that most game development tends to be, well, a job that has its ups and downs.

    Plus, the wages in tech are much better. The game industry exploits people and does it for 50-75% of the cost. I’ve worked at several places where my wages were about half of what they could have been at a non-games tech company.

    Anyway, I’m not saying that the game industry is unique in this, but it seems a bit more exploitative than the rest by a significant margin.

    Comment by Psychochild — 19 April, 2016 @ 1:23 PM

  11. A humorous view of the original VentureBeat article:

    Comment by Psychochild — 20 April, 2016 @ 10:02 AM

  12. Oh, like I said, games are probably the worst of the bunch.

    I do speek to VCs a little bit more these days than I used to, though, and the general consensus is that hiring young, unattached engineers – which you call “smart” and give them free pizza to make them feel special – is the premier cost-saving device for getting to market fast and cheaply. This always comes with the addendum that you can fix any mistakes they make later, and “later” doesn’t tend to come until the company struggles to keep up with the technical debt accumulated in those early phases.

    Eh, I’m sidetracking a bit. The point is, this is a very deliberate startup strategy. Startups might pay a little more than games studios, but the mentality is identical.

    Comment by unwesen — 21 April, 2016 @ 1:32 AM

  13. I see another subtle, pernicious attitude under the surface, too. There’s a pervasive attitude just about everywhere that art (or other creative work like writing) is or should be cheap, that it’s not real “work”. It’s the whole “starving artist” mentality that was adopted in a fit of Stockholm Syndrome, just writ from the business side. It shows up in everything from arguments for, say, Vanilla servers for WoW to music/movie/game piracy to executive ignorance in any product creation that requires artists… which is just about everything.

    /Y’see, *everyone* knows that Art is just something you do for the passion of the thing, not because you want to make a living at it. Otherwise it’s not Art, and you’re not an artist. REAL Art should be done without an eye on money at all. It’s a privilege to do art all day./

    …or something like that. In my experience as an artist, familiar with many other creative types, this is a slow killer, destroying artists’ creativity and interest in creation. There is no shame in working in creative ventures and expecting to be paid for it.

    Of course, I’ve written about this before, too. I suspect I will again.

    Comment by Tesh — 24 April, 2016 @ 8:37 PM

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