6 March, 2009
Adam Martin has an interesting article talking about how he would like to treat employees in his theoretical future company. In a comment I left, I took him to task for jumping in too deep; instead of listing a bunch of perks, we should take the time to identify problems and come up with solutions to them.
So, let’s take a look at the problems, shall we?
Quality of Life
Adam starts off with a radical proposal: only working 30 hours per week spread over 4 days.
This speaks directly to a big problem we’ve had to deal with in the industry: Quality of life. One of my first posts on this blog dealt with the issue because it was becoming more important. As I point out, though, some people willingly put in long hours. I think the issue of paying people less and making work less misses the point.
The core issue is that an employee should make a decision about whether he or she wants to put in long hours or not. It shouldn’t be a decision made by the managers because they want to ship a game faster to make money sooner.
Unfortunately, this type of issue brings a lot of baggage. If you have a family and I don’t, there may be assumptions that I shouldn’t have a problem working longer hours. Conversely, you may feel upset if I get a larger bonus or a promotion for my efforts because you had a family to take care of while I had the ability to stay late.
Ownership is a tricky issue on all levels. You have ownership of the company, ownership for a project, ownership of a specific task, and so on. Adam takes a much broader view of ownership since he advocates the Scrum development process.
In many cases, ownership means “responsibility”. But, it’s much cooler to have ownership because it creates a sense of obligation and care. If you rent a car, you don’t really care much what happens to it as long as you don’t have to pay for it. But, if you own your own car you usually want to take better care of it. Owning a project means that it is important to you. If something is important to you, then you usually want to take better care of it.
Ownership is also important for a studio when it comes to technology and IP. If your publisher owns your tech and IP, then what do you have? Nothing.
So, enough manager-speak, what does this mean for the developer in the trenches? Ownership also translates to rewards. If you own something and it does well, you get rewards. Adam covers this in wanting to give equity to his employees. That could cause some legal and accounting complications, but I think a system of giving bonuses based on how well a project and/or the company does will give a sense of ownership in that an employee benefits as the company benefits.
I think this is an important topic. Your career can be made or broken based on how well you network with others. Game development is also always changing, so it’s good to work with someone from whom you can learn vital new skills.
But, there’s also a flipside to this: as an industry, we tend not to value our experienced people as much as we probably should. The people who could teach us a thing or two are are often pushed to their limits and become burnout cases. I think that having a company culture that promotes mentors and values them is important to get mentoring happening in the first place.
American corporate culture is a funny thing. Capitalism is based on the idea of a person who has perfect information making rational economic decisions. Yet, there’s a culture that discourages the direct discussion of salaries, thus preventing an individual from gathering perfect information. Game companies are no different.
Part of this is because some people really are worth twice as much as another person, and it’s an ego blow to realize that you’re the x, not the 2x, in the equation. There’s also a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ issues that go on. In one job I had previously, I learned that one of my peers (not a manager) was making over twice as much as I was. It really stung because the guy didn’t have the same commitment to his work; the only reason he was making that much was because the company wanted to retain some of the specialized experience he had. After a while, though, the company got tired of him showing up late and leaving early, so they fired him. I then understood that they were training me to do his job, at about half the pay. Ouch. I thought that salary negotiation went a bit too well….
Part of the problem here, in my opinion, is that companies aren’t honest. They get into situations that aren’t easy to explain, or that might cause some embarrassment. But, I think honest is what we need more of, and having more transparent salary information and organization helps. People who are important for your financial well-being should be treated like adults; anyone who can’t be trusted with that type of information may not be the best fit for your position.
Working Environment and Health
This is related to the quality of life issue above, but it deserves its own header. People are unique, and they work in different ways. Your extroverted types will thrive in being part of the group and want to bounce ideas off of each other. On the other hand, your introverts will want to shut themselves off in order to concentrate. Ever notice how many sets of heavy earphones there are at your typical game company? Programmers aren’t necessarily die-hard fans of music, but they often want to tune out distractions to get work done.
To that end, some of your people might work best remotely, away from the soul-killing florescent lights, especially during the busier times when tasks are assigned and work just needs to be done. Adam points out that a lot of systems should already be set up for remote work, and given that MMOs require a connection, there are few reasons why remote workers can’t be just as productive. Of course, it takes a different skill set to hold a team meeting on IRC vs. a board room, but that’s a skill someone working in online games should work on mastering. I will quibble with his assertion that remote people provide less value and therefore should be paid less; I’ve found with much of my remote work that I have to do extra work to maintain work relationships, and will often provide much more value because of the additional effort invested.
Health is also an important issue. Most companies provide realy terrible food. Candy machines are all too common. One good thing I will say about 3DO was that they provided fresh fruit for everyone. Having a banana instead of a chocolate bar as an afternoon stack was much better for me. Eating an orange instead of a Twinkee for dessert after the supper provided helped me not crash later.
Let’s face it, most game developers aren’t really all that fit. We sit at a desk for several hours and we don’t have a whole lot of time to go do healthy things like visit the gym. A culture that encourages people to think healthy and take walks to avoid health problems is important.
Adam has quite a few topics where initiative is important. It’s important for people to take the initiative to improve themselves. They should also spend time working on personal concepts (the “Google 20%”) to improve themselves and the company. Adam also advocates a very flat management structure, meaning it is up to individuals to motivate themselves instead of waiting for a manager to prod them.
I think it is important to encourage, but I think it’s also a sign of the individual’s enthusiasm for the company. Just as with “good crunch” above, a game developer will often want to go out and find something cool to sink his or her teeth into. Programmers should relish the opportunity to dive into new technology, or do something that pushes their capabilities. Designers should be looking at games and discussing them with each other. Artists should be excited about investigating new ways to be more productive and produce mind-blowing results. Game developers tend to be some of the most intelligent and creative people out there, and you don’t stay smart and creative by stagnating.
If your employees aren’t doing this, then there’s something wrong. Perhaps the individual is having personal problems. Or, maybe they don’t feel that the company culture rewards that. If someone thinks that the best option is to keep their head down to keep drawing a paycheck, then something is wrong somewhere.
This is just the beginning
These are some of the issues I’ve thought up, mostly based on Adam’s post. I think that there are a lot more issues we need to address as well. Perhaps, in the end, there are some problems we just won’t be able to tackle. But, identifing the problems is the first step.
If you work in the industry, what do you think? What problems should we address in order to build the next, awesome game startup company?