Rockstar’s LA Noire, McNamara, Team Bondi, Crunch, and Advocacy

Background

A month ago, PC Gamer reported that “The idea that crunch wasn’t all that productive was raised, but there was enough experience in the room to shoot it down. “. I found that unacceptable, both as a concept, and as something for the media to report without challenging it.

Last week, it became public that LA Noire was built on the living corpses of hundreds of developers, approx 100 of whom have been stripped of their hard-earned professional Credits (take with a pinch of salt – but the allegations are compelling).

The guy in charge – right at the top, where the buck stops – went on record to document some of his abusive behaviour, and to argue that his behaviour was perfectly acceptable. He implied that anyone who refused to be abused by him was … unprofessional or naive.

(aside: never, ever, EVER work for Brendan McNamara. Read the IGN article to see why. If you wonder: “but maybe this is ‘normal’ for the games industry?”, here’s the answer: No, it absolutely is NOT normal, it is NOT acceptable, and I believe many professionals would agree it has reduced the quality of the game that was produced. LA Noire could have been a better, more profitable game)

IGDA – a 10,000-member organization for game developers – refused to censure this behaviour. Despite having an entire (mostly useless) committee devoted to “Quality of Life”.

(UPDATE: IGDA’s now responded properly: “Brian Robbins, chair of the IGDA Board of Directors, said the association would fully investigate the issue. … ‘reports of 12-hour a day, lengthy crunch time, if true, are absolutely unacceptable and harmful to the individuals involved, the final product, and the industry as a whole,’ Robbins told Develop.”. Yay!)

Erin Hoffman – famously EA_Spouse, who campaigned hard for fair treatment of employees back when her husband was a victim – could only say (according to the IGN article):

“Ultimately, all the developers can do is work their hardest to get hired at better companies. It is every developer’s responsibility to know their rights, and be willing to fight for them,”

i.e. there’s no help for you. Executives, Management, Industry Organizations – have zero responsibility. It’s the problem – and the fault? – of the lowest people on the foodchain.

(“basically, … you’re fucked”).

The biggest issue in the professional games industry today

A conversation I had recently, someone posed the reasonable-sounding idea:

“[you can] provide advocacy on the benefits of eliminating crunch, or information about the crunch and overtime pay policies of various companies, historical crunch duration on past projects, etc.

But at the end of the day it’s up to everyone to make their own individual, informed decisions about how they want to conduct their professional lives.

My response, which I feel is too important to keep private (bear in mind I’m quoting myself slightly out of context here)

Society is based on contract: we sacrifice some things, and we take on extra responsibilities, in return for the benefits and the assurances.

One of those responsibilities is to look after each other. This has nothing to do with “personal choice”. It’s to do with dragging everyone up to a high standard of living. Without it, society functions poorly, and ultimately fails. Once society fails, people who had a high standard of living suddenly lose everything: you can never sleep safe at night. Nothing you own is yours. Everything can be taken from you, and there is *no* comeback.

The “payment” part of the social contract isn’t optional. It’s a binary thing, you have to take the whole package, or none at all.

What is the IGDA doing about this? What is Erin doing? What are you doing?

There was another part of my answer, relating to the idea that people were disseminating knowledge, and that was enough:

Yeah.

[but…] They could also grow a pair and say: “crunch fucking sucks. The only people who don’t know this are the ones at the top of the food chain exploiting everyone else. *OF COURSE* it doesn’t suck when you’re not the person doing it.”

They could say: “if you’ve never crunched, and you’re about to join a company that does crunch, DON’T DO IT. Find somewhere else unless you really have no choice.”

They could say: “here’s a list of companies that have publically admitted (or been outed) as using crunch regularly (or even permanently), or as a project-management tool.”

See how fast companies change in the face of that.

But it doesn’t work, fighting the employers. They won’t change

Yes, it does work. You just need a big enough lever.

[UPDATE: there’s a lot more details now on GI.biz’s bad website that requires login – use the email “fuckgi@mailinator.com” and password “fuckgi” if you want to read it. See what effect this has. Personally, I’ve now also added Vicky Lord to my list of “never work with this person ever”]

(an aside: is 10,000 members enough? Well, allegedly it was enough to scare one of the abusive employers – Mike Capps – into joining the IGDA board just to stop it from fighting for reforms that would have coerced him to change. There’s some reading between the lines there, but most of it comes from his own public statements)

Personally, I was treated extremely badly by one company (Codemasters). Weeks after hiring me, they fired me. They did it illegally, so it’s hard to be sure, but it seems I was intended as an object lesson to bully a large AAA team into bowing into submission. Perhaps: “we can fire him for no reason, we can fire the rest of you. STFU and work harder, SCUM!”.

Within weeks, something like 20 people had resigned from the team.

Within months, I was getting cold calls from people who’d told me they’d been offered good jobs at this company, but had turned them down *purely because of* hearing about what was done to me. I’d never heard of, spoken to, or met these people.

Within a few years, I was hearing stories of how the company had changed – had been forced to change – its practices.

In a way, all I did was what Erin describes: individuals fighting for themselves.

In practice, I had to lose my job to achieve it. As an individual developer, I was fucked. This is what’s wrong with Erin’s view of the world: it is NOT ENOUGH to tell everyone to sort their own problems, unaided. It’s our collective – and individual – responsibility to help each other.

10 thoughts on “Rockstar’s LA Noire, McNamara, Team Bondi, Crunch, and Advocacy

  1. Charles Ellis

    Since this is a workplace health and safety issue I don’t see why crunch conditions shouldn’t be a concern of OSHA, frankly.

    However, in the absence of OSHA taking very strong action (I don’t know that they even can take action across a wide set of companies, or if they only respond to individuals’ registered complaints), I think the only option for developers is some form of unionization.

    IGDA at least has proven fairly useless in its advocacy, most of the time making some public statement only after a particular incident has become a major news item.

    Unionization is, of course, one of the hardest things to get a “professional-class” worker to admit they have any interest in, but the process has to start somewhere. A campaign to refute the half-truths and shallow reasoning which have long been used to keep developers and other professionals from recognizing how little power they have without organization, is really necessary.

    I have no idea how long it could take, but the increases in crunch conditions and mass layoffs since the economic crisis in 2008 are strong motivators for people to consider alternatives to the status quo of “buyer beware” in the job market.

  2. UnSub

    One issue to also consider here is that Australia’s game development industry is tiny and Team Bondi was recruiting straight out of uni courses / TAFEs (according to the much gentler GameSpot development recap). For a lot of these people they’d never experienced full studio game development work and were finally living the dream of making games.

    Which made them ripe for exploitation.

    If they quit – as many did – there isn’t another studio for them to go to. And if it is know that they are a complainer, that probably goes double. Sadly, there aren’t really ‘better [gaming] companies’ within Australia (you might be able to go into iApp development, but probably not pure games) and with the exchange rate at the current point it is more expensive to develop in Australia than in the US.

    Which is why I think Team Bondi will probably be relocated somewhere cheaper. If a union did step in – and Australia has a stronger union movement in many areas than the US, although I can’t talk for software development – I think Team Bondi would be gone even faster.

    … not that I think they shouldn’t, but just pointing out a few issues.

  3. Erin Hoffman

    Hi Adam.

    To be honest I’m not sure what the precise distinctions are between what you’re advocating and what I’ve both advocated and done. The IGN article took one quote I gave them out of probably 2000 words of interview (might even have been more, we talked for quite awhile). And what you don’t read in that pull quote is the tone with which I say it, which is one of great sadness and resignation.

    You wouldn’t know it because you haven’t intersected with my working network (though I do know folks who have worked for Codemasters — my general radar about them is iffy [I wouldn’t work for them without doing a lot of digging]), but I “look out for” everyone I know in the industry. I have channeled people toward good employers and away from bad ones. I receive generally a handful of emails a week asking about this company or that company, and I disseminate information as much as I can. I have helped people in deep crunch situations like Bondi’s connect with better local companies and get into better situations for them and their families.

    I’m not sure what else can be done at this point. I’ve tried. As you’ve noted, the IGDA’s power in this is severely limited. When we have tried to do anything other than educate we run straight up against brick walls — not just from companies (though those are certainly present) but from developers themselves, who are extremely sensitive to any perceived limitation of their employment mobility.

    To be clear, the loudest voices that stop more drastic action being taken — like unionization — do not come from companies, they come from individual developers, who appear ready to fight for their right to work in insane fashions. There is a brief diminishing of this attitude and some isolated calls for unionization when something like the Bondi situation goes down, but it tends to last a couple of months at most and then go away.

    When you have encountered this attitude for years on end I will be interested to see what you then propose to do about it. I have effectively left the games industry as it has traditionally been defined. I do not believe that the third party game structure will ever repair itself in a way that is truly stable and advantageous for game developers. If I had my way we would all be making games like Braid and having nothing to do with other people’s money, which is where the root of this abuse appears to lie.

    You have two quite insightful comments above as well. It is possible that the IGDA’s attitude is correct in that the greatest defense against crunch will be educating future generations.

    If you feel that the work I have done has been a failure, there’s not much I can say to you other than I hope whatever you attempt is more successful. I help the people that I can and I try to reach as many as I can with that same message of “friends don’t let friends work for assholes”.

  4. Erin Hoffman

    Sorry to add another comment.

    I should say further that what you did beyond quitting Codemasters was you started your own business, and I think this is an important message for developers also.

    I also assume — though I don’t know — that after you left Codemasters you relied on your personal network to find another job. This is the other half of developers looking out for each other. We need the liquidity and confidence to be able to leave a bad job and have confidence that we have value and can find another with better circumstances, which we generally find by asking our friends for good companies that have openings. This is to some extent how the industry has always worked.

    But I would like to see game developers take more ownership for the business side of the equation also, which fortunately given advancing technology and platform accessibility is now easier to do than it has been before. I think part of what creates this dangerous situation is this bidirectional resentment that comes from “line” developers not understanding the business well enough to be able to work for themselves. This doesn’t mean that they need to do this — but they should be able to understand the dynamics well enough to find an educated employer and be able to pipe up when something is going off the rails.

    The publisher system among other things creates this parent-and-child dynamic between developers and investors where the investors pat the developer on the head and say “there, there, we’ll handle all this complicated business stuff for you” and this eventually leads to “I gave you this job so stop being ungrateful and give me 90 hours a week”.

    It’s this fundamental system dynamic that needs to be flipped upside down. If it’s not, situations like Bondi’s become purely inevitable.

  5. adam

    Saying this:

    “12-hour a day, lengthy crunch time, … are absolutely unacceptable and harmful to the individuals involved, the final product, and the industry as a whole”

    …is a good step forwards.

    “absolutely unacceptable”: everyone needs to stop using weasel words and allowing the possibility that it’s acceptable; everyone needs to stop tip-toeing around the subject: it’s a very simple concept: Crunch is Abuse. Let’s put Mike Capps and his practices et al in a sad, lonely place, abandoned by society.

    “harmful to … the final product”: need to make it 100% clear that this is NOT the way that great games are made, that it actively reduces the quality of the product, that it is NOT business-as-usual for the rest of the industry. Why? Because abusive studios *frequently* use this future-lie (“if you want to make great games, you have to crunch” – but the employee cannot test it’s true or false until AFTER the product ships, by which time the exploitation is complete, and the employee is often laid-off anyway) to seduce their teams into crunching.

  6. Andrew Crystall

    I taught at Westminster University, last year. And potentially at up to three London Universities this year – teaching design and production, all of them (unless I do get that PhD program place…). You can bet I’ll be walking my students through the studies on productivity and why crunch destroys it.

    Yes, this is my real name. And yes, I’m quite happy to stand by what I say to my students.

  7. Andrew Crystall

    My basic notes for my lecture on this portion:

    (I also talked about team compositions, working space, ergonomics and so on separately, also feature creep and change management methods)

    ** Schedule slippage – major risks

    *Includes the following
    -Publisher changes to requirements
    -Licensor changes to requirements
    -Major technical failures
    -Critical path task takes longer than expected
    -Major staff member falls ill
    -Gameplay gets major criticism in internal testing
    -Licenced engine update has major bugs

    * EXCUSES, EXCUSES, EXCUSES – producers failing!
    – Bad planning
    – Lack of contingency planning

    * Feature Creep
    – Will discuss more extensive later, but basics:
    — Contracts to limit publisher / management creep via agreed change methods
    — Proper prototyping so scope/risks understood
    — When someone says “goodwill”, RUN AWAY

    ** Crunch

    * Crunch is the enemy
    – Mid-project burnouts (always at worst possible time)
    – Kills Quality
    – Team motivation falls
    – Team politics turn vicious
    – Tired people make mistakes

    * Dropoff in productivity from doing crunch can be seen in DAYS
    – After 8 weeks, working 60 hours same as doing 40
    – AND depresses productivity for weeks after you stop
    – First study “Hours of Labour”, Chapman, 1908 (yes, rly)
    – Results repeated and repeatable (i.e. Ford’s 12-year study)
    – STILL basic fallacy of “bums on seats”, ignores per-hour productivity
    – NEGATIVE time values even;
    — Simple AND accumulated fatigue
    — Errors cause additional work, vicious cycle of delays/work
    — Has a name: “Cognative Decay”
    — RISK FACTOR, not a way of getting more done!
    — You are not a special snowflake. You ARE affected. Regular OT == BAD
    — Worse, productivity falls off far faster than people realise

    * “Safe” usage
    – OCCASIONAL staying behind. But “voluntary” trap, don’t do it
    – “Focused” alpha/beta/release weeks – CAN work, if only a few days and time given to recover. Note overall work loss.

    *Common causes
    – Internal Promotions – untrained managers
    – External Hires – “fitting the culture” / hiring the wrong types

    * Tactics:
    -“Assumed” Crunch
    -Guilt Trips; Team Solidarity, “Doing Your Part”
    -Favouritism for late hours
    -Basic schedule including overtime (pressure tactic)
    -Playing on “passion” / the industry’s cool /

    * Other problems it causes
    – Costs of burnouts
    — Always at the wrong time
    — Need to get new staff up to speed
    — Interupted projects
    — Improperly documented projects
    — Group dynamic disruptions / risk of new incompatabilities

    * Defences
    -Unions (remembering most’s phobia)
    — NOT shared by other creative industries!
    — Merits of BECTU/Unite

    *Things to know

    * EU Working Time Directive (white elephant)
    * No cash for crunch, usually
    – Even when there is cash, THIS DOES NOT FIX IT
    – Cognitive decay for paid overtime only marginally smaller!
    — Remember overtime can be queried/refused
    — If there’s paid overtime as a “perk”, does that imply it will be demanded?

    -> Pressure cooker job, burnout rates
    -> If you want a career, not a few years…

    !DON’T CRUNCH!

  8. Andrew Crystall

    If you think anything’s missing on a quick read through, do let me know :)

    Sure, I’m teaching people to understand the production process rather than be producers, but…

  9. Former Dev Guy

    Former EA employee here.

    Let’s be honest. I worked for 3 different studios, and every one of them followed the same pattern of unpaid overtime, life crushing schedules, and then a big reward in the end….a reward of being laid off because the project you were working on was shipped, and there’s not another one lined up.

    Other rewards? None I can think of. Not tangible, anyways. There’s a pleasure in seeing your game on the shelf. It feels pretty good when people ask you what you do for a living, and you can point to a game they played before. It’s great working in an environment where you’re surrounded by crazy, smart, creative folks. There’s a reason why so many of us stick with it for so long.

    The fact is that, as developers, we’re at the mercy of a few major publishers. As long as games cost 20 million dollars to make, we’re going to have to work for people who believe that we’re disposable cogs to be worked to death. There’s not going to be a revolution. We will never be able to form a union because for every one of us inside, there are 3 young kids willing to do the work instead. The publishers know that.

    It’s just not worth it. I’ve been out of the industry for 8 years now, and I couldn’t be happier. I like seeing my family. I like working 40 hours a week, and I like the fact that if I work more then I’m actually paid for it.

    Get out folks. Get out.

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