Category Archives: advocacy

How to schedule like an idiot: Vicky Lord, Team Bondi

Let’s play a game! What’s wrong with the following two sentences:

“So we are going to change to the way we have completed milestones in the past. It’s no longer going be about just completing your schedule for the milestone.”

(from the goldmine of info about the abuses at Team Bondi / LA Noire – NB: original link (which I don’t recommend using) is http://www.gamesindustry.biz/articles/2011-07-05-revealed-the-internal-emails-that-provoked-whistle-blowing-at-team-bondi-blog-entry – but they have a stupid and offensive policy that means no-one is able to view it)

Need some help? How about the lines that followed:

“As many of you have families or weekend commitments, we are giving you notice of this to allow you to make alternative arrangements to enable you to be in the office. If we can be of any assistance, please see myself or Denise. During the last week of the milestone you will be required to work through your tasks for N10 and if they finish before N10 ships to keep going on your sub-alpha tasks until the milestone ships. That means that everyone is required to keep going until the milestone ships or your lead informs you that you have done all that you can for N10 and sub-alpha. Specifically this means in the last two weeks of the milestone you can expect pretty long days. It’s “one in all in” until we get the Milestone shipped and get the game ready for testing. We need teamwork to get the game finished to the quality that we are after and that means being here to help a tester, a designer, an artist or programmer who needs your support to get their work finished.”

Hey, Vicky, let me help you with that (rambling, waffling) email!

(my version): “In most companies, you have a job to do, and you do it. However, I’m so stunningly incompetent, and my boss is such an idiotic bully, that we’ve got lots of people with too much work. The only way we can bully them into working masses of unpaid (in some countries, probably illegal) overtime – and STEALING their lives, their family time, their work (we’re not paying for these hours, remember?) – is to show them that we’re being equally evil to ALL employees.

If you did your work on time: HA HA! YOU IDIOT! Here at Team Bondi, we don’t believe in “getting things done”, we believe in “looking like we’re doing stuff, even if we’re not”, and “making the management look good at all costs. Especially if that can be achieved over the gasping corpses of our staff”.”

I think that about summarizes it.

Add Vicky to the blacklist: never work for her, or any studio she is part of, ever.

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.

A brief aside: Speakers at UnConferences can sometimes be very wrong

Great writeup in PCGamer about GameCamp4, especially if you’re unfamiliar with the feel of an unconference (and google the term if you want to know more).

The first unconference I went to, the very first session … the speaker clearly didn’t know what he/she was talking about. They mouthed a bunch of nice-sounding soundbites, but way out of touch with reality. Worked out OK – the audience took over, collectively, and turned it into a great session, with lots of people providing their own knowledge.

That’s when an unconference works great – weak speakers displaced by a more knowledgeable audience.

And then we have GameCamp4. I missed the session on “crunch”. If I’d been there, I’d have cried bloody murder before letting them settle on this:

“The general consensus at the end of the half hour seemed to be that, while a lovely idea, games needed a crunch time, otherwise they’d never be finished on time. The idea that crunch wasn’t all that productive was raised, but there was enough experience in the room to shoot it down. Turns out games developers are quite happy with their battery farm conditions. Or at least, the ones in the room.”

“enough experience … to shoot it down” … WTF? Bullshit.

Let me be absolutely clear, as someone with 10+ years experience, having run teams at multiple studios, and having worked on multi-million-selling titles:

Crunch is *abuse*. Crunch is never “necessary” to finish a game, it’s something the management requires or allows, when morally they ought to be preventing it.

Anyone who says differently, first ask their job role; If they say “producer”, “manager”, or worst of all “director” bear in mind these are the roles where people directly benefit through the abuse of others; be very suspicious. It’s akin to asking a Slave-Trader whether slavery is “a Bad Thing”.

I wrote a lot more, but it came across as a rant against Mike Capps (who’s infamous for implying that only 2nd-rate developers don’t crunch) and Erin Hoffman (who’s infamous for railing against crunch, and then doing a volte face and implying that all the abusive corporates are just poor, misunderstood humans who are lovely really).

The 10 Games You Should Have Played

This list is WRONG (and it’s on the Internet)

…and here’s your chance to challenge it.

This was written in a frantic half-hour with 30-odd people with many different ideas and suggestions. My role was to shepherd the opinions towards a concrete list of 10. There *was* a specific agenda/aim I had in mind – but I didn’t tell people that up-front, I wanted to let them go in whatever direction they wanted.

Now it’s done, I’m reaching out to everyone who cares about this stuff, and saying:

Come up with your own rules for a top-10, define it clearly, and share your list.

Blog it, link it back here, and we’ll see what people come up with. I’m expecting a lot of variation on the inclusion-criteria for a top-10, and (hopefully) as much variation on the games people choose / reject.

Other people’s top-10’s

The original top-10

May 2011 – GameCamp 4

A few weeks ago, London was host to the fourth GameCamp – a 1-day unConference devoted to games, game-design, and game-playing.

I wanted to give a talk, because that’s half the fun of an UnConference. I wanted to do something fun, interesting, and above-all *new*. What’s the point of giving a talk you could have given at a “normal” conference?

My Plan

I vaguely remembered that Darius had once run a session on “Indie games that haven’t had the attention they deserve” (or something like that), where he’d cherry-picked some great fun games that were relatively unknown in mainstream circles, and gave them a free boost of attention.

I didn’t feel confident to do that myself,but I knew there were plenty of people at GC4 who were much deeper into the fringe of games and game-design, and no doubt *they* knew what was out there, and had played it all.

So, one quick scribble later:

“10 Games you Should have played (but probably haven’t)”

Reality

I was afraid I’d get an audience turn up and expect me to do all the work, where I needed them brainstorming and providing the ideas themselves. I could see it easily being shaped by the (lack of) variety of the first few suggestions, so I set out to come up with a wide range to kick off.

With a full TEN MINUTES before the start, I roamed the hallways, looking for victims. I spotted a few familiar faces, game designers and writers I could corral, and asked them for a quick 3 “games people should have played”.

First response I got, courtesy of Adrian Hon: “Paintball”. Ah. Thanks, Adrian. You just exposed the flaw in my title. I never mentioned the words “video” or “computer”, although I’d assumed them.

Other interesting titles I was given in the hallway included: Civilization (the computer game, via Adrian), Journey to the End of the Night (via Holly Gramazio, I think), Tetris Attack (ditto)…some good variety to kick us off.

Those 10 games in full

We had a packed room, approx 20-30 people. I won’t detail the process, but in our 30 minute slot we managed a long list, with some brief explanation of the more obscure games, and then we voted on which ones should go to top-10. Fortunately, there were 10-12 games that were CLEARLY a lot more popular than the rest.

Here’s the full list (illegible with crossings-out)

And here’s the top-10, with their respective (approximate – I was counting fast!) votes:

  1. Tetris [*]
  2. Portal [*]
  3. SimCity [*]
  4. The Secret of Monkey Island (either/both) [11]
  5. Hitch-Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (text adventure) [10]
  6. Mario Kart [10]
  7. Zelda (any/all) [10]
  8. Deus Ex [9]
  9. Day of the Tentacle [9]
  10. Populous [9]

[*] = so many I didn’t bother counting; more than 2/3 of the audience.

How Valve runs a successful game business, hires people, and more

Here’s a long (long!) video interview with Gabe Newell, CEO of Valve (one of the biggest / most successful games companies).

(incidentally: this post is shorter than intended. Someone at WordPress considered it acceptable to DELETE your post if your login cookie timesout before you hit the save button. Completely the wrong way to build a blogging platform)

Listening to the long interview, I found him saying some very concise, pithy things about the games industry, and the roles of us working within it. Some of them are clearly at odds with the “corporate” messaging that typically comes out of the larger games companies. Personally, I have often railed against those corporate statements and shouted “don’t believe a word of it! read between the lines – this is a person with their own hidden agenda!”, so I was delighted to hear Gabe providing much more rational and intelligent messages.

I transcribed a few as I listened, as they resonated with a lot of the concepts I’ve tried to hilight on this blog and elsewhere.

Employer responsibility, and a culture of humanism

“You cant ruin people’s home lives to benefit the business

we’re not telling them to work on the weekends, but people are working on the weekends

those really are the things we worry about”

Contrast this with the issue that made me quit the IGDA:

Mike Capps (CEO of Epic Games) who claimed that: “working 60+ hours was expected at Epic, that they purposefully hired people they anticipated would work those kinds of hours, that this had nothing to do with exploitation of talent by management but was instead a part of “corporate culture,” and implied that the idea that people would work a mere 40 hours was kind of absurd.”

Even when doing a PR-interview to try and un-fuck the issue – supposedly on his best behaviour, trying to sound like a good guy – Mike Capps felt this excused his behaviour:

“My guys ask to crunch. They say, “Hey, we’re not crunching yet. What’s going on? Why isn’t everybody crunching? This is really serious!” That kind of stuff.”

No. Doesn’t stand. You can’t abrogate responsibilty – especially not when you’re an at-will employer in a country with employment law that gives employers many rights, but employees almost no rights at all.

Gabe’s language (whether or not Valve actually does this) is in the opposite, humane direction: at Valve they “worry about” this, and supposedly seek to stop the behaviour, not to work with it.

A real games “business” is self-funding, always

“we fund our own projects so I dont have to worry about how the bank or whoever feels about our business decisions … it makes it a lot simpler to run the business that way”

This is the most common recurring issue I see with good indie games companies that fail – they cannot (or “will not”) grasp the importance of the above statement.

(EDIT’d this section to be clearer; and, of course, this is all IMHO – I have no idea what Gabe/Valve thinks on this)

Read that carefully: it’s “a lot simpler to run the business”. That should be a wakeup call to all the studios that say “I’d love to work that way, but I can’t afford to”; I’d say: you can’t afford *not* to.

It’s generally accepted that *if* you get to that point in your studio lifecycle, you’ve got it “made”. In practice, that should be turned on its head: until you get to that point in your lifecycle, you’re heading towards failure.

Often they make excuses to themselves that it’s “not possible” to run this way, and accept it won’t happen, and then blithely go about their business.

Net result: their games get worse and worse, as their competitors pull away from them, and sooner or later they drop below the standard it takes to keep getting new projects, and BANG! studio goes under.

All digital products these days are an order of magnitude easier/cheaper to make than they were 15 years ago, ignoring the staff costs; service prices have plummeted (web hosting costs, software suite costs, etc). They’re at least an order cheaper/easier to launch and sell in the marketplace. If you’re a startup, you should find it trivial to get to self-funded project status – ignoring the staffing costs.

So. Compared to 15 years ago, you have two obvious routes to self-funding: get someone else to pay your staff costs, but move *very* quickly to where you don’t need their money (because otherwise you’ll have a hard time forever), or do what you can with the people you have (you, your co-founders, the goodwill you can get from ex-colleagues, etc). It’s not excusable to say “self-funding our projects is out of our reach” – this is simply not true. It may require some ingenuity – or it may simply prove that your business is non-viable (if your business plan is to out-do Zynga at their own game, for instance, you’ll probably find it’s just not possible. In that case, declaring “we’re starting off non-self-funding, and when we get our first hit game (like Zynga did), it’ll be easy from there” is just papering-over your hopeless business plan).

How to get a *good* job in the games industry

“the main characteristic we look for is the ability

  • to create something
  • develop an audience about it
  • measure the reations to something you’ve created
  • and then change what you’ve built to reflect that
  • and measure again how much of a difference you made

Sound familiar?

If you’re serious about startups, it should do – it’s the path that http://venturehacks.com/ et al have been pushing startups along for the past 5 years. The best of the entrepreneurs are expected to live and breath this approach by now.

It’s not even rocket-science – a big part of it is nothing more or less than the Scientific Method, over a century old now, which has driven most of the world’s research. It works. It’s a pity that so many people ignore it.

If you want to be a game maker, then … make games

Partly responding to the oft-quoted fear “but how can I get experience making games, if the pre-requisite to joinging a game team is that I already have experience making games??”:

“iteration cycle with Customer Feedback is the most important characteristic for somebody to be successful right now, and ability to demonstrate that through a portfolio, through a website, through a mod

If you have learnt anything at all, if you have achieved anything, if you have any skill – then you can *always* demonstrate that, somehow. If not, then implicitly your achievement doesn’t exist – if you can’t show it, it’s not there. c.f. the section Marketing is a science, not an art, and read Sergio Zyman’s book if you need inspiration here.

Which matters more: credentials, or mindset?

Atttitude and approach wins, apparently:

“you have to actually act almost like a CEO yourself, in terms of understanding an audience, understanding a market, building a product, taking feedbakc about the product evolving the product communicating about the product

more than whether or not you go to an Ivy League school … or take CS classes … or drawing classes … that for us is the key indicator of future success

an awareness of what’s actually going on right now tends to trump a lot of previous experiences … I think it’s going to be harder and harder for people to stay current as the pace of things accelerates … get in front of instead of get behind any structural changes of an industry you’re going into

Don’t take a job you don’t want, to sneak into the one you were too crap to get

And, so important (and lied about so many times by journalists, HR departments, recruiters, et al): the worst thing to do if you want to get into a game development job is to join QA expecting it to be an “easy route in”:

“each person that we hire has to be able to do that, even if they’re just going to be in marketing … or support … or QA”

i.e. QA is no “easy path” – you’re still held to the same criteria.

But also, as *so few* execs from EA etc are willing to admit (and I pick EA, because I’ve seen their senior people HR blatantly lie (IMHO) about this on multiple occasions, following their own agenda):

“at most companies they put in all these barriers to keep people from moving out of QA or support … in some companies you can actually get fired for trying to get out of support positions into the development organization …[so instead] build a flash game; ship it; make it better … and you’ll get everybody’s attention if you’ve got talent”

Warner Bros FAILs again: Piracy for the win

What happens if you want to watch the Animatrix films on the WB website?

Here’s the direct link, in the intothematrix.com website, as of August 2010:
http://progressive.warnerbros.com/thematrix/us/med/Episode1l_dl.zip

The handful of Google links I tried all just redirected to the WB hosting.

Right. So. The only way to see the free content, from their OWN website, is now to go and pirate the full version, and “promise not to look at the non-free parts”.

Sigh. Remind me again, what was the film companies’ stance on digital piracy?

This video is no longer available due to a copyright claim by APRA.

Someone makes a highly controversial amateur YouTube video, showing an Auschwitz survivor and his children and grandchildren dancing at Auschwitz, to the song “I Will Survive”.

And, in the middle of the debate *that* stirs up, someone hits them with a copyright violation, forcing YouTube to remove the video. There’s no option to read why – although my best guess is that they “didn’t pay to license the music”. Ha! Can lawyers silence debate where the Third Reich failed?

There’s no link to who ARPA actually is, although it seems to be an Australian music-copyright org that specialises in “collecting money”.

I think this situation neatly sums up quite how much loathing I have for some of the selfish, greedy, petty-minded scum that fight for the preservation *and infinite extension* of Copyright law, and who seek to criminalise everyone in the world who won’t feed them money.

(and, incidentally, if this *is* over money – I’m surprised the challenge went ahead, given that Copyright law has specific terms exempting “commentary” (i.e. exactly this kind of situation). Actually, I’m not. It’s the kind of thing you expect of the “guilty-until-you-bribe-a-lawyer-to-prove-you-innocent” laws that the USA (especially) has put in place in recent years (and other govts to a lesser extent))

A successful, smart, dumb person fails to defend the sale of sheet music

There are many examples, every day, of people saying stupid things on the internet. But rarely do you see smart people write long reasoned arguments that they appear to wholeheartedly believe, yet are fundamentally untrue.

Jason Robert Brown has written a great post, and comes across as highly literate, reasonable, fair, etc. I was rooting for him from the start. Sounds like a nice guy.

But it’s long. So … it’s quite far down that you get to the tiny tiny key step in the exchange. This is the point where the author’s whole argument – a beautifully written argument – crumbles to dust:

“And I say to you that just because technology makes doing a bad thing easier doesn’t mean it’s suddenly not a bad thing.”

Funny. They said that of the Printing Press too. This is precisely what technology DOES do: it changes us. It changes society. Nothing is sacrosanct; our definitions of “good” and “bad” fluctuate. Not even the law is static. Ask any senior lawyer – the law is a fluid concept, defined by the society of its day.

There’s a fascinating exercise: to examine a period and place in history simply by looking at the prevailing laws of the day…

IMHO … at his core, Jason is in that group of people that still haven’t come to terms with the unavoidable side-effects of the “copy” button that exists on all digital-data devices. This is a storm that brewed for decades, and burst with music piracy. Everyone *ought* to be aware of it by now, even if in practice a lot of old-guard media and authors seem to be jamming their fingers in their ears and screaming “I CANT HEAR YOU! GO AWAY!”.

How much longer before posts such as his cease to become anything more than “fascinating historical record … of a time now passed”? Not much, I think…

(PS: I’m ignoring the very much NOT smart – and rather offensive – attempts to re-define words such as “theft” in support of a specious argument. I believe the author did that purely accidentally)

PANEL: “Taking Video Games Seriously”

Last night, I went to the Houses of Parliament for the first time, for a panel session on Video Games, organized by one of our MP’s, Tom Watson. Walking through the enormous medieval Westminster Hall (stone floor, stone walls, massive oak timbered ceiling) en route was a bit surreal, and thankfully the event was small and cosy by comparison.

I didn’t intend to live-blog this. But then I realised I probably ought to, especially since I was too exhausted (work, recovering from illness, etc) to ask sensible questions at the time.

Here’s a semi-live-semi-transcript. As per usual, everything is re-interpreted by my hearing; errors and omissions are my own fault; etc. It’s hard keeping up with freeform speakers and capturing the meaning at the same time :).

Panellists

  1. Tom Watson – MP for West Bromwich East (moderator)
  2. Tom Chatfield – author of Fun Inc. (published last week)
  3. Philip Oliver – CEO of Blitz Games
  4. Sam Leith – Journalist (Daily Telegraph, Guardian, etc)

Continue reading

Focussed work-hours, and the Studio Manifesto

David Sirlin’s just done a writeup of Flashbang studios recent experiment with work hours:

“The first part of their theory is that we really only get about 2 hours of seriously focused, amazing-quality work per day–if we’re lucky. Maybe you can get 2.5 or 3 sometimes, but that’s pushing it. There are so many distractions and blockers, so many times when you’re too tired or hungry or upset about something, or whatever. Flashbang is saying just be real here: accept that you’re only going to be able to do amazing work for a short time each day. Knowledge work as it’s called, is the type of thing where you could spend 20 hours on a problem and not solve it, but just *one* hour of your fully charged genius-time could solve it.”

Unfortunately (tragically!), David’s set his blog to be “no comments”, so there’s no public followup discussion (you can try registering in the forums. On a different page. Not even linked. Have fun with that!)

There are serious flaws with taking general conclusions from this experiment – as someone from TCE pointed out, there’s probably some Hawthorne Effect going on – but I think it’s an interesting data point to add to the game studio manifesto. Specifically because it’s from a games company, and the particular set of changes they experimented with is different from most of those we’ve seen tried before.

What I believe in, for Quality of Life

The furore[link] over the IGDA’s failure[link] to live up to it’s own precepts continues to snowball[link] [link] (as I suggested it would, if the IGDA Board didn’t ‘fess up and take a stand[link] against the unethical practices they were being implicated in).

(I’ll do a summary later this week; personally I’m aware of 6 different unique forum threads and several separate bloggers speaking out on the topic, each with their own comment threads – we’re gradually seeing the message spread, which is good. But it also means it’s getting hard to keep up)

One commenter, perhaps playing Devil’s Advocate for those at fault, has repeatedly posed the question: “What would you *like* the IGDA’s stance to be on this topic?”

There are all sorts of reasons that’s a dumb thing to ask, and it essentially misses all the points being made here by the unhappy IGDA members, but I thought it was a good question to answer anyway, philosophically.

Quality of Life for the Games Industry: Adam’s stance on “Crunch”

NB: this is only covering the crunch/working hours/overtime issues; there’s more to QoL than that, but it’s definitely the headline aspect.

(and hopefully you’ll also have a look at Darius’s stance on this and other related topics, since he’ll be standing for election to the IGDA Board next year, and he’s got my vote already ;))

  1. the term “crunch” is a euphemism for “unpaid overtime” used largely to disguise the true nature of what’s being described. No-one should ever use the term “crunch”. Everyone should actively encourage others to call it what it is (unpaid overtime). “unscheduled overtime” is NOT an acceptable alternative; it is simply another, slightly less positive, euphemism.
  2. no employer gets an opt-out from responsibility for Quality of Life issues, neither charities nor startups. Quality of Life is about the relationship between employee and employer, independent of individual industries, organizations, or projects
  3. the company must at all times actively discourage staff from doing unpaid overtime; if the company wishes to support overtime, it should be supporting *paid* overtime only
  4. no programmer, artist, or designer should ever stay late in the office “because it’s quieter then, and I can get more work done when everyone else has gone home”; if the office environment is that poor, the company needs to fix it, fast
  5. the MOST EFFICIENT (for the company) number of weekly office hours for programmers, artists and game designers lies somewhere between 30 and 50 hours a week.
  6. the MOST EFFECTIVE/DESIRABLE (for the employees) number of weekly office hours for programmers, artists and game designers lies somewhere between 20 and 60 hours a week.

Why does this even matter?

Most workers in this industry live to work, instead of working to live; this makes the industry especially prone, and the employees especially vulnerable, to abusive employment practices.

It also means that – handled correctly – most people ought to be happy and healthy. This topic has the potential to improve the lives of thousands of people; that it will almost certainly also improve the quality of the games they produce is a secondary (although highly desirable) side-effect.

Details / explanations

1 – Terminology

Cynically, I’d like to point out that to many young males (the bulk of the workers in the game industry), the term crunch probably initially conjures up images of the painful gym exercises that build the widely desired abdominal muscles.

i.e. the base assumption of an English speaker is that Crunch is something that “hurts now, but is good for you, and in the long run you will appreciate it”.

Actually, I don’t think that’s even all that cynical, looking at the companies that actively use the term: I think they’re extremely happy to have got such a positively-connotated word used as the main term to describe their unethical business practice.

2 – Opt-outs

Several people (such as Erin Hoffman (EA_Spouse) EDIT: my mistake – sorry, Erin! – see comments below) have claimed that startups are “special”; too fragile to be held accountable to the same standards that ordinary companies are held to; that they could never adhere to sane and ethical working practices and remain in business.

As a previous founder, co-founder, or C-level exec in 5+ different startups, and a consultant or external adviser for a further 20+ startups, it is my personal opinion that this is absolutely not true.

Further, I believe it is deeply insulting to most entrepreneurs to imply that they are so incompetent that they need to be allowed to break with ethics or law in order to succeed. The majority of successful entrepreneurs I know are awesomely competent people, and have earnt (*earnt*) their wealth not merely through “having a good idea” but through being better and smarter and wiser than their equivalent salaried employees. They need no leg-up.

Of course, there’s also plenty who simply got lucky. But that’s another story.

3 – Working late in order to work better

There are two issues here.

Firstly, if someone is doing unpaid overtime, the company needs to either reward it or try to persuade them to stop; anything else is unfair. Simply taking the proceeds of the free work and paying nothing in return is perfectly legal (although arguably, since the work falls outside of the contract, if the company’s employment contract isn’t good enough the company could find themselves not entirely owning the output of that work), but unethical.

Secondly, unless the employees have strong legal protection against coercion (both explicit and implicit) then the claim that staff are “voluntarily” working unpaid overtime is often going to be a lie that – in practice – is almost impossible to uncover. A nice, comforting lie, but a lie all the same. I have many times worked with people in the games industry who have openly claimed their unpaid overtime was voluntary – until they buckled from stress a few weeks later, or got drunk, or met up outside the office, and admitted the true reason(s) they were doing it. Generally those were “to keep my job”, “because everyone else on the team says I have to”, or a variant on those. i.e. to satisfy the employer, or to satisfy peer pressure.

This is true even in Europe, where employees have fairly strong legal protection – but in many cases don’t realise the full extent of the protection. Generally speaking, only the inexperienced, younger staff are ignorant of the basic laws here. Within 5 years they normally see at least one friend or colleague go through some situation which uncovers the laws involved, and they gain a basic understanding of what their own rights are, under the law.

4 – Optional isn’t always optional

I’ve worked with many programmers who felt forced to work late hours because of this, and a few artists. I haven’t worked with any designers yet who were *seen* to, but I know plenty who have done it – they simply went home and worked from home instead.

The main reason programmers show up with this problem more than others is that they are entirely dependent upon the tools at their desk to get any work done (software, hardware, office systems, etc). It’s *not* that they are the only ones who work hard and have to concentrate to get good work done!

5 – Efficiency

As far as I know (please correct me!) … no-one currently knows via research what the MOST EFFICIENT weekly office hours are for programmers, artists, and designers in the games industry; the research I’ve read summaries of, and in a few cases read myself, from other industries and anecdotal evidence, plus the experience of skilled game developers, suggest that it lies somewhere between 20 and 40 hours.

Further, the majority of research from other industries and evidence and experience strongly support the claim that values over 60 hours are less efficient than ANY value between 25 and 60 hours.

6 – Quality of output, quality of life

As far as I know (please correct me!) no-one currently knows via research what the IDEAL (for the staff work/life balance) weekly *working* hours are, but assuming 14-16 waking hours a day, i.e. 70-80 waking hours a week, and assuming a work/life split somewhere between 30/70 and 70/30, you get between 21 and 56 working hours per week