Friday, January 8, 2010

Quality of Life

The average amount of time one spends as part of the game industry is 5 years. After 5 years most developers quit and never come back. When one considers that the game developing population tends to skew younger, you find yourself with an industry with few people over 30 and few people with any meaningful long-term experience. To say that this is self-defeating is an understatement. Quite frankly, it's suicide.

One of the main reasons for the 5 year falloff is without a doubt the quality of life or lack thereof at many game studios. I count myself lucky in having worked at companies that have been not only sympathetic, but accomodating in so far as efforts made to promote a workable, quality of life for their employees. Sadly this is not always the case. There are studios that find themselves in a constant state of crunch (whether acknowledged or not) wherein employees are required to work upwards of 60 even 80 plus hours a week, sometimes for months at a time. These are places where sick days and vacations are frowned upon, where working the extra hours (often without overtime pay) is seen as some sort of price one has to pay to be a game developer. The conception that a job in game development is some kind of gift is all too often conjured image that all but enforces this type of labor that is ultimately detrimental to one's physical and mental health and relationships.

The real danger is that such practices are seen as acceptable when they ought not to be. Such practices are seen as necessary when better planning and management would almost certainly pave the way to a better, smoother, less rigorous development cycle. But we accept it, partly because we do see our jobs as a gift. We're doing something we love in a field that (while less so every year) is still very exclusive. We work jobs that many think they want (although few of those have either the skill or the dedication) and because of that there is a lot of competion. And this competition and exclusivity is used against us to remind us of how lucky we are to have these jobs and in an economic climate such as this one even more so. Such draconian work ethics will not only harm the individual however, they will harm the industry as a whole.

An experienced industry is often a smarter, more efficient industry, but if we're breaking the wills of the best gaming minds of a generation before they even begin to make the decisions and offer up the ideas that could change the way we work, then we're only defeating our selves. If the industry continues not only allowing, but secretly lauding such death marches, then we have only ourselves to blame for our lack of advancement. We need to work smarter not harder and the smart people are going to be the first to get fed up and leave.

Possibly the most unfortunate aspect of this whole issue is the unspoken code of silence surrounding this issue. The stigma surrounding those who speak out against one companies practices will invariably follow them to others, because such practices are widespread. No one wants to be a whistleblower, especially when all they're trying to do is make their jobs better. That's why it seems the most vocal responses we've seen in regards to the subject of quality of life in game industry workplaces comes from the spouses of game developers. Several years ago the infamous "EA Spouse" opened the door publically to debate on the issue of unending crunch time and reduced quality of life on a number of fronts. I can't speak to specifics, but as I understand it, the statement served it's purpose and the publicity was enough such that changes were made. Now, a group of wives of Rock Star Games San Diego employees have banded together and drafted a letter "To Whom it May Concern", decrying the dwindling quality of life of their spouses.

I applaud these women and any others who speak out. I would like to see actual developers speak out as well, to come out from behind the unspoken code of silence and publically acknowledge such situations across the industry. Until we become unafraid to stand up to our oppressors we will continue to labor beneath their boots. I sincerely hope that the efforts of the Rock Star San Diego wives result in better working conditions for those developers, but I also hope that the rest of the industry takes this display as a warning. And not just a warning of what could happen should their workers unite agains them, but of the damage that they themselves are doing to their companies and the industry as a whole. The people who benefit most from such oppressive work place practices are often those who stand to lose the most should the masses of game developers become older, smarter, more efficient, more productive, and more engaged. I've worked with these people before and they have little talent beyond trying to keep their jobs and they will destroy this industry which we love.

This isn't a call to arms and neither is the letter drafted by the Rock Star San Diego wives, but it can be a wake up call and a portent of things to come should change not be on the horizon. As the industry slowly grows older and bigger, and more diverse, fewer people will be willing to take such punishment and as it is only in our best interest to change now, then we cannot let the coniving few keep us from that goal. Part of the reason I love this job is because I'm living in a time of pioneers. We are the new artistic medium of the 21st century and we live in interesting times indeed.


  1. Very well said. There is certainly a culture of threatening and bullying by the chosen few in lead roles at the studio my husband works at. There are threats of no bonuses, being dumped with crappy tasks no one else wants, and the all important name in the credits. He has been in a state of crunch for 6 months now and there is no deadline in sight. The staff are demoralised, relationships and marriages are in tatters and everyone is afraid to speak out because no one can afford to lose their jobs right now, even though these talented and creative men and women are being paid absolute pittance for the work and hours they put in.
    The prestige there once was of working in the game industry has well and truly slipped away. Where once my husband was admired by friends for having such a "cool" job, he is now questioned by them as to why he stays when he is always miserable, depressed, hates his job and constantly fighting for his marriage (I admit it hasn't been easy on us).
    It's time Rockstar took a long, hard look at themselves and all of their studios. San Diego aren't the only ones in this situation and the result is going to be a whole lot of mediocre games under the Rockstar banner in the years to come.

  2. My husband and I both are huge fans of the games that Rockstar produces, however we both feel it would be hard to continue to support such deplorable treatment of its employees. Reading the letter of the San Diego wives truly saddens us as fans. We hope that Rockstar hears their message and makes changes to how they manage and run their studios and treat there developers in the future.

  3. The situation sounds very much like that at Team Bondi in Sydney (the studio developing Rockstar's LA Noire).

  4. I can confirm that the conditions outlined by the spouses of Rockstar San Diego's employees paint an accurate picture of the conditions on the ground both at R* San Diego, as well as Team Bondi in Sydney. Both projects currently operate under mandatory 6-day weeks, 10 hours per weekday. These extra weekday hours equate to 6 hours per week of mandatory unpaid, uncompensated work. And we're not talking of a 'final push' crunch here (two weeks? a month?); we're talking about a crunch that has lasted months. Weekend work is compensated for - at the end of the project. It my fervent wish that the employees at these studios will receive a just compensation once their respective games have launched.