A depressing story that occasionally does the rounds of blogs and forums is that of working conditions in the games industry. Whether it’s EA_spouse or the recent revelations about the conditions at Team Bondi (of LA Noire fame), the sorry story of how the pressure cooker environment of game making leads good people to become crazymakers is a long and ignominious one.
It’s sad for three reasons. Firstly that there are studios out there that think nothing of abusing staff. Secondly that, despite the overtime, they still can’t manage to ship games within a reasonable timeframe. And thirdly that developers young and old seem to think that this is the only way that life can be.
Have faith friends. There is more to life than this.
This isn’t a 9-to-5 job, crunch advocates will tell you, if you want to make great games you have to be committed. So if you want to make great games you have to be exhausted all the time, make endless mistakes, endure frustration, relationship break-ups and the egotistical demands of lunatics in order to make great work. Really? Guess how many genuinely successful world-changing studios actually behave in that manner? None. Zip. Nada.
And why? Because their staff gets enough sleep. While some studios have periods of overtime, occasional crunch and the odd push to get a major milestone finished, the ones that know how to act responsibly survive. Games, like any art, are not a 9-to-5 job. But also, like any successful art, good studios know how to deploy sufficient yin in order to combat the yang.
Crunching to finish a game is not uncommon, and if the team really believes in the game then they will often put some extra time in as a matter of course (or for bonuses) to get there. That kind of crunch is short lived and engenders camaraderie, and while working condition advocates would rather no crunch at all, it’s not that bad in the grand scheme of things.
Perpetual crunch, on the other hand, is misery. It is also proven not to work. Nobody can work productively for 12 hours a day, seven days a week. They become stressed, depressed and a little insane when they do. Their productivity plummets, they make mistakes, lose sleep, their health suffers and small disagreements blow up into emotional incidents. In two cases I have seen crunched developers have a fist-fight, two cases of team members descending into tears, and three cases where people developed long term medical problems as a result of perpetual crunch.
Rather than showing how committed you are, perpetual crunch is a demonstration of this Alcoholics Anonymous dictum: When Plan A isn’t working out, it’s time to try Plan A.
It is usually the sign of a project in trouble, under bad or crazy management, and parties involved (usually developers and their publisher) can’t be big boys and admit that what they are doing is not working. Instead they keep repeating the same mistakes again, only harder and longer, and compound them. Crunch is simply a way to externalise the problems, papering over cracks rather than dealing with the structural issues causing them.
LA Noire apparently took a mystifying seven years to make. In an excellent piece on IGN, anonymous sources cite an abusive culture, an unrepentant boss, and a permanent 100-hour approach to development. Said boss (Brendan McNamara) responds brusquely, pretty much saying that his focus is on making top quality games and if you want to do that then that’s just how life is.
Which is, of course, nonsense. Seven years of crunch is not being able to make your mind up and decide what the game you are making is supposed to be. It’s restarting the game or its technology over and over. It’s not being able to commit, and instead foisting all your problems on your staff. If it’s your only answer, it means you should not be in charge of people because you clearly don’t know how to manage them.
The role of game director is not well defined. In some studios it effectively means the lead designer, while in others it means the visionary who is in charge of the project as a whole. Regardless of how the organisational chart defines it, though, a game director has one clear responsibility in all situations:
She’s the decision-maker.
Creative projects involving large teams need clear decision making that says “we are making this, not this”. In some studios decision making happens at a group level and the director acts as a tie-breaker, whereas in others the studio looks to the director to lead more. In both cases the director needs to say no a lot, foresee whether an idea is probably going to work or not long before it is actually built, and be the person who holds the consistent vision of the game.
The choices the director makes are largely blind, and yet the whole team relies on her to make the right calls. As leader, the director has to inspire everyone, to make them feel that she knows what she wants, that she is consistent, and that she will always be so. It’s not a job that most people can do well because it involves a huge degree of courage. Instead, what happens to most people put in that position is that their fears make become crazymakers.
Crazymakers change their mind a lot. They rely on their ego, and are experts at deflecting decisions to the last possible minute. They make unreasonable demands, intimidate rather than inspire, and deceive or goad staff into doing what they want. While a crazymaker may be talented in other areas, she lacks the key ability to commit. She cannot be clear and consistent because she is too afraid of being wrong.
It’s amazing how many otherwise normal people become crazymakers in the right situation. Authority and power bring a pressure all of their own, creative responsibility likewise, and most people cannot really handle the consequences of failing at that scale. Some people have the right personality type to be able to handle that situation, to lay aside the crazymaking tendencies and to lead. And some people just don’t.
Too often those crazymakers are left in charge though.
Getting Out of the Silo
Some developers regard their time spent crunching as a badge of honour, but it’s not. All it is is abuse tolerance. Exist in the bunker mentality that crunch brings for long enough and you will only be able to think defensively. That’s why, for all its vaunted coverage etc, titles like LA Noire are increasingly representing the declining, bloated dinosaur side of the industry.
And it’s why the future belongs to those outside the fold. Outside the factory walls are people working away on games that they actually believe in, inventing franchises and business models that sustain and basically doing what crazymaker studios can’t: Finding a Plan B.
My big lessons for you are these:
- If you want to make games, make your own games. The opportunities have never been better.
- If you are trapped in a perpetual crunch, get out. Right now. It’s not worth your health, sanity and relationships to work in that way. And see #1 for what to do next.
- If you are a game director, realise that you are a leader and you hold the sanity of many people in the palm of your hand. You are responsible for them, they are not your chattel to do with as you wish.
Treat them with respect and find a Plan B when Plan A has clearly failed. Do that and maybe your game will finish in two years rather than seven. Maybe it will actually be worth playing too.