The Emotional Price of Making Video Games

Making games can be a grueling, all-consuming process. John Davison talks to developers about the significant emotional challenges of this creative and commercial endeavor.

When you fire up a new video game, some elements are easy to appreciate immediately. Pretty graphics, a rousing soundtrack, or fluid animations can leap off the screen and make you thankful for all the hard work that went in to the game's creation. However, beneath that veneer lie untold hours of struggle and sacrifice. As six industry veterans explain, creating an amazing game takes more than your time and technical prowess. It requires a bit of your heart as well. Despite occasional media flare-ups triggered by complaints about ridiculous working conditions or inconsiderate executive teams, the game-playing populace doesn't often hear about the mental burden shouldered by game creators. Executing on a creative vision, and doing so both on-time and on-budget, imposes an enormous amount of pressure on those involved.

"Making anything creative relies on you putting yourself out there and totally revealing yourself; it's scary," says Greg Zeschuk, who co-founded BioWare with partners Ray Muzyka and Augustine Yip in 1995 and retired last year. He is currently taking some time off from anything to do with games and is producing a YouTube show called The Beer Diaries about the other love of his life. "You need to be willing to be vulnerable in a very public sense. This experience changes when teams get larger and larger; if you're running part of a project, it's pretty natural for it to feel like an extension of yourself."

This sentiment is common among those in creative leadership positions. Ryan Payton is the founder of Camouflaj, a new studio working on the iOS game République, which was successfully funded on Kickstarter in 2012. Payton previously worked as assistant producer on Metal Gear Solid 4 at Kojima Productions, and later spent time as creative director on Halo 4 before leaving 343 Industries in 2011. He concurs with Zeschuk, stating, "In order to make an unforgettable game, I believe the onus is on me to find something I believe in and inject as much of that into the game as possible. I feel that the games I work on are an extension of myself, making game development a very personal and emotionally charged endeavor. I worry that I take a dangerous approach by investing too much emotionally in the development, but this stems from my belief that games should be more than mere 'products.'"

The Ups and Downs

"The emotional journey, for me, looks like a seismograph," says Greg Kasavin of Supergiant Games. Before the success of his game Bastion, on which he was creative director, Kasavin was an associate producer at Electronic Arts on Command & Conquer 3, the producer of Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3, and later a producer on Spec Ops: The Line at 2K Games. "It's not a curve with peaks and valleys; it's a violent jagged series of near-vertical lines. I don't know how emotionally stable I appear to be, but I know I'm less so than I appear to be. My emotional state changes from day to day, if not multiple times a day. I don't have sustained periods of high or low morale. Small imperceptible things affect me in significant ways."

"In every case the precise emotional journey is different," explains Zeschuk, "though there are a few similarities. When you start a game, it seems like anything is possible; the future is bright and the possibilities are limitless. Fast-forward to the actual production phase, and you suddenly realize that if you want to finish on a reasonable schedule, you need to jettison some stuff; it's helpful to be harsh and cold to do this, even if it's painful. Then, when you're finishing, even if you think what you're making is great, I always felt a bit of trepidation around what people would think of the game. You never really know. We'd always try our best, and put forward our best work, but there's always that risk that folks wouldn't like it. The most likely outcome is that you'd end up with some mixed response, though with varying degrees of happy and unhappy people."

"When you talk about the pressure that individuals at studios go through, most people just think of the EA spouse story," says Pete Hawley, co-founder of Red Robot Labs (disclosure: John Davison currently works alongside Pete Hawley at Red Robot Labs). He is referring to Erin Hoffman's LiveJournal post in November 2004 under the pseudonym "EA Spouse," where she criticized Electronic Arts' poor treatment of employees and the expectation that they work extremely long hours.

The blog prompted a great deal of debate within the games industry at the time and triggered class-action lawsuits against EA, which weren't resolved until 2007. Hawley served as both executive producer and vice president of product development at Electronic Arts in the years after the controversy, where he worked on a number of games, including Burnout Paradise. Prior to this, he worked as development director at Sony Computer Entertainment, was head of production at Lionhead, and was a producer at GT Interactive. "The notoriety of that incident wasn't necessarily a bad thing," he says, "as it brought an aspect of the challenges to light. What everyone focused on at the time wasn't the whole story, though. Most people fixated on the lawsuit and the legal wranglings. What it really brought to light, though, was that studios and individuals go through hell when creating something as awesome as a video game. The emotional journey it takes you on is really, really hard."

"My emotional state changes from day to day, if not multiple times a day."
Regardless of the best intentions of those involved, executives or otherwise, the care and attention required means that work-life balance becomes a major issue on any game project. "It's exciting and energizing, but it's almost a reality-show-type environment," Hawley explains. "You're stuck in a room with a bunch of like-minded individuals, 20- to 30-something dudes. It's just not healthy. It definitely develops these Lord of the Flies-type situations. You've spent so long together that you develop a group craziness. You witness the very pinnacle of sleep-deprived in-jokes, and songs that are unique to the group. To this day I can't hear Journey without thinking of Burnout, because Alex [Ward, Criterion's creative director] would play it every single morning."

Payton is struggling with similar issues and has become increasingly aware of struggling with a healthy work-life balance since starting to work for himself. "I've worked a minimum of 70 hours per week since République began development in November 2011," he explains. "As I did with Halo 4, I only play games, watch movies, and read books that are relevant to République--that's my hobby. Making games is my hobby; it's my passion, and it's my lifeblood, as I liquidated everything I had to get this sucker off the ground. I even sacrificed my relationship with my girlfriend, ending a five-year relationship."

"Thankfully she later took me back and has helped me disconnect a little bit from the emotional demands of my games, which was something I very desperately needed." That disconnection has come in the form of finding something a little more balanced in favor of "real life" as well as game development work. "I still work 70 hours a week and still dream about the game," he explains, "but daily exercise and turning off email after 8 p.m. is actually making me a happier person. Does that mean my emotional investment in game making is waning? I sure hope not. That's probably why I'm afraid to have children."

Jake Kazdal spent much of his career as a designer, illustrator, and artist before forming his own studio, 17-Bit (formerly Haunted Temple Studios). His career includes time working on some cult classics like Space Channel 5 and Rez, as well as working on UI design for Boom Blox at EA and as a concept artist for Command & Conquer 4. His first release as an independent developer is Skulls of the Shogun, which was recently released on Xbox Live as well as for Windows 8 and mobile. Kazdal, like many of those interviewed for this story, has grown up with the games business, and has had two children since his career began.

On the subject of work-life balance within studio culture, he has a lot to say. "This is a serious topic," he states earnestly. "I don't get to spend nearly as much time with my family as I would like or need to. I have two young boys. They're 1 and 3 years old, and the fact is, I need to work a lot to get things done. Regardless of how busy I am, I've started going home and having a normal dinner and bedtime prep with the family twice a week. If I don't, my wife is going to kill me."

"Some nights I'll go back to work from home after the boys go to bed, and unless there is something major burning, I try to spend every minute of my weekends with the family as well," he adds. "Of course, there is always an hour or two of email and the like to distract me in the mornings, but I'm working very hard to spend more time with my family. The boys are growing so fast, and it breaks my heart to only see them a few minutes a day, but I'm sure I'm not alone in this situation."

James Mielke is one of the lucky ones. Previously an editor at Electronic Gaming Monthly, he moved to Japan to work as a producer on Child of Eden at Q Entertainment, before moving on to be both the producer and musical director on Lumines Electronic Symphony. He is currently a producer on two different projects at Q-Games in Kyoto, Japan. "I can only speak from experience, and my particular case isn't that dramatic. I always make sure my home life doesn't suffer as a result of my professional life."

"I visited Neversoft one year, when they were still working on Tony Hawk in the early 2000s," he recalls. "They made a big impression on me because they ran strict 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. hours, with a little more time put in during crunch. They were adamant about getting better results out of refreshed staff, and not grinding them down. In Japan, a large percentage of dev teams here famously work their fingers to the bone, and I don't think that's healthy. I'm lucky to have worked for two very progressive companies in Japan where I haven't had to burn the midnight oil."

Publisher and Executive Pressure

Since the days of the EA spouse scandal, things have changed for the better at a lot of studios. While we still hear occasional stories about insensitive executives imposing their will upon studios, the general sense from the developers spoken to for this story is that things have improved. That's not to say that there aren't still problems exacerbated by the different skill sets and attitudes exhibited by creative talent and business leaders. "Executive cowardice can still be an issue," says Hawley. "At some publishers, you still see that they don't have the leadership skills to communicate the vision. They don't have the balls to fire the poor employees, so they compress the insecurities and the inabilities to manage onto those who can do it. That means that the 15 percent of the studio that really cares sucks up the pressure, the passion, the caring, the bad people. You have to suck it up like a sponge and still deliver."

A lot of developers are reluctant to discuss some of the more egregious problems they encounter working with publishers and executives for fear of souring relationships and threatening the tenuous financial security that they can provide. Mielke articulates the biggest challenge, though--that of communication. "It's hardest when I know I have to deal with people who are poor communicators in positions of power and are a part of our pipeline. This is where the bottleneck forms. One thing I've learned is that the French take lots of vacations and also aren't great at setting out-of-office notifications. As connected as we are these days, there's no reason for someone to just disappear without a heads-up. It's fine if you don't want to field work emails on your vacation, but do let people know you're just on vacation and not ignoring someone for two weeks."

Kasavin relays a similar sentiment. "I see games as a form of communication, so my concern while working on a game boils down to a simple question: Am I getting through, or am I not? This applies both to the work itself as well as to my role as a collaborator and member of a team. There are many crucial aspects of game development that have nothing directly to do with the game. There are the business imperatives of your studio. Are you going to make payroll? Does a key member of the team have one foot out the door? Are there other personnel issues threatening the project? Creating a positive work environment in which talented people feel motivated to collaborate and do their best work is a very challenging, active, ongoing process."

Even as recently as five years ago, the attitudes at some of the big publishers were still quite hostile toward the creative process, and the pressure was more about getting the product onto shelves than making the best product possible. "During my time on Burnout--this was before Riccitiello, and before the [EA group labeling] strategy that you see now--I told the previous worldwide executive team that the game wouldn't launch in March 2008 as we'd originally planned and that it needed to run until October," Hawley says. "The C-level people told me, 'I don't care if it's a 7 out of 10. Ship it you c*nt.' The creative director and I were the guys that had to go out and get the essence of that message to the team while conveying that we were all good and that they could carry on. That pressure builds up." Production on Burnout Paradise did, in fact, run until October of 2007, and at that point the decision was made to hold the game until January 2008 in order to position it away from the holiday glut of releases.

Crunch

"It's not just that kind of pressure from executives that's the big issue, though," says Hawley. "It's the pressure cooker of the last six months of a dev cycle. It's the people that just go home and don't give a shit. It's running out of time, but wanting it to be the best thing ever. Finite time; finite people. Plus, [there's] the lack of sleep and not seeing your wife or your kids. You go through the summer working ridiculously hard and not getting any time off. In that kind of situation you're not going to be with your kids. You don't get that back."

This "crunch" phase of game development is felt very differently by people of different dispositions. All of the developers interviewed characterized crunch time as a necessary evil in one way or another, and while it isn't necessarily "nasty," it creates a situation and a set of unique pressures that some people thrive in but others just can't deal with.

"It's tempting to say that the most stressful parts of working on a game are the crunch times," says Kasavin. "Those consecutive late nights when you're under the gun trying to make something good under an extreme time pressure. These times are intense. However, for me, the most stressful times in the development process are the very slow times--the downtimes between projects or the meandering days at the start of a project. The very early stages when it's all blue sky, a lot of talk, and not so much action. These periods are the ones that fill me with the most anxiety, partly because I'm not busy enough to be able to set that anxiety aside."

Phrases like "intense" and "all-consuming" are often used in the discussion of getting a game finished. For anyone on a development team with any kind of emotional investment, the last six months are incredibly challenging and see the teams chasing both their deadlines and their own insecurities. The schedules they are forced to keep in order to deliver put them under enormous pressure, and many find that their day-to-day behavior tangibly changes. As you would expect, they have to balance their singular focus with lack of sleep, very little personal time, and the project at hand becoming less their "job" and more their whole life.

"A few years back, I got very defensive when a trusted colleague of mine criticized a massive prototype I had crunched on with a team for many months, pointing out all the flaws," Payton reveals. "My colleague was totally in the right to point those problems out, but my brain just wasn't in the right space to receive that kind of feedback. All I was thinking was, 'Do you not see what we just accomplished? Against all odds, we did this amazing thing from the ground up!' I wasn't in the mindset to receive critique. If anything, I just needed a pat on the back for all we had sacrificed, despite the deliverable's flaws. But that was my fault. I wasn't able to emotionally decouple myself from my work and look at it objectively."

"It's hardest when I know I have to deal with people who are poor communicators in positions of power."
Since then I've matured and gotten a thicker skin," he adds. "I've needed to tone down my emotional investment in the game, partly to bring balance to my life, partly so I'm able to look at my games with more objectivity. That's not to say that I'm not 100 percent committed to République, but in order to remain objective and receive good feedback, I can't love the game unconditionally anymore. In fact, I'm trying to train my brain to hate République now. I'm trying to be the consumer who needs to be proven that the game doesn't suck. When we get closer to ship, I intend to be the game's worst enemy."

"Crunch time on any game is all-consuming," explains Kazdal. "When I was living in Tokyo working on Rez, every time I went hiking or clubbing or played games, I was always thinking about how the experience was relevant to the project. It's not simply work, not even close. It's everything. Forcing yourself to take time off and just not think about the game and not be planning stuff in your subconscious is very difficult to do, but necessary."

"The fundamental problem is that it becomes so all-consuming that when you're at home, away from the office, you're not really at home," says Hawley. "There's a big difference between physically being at home and being emotionally engaged with your family. During the last six months of a project, you can't think of anything else. It's not possible."

Post-Ship Dysthymia

Traditionally, game studios have tended to work in a cycle that sees a game come together over the course of two years. The first year starts off extremely slowly and moves at a pace that many of us would consider like that of a "normal" work schedule. There are then six months of escalation, where the work becomes much more difficult, followed by another six months of the project consuming every waking hour. Until relatively recently, once a game shipped, that was it. "It was almost confusing," says Kazdal. "There's so much excitement, so much effort up to that moment of launch, and then…what? It's sealed away in a shrink-wrapped case or sent off to the publisher, and you can't touch it, ever again. Lots of developers talk about post-ship depression, and I think it's a very natural reaction to being so emotionally wrapped up creatively in this thing that has been growing and solidifying for years, and one day it's just…over. It's hard to deal with."

"The fundamental problem is that it becomes so all-consuming that when you're at home […] you're not really at home."
Teams are changing quite dramatically now, as more and more projects are viewed as "services" rather than simply products that are shipped before moving on to the next thing, but for many studios, the cycle is still fundamentally the same as it has been for many years. "Your brain is spinning at 12,000rpm during crunch. Then when you're finished, you drop to an idle," Hawley explains. "You've just trained your whole life to operate at a level like a Formula One car, and then when you stop…then what? What do you do when you can go home at 6 p.m.? What are you going to do? It's really hard to reengage with your family. Watching a movie is really hard. Having the focus to read a book or play the guitar is stupidly hard. Your brain is still going at a high speed, and it's difficult to reengage, and it can take about a month to properly slow down."

"The post-release phase for non-service-based games [those that aren't MMO games] were always a bit weird," says Zeschuk. "Ray [Muzyka] and I always warned our project directors about the relative sense of loss and disengagement that occurs post-launch. It's great when you're fortunate enough to see the accolades roll in, but even then the person at the center of development that was running 100 miles per hour every day suddenly isn't all that important anymore. That person goes from being the center of everything to just a regular person; the change is incredibly profound. The post-launch phase for a service-based game, or even a game with a lot of follow-on content, is quite different, as things tend to accelerate post-launch. This is even more significant with an MMO or purely service-based game, as there's usually more to do after launch versus pre-launch. Personally, I did more work after the launch of Star Wars: The Old Republic than I did before launch on any game in my entire career; we rolled out so many programs and had a huge team running worldwide 24/7. We put ourselves under incredible pressure to deliver. It was tough."

"When a game goes out the door, you figuratively lose a part of yourself," says Payton. "Especially for people like me who invest so much of themselves into their creation, it's extremely hard to take this formless creation, copy and paste it millions of times, and share it with the world. It's no longer yours, and that's hard to come to terms with."

"I've never felt more hollow or empty as after everything was done and I was no longer at the center of the web of activity required to deliver the game successfully," Zeschuk says. "I was never really relieved per se. I suppose it's almost like a depression, but I think that would be overstating it; the medical term for it is dysthymia: a brief emotional disruption not as deep as depression that's often preceded by a causative event. Depression is a whole different kettle of fish and a challenge for game developers, but also people in all other walks of life."

"Completing a project is a disorienting feeling," says Kasavin. "There is no clear endpoint. Typically you submit a game to certification, at which point you can no longer work on it and just have to wait for external approval. If and when that approval comes, congratulations, you're done! Except, the game isn't out yet, so you get to enjoy that moment of success in solitude. I could never celebrate those "gone gold" moments too much, knowing that the game isn't yet in the public's hands, and the real moment of truth is yet to come. It doesn't matter that I'm finished. What matters is, what will people say when they play it? I'm not making this stuff just for me. Even then, once a game is officially released, there is no clear endpoint. Reviews hit, you start getting tons of feedback, sales reports. You try processing all of it, but it's hard. The dust won't really settle for a while."

"I've never felt more hollow or empty as after everything was done and I was no longer at the center of the web of activity required to deliver the game successfully."
The games business is maturing along with its brightest talent. While we'll always see large-scale projects at publishers on tight annualized deadlines that serve as the "popcorn flicks" of gaming, we're seeing established talent exploring new opportunities. The traditional studio approach of living to the rhythm of a six-month crunch every two years is a crucible for talent more than capable of producing quality product, but it's an unusually stressful environment. Many gamers express incredulity when they hear about more and more established names forming small studios to work on mobile games, or smaller-scale projects, but this is only going to accelerate in the years ahead. Creative talents have more outlets for their work than ever before. Digital distribution, mobile, and tablet opportunities afford more control for the creative talent than many have seen since the early days of the business.

Without the pressure of shipping a box to retail, and without the need for many of the (now antiquated) trappings of the business, studios can march to the beat of their own drum. While getting any kind of long-term endeavor like a video game finished will always necessitate some kind of "crunch" time, and the emotional pressures that go along with that, creators are seizing control of their own destinies like never before.

Zeschuk gets the last word, ably summing the whole thing up. "Great games don't make themselves; they require passionate, dedicated people that are willing to make sacrifices to make them great. The same goes for making a great business, or making a beer webshow. When you devote yourself to it, you have a shot at success, but only a shot. If you don't devote yourself, you're screwed 100 percent of the time."

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143 comments
jbgarbuz
jbgarbuz

This has been the reality of every engineering project (software engineering included) since the dawn of civilization, whether it is building a pyramid, a bridge, a great movie or video game. And 90% of effort goes into the last 10% of the project, getting it just right and in on time. This has been the rule of thumb since the dawn of engineering.

DAMSOG
DAMSOG

What did I just read? ooooh....you poor fuckers....trying digging a fucking ditch for a living then have some wanker in an airconditioned office complain about long hours....if the working conditions are so bad.....FORM A UNION.

Shango4
Shango4

where the fuck is drew

jbgarbuz
jbgarbuz

The grinding away of software code monkeys is hardly news. It certainly looks far more glamorous from the outside than from within. It's always deadline, deadlines, all the time, and hurry up, hurry up AND... wait. But as Edison supposedly said, "Inspiration is 99% perspiration."  I admire those who are able to somehow carve out the semblance of a family life nonetheless. Not everyone is good enough and lucky enough to be able to do so. Most just feverishly grind away, grind away until they burn out. That's the reality of the software business, including videogame development.

medv105
medv105

Wow I was really considering becoming a game developer but this has changed my mind.


Still I think I'm going to try and make a little game in the summer with Adobe Flash or for android... (probably won't get much done xD)

James_Mason
James_Mason

Nice article... If anything, this article showed me what hapenned to Greg Kasavin and Ryan Payton... Those guys were MIA to me...

sharpshooter188
sharpshooter188

It's not just the game industry that is like this. But rather a large amount of professions where they demand an unreal amount from you. Often times one would think the hours should be illegal but people turn a blind eye to it. I feel for these guys.

KBABZ
KBABZ

I've been wanting to get into the games industry as an animator; this article was very insightful in giving a heads up as to what to expect if and when I get there.

LilRoss2k3
LilRoss2k3

as much as i love gaming...i could never do what these guys do...i imagine even the worst games require long hours to make.  and if i was a game maker, i wouldn't look at gaming as an escape.  i would already know what would happen in the game.  that sucks.

Bigbomb94
Bigbomb94

Excellent read, but the stuff these developers have to go through is quite depressing. Though I have strive to become a game developer myself, it seems like lately that I keep seeing signs of that I shouldn't pursue such a career. Who knows, I'm not at that point yet.  

fuiseh
fuiseh

Its great to finally read such an article. I've always wondered on the hours and how taxing it can be for game developers. To be able to churn out games that are well thought out and designed to the finest details(when they do) cannot be easy. Too many gamers where I'm at in Malaysia don't appreciate enough what game devs do, what drive and passion it must take to make great games. Whenever I get sucked into ingame stories that get to surprise, delight and move me I always think, at what cost it must've taken for the devs to involve themselves that deeply to craft them so well, especially when considering a global audience. Great article, it'll be awesome to see more articles that go into what devs push through to bring us great games.

jwhdavison
jwhdavison staff

I can't tell you all how how happy I am to see that this story has struck a chord with so many people. The intention was to have this be the beginning of a conversation, and inspire people to be more open about it - and judging from the comments here, that seems to be the case. It's true that the plight discussed in the story is true of areas outside of game development also, and I hope we can keep the exchange of ideas going so that people can help each other out. I'd love to see the whole work-life balance issue perhaps elevated in its importance within our culture. 

xdrmonkeyfishx
xdrmonkeyfishx

This reminds me of what I read about Kaos Studios development of Homefront. Pure hell. It's amazing what the development staff go through to make a game. I think it's important for articles like this to seen by gamers, simply because the majority don't realize. Great article, John.

TohouAsura
TohouAsura

Good articles from you as always, John Davison.

Alot of news that surfaced over recent years as well as articles like this prove to us time and time again, that despite what we think we know, the Games Industry is tough and brtual, and clearly isn't for everybody.

Creative staff has to conform to management demands to ever see their passion come to bear fruit, development staff is being abused and overworked to meet deadlines, Management becomes greedier and more brutal with it's demands...

We get quality games, but at what price?

We journeyed a long way from the days of Atari games, but as games grew in technicall prowess, so did their demanding resources. And it never stops or declines, just rises.

I really commend developers who push through and talk about this stuff. It's not easy.


Also, it's well known people who get the most burned out are Programmers. Programming in general is a profession people get tired of at some point or another.

TenraiSenshi
TenraiSenshi

I don't think it matters what kind of industry you work in, all of them have their ups and downs and all of them have their own emotional tolls. I never expected anything different for the video game industry, after all, playing games might be fun but making them does not = playing them.


I used to work in publishing and I can tell you it was hell. I used to work seven days a week, often well into the night with no holidays or weekends off to speak of. All of this was for a salary that could hardly be called substantial, so I know what it feels like to be under the grind and to be completely burned out. I just think people have these predetermined perceptions of an industry and some might assume that because the game development industry has the word "game" in it, it must be quite fun or interesting. They don't realize just how much stress and baggage comes along with it. The same could be said for many other careers as well, so all I can say is, before you plan you life away, do your homework and make sure you know what you're really getting yourself into.

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

As an oldtimer games programmer Ive been there and know all too well what the cost of crunch periods is. I completely burned out due to years of overtime, months at a time, with days of up to 17 hours of programming with few or no days off even on weekends.

For the first few years there were no signs at all, then suddenly both body and brain came barging in, pulling the full stop breaks with all the bells and whistles in an attempt to stop me from derailing... much too late.

The first signs of trouble was when I suddenly didn't  have the energy anymore to be social with friends and family. The other sign was when I got a short but complete blackout after some 16 hours of work on a Saturday evening. That's the point where it already was way too late to save the situation. The final sign was the most obvious one; hundreds of overtime hours in a few months, several times over the limit of what was allowed by law.

Afterwards I know that alot of it was my own fault, due to the lack of knowledge that it is simply not possible to keep going like that for eternity. Much too dedicated, poor diet, lots of coca cola, no physical training, incredibly long work hours, unrealistic deadlines, sleep deprevation, and most importantly being reluctant to ask for additional manpower to share the work load and not understanding my own rights as an employee. The inability to realize that I needed rest in between whenever possible was also a major factor.

The other fault was the management, that had just as little knowledge about how severe of a problem this type of workload is in the long run, and how costly it ends up being for them. Short sighted thinking are the root of the problem many times, and a fundamental disrespect for the well being of human individuals.

In the end, I managed to finish 4 games and work partly on a 5th before half the work force finally quit, all at the same time. The company filed bankrupcy shortly after.

powerdesignkid
powerdesignkid

Wow, so working in the games industry is pretty much the same as virtually every other industry? I guess I feel bad for all of us now.

WeiSSeRaFFe
WeiSSeRaFFe

In at lease a few circumstances I've seen, it doesn't matter if programmers are interchangeable or not. All that matters is whether management sees it that way.

One recent example: I know of a fairly strong dev team -- just three guys, who were let go in favour of hiring 10-12 programmers overseas (team B: a pre-packaged team). Turns out, Team B wasn't doing so well so they hired an in-house guy to keep an eye on things. New in-house guy ended up spending all of his time managing and fixing the code from overseas team and a new in-house guy was hired in as help.

In-house team ended up swamped trying to maintain the (very poor) coding which came in droves from team B. In the end, the two in-house devs were let go in favour of MORE TEAM B GUYS! (Way to go management.)

kresten
kresten

Very good article, but I can't help thinking these guys (developers) need get their priorities straight!

I’m not in the game industry, but have been programming all my life and I understand the attachment and creative process needed to create great games. But not seeing your family every day, especially your babies, that just wrong on so many levels. But I guess you’re not able to see that in your twenties, sorry for being an old geezer.

Listen, you’re well-educated, smart people… why do you let management push you around like that?

chuckls
chuckls

That was great! Thanks John.

SlavZa
SlavZa

Working in Game industry could look easy and just fun from a consumer point of view, until you get closer to DEADline and you start to understand why there is word DEAD :)


I'm a mobile functional tester, worked in one of the studios of EA (not the main one but the one they acquired). I was trilled to see an Article so inside-full and so carefully researched! 

Its true that Crunch time is a whole different world compare to the normal pre-production or during a start of production as much as its different for developers it is for testers. When developers have around 6 months of crunch time, testers have even less as the versions they are never up to date as with every passing second, code is changing and what you testing today might be out of date tomorrow morning. 

I worked on good number of products and every time you need to brace yourself to the next crunch time, and your loved ones must understand that they might not see you for weeks and weeks. Well they might see you but you're not gonna be there mentally cuz its a crunch time. 

It's a testers responsibility to make sure that every little bug is caught in the system and if not solved at least your Dev team knows about it. Unfortunately a lot of developers don't understand or don't see how much effort is put in to testing ones' product and we are as testers are necessary evil that needs to be there to make sure that product is truly polished and not gonna be destroyed by reviews cuz game crashed on launch. 

From personal experience, I still remember every single crunch time on every project I worked on, and the worst the crunch times were usually the better the results are. I've worked 24/7 through weekends, sleeping in canteen for just a few hours, till the limit of my body and mind testing again and again the same game.(hoping not to get a blur eye effect) I could have arrived home and at dinner try to listen to my girlfriend talk about her day at work ( or it could be a week that i didn't see her) and at that moment it would hit me with a new scenario for testing, a new way we still didn't try and in panic I would try to get anything to write it on and have it, so when I finish the food I could get one of the working prototypes and continue testing it at home (Thx god for Web log-in  to the Devtrack/Jira)

It's not about that it was not planned well or something, its just the closer you are to the release stage the more features there are to test (or to edit for Dev team).


To me people I worked with are gods at what they do, I admire them for their skills and effort they put into building a great games.


Devteams out there, don't hate your testers, they do what they have to do to make sure your product is like a nice shiny piece of Chainmail, if one ring in armour breaks cuz of one programmer who fell asleep on a keyboard just by mistake and in panic didn't notice he deleted a bracket, it's our job to make sure we catch that, cuz your are too busy build other rings for it :)) 

PeejayYeh
PeejayYeh

working in the IT industry is really tough!

im an BSIT working as programmer in the government so i exactly know dysthymia as the effect of the passion and personal attachment to every brainchild software you created. you feel proud and sad to let go, at the same time....

so lets just cheer 'em up folks! support 'em as always....

the challenge here is on the consumer side to appreciate the fruits of their personal passion and labor. i hate someone not considering my effort and love given to my babies ;(

well im still going to the gaming industry. maybe there will be change of environment when i get there hahaha ;D

charlieholmes
charlieholmes

Not what I was expecting in a very good way. Nice job.

scaperat1
scaperat1

It takes a lot for me to dislike a game. I even enjoyed Aliens: CM to a certain extent.

sasami_adachi
sasami_adachi

Awesome article. More like this please. ^_^

"Dealing with limited time and resource is never easy - even more so when people are in the mix." - random thought.

jwhdavison
jwhdavison staff

Something I'd like to mention about how this article was pieced together, for those who have asked questions and comments: I actually reached out to a lot of developers to ask questions - not just these six guys. Some were a little nervous about speaking their mind in a public forum, some were just uncomfortable opening up, and some just didn't have the time to respond. It takes some guts to bare your soul in a story like this. Honestly, I could have written much, much more on this topic from the conversations I had with people but we also didn't want to overwhelm you with a gazillion words. It's a pretty long piece as it is. I think there's probably a book in this at some point (though I doubt it would be a huge seller!)

Also - I'd like to mention that not ONCE during any of my conversations did any of them whine, complain, or bitch about their lot in life. They love games, love making games, and all of them love making something that people enjoy playing. These are guys that talk about "players" not "consumers."

vaejas
vaejas

@DAMSOG Digging a ditch for a living? Try doing it in a malaria swamp without food to "work off" a debt bond you'll never repay. There is hell in the world you and I will never see.

There's always worse. That doesn't mean everyone up the ladder has it easy, it means everyone on the ladder has it hard.

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

@jwhdavison  Im gonna touch a subject that isnt really about game developers. I still think it's related in some ways though.

The balance is defenitly out of order. Here in Sweden, recent statistics shows that the number of people getting sick from stress has skyrocketed, and they believe it's caused by peoples inability to disconnect from the web (mainly Facebook and social games).

I see it everyday on the bus. There are often more people chatting or playing games than there are people that doesn't. Some just fiddle with their mp3 player perhaps, and a rare few actually talks on the phone. When Im at home and do my daily routine of news sites and facebooking, there are always people that comment or "like" everything posted every 2 minute interval, and this happens almost at any time of the day - the same people, and there are many of them.

Also, and this is something new to me; Ive encountered groups of people that instead of talking, they are all texting to other people (or perhaps eachother) about what they are doing or thinking, and then randomly talk IRL within the group about what they just texted. Basically they are doing some sort of antisocial socializing.

Maybe Im just getting old, but when I see people in the supermarket that cant stop fiddling with their smartphones even when they need to pay or talk to the cashier, I think that this so called "connected life style" has gone way too far, to the point where actual social conversations without a phone is something rare and unexpected.

And  I should probably not get started about MMO games either. The sheer ammount of people that have practically destroyed their life just so they can play WoW and such all days and nights are staggering. This is from my own experience with people I know or have known both IRL and on the net. Im a seasoned but retired MMO player myself from the old days of EQ and several others, including WoW, and frankly, this is a much bigger problem than many are willing to admit - especially since addictive social games are so mainstream these days.

The education level here in Sweden has plummeted. Kids in school are much more stressed (statistics) even as they are getting less and less actual work to do. Homework is being removed entirely. And still they are stressed. Why? Computers all the time, smartphones all the time, CoD, WoW or what have you all the time.

It's not a pretty picture Im painting here, and even offensive to some. It's a life style, and noone likes criticism directed at it.

But surely, the signs isn't very good. I'd like to order an extra thick tin foil hat, if someone has one for sale.

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

@TenraiSenshi More often than not it is at least interesting, with some occational fun thrown in (I always enjoyed the creative discussions). But, as with everything, nothing is fun when you do it 24/7, unless you either have some sort of defect or are coming from another planet.

One company I worked at, even encouraged us to play console games at work on daily basis. We got things done in time anyways, without much overtime and such - and with better result too. So sometimes it can actually be "game", for the purpose of education and creativity.

I don't think this practice is the norm of the industry though. It was probably thanks to that the mangement themselves originally were both gamers and creators, and understood that fun within the right context generates creativity.

00J
00J

@Eldeorn 

Sounds like Golum and his ring... You didn't by any chance look like him after you emerged from the cave did you? lol

J/K

Yeah it's grueling, you really can't relate to people outside of the computer once your that far down the rabbit hole, and when they ask you what you do they are always surprised and then they always want you to explain it to them. lol

sigh... It is definitely one of the most unusual career choices on this planet... The isolation, the non-communication, interfacing with a computer for countless hours on end, dreaming code etc...

A lot of people also ask "Why don't you take a break in between the 16 hours straight" what they never understand is that a lot of times that would add another 5 hours just to figure out where your mind was at... It like that saying, "you can't get off the ride once it's started". 

On few occasions i personally have stepped away got some rest then came back and solved a problem that seemed un-solvable, but usually you know what you want and you have to code it straight out non-stop... If you don't it's just 24 more hours that you could have coded into the program and put behind you.

Zirkonia
Zirkonia

@Eldeorn I was an old-timer games programmer, too. I lasted about a decade before I completely burned out ending in my brain turning to unflavored gelatin. I've worked in other industries where long hours were expected working on impossible tasks, but none was as bad as the game industry. People who think they are overworked in other fields just have no idea what we're talking about. 

Part of the problem is that game programmers were often inventing the methods to do something from scratch. It wasn't just coding. It was finding ways to do things on a computer which had never been done before. It was figuring out shortcuts and tricks to do something on weak PCs that normally required a supercomputer to accomplish. It took extra time and a lot of mental energy which wasn't required when programming for any other field.

This type of activity is difficult to do while going without sleep for extended periods of time. How many other fields have entire teams of people living in the office and grabbing a couple hours of sleep under their desks every night for weeks? Sometimes we couldn't even shower for days. The office regularly looked like a refugee camp in a war zone. I had a nearly 3 year stretch at a small company where I wasn't allowed to take a single vacation day. At another, I had to work 3 months with no paycheck while my company waited for additional funding for the game from a massive publisher who treated their developers like crap. The company paid me back, but that was a crappy 3 months.

Management were also a huge problem. Most of them had no clue about what goes into making a game. I swear they never even looked at the MS Project estimates I'd work out for manpower and development time. They'd just say, it has to be done in half that time and we can only give you half the number of people you need. In any other field, the problem is with project leads underestimating time and resources. In the game industry, the problem is management completely ignoring the estimates handed to them and pulling arbitrary numbers out of the ether based on suggestions from the marketing department.

There were problems with management in other ways, too. For example, I was put on one project where this massive media company was trying to break into the game industry. They had done focus groups with average people (not gamers) asking what they wanted in a game. Then, they took that list and came up with a game design. All of the people on the project told them it would never sell. We told them it was a horrible game. They still pumped $2.5 million into it and pushed it through the channel onto store shelves. It sold a few thousand copies total. They would have had to charge $800 per copy to break even.  Everyone on the team was a gamer who understood what makes a decent game, yet our feedback was ignored by the decision makers who  all came from the mass media industry.. That company folded after a few more really bad games. I'm sure the managers still don't think it was their fault.

Viral-venom13
Viral-venom13

@Eldeorn  

That's sounds scary especially for somebody like myself who'd like a chance to work in the Game Industry one day! :o

rilpas
rilpas

@powerdesignkid I have to disagree, Social media, forums and the like play a much bigger part in the mood within a studio, the it would if you worked say... as an accountant in a cable company

Giancarlo
Giancarlo moderator

@powerdesignkid Associating game development's problems with the hardships of any other profession is actually a lot more than what most people are willing to concede.

TohouAsura
TohouAsura

@kresten What an easy target you are. Passionate, young, dedicated. They can squeeze every little juice out of you by telling you it's for making a great game.

You are almost always a piggy bank for them. Never forget it, and never forget your rights.

Zirkonia
Zirkonia

@kresten Our blind, all-consuming love of making games made us easy prey. We put up with the abuse in order to keep feeding our addiction to game creation. It's clear we had completely imbalanced priorities, in hindsight. At the time, we were just absorbed in fog of creation.

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

@kresten You are as you say, in your 20's, inexperienced in life, dedicated, absolutely love what you are doing and are having fun. All this makes you an easy target for short sighted management.

Unholy123
Unholy123

@kresten Contracts, you agree to certain things when 'crunch' time is in effect the thing is management gets to say when it's crunch time and when it isn't there's so much bullshit in the games industry as programmers your treated as interchangeable commodities and your told so and if you speak out you will be fired.

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

@SlavZa Nobody likes bad news or criticism, which testers provide tons of.

Nah, just kidding mate :) They are indeed essential for the development process to make sure you get a polished product.

Sadly for the testers I worked with in my time, I gave them very little to do, because I spent so much time revising my code, scripts and mechanics, weeding out bugs and testing features as fast as I was making them.

The only thing I wished my testers could have provided, was insight in what parts of the games was actually fun or flawed when it comes to conecpt, execution and design. Most often they were very inexperienced - we didnt have actual testers employed full time, only for a few days or weeks at a time. It was not their fault either, since our management didn't know or understand that this also was a part of Q/A and testing - possible due to the fact that change of concept or execution = more development time and costs.

Zirkonia
Zirkonia

@PeejayYeh The gaming industry has become a little better since the days Eldeorn and I described in our posts. That big EA lawsuit happened years after I had already burned out and left the industry. I think that lawsuit shook some companies up, realizing that they could be sued for what they were doing to their employees. In our time, you had to really love programming games, because you gave up a huge chunk of your life in order to do it. Now, I think it's possible to do it as a career without it taking over your life completely.

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

@PeejayYeh Good luck. :)

To offer you something on the way, read my post further up. Don't do it like I did, and all should go well!

loafofgame
loafofgame

@jwhdavison The book doesn't have to be a great seller. I think the subject is interesting enough and it seems to be a field that needs more in-depth exploration. Maybe a documentary would be interesting: following some of these people as they deal with the development of a game. And there are many other aspects to examine. The fact that the interviewed see crunch time as a necessary evil is fascinating. Is that passion or rationale speaking? Why is it necessary? Aren't there any other options? And how do developers deal with the reception of a game, when for example something they worked on so passionately gets burned to the ground? Are all these people trying to deal with the pressure themselves or do they seek professional help? I mean, some of these guys could need a therapist (I don't mean that in the 'they're crazy' way), just to get a different perspective on things. To me, it seems obvious that family and loved ones always come first, but I might not have the same passion that participates in the personal priority competition. Where does that passion come from and how did it come to dictate some of the decisions these people make? And why aren't they whining and complaining? Is it because they're afraid of potential repercussions? Or is it a form of conditioning (this is how it's always been and you have to deal with that)? Is it a (sub)cultural thing? Or is it a very conscious and rational choice to go through pains in order to get a better result? Does the stress and pressure really lead to a better end product?

To cut a long story short, I'd be very interested to read your book.

vaejas
vaejas

Also no publisher will ever allow a union to form. Not every job in Hollywood has a union either, but it does have a century of history that allowed them to form in the first place. Game development reached the production level of cinema in the mid 1990s, and in the 2000s it started to match (and beat) Hollywood's income. It's a different beast.

In an industry that lays off hundreds of people at a time after a dev cycle, a unionised system would collapse on itself. Game prices could never be high enough to cover the costs of ensuring all those people stay employed.

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

@00J @Eldeorn Interesting angle on it :) And pretty spot-on too.

My precioussssssss....

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

@Zirkonia @Eldeorn Ok, Im rather speechless - I thought I displayed pretty much the worst case scenario, but it's evident that I wasn't.

Having a media company that doesnt know shit about games forcing flawed game concepts and designs is something I never had to suffer through. My boss at least listened to us when we said that certain things were either impossible or just not worth doing. Ofcourse we had our fair share of thick-headed publishers that wanted pointless stuff like multiplayer in adventure puzzle games, but at least they had some sort of clue.

Sleeping under the desk is something else I never had to do, even though I realize sometimes that maybe I should have, to get those 3 hours of extra sleep per day I could have saved from skipping the bus ride back and forth.

You're right that the biggest challenge is to always work on new solutions and new problems without any chance for rest or processing.The road to burning out is to do this while maintaining a fast pace with no chance of actually finishing before the deadline. As long as you are not aware of that the time is running up, it's still going well, but as the work piles up with no end in sight, that's where the problems comes knockin' along with the boss telling you that you need to speed up even more.

Eldeorn
Eldeorn

@Viral-venom13 @Eldeorn This is pretty much a worst case scenario with many factors being involved that were all going in the wrong direction.

Just take note on the part that was my fault, don't do that, and it's not so bad really ;)

Afterall, there is only a problem as long as you permit it. Creating games is incredibly fun afterall, and it's by far the most enjoyable enviroment to be in most of the time. Being surrounded by (mostly) highly creative people that are all (mostly) dedicated to what they love to do is a blast.