Game Developers' Quality of Life: Why Should Gamers Care?

In this feature, we ask if quality of life at development studios should affect how gamers think about the industry.

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Blowing the Whistle on Working Conditions

A video game is composed of millions of tiny achievements made by hundreds of people. When combined, their work results in innovative, genre-defining artistic statements like World of Warcraft, Half-Life, Super Mario 64, or Tetris. The fruits of their collective labour are savoured around the world by gamers, a once-exclusive tag that is now, thanks to the burgeoning market of Web-based casual games, embraced by more people than ever before.

Despite the impact that generations of video game developers have had on the medium of interactive entertainment, though, it's easy to forget those millions of tiny achievements when you're embedded deep within virtual worlds like Azeroth, the Black Mesa Research Facility, the Mushroom Kingdom, or a 10-block-wide screen of endlessly descending shapes. Logically, our brains know that none of these worlds can exist without the imagination, artistry, and programming skills of human beings. Yet for many gamers, those who work in the gaming industry are, essentially, faceless purveyors of joy. There are a handful of household names like Shigeru Miyamoto, John Romero, Hideo Kojima, and Will Wright; as for the rest of the names listed in the closing credits and the instruction manual…well, who?

This apparent cognitive failure of gamers to acknowledge the contribution of game developers to our overall well-being is only brought to the fore on rare occasions, when the people behind our gaming pleasure see no option but to go public with their sentiment of systemic discontent. The enduring example of the entire discussion surrounding game developers' quality of life arose in November 2004, when an anonymous blog post by the partner of an EA Games developer working on The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth detailed a studio-wide, 85-hour work week.

"The stress is taking its toll," the blogger wrote. "After a certain number of hours spent working, the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off, fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend--bad things happen to one's physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing."

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The "EA Spouse" saga centered around the overtime working conditions on EA's The Lord of the Rings, The Battle for Middle-earth.

The blog post gained widespread media attention and, later, saw EA settle over US$30 million in overtime to staff at its California studio following three class-action lawsuits. The "EA Spouse" saga, led by blogger Erin Hoffman, shone a spotlight into the dark corners of game development. For the first time, it seemed, gamers were made aware that making video games for a living isn't necessarily as fun as it sounds.

A similar incident in early 2010, ahead of the release of Red Dead Redemption, saw the "Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees" publish a scathing attack against that studio's management on industry website Gamasutra and threaten legal action if their partners' working conditions were not improved. It is unclear whether that situation was resolved, although it appears that no lawsuits were filed against Rockstar Games. More recently, Team Bondi, the Sydney-based developer of the Rockstar Games-published L.A. Noire, was revealed to have dictated what former employees referred to as an "ominous crunch" (the intensive period before a deadline) that lasted for years, and a revolving-door staff policy that saw over a hundred employees leaving throughout the game's seven-year development.

Those three games--Battle for Middle-earth, Red Dead Redemption, and L.A. Noire--achieved Metacritic ratings of 82, 95, and 89, respectively. Collectively, they were enjoyed by an audience of millions across the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 platforms. In the grand scheme of things, it's all too easy to sweep a few months--or, in the case of L.A. Noire, years--of long working hours under the rug and bask in the shining glory of the final products. But to do so would be a mistake, argues Kenneth Yeast, who was the engineering development director at Electronic Arts during the Battle for Middle-earth project.

The development team--which consisted of around 100 full-time staff, including management--worked "60-something days straight" until the game shipped in November 2004, says Yeast. Staff were required to be in the office by 9.30 a.m. and would go home typically around 9 p.m.--sometimes, as late as 11 p.m.

"It was insane," he remembers. "[Management] refused to cut any feature, or adjust anything to change the scope of the delivery, in order to fit the deadline. It was rough. I was warned when I was hired that they were expecting to go into crunch. It has its effects. I know I'm getting older, but I felt my eyesight got worse, even during that period of time. It was stressful."

Yeast--who is currently director of engineering at California-based mobile game developer Bad Juju Games--compares game development to a sausage factory.

"You may like to eat sausages," he says, "but you don’t want to see how they're made."

Jason Della Rocca was the executive director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) between 2000 and 2009. The "EA Spouse" incident occurred right in the middle of his tenure. Before that event, he says, the industry had a "blind faith," where the prevailing attitude seemed to be, "We have no clue what we're doing, just work harder! If I code more, things will get worked out!" "It came from the lack of maturity of the industry, of the people, of the art form," says Della Rocca. Since then, "things have gotten better on average." The IGDA moved to establish a quality-of-life "special interest group" and began discussions with game development studios regarding employees' working conditions, "but you still end up with these extreme scenarios like on L.A. Noire," he says.

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L.A. Noire developer Team Bondi came under fire earlier this year for the negative working conditions of its employees.

Yet smoke and mirrors still dominate a necessarily secretive industry. As tens of millions of dollars are being poured into each AAA title, and as competition for gamers' wallets grows fiercer than ever, studios and publishers have few reasons to embrace transparency. It's a point not lost on Chuck Hoover, chairman of the IGDA's production special interest group and studio production director at Schell Games in Pittsburgh.

"How can we expect a gamer to know which studio to support, and which studio is churning through their staff with 80-hour weeks?" he asks. "What I would love to see is a world where the game industry sheds light on quality of life, so we can educate gamers on these issues. Something like an IGDA 'good studio' seal of approval based on overtime hours, work-life balance, and employee treatment; that's where we need to start."

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Why Should Gamers Care?

Seattle-based Tom Buscaglia--the self-proclaimed "game attorney"--has been representing video game developers in all aspects of business and legal matters since 1991. He's also a hardcore gamer. His approach to this topic is logical: "Think of how fewer crappier games you'd buy," he says, if game developers' quality of life was a non-issue. "Think of how fewer games you'd buy and say, 'Oh God, that was a mistake'. I do it," he admits. "I raise my hand. I bought Duke [Nukem Forever]. It was a nostalgia buy! But it was a really sucky game. I wanted Homefront to be a great game, but I bought it and it was terrible. If you look at the background of what was going on at Kaos Studio while the game was being made, people were being treated poorly."

For Buscaglia, the things that cause game studio management to treat employees poorly are "the same sort of mindset that causes a studio to release a game that's not ready to be released. Or that gets a studio to put people into a 'death march' [a long-term crunch to meet a deadline] because they don't care if the game sells--but if it's released in this quarter, they get to book all those sales before the end of the year, so their financials look good, and they don't fail to meet projections that were made by marketing analysts. There's a whole bunch of elements influencing how games are made and when they're released that really don't have anything to do with games," he says. "They have to do with stock prices and publicly traded companies; to do with cooking the books and selling bullshit to suckers."

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Next Level Games, developer of Captain America: Super Soldier, believes that "excellent games are made by fostering a healthy, positive, and creative environment."

Buscaglia's assertions strike a chord, as gamers are among the biggest losers in such situations. If the game sucks, those who bought it feel ripped off. So, too, do the developers, who know that the product isn't as good as it could have been had they been allowed a little more time.

"And their families are disappointed," Buscaglia continues, "because 'Daddy was working 80 hours a week. He's cross and irritable, and I haven't seen him in four months because he's been working on a game that was released early and plays badly.' Tell me, who wins in that one?"

The unfortunate reality of discussions surrounding game developers' quality of life is that we tend to hear only about the worst cases. Spouses grow frustrated, or journalists grow curious, and a story becomes part of the public discourse. It's rare that a studio makes the headlines for providing a supportive work environment where both talent and regular working hours are valued and celebrated. Such studios do exist, though. In the UK, Brighton-based Relentless Software proudly proclaims to have "mastered over 100 SKUs [products] and have never crunched, never worked late, and never worked a weekend," according to its website.

Last month, the managing director of Ninja Kiwi, a 15-person Flash and iOS development studio based in Auckland, New Zealand, was moved to comment on a Games.on.net report alleging 120-hour work weeks at Gameloft Auckland.

"One of the most important things to us when we set the company up was ensuring we pretty much stick to a 8.30am-5pm work time," wrote Chris Harris. "Half our team are parents, including myself. Who wants to miss dinner/bedtime with their kids? Life is only so long, and I believe you only get one turn on the merry-go-round." Harris told GameSpot that he and his cofounding brother, Stephen, "never even considered that we were 'taking a stand, righting the wrongs of the industry.' We were just doing what we thought was normal," he says. "Turns out it wasn't."

Harris proudly states that Ninja Kiwi has a monthly research and development budget of NZ$100 per person, which allows staff to be reimbursed for games that they buy--as long as they're prepared to report back on the experience to their colleagues. "I think for people to be really creative, and really useful, as employees, they need to mix in the world. [They need to] have relationships with their friends and family, watch movies, play games. God; so many developers don't even play games," he sighs. "'Too busy...'"

Similarly, the website of Vancouver-based Next Level Games states the studio's philosophy, that "excellent games are made by fostering a healthy, positive, and creative environment. We believe that work is only one component of your life, and that creative minds work more effectively when they're rested." By extension, does Next Level--which is responsible for titles such as Super Mario Strikers and Captain America: Super Soldier--believe that happy developers make better games?

"Absolutely," says Sean Murch, the head of business development. "We see 'happy,' in a work context, as 'being engaged.' That is really the key. Part of that engagement is about providing a fair, safe, and equitable workplace, of course; but all these are in service of the engagement. Think of it as removing the barriers to natural engagement."

Murch stops short of agreeing with the suggestion that gamers should boycott games made by studios that offer unsatisfactory working conditions, though. "There are hundreds of thousands of household products that we buy every day that are manufactured under truly inhumane working conditions," he says. "It's not reasonable to expect that the same consumer should care if a North American or European game developer is working too much overtime and not seeing their middle-class family as often as they would like to. I'm not saying that it's right, but I just don't see that sort of purchasing discretion as being a realistic goal for your average human being today."

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Thatgamecompany's Kellee Santiago believes gamers should care about working conditions at development studios.

Still, Murch believes that it is a responsibility of all game development studios to "engage their employees effectively, and to provide an example of how things can be done differently. I believe we have done that consistently at Next Level Games. We consider it part of our corporate responsibility to share our learning and achievements in this area, so that people can really understand and know there is a better way to coach and manage for performance: by treating people with respect and dignity, and constantly challenging and engaging them in their work."

Murch's sentiment is echoed by Kellee Santiago, cofounder of Thatgamecompany, a 12-strong development team based in Los Angeles, which was responsible for the 2006 hit Flow.

"I think gamers should care [about this issue] as much as anyone who supports the arts and/or entertainment should care," she says. "The act of creating anything is, in and of itself, a strenuous process. The better the quality of life developers can have during that process, the better the games are that come out from that process. We have many good games to play today, but what I've learned as a gamer since I've come over to the development side is that these games could be even better. I see the sacrifices in video game experiences that are made because the development team simply couldn't support through their crunching-six-days-a-week-12-hours-a-day-for-9-months-straight development schedule. I see extremely talented game developers who have to quit game development because of burnout. If we, as gamers, support games with more sustainable development processes, we ensure many more better video games in the years to come."

Or, to put it another way, in the blunt words of game attorney Tom Buscaglia: "If gamers think there's a disconnect between the quality of life of the people who make games and the quality of the games they make, they're sadly mistaken."

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