The lights are on
Veteran Member - Level 11
I recently finished Red Dead Redemption. While I was riding around on my steed, shooting bad guys and wrangling wild horses, I never stopped to ponder the amount of work that must have gone into creating this brilliant vision of the dying old west. I simply enjoyed the game and became fully immersed in its dramatic, moving story. If the folks at Rockstar San Diego read that (and I'm sure they won't) they would likely be very happy. The labor and well being of the company employees would be the last thing a developer or publisher (especially publisher) would want me to think about while playing their game.
I can't help it now. It seems to be pervading my thoughts almost every time I step into that Brooks Brother's suit of Cole Phelps in LA Noire. Both of these Rockstar published games had highly publicized labor complaints from employees during the development process. The complaints aren't contained to Rockstar either. Many companies in the video game industry have found themselves the subject of complaints about quality of life and unfair working conditions in recent years, especially since the rise of social media such as Twitter and blogging.
It all seemed to have started in 2004 when the EA Spouse blog opened the flood gates. "It's just a part of the game industry," She wrote in her blog, speaking about long work hours."Few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom." Crunch time is that time in a game's development cycle when employees are expected to work longer hours to ensure a game meets a certain deadline. A deadline could be any kind of landmark in a game's development, such as a "check-up" meeting with the publishing executives or simply to ensure that a demo is ready for a big reveal at E3. In the case of EA LA in 2004, the EA Spouse explains, "[The producers] gave a specific date for the end of the crunch. That date came and went." The hours on that project eventually reached twelve hours a day, seven days a week, with no overtime pay, but instead comp time was added to the post release vacation of the studio's employees.
Erin Hoffman, AKA EA Spouse now dedicates her time to improving the quality of life for industry professionals.
In the years since this anonymous blog set off a firestorm of controversy in the industry, one would think that the industry would have taken major steps to change standard labor policies. This assumption would be false. This is especially evidenced by a letter to Rockstar San Diego's studio heads by an anonymous blogger on Gamasutra known as Rockstar Spouse which echoed the same concerns as the EA Spouse regarding her husband's working conditions at Rockstar San Diego during the development of the aforementioned Red Dead Redemption. The similarities between these two letters is evidence that the video game industry still has yet to iron out the kinks that come with the growing pains of becoming the largest entertainment industry in the world seemingly overnight.
Now, two years later Rockstar is the center of another similar controversy. Many of Team Bondi's employees came forward with similar complaints about the seven year development of LA Noire. "As time went by, the project wasn't coming together as fast as management wanted it to." Says one of the anonymous employees in an interview with IGN, "[Management] started to become aggressive and demanding." The employees claimed to work for eighteen month periods of crunch time, consisting of twelve hour days, at least six days per week, with no overtime pay, and uncertain bonuses under the leadership of studio head Brendan McNamara.
The International Game Developers Association, who represents companies such as Rockstar and EA, is investigating the matter. The Chair of the IGDA board of directors, Brian Robbins said in a recent interview, "Certainly 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."
While the IGDA is investigating this matter, it is important to note that the IGDA is not a union and does not endorse any specific unions. In fact, the video game industry has never successfully implemented unions, often encountering much resistance from publishers and many developers. After the EA Spouse controversy and ensuing lawsuit, publishers and employees began discussing the conditions of unionization. Lev Chepelsky of Blindlight, a union relations agency, was involved in some of those negotiations. He recalls, "It was interesting to see how difficult it was for the game publishers to wrap their heads around what was coming across the bargaining table." Game publishers, under the guidance of the IGDA, began to cut back on crunch time and offer more bonuses to employees, in order to avoid the strengthening of unions. The efforts by such companies have been fairly successful, often providing enough incentive to keep employees from unionizing.
While publishers have worked hard to maintain happy employees, quality of life isn't the only reason developers have been leaving triple-A publishers. Many people leave these large companies in search of more creative freedom at smaller independent studios or leave the industry altogether. In an interview I performed in June with Greg Kasavin, Creative Director on Supergiant Games' Bastion, he explained his motivation for departing EA LA. "The appeal was working for ourselves and being accountable only to each other and not having to worry about what someone in some corner office somewhere might do to our game through a wave of his magic wand."
Other developers echoed his sentiments in a recent article for Ars Technica. "Working for a major publisher can be rewarding, very quickly: you get to work on known IPs, you have job security, you get a good paycheck every month, you have the business card with the big name on it to show off to your friends," says Audrey Leprince, of mobile developer the Game Bakers, formerly producer on Tom Clancy's Endwar. She continues, "You don't really know how much you will be listened to or if your ideas will be taken into account, how much freedom you'll have in your work, or if you'll end up crunching on a B project after the perfect project you joined for gets cancelled."
Brendan McNamara of Team Bondi
Brendan McNamara of Team Bondi sees this as the standard practice for the industry and doesn't feel that his employees were mistreated in any way. He says in the interview with IGN, "If you wanted to work a nine-to-five job, you'd be in another industry."
Industry analyst Michael Pachter seems to agree; "If you want to be an hourly employee, go build automobiles," said Pachter in an episode of his web show Pach Attack. "And what will happen is they'll close down your plant some day and you'll be out of work...The cool thing about this industry is, if you're good, you'll make a ton of money." This sentiment seems to be the unwritten law of video game employment. "If a game is good, and LA Noire was good, there will be a profit pool and there will be bonuses," says Pachter.
There are many in the industry who would caution young people and students with dreams of becoming the next Miyamoto. In a blog post plainly titled You Don't Want To Work In the Video Game Industry, Bruce Everiss, a veteran industry marketer wrote, "The competition to get into the game industry is fierce...because so many people want in, the wages are terrible," He explains. "If the wages are bad then the working conditions are worse. Crunch is a widespread practice in the industry. Huge numbers of hours of unpaid overtime."
As the video game industry experiences these growing pains, it will become harder for triple-A developers to hold onto the best talent. For every veteran who leaves the industry, another has just graduated from Full Sail, Digipen or the Game Design Institute. That graduate will enter a demanding, surprising work environment, making much less than the veteran and discover that life in the video game industry may not be what it seems.
I am not calling for any kind of protest here. I simply wanted to research what the games industry could do to resolve this growing issue. It seems to me that this could simply be something that those who want to work in the industry will have to learn to live with. I read this blog to a friend before posting it and she said, "Imagine what it would be like if you never got to see your family for months." I can't imagine it. But then again, I don't work in the industry.
Sources for this blog are highlighted as hyperlinks and listed below:
Great blog. This is the first time that I've read something you've written on here, and I'll definitely check out your stuff again. It was cool that you followed up on something you discussed on your podcast, too.
As for the situation that industry employees are in--it sounds kind of bleak, doesn't it? Not really sure how I feel about what some of the higher-ups' have to say about it, either. I mean, I have a couple friends who are trying to break into the industry, so I know that it's tough, but the whole 'it's a privilege to do this, so take these crappy working conditions and shut up' attitude strikes me as BS.
I can't help but imagine that if you made games, they'd get old quick. I used to work at an ice cream shop, and I lost my taste for ice cream pretty quick. Working with something day after day is a great way to suck the joy out of it.
Amazing blog, well-supported. I never knew about this aspect of the gaming industry, although I can kind of relate. Architecture, my major, is another job market that can involve many, many hours where the family becomes noise in a background full of endless tasks to be fulfilled and jobs to be done.
Creating a game is a creative process that comes from the mind, not out of an assembly line. What we're seeing are, as you say, growing pains; the industry is adopting the (in this case, bad) habits of larger industries, poor wages and long hours among them. What we can do is look to the larger movie industry and get an idea of where gaming as a business may be headed.
Excellent blog Daniel! Perhaps you will earn yourself a shout out from...yourself on the wonderful show you do. Or I could do it.
There is a line that has to be drawn, I'm all for working your way to the top, but it has to be practical and at least somewhat fair. I am not anti or pro union, but I do feel that unions in large part started to combat some terrible working conditions. If people treat their employees well, then unions won't even come into the conversation.
Exceptional piece of work here sir, the amount of study put into this shows. The citations really bring it all together for a perfect examination.
Why I am sure some of these work conditions do suck, there are millions of people out who have it a lot worse at their jobs and are probably making a lot less money. No matter what job you have or company you work for people are always going to complain. Its human nature.
Also great blog.
Thanks for the comments guys. I just kept reading things posted by my buddies and by some game developers who posted some of these articles on twitter, so I decided to just try to put it all together into one coherent piece. Glad you all liked it.
I'd love to see this compared to how the movie industry works. A lot of video games, like a lot of movies, fail to earn back their costs. A lot of the time a movie studio just absorbs the losses and then greenlights another $200-million budget for a reboot no one is excited for.
Once a project like that is in motion, it's almost never scrapped. People will get paid, filming and eventually post-production CG will continue. There's a lot of politics involved in film making, but you rarely hear about this kind of unpleasant working conditions unless it's someone on the set of a Michael Bay movie.
I imagine if game studios budgeted ahead in anticipation of crunch periods, accounting for paid overtime to meet deadlines (or at least written promises of compensation once they're met) this type of unhappiness could be drastically reduced.
I hate to say it, but seeking sponsorship or ad placement to offset the increased costs would be the easiest way to do that. Seeing Verizon ads while playing Alan Wake didn't really bother me that much, but it probably helped the team financially in terms of finishing what ended up being a great game.