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Are Game Developers Standing Up for Their Rights?

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Are Game Developers Standing Up for Their Rights?

January 9, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next
 

It is cool to work in the video game industry. You get paid work on games, right? This image of the video game industry as a cool, hip, fun place where you get to make cutting edge titles has some truth, but it also hides a dark side.

The dark side sometimes shadows the light -- like when Erin Hoffman made her now famous post as ea_spouse. And it appeared again with the allegations of Rockstar Spouse, 38 Studios Spouse, the investigative journalism of Andrew McMillen about the making of L.A. Noire, the IGDA press release about KAOS Studios, through IGDA reports about quality of life, and through conference panels, blogs and forums.

The dark side also emerges when you talk to individual game developers about their working conditions and the risks that they face. Developers say that they face challenges with sustained long working hours ("crunch"), unlimited and unpaid overtime, poor work-life balance, high incidence of musculoskeletal disorders and burnout, unacknowledged intellectual property rights, limited crediting standards, non-compete and non-disclosure agreements, and limited or unsupported training opportunities.

Most developers have stories of long hours: "[I work] an average 10 hours a day; there's days I would put 16 hours in, there's days where people stay overnight. It can get really hectic -- I mean, I was chastised for leaving," said one.

Another explained that the willingness to work is related to the passion for the job, but that this is manipulated. "That's pretty much what seals the deal. If a project is interesting enough, people would put up with anything. They will work crazy hours if they love the project... So people will go, 'Oh yeah, it's going to be a great game.' So they use that -- a company uses that to make people do more work than they should do..." Managers seem completely conscious of this manipulation. One lead said, "I never had to say 'you have to stay,'" but acknowledged that he uses a more subtle tactic:

But usually it's just, I think if your team and you get along, you can phrase it in a way that makes them understand that it would be really, really great if you could stay, and it will be greatly appreciated. But in other projects, people are tired, the project been extended and crunching for ages and then people are close to burn out, you know, some people are just... They practically sleep at the office, so...

These guilt-based tactics and veiled threats to career progression work, and also avoid the legal pitfalls of forced overtime. "I've never had a place that could physically chain me in the building, but the influence of the social and sort of -- not just social in the terms of peer pressure, it's like, also, you know that you have your career in their hands and if you... as a team player, that's going to ensure your progress within the company," explained one developer.

Are video game developers doing anything about these challenges?

Interviews with video game developers in Montreal, Canada, some sneak-peek data from the 2009 IGDA survey, and a canvassing of the social web show that disgruntled workers are speaking out and resisting in a variety of ways, both as individuals and in groups.

There are a number of individual actions that all employees can do if they are unhappy with their work situation. The easiest thing to do is quit and find a better situation somewhere else. The attitude of "if you don't like it, leave" is something that is heard often in the game industry. "In a sense it may be easier to go and start up your own company and do contract work... than it is to try to get a big company to change its ways," said one developer. In the face of a dispute, one developer said that rather than suing the company or going to the "labor people," "It's probably more worthwhile and cheaper just to find another job in the industry. We get fired and get hired at another place all the time."

Some people convey a sense of toughness or machismo about "surviving" an epic crunch, and these episodes become part of the lore of the industry. "I was there when..." This means that those who do not survive or who complain are sometimes considered as those who can't take it -- "this industry is not for you."

Other video game developers take personal advantage of the mobility of the industry -- particularly in regional hot spots or clusters where a lot of studios exist. Here, good developers can be head hunted away from competitors and dissatisfied developers can look for greener pastures. "Employers are waiting in line at my door," said one. "Yeah, we get a lot of calls," said another, adding that "There's a lot of headhunters. There's a lot of employee-pilfering... even inside here."

But this attitude doesn't fix any problems for the long term. If you don't like your work and you quit, your employer just hires someone else. Turnover has to be pretty bad before an employer will change their policies to fix it. You might be able to find a better job in the industry, but most studios operate the same way, so you are probably just getting into the same environment all over again. It could also be worse -- and then you are out of the frying pan and into the fire. You could leave the industry forever, but that sucks, because you like making games. If you are awesome enough to be headhunted or negotiate a personal deal, good for you. But that doesn't help anyone else.

Perpetual turnover also doesn't help the industry as a whole. It is expensive and wasteful to let people with learned studio-specific knowledge continually walk out the door, only to have to reorient the newcomers. High mobility hinders the industry's ability to mature and stabilize. This also creates the conditions where supporters of the status quo succeed and those with diverging opinions are chased out -- this can lead to groupthink and stagnation because no one can see a different way of doing things.


Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Comments


Johanna Weststar
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I hope you find this article interesting!

For more information about Quality of Life in the video game industry also have a look at http://gameqol.org

You can download and comment on a new report co-authored by me and Marie-Joseé Legault
about the 2009 Quality of Life survey that was administered by the IGDA.

This site is also an archive of the Quality of Life related stories that pop up online and in the news.

Glenn Storm
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It may not be apparent to those in commercial games that challenges such as these exist in the realm of serious games as well. And due to a relative lack of maturity of this sub-industry, as compared to commercial games, these problems are magnified.

The impression that this is fun and games, overriding practical consideration, is a pervasive viewpoint held by all but the most savvy of non-developers that the serious game community works with.

CT Bon
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Hi Glenn,

Can you clarify the distinction between commercial and 'serious' games?

Glenn Storm
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Sure. Serious Games: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serious_game

Despite the challenges described in this excellent article, the entertainment-based commercial games segment of the industry tends to be more mature in terms of funding models, development expertise and general recognition than the serious games segment.

The comment was aimed at raising awareness within the game development community at-large about the steeper challenges facing this sub-industry. The question seems to reinforce the point.

Bruce Wilkie
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"EA later banned work on Sundays and adopted a policy favoring five working days a week."

EA did not ban work on Sundays after EA_Spouse. Was that only at EALA? Certainly at EARS Sunday became the new Monday many times after EA_Spouse. I'm curious where this information came from?

Johanna Weststar
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Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your inquiry. Unfortunately I don't have a satisfactory answer for you. Over the years we reviewed and gathered a lot of information from published sources, news sources and social media. I have trolled through my material and I am coming up short with a specific reference for this information. The trouble with online sources is that they often vanish and I am afraid we did not practice our due diligence with saving a copy of this one.

I would be interested to put this out to the community to see if anyone has more information about EA's response to EA Spouse or to the law suits that occurred in the same time period. I do have this link: http://www.joystiq.com/2004/12/02/ea-responds-to-disgruntled-spou
se-in-leaked-email/

From comments below @Samuel Burnstein it seems like any policy adjustments that might have been made were short lived.

Thanks for reading!

Legault Marie-Josee
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Hi Bruce,
Thanks for your inquiry. I found out the source, but it has disappeared from the web... it read : Once the EA Spouse, Erin Hoffman fights to keep the video game industry in check - February 27th, 2007 - By Ted Boscia - PALO ALTO, Feb. 27—In late 2004, Erin Hoffman sounded the alarm about worker exploitation at video game publisher Electronic Arts. Now she’s trying to keep EA and other gaming companies from hitting the snooze button and lapsing into old habits.... It was Erin Hoffman telling this about banning work on Sundays. If you want the whole, just ask me!

Erin Hoffman
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I believe what this is referring to is EA's "five great days" policy, which appears to date back to November 2005. There was media coverage of this at the time, but it appears to have evaporated. I don't believe it was just EALA. Someone -- Probst? -- released a statement, or perhaps it was a leaked internal document, discussing the changes they'd made (this was about six months before the two lawsuits were settled IIRC). I distinctly remember the phrase "on Sundays we rest", which is what I would have expected to yield a google search, but the source is gone, though you can still find references to "five great days". If it was late 2005 this would have been near the end of Probst's time, so maybe Riccitiello rolled it back? That would be disappointing to hear if so. Someone should ask him "so, whatever happened to that 'five great days' thing?" ;)

TC Weidner
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its starts with the problem of supply and demand, When the supply of workers outpaces the demand for workers, you get certain companies that will take advantage of the situation. We are seeing this across all spectrum's of business now with this one world economy fiasco. With business convinced that making money and profit trumps all else, taken advantage of workers falls into the category of " just doing business". I find this preposterous but MBA programs everywhere say otherwise.

Then again its why I dropped out of MBA business school and have been self employed most of my life. Its also why I eat free range and organic foods, I'm nutty that way, I think quality of life matters, for everyone and everything.

Great article by the way.

Lance McKee
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I really liked this article! Thanks for helping to shed some light on what continues to be a major problem. After 7 years in the industry I finally decided that it wasn't fair to my wife and kids to have to put up with an overly stressed father/husband who was always either scrambling to find a job or working way too many hours at a job. I've now got a much more stable and better paying job and can just develop games on the side for fun.

Jonathan Jennings
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I always feel sad reading posts like this because I know game development is a very passionate career and for people to devote so much of ourselves only to be pushed to a breaking point is disappointing. I hope I don't come to this point myself but i hear far too many stories about developers who worked hard, gave all they could to game development, and ultimately sound like they received very little in return in terms of respect and the impact on their well-being .

Samuel Burnstein
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EA banned working on Sundays after EA Spouse? Well, that's one policy that's been quietly rolled back.

Judy Tyrer
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Sadly, the devs perpatuate the situation by believing crunch is necessary, you can't make a good game without it. It's not just management that causes this problem. Once some good games start coming out of studios that aren't playing the crunch games, people will see this as the myth it is. At least, that's what I'm banking on.

Michael Herring
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It's not just management that causes the problem, but it is just management that has authority to fire employees.

Nat Tan
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More like: New features and ideas are added in by Management that doesn't have to work the OT and have never really been part of any core development, while the timeline apparently is not allowed to change.

Michael Rooney
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@Nat: It's not always management. Our management works at least as much OT as any developer; a lot of them stay at the office anytime anybody is doing OT so that they can coordinate schedules and deliverables with what actually gets done during OT.

edit: Executives/marketing are usually much more the culprit, but I wouldn't exactly put executives in an envious position work wise despite how their job generally comes off.

John Harmon
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As someone who respects the artisans within the gaming industry, I would love to see it unionized. But history has shown us that isn't going to be easy, and I would imagine that the publishers will put up a great deal of resistance. Knowing this, I was tried to think of ways that workers can give themselves more power. One alternative might be that all new up start up studios begin as worker co-ops. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker_cooperative This would probably be more akin to the Valve style of business, just with a bit more democracy. I've always imagine that indies within the industry would spearhead in this type of alternative style of business, as they do not have adherence to publishers. As for studios that are own by publishers, I think that resistance would be the same as if it were a union. This could help workers rights in the short term, maybe in the long term, but it's something that would give each individual a voice. Of course they're could be problems with a worker's co-op, like managing deadlines (Half-life 2: Episode 3 anyone?) or trying to keep financially afloat (it's not like everyone has a Steam like service to keep their employees well payed). Who knows maybe Valve will be the only one to pull anything close to this in the next decade. There's two cents from a nobody that only sells video games in the middle of nowhere.

Michael Joseph
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As long as there are no steep artificial barriers in place preventing independants from bringing their products to market, I don't think unions are necessary.

The answer is for independants to avoid entangling themselves in debt and a lifestyle that requires a certain cash flow that ends up being a faustian bargain chaining them to their fulltime jobs and trading their tomorrows for a little of todays comfort.

Michael Rooney
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I think a part of the problem is also that developers are generally very passionate about what they are making. I've seen a good amount of people who work overtime because they want to when they've been told repeatedly to go home. There's definitely some studios that become toxic, but I think it has a positive reinforcement loop that's fed by both sides; executives want developers to work more than is reasonable, and a lot of developers want to work more than is reasonable. Those factors combined put a lot of pressure on people who don't want to work more than is reasonable to stay relevant in the company.

With that in mind, I don't think the industry as a whole is bad. I think it's just that there are some parts that are very very bad and give it all a bad name. I have never worked unreasonable overtime as a developer. The worst was fairly isolated as there was a major bug found really late in alpha.

I'm generally not in favor of unions for skilled labor. The companies that treat their labor the best will get the most skill and produce the best results. The market rewards treating skilled employees well. It's not like unskilled labor where you are treated more like a commodity.

Edward DiNola
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My latest job has been great for quality of life so far. Usually work 8-9 hour days, excellent benefits, haven't worked a weekend yet, the respect level is high, and the team and management have been very good about needing to leave work early or postpone arrival for health and family obligations. It's interesting because it's a very large studio, and I've seen nothing but evidence to the contrary that it's an excellent place to work.

This compared to another gig at a much smaller studio, where I was working 12-14 hour days regularly, had horrible pay, would often be yelled at by producers, and where there were a number of walking HR and contract violations (such as being payed days or even weeks late), and which is a company which will probably never get called on it.

Johanna Weststar
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Glad to hear your positive story! It is important to note that in the IGDA's 2009 Quality of Life survey "Almost 40% of the sample report crunching rarely and 6.2% never
crunch." So almost half of the 3000+ people who answered that survey do not crunch. That is a great news story about the industry! (note, not all the respondents were in core dev though).

The important message is this article (I hope) is bigger than crunch and OT. In all workplaces employees need to have an effective means to voice their opinions and concerns and have a hope of seeing them addressed.

@Dimitri Del Castillo - I totally agree with you. Game devs need a way to influence their workplace to make it better for them - quitting is a bad solution to long-term problems. The question is...what other solutions are out there and which ones work or might work?

Michael Pianta
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When I was in high school I wanted to make games as a career. I thought games were an exciting emerging art form and I had lots of ideas for cool things you could do with them. I took a lot of programming classes, but as I learned more about the industry I read a lot of stories like this. (This was before digital downloads and indie developers were a thing). I learned that working in games meant longer hours and worse pay than other industry - which you would accept because it's games and you're privileged to have a job in that industry at all! And also I learned that I would be a gear in a very large machine and that creative freedoms would not be given to me for a long time and that I certainly wouldn't be able to make the games I was dreaming of probably ever, and definitely not without putting in decades first. So I said "Being a creator is more important than working in games per se," and I majored in fine art instead (although I still have a great interest in games and develop them as a hobby). Who knows how many others did the same? Do these companies not realize that they are driving away potential talent?

Jonathan Jennings
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I have always heard the reason they abuse their powers is because no matter how much talent they drive away ( i almost quit on a career in games myself before starting for the same reasons you did). there are droves of people everywhere who would probably switch places with a developer any day of the week. it's easy to treat your number 1 commodity as disposable if there is an endless supply of other commodities to replace it .

Jacek Wesolowski
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Michael - No. They've developed a system of rationalizations to help them cope. They're also not terribly interested in long term thinking.

There is a dire shortage of potential employees in my home city and everybody keeps acting like they have no clue why.

Last year, I went to a job interview that lasted for an hour and a half. I talked to three guys at the same time: one did his best to convince me they didn't need me, another was openly hostile, and the last one spent the entire time contradicting all of my opinions just to prove he knew better. They basically spent an hour and a half trying to make me feel bad about myself. They seemed disappointed when I eventually declined to take a test.

Fortunately, the situation is actually improving. Roughly half of the workplaces in this city (or at least half of those that I'm aware of) are decent. The job I have now is the most balanced and most creative ever, which is a bit ironic, because this is a porting company that doesn't make games of its own.

Michael Pianta
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I think you're both right. I also think that the example of independent developers will influence this in a positive way. If you were a talented young designer/developer, now that you have Jon Blow and McMillen and countless others sitting there in front of you, why would you give these companies a moment of your time? Perhaps you would just to see how it worked, how projects were organized or how to work on a team or something, but I would think that such people would have a greatly reduced patience for ridiculously unfair practices, compared to the past when it seemed to be that or nothing. That will ultimately force these companies to change I expect.

Tony Giovannini
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"Some people convey a sense of toughness or machismo about "surviving" an epic crunch, and these episodes become part of the lore of the industry. "I was there when..." This means that those who do not survive or who complain are sometimes considered as those who can't take it -- "this industry is not for you."

--This attitude needs to die. If the industry is to progress in any way, shape or form, this sort of machismo needs to go. There is nothing macho about making video games, or crunching to make a video game (Nor should there be). Crunch doesn't build camaraderie at all, crunch just simply destroys lives.

mikko tahtinen
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Agreed, totally!

Dimitri Del Castillo
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It's a matter of advocacy. When the only people you can go to about your work issues are your supervisor or an HR person employees begin to feel that the only people that are looking out for their well being is themselves.

mikko tahtinen
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Ultimately people need to ask some questions:

1. Do we work OT?
- If we do? Then go to next question:

2. Why do we work OT?
- Did we underestimate: Workload, Time, Difficulties or Plannnign needed.
- Or, did we even negotiated the price totally wrong? Meaning we got underpaid and we pay the price?

3. How do we cope with planning?
- Do we keep the scope fixed or do we keep adding tasks?
- If we change scope do we adjust dates? Or dates are fixed and we keep adding to the scope?

Overtime should be treated as a instrument. The instrument gives an indication if something is wrong, in this particular case: Overtime. Overtime should be a serious indication that something is wrong.

Overtime will always be there, but should be treated as something you want to eliminate or minimize. If OT is used regularly and often then something is clearly wrong. Either the planning, budget, scope or knowledge, has clearly failed.

Erin Hoffman
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This is certainly one of the best articles I've ever read on game industry quality of life. Thank you for your work on it, Marie-Josée and Johanna.


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