Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, has come under fire recently for remarks about quality of life issues in the videogame industry made during the “Studio Heads on the Hotseat” panel at the IGDA Leadership Forum ’08 (video here).
The remarks which brought about the controversy were made at about 21 minutes into the panel. Taken in the context of everything he says, his remarks aren’t as inflammatory as they’ve been made out to be, but I still have experiences which would contradict some aspects of what he maintains is a good way to make video games. I’ll get back to him after a little background on crunching to make a video game.
For anyone who hasn’t studied the game development industry, the dreaded “crunch” refers to the period during which game developers work well beyond eight hours a day and sometimes through weekends in order to meet an important deadline, typically the shipping date of the finished game. It is, as you could imagine, generally dreaded. The video game industry is rampant with stories of employees forced to work marathon weeks of twelve hour days plus weekends for months at a time so that a project can ship when planned. Things came to a head with the infamous ea_spouse posting, revealing what were practically sweatshop conditions within a major American company. Any employee understands the difference between their passion being self motivated and being exploited, and it was obvious to everyone involved that what was happening was not healthy for the employees.
I have worked on projects which required extensive periods of heavy crunch. It is actually possible for you to, in a way, quit having a life outside your office during these crunch times. My first job with a major publisher required moderate to heavy hours for the better part of a year to finish Turok 2. So heavy was our crunch for the final months that, to this day, I can distinctly remember how new and novel a trip to a local shopping mall with my family felt on an evening after I had been freed from the bonds of crunch. It literally felt as if I had never been out shopping with my family before. I believe I can say I know how people freed from jail must feel.
How did this happen? What could have made so many employees let the needs of a company or a schedule dictate so much of the shape of their lives? In the early days of our industry, there was no industry to speak of; videogames were made by young people pouring their ideas for new creative experiences into personal computers on desks in their bedrooms. There were no working hours to speak of; the employees were either students who had taught themselves to program and wanted to make something like the games they played in arcades, or someone in an established industry who worked on a videogame idea in their off hours.
The passion for creating a videogame, as for any creative endeavor, can consume a person. It can become all that the developer thinks about, and all that he or she wants to do. Being young and passionate and working on something that was so entertaining, these early developers were willing to pour every spare waking hour they had into their creations. These people, propelled by a shared vision and a passion for what they did, eventually came together and formed companies. Naturally, the culture of these companies reflected the interests of its owners, and there was not so much an expectation of crunch as a desire for it. It was less a job and more a hobby, one you could devote endless hours to while getting paid. Friction naturally arose when the industry became large enough to need the talents people who did not want to devote the lion’s share of their life to it, and this has been the state of affairs for some time.
Is this “proper”? Because some people in an industry are willing to devote sixty hours of their life a week to their passion, does that mean everyone around them should as well? Is it better to turn away someone who does forty hours of high quality work in a week and replace him with someone who does more, but lower quality work? Even within the industry, the more dedicated people usually don’t expect everyone to share their passion to the same depth and extent that they do. As the industry ages, even the most passionate gamers within it want to experience a more well rounded life. There are far more pictures of children hanging on the walls in any given game company today than there were when I was getting started.
I believe recent high profile abuses of crunch have come from two factors. The aforementioned built in mentality that since someone is doing their “dream job” they should be willing to devote most of their waking hours to it, coupled with managers naive exploitation of the fact that few in the industry have ever made an hourly wage. The result is studios (infamously some EA studios) where managers simply expected employees to work nights and weekends as a matter of course, whether the needs of the schedule dictated it was necessary or not. Crunch in these instances becomes known as a grind (also referred to as a death march), which has no end in sight. There’s no discernible schedule, and no date or milestone to meet save for finishing the game. “Grind” is a pretty accurate description, too. The employees on these teams are eventually ground into a fine dust. There’s the camaraderie of a shared ordeal, fond memories of the times later and a product on the shelf to remind them of the effort, but little else that is ultimately fun about living through the experience.
Note that I said these managers are being naive. The first and most obvious argument against the fact that endless extended hours is productive is the mountain of evidence which led to the creation of the five day work week in the first place. Numerous studies, many of them cited by the IGDA itself, have discovered that after working a certain number of hours within a week an employee’s productivity drops off sharply. Sustained extended hours eventually wear out an employees to the point that they are spending as much time fixing mistakes due to fatigue as they are moving forward. You can multiply this effect when you consider that game creation is an inherently creative endeavor. It thrives on the people doing the creating being sharp, alert, focused, and passionate about what they are doing.
These naive managers do not seem to grasp the fact that video games are not stamped out by a machine on an assembly line (despite the frequent reappearance of some franchises on the shelf). There is no lever which, when pulled more often or more rapidly, will magically cause a game to appear in a shorter amount of time. They foolishly believe that if they have employees working on weekends, they are getting more value out of what they pay that employee. But things in a creative endeavor are never as simple as they seem. I have spent many an hour fixing simple mistakes put in by someone working extra hours, too bleary eyed to clearly see what he was doing. I’ve spent a few mornings shaking my head at the code I wrote late the night before. I have done it so often now that I recognize the point at which I am making the mistakes and I now force myself to stop, go home and think about something else for a while.
When you have to pay an employee to fix a mistake made due to fatigue, you are not getting any extra value out of their salary. You are wasting money. In effect, you are now paying that employee more money to produce the same amount of work, getting the product of their laborlater thanks to their diminished productivity. And you are reducing the quality of the finished game, which will be reflected in lower review scores and quite possibly lower sales.
Also consider that tired unhappy employees are much more likely to look for work conditions more conducive to happiness somewhere else. Employee turnover is not your friend in a place where intimate knowledge of the innards of a proprietary engine and production pipeline are required to add new features or content, or to fix existing ones. Every time an employee with that kind of knowledge walks out of a studio, the money and time spent so that she could acquire all that knowledge of your engine and processes will then have to be spent on her replacement.
Not all crunch happens because a malicious manager thinks he can get something for nothing. Often, it’s merely a case of a schedule being far too ambitious for the amount of time allocated to it. This has generally been the reason I have found myself working extended hours. In the early days, there were no production departments keeping a close eye on the progress of a project, constantly comparing what was left to do to the time left to do it and raising flags when it looked as if slipping dates were inevitable. Better planning and scheduling techniques can help mitigate the effects of ambitious schedules. Smart companies and teams are acutely aware that everything that’s desired for a game simply can’t be done given a certain amount of manpower, and are careful to scope the size of a project accordingly. Managing the dreaded “feature creep”, the last minute addition of features to a game, is a much larger concern today than in the past.
Which all brings me back to Mike Capps. He made it clear in his remarks that his company is very upfront that Epic’s “company culture” considers a sixty hour work week de rigeur. When someone knows what they are getting into, it’s hard to sympathize when he finds himself in it. Another earlier remark indicated that Epic employs profit sharing and thus the employees are motivated to produce a product with a smaller headcount to increase the portion of the profits for any one person. Everyone, not just the managers, shares the motivation for the extended hours, and there is a payoff for everyone involved for participation in the company’s culture.
He eventually makes the remark that he doesn’t think the forty hour week makes sense for our industry, and this is the part that gives me serious pause.
Is it possible that a person who expects to live a normal life, with friends and leisure and experiences they can only have miles away from their desk, can contribute nothing to the videogame industry? Is the knowledge in my head useless to a company because I have a wife and children I like to see in the evenings?
I really have to wonder, what is the motivation for his statement? Is he implying that people who are not so driven, so devoted to their desire to make games that they will do nothing else are of no use to the industry?
So I wonder, is this true in all forms of creative endeavor?
Don’t the best painters and writers and musicians devote their lives to their art? Why would anyone want to listen to a rock band that considered playing music a “normal job”? Would we have Mozart’s Requiem if his love of music had not consumed him?
But I also think I would hate to live in a world where artists had no life outside of their art, because they would have no life to inspire their art.
What would Van Gogh have given us if he had remained happily holed up in his studio avoiding courting so that he could devote himself to the technical details of painting?
Life has to drive a devotion to art for without a life, you have nothing to make art about.
Thus I find it interesting that Epic’s latest great work centers around a muscled space marine fighting monsters from below. This is not to imply that great human stories cannot be told in such a setting, it’s just revealing to me that with all of the prowess on display they have managed to apply a great degree of technical sheen to a game I played over a decade ago.
It’s obviously not necessary to make games that aspire to art, we are free to strive to merely entertain. But if we are calling for people to work a week and a half within a normal week, why do we also ask them to make the same game again? And then again?
Can crunch be removed entirely? Probably not. As I’ve said, game creation is a creative endeavor and thus will always inspire those making them to improve them, to make them more fun and engaging. Artists will want what they create to look as good as it can before potentially millions of eyeballs come to rest upon it. It’s almost inevitable that newly imagined features will creep in as a project progresses that everyone would like to see in the final product. In recent years, scheduling and production techniques which take this into account and respond and adjust the schedule as the game is in progress are becoming more popular.
Smart companies are now taking more and more input from employees during the scheduling phase. This not only produces a more realistic schedule (provided the employees are familiar with their abilities), but it also means that the employees are more motivated to deliver what they promised when they promised, even if it means working extra hours. At least in such a situation the employee has learned something about what they are capable of, and thus will be less likely to agree to an overly ambitious schedule in the future.
I’m not arguing that crunch should never occur, or that it can be excised completely. Personally, if I’m treated well at a company I don’t mind working extra hours to ensure the final product is as good as it can be made to be in a reasonable amount of time. If I’m convinced that my extra effort is making a game better, more fun and interesting, it will be done without any grumbling. But I have to question the culture that maintains it’s better to work more hours instead of just doing better work to begin with. I’d rather view this as a sometimes necessary compromise instead of the norm. And managers have to understand there is no linear relationship between man hours and creativity, in fact there may even be an inverse relationship.
I’m not so sure I could ever tell someone that their job “doesn’t make sense” within the context of a normal work week, that they should work a week and a half when their friends and family work one. Nor would I ever assume that because someone does that sixtieth hour of work that it will be anywhere near the quality of work done in the forty-first hour. I’d rather be treated like it’s my creativity and skills that actually matter, rather than my willingness to sit at a desk long after the sun has set.
- Pingback: My Dream Job and Rant « Ramblings about programming, gaming and other random stuff… on May 20, 2009