March 8, 2005 1:36 PM PST

Game makers see workplace changes

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SAN FRANCISCO--The tradition of the 80-hour workweek is on the way out in the video game industry, but it won't be lawsuits and gripe sites that kill it.

That was the consensus among a group of industry insiders here at the Game Developers Conference, which devoted a day to discussing "quality of life" issues Tuesday.

Such matters have gained broad attention in the past year, thanks to several disgruntled employees at leading game publisher Electronic Arts. The anonymous fiance of an EA developer gained international notoriety with a long Weblog posting describing routine 12-hour workdays and other morale-busting practices at the company. EA has also become the defendant in two lawsuits alleging the company failed to pay required overtime.

GDC panelists agreed such developments have brought extra attention to the problem of "crunch time," a long-held industry practice in which developers are expected to put in long hours to keep a project on schedule.

But more prosaic factors will actually prompt the industry to change, they said, starting with improvements in smarter business practices.

Numerous studies have shown that developers and other workers putting in 12-hour days routinely make more mistakes as the midnight oil burns, said Francois Dominic Laramee, a freelance game developer and author. That means any extra productivity is eaten up by hits to product quality.

"If your company is in crunch mode, drunken zombies may be checking your code right now," he said.

Changes in the work force, both in the world at large and the game industry in particular, will also force workplace changes, said Clarinda Merripen, director of operations for game developer Cyberlore Studios.

"The population of technical workers is getting older," Merripen said. "We'll have to find a way to deal with that and keep these jobs attractive to those people."

Laramie added: "Three weeks in crunch time may be fine when you're 19, but it's not too great when you're 35 with a 35-year-old's digestive tract."

Unionization may also be part of the mix in changing workplace conditions, said Tom Buscaglia, a lawyer specializing in the game industry. Especially for publicly held companies, union rules may be the best vehicle for making expensive but necessary changes in working conditions without attracting a swarm of shareholder lawsuits, he said.

"We've all heard terrible things about unions," Buscaglia said, "but we may want to look at what happened in the animation industry when Disney was unionized in the '40s. It didn't turn out to be a monster for Disney, and it forced the bar up for the whole industry."

Many have looked to the International Game Developers Association, the group that puts on the conference, to take on more of a union role. But Executive Director Jason Della Rocca said the group's role is to educate and advocate.

"We're not a union--we can't go in there and start breaking legs," he said shortly before the conference. "What we can do is make a big stink about this, and provide an environment where people doing things badly get called out and educated on better practices."

"I don't know if a union can solve the problems that need to be solved," Della Rocca continued. "Extreme working conditions are a problem of inexperienced management, of public companies struggling to make quarterly goals. A union would be more of a Band-Aid to deal with the current state of challenges."

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Too bad companies are so unethical
If companies would stop obsessing over the bottom line and start acting responsibly, then problems like this would never happen, and profits would take care of themselves.

The reason there are so many laws restricting and regulating corporations is because they can't stop their greedy nature. Take care of quality, your employees and your customers and everything will fall in place. But oh no, they just have to squeeze out every penny they can, morals or consequenses be damned.

I suppose it will not stop until corporations start realizing that they don't need to amass more money then any organization or person could ever use. I am dreaming I know, human nature just doesn't allow for moderation it seems and will be the downfall of us all.
Posted by Bill Dautrive (1179 comments )
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It's not about greed, it's about getting the work done
It's not about "corporate greed" it's about getting the work done. Some industries like accounting and nursing push a lot of overtime in certain situations. If you have a Bachelor's degree in anything you might be required to work 50 hours a week as the norm. Myself, I wouldn't take a job that requires massive overtime. I want to spend time with my son while he's still at home and with my wife while she's still alive.
Posted by lingsun (482 comments )
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With past experiance...
I can tell anyone that these types of "working conditions" were well expected and with good reason. Anyone who has actually worked in the Game industry can tell you that more work gets done towards the end of a development cycle in shorter amounts of time. With more to do, it's given that there will be more to fix. In order to meet a deadline (which is also expected), the amount of work goes up. This shouldn't be surprising.

True that for younger people such as those people who might work in the QA departments, this isn't such a huge problem because longer work times can be handled with more ease then someone who is 35 (generally). I don't feel that because of this, anyone should be complaining. I know for a fact that a lot of the time, developers, designers, producers, and even quality assurance testers would put in more time then required, simply to get things done. There were times that the overtime was mandatory but I know that I didn't mind staying longer because most of the time, I had something that I really wanted to finish anyway. My heart, sweet, blood and soul went into what I did even if I wasn't the only one working on my particular part of the project.

I can't say much about what happened with those people who claim that EA refused to pay them overtime but I myself did work for a subsidiary of EA and they did have some dictation over how we worked. If what I experienced with EA was any indication of EA as a whole then I would be more then willing to work for them again and I do look forward to working for them potentially in the future. I have EA's back on this subject. I never had any problems with EAs desired working conditions. When I read about what supposedly happened regarding the overtime, it just didn't seem very EA like (at least from my experiences, not to say that it couldn't happen).

I guess my point is that people are taking all of this way out of proportion. I do however agree that companies should be less concerned about deadlines and simply release a game when its ready (like Valve) to insure a product of higher quality but Im sure even Valve has crunch times that are simply a natural product of the end of the product cycle. To continue on the idea of crunch time, these modes were very rarely something that would just hit you. Gradually, over time, the hours would be increased, as more productivity was needed. From the beginning of a development/test cycle, there wouldnt be huge amounts of work for anyone. The work would come to be come intense only after the major systems were put together and there was more to work with. It was at the end that the workload became huge and even then, there were only a few weeks of this kind of work. A few weeks compared to a complete cycle of 6 months to a year is minimal and most of the people that I worked with seemed more concerned in just getting everything completed rather then how much time they were spending at work. Besides, after the product is released, there is generally a lot of time to relax depending on the title. There is usually patchwork to be done but its generally not a huge amount of work that is needed to create the first few patches.

Well, those are my experiences. I wish people wouldnt blow things out of the water so often. Crunch time was never a huge problem for everyone that I knew not to mention that everyone knew what to expect. Its been that way for years, I dont see any reason to start crying about it now.
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