Crunch, overtime and stress

Over the past week or so there’s been a reasonably sized stink on Twitter because of this tweet:

By the time ships for , we will have served the crunching team more than 11,500 dinners throughout development.

This lonely tweet raised the ugly topic of crazy overtime in game development (again), with all sorts of people chiming in on the situation. I’m a developer (though not in the games industry) and I’ve experienced some crunch, so I thought I’d write up my thoughts here.

First off, let me get one disclaimer out of the way – I’m going to speak in a lot of generalities in this post, saying things about ALL companies and ALL bosses and ALL projects. Clearly I don’t know about ALL companies and how they react, but I think using that language will get my point across better than saying “you should assume that ALL companies do x, though I’m sure there are some that don’t” over and over. Please know that I’m not quite that naive, but that I’m using those generalities mostly for convenience.

One thing I’ve observed over the 13 years I’ve spent being an IT worker is that businesses exist ONLY to make money. Sure, they donate some cash here and there to the CEO’s favorite charity and they may let employees do a bit of volunteer work on company time, but at the end of the day the business’ only true concern is “will this make more money?” This is an important thing to realize as a worker – businesses never think “this would make more money, but it will also mean that some of my workers miss meals with their families.” Instead, they think “OMG MORE MONEY DO IT DO IT DO IT.” This is a cynical view (and again, it’s not a hard truth), but it’s served me well over the years.

Companies do not give a single shit about you as a worker. Let that sink in. Zero. Shits. None. You are merely a means to an end, and you cost way too damn much. If they could get you to do the work you do for less, they’d do it. If the company is doing something “nice” for you, it’s because they think they have to do it in order to keep you there, or to keep their reputation as a “best place to work in 2012” or because some law is making them. I’m not talking about individual people within the organization – I’m talking about the organization itself. Your boss probably doesn’t feel that way about you personally. His boss’ boss’ boss doesn’t know you though – you’re just that line item that costs the business $80k/year (you might not make that much, but you cost the company that much because maybe they provide you with benefits).

To your boss’ boss’ boss, $80k/year is a lot of money – that’s almost enough to mess with the bottom line. What if they could get that same amount of work done for $40k? Or better yet – what if they just eliminated your position and spread the work around to the 4 people that will be left? Those people are probably lazy, leaching slackers anyway – your boss’ boss’ boss is pretty sure they have time to do it, and they only cost the company $60k/year because they don’t have the seniority that you do.

At this point, you’re probably wondering where I’m going with this. It sounds like the business has the ultimate power in the employer-employee relationship. That’s not the case in corporate-land though. In the non-gaming world, the work that most corporate IT people do is boring at best. Nearly every application is “read from screen, write to database” or possibly “read from database, write to screen.” Every now and then you get to do something “cool,” but it’s usually tainted by terrible business rules, politics, mis-management and other corporatey stuff. The goal of this work is almost always the same, though – if we do x, we can make another 1% profit over last year. Projects are almost never justified by saying “the users will really appreciate it if we do x, let’s throw them a bone.” There’s no ROI in user happiness, at least nothing measurable by your average short-sighted middle manager.

The point here is that your average IT worker isn’t fiercely loyal to anything they’re doing – the work is boring and uninteresting, the end result is just a bigger number on the balance sheet and anything “awesome” will probably not make the features list because it’d cost too much dev time for not enough benefit. A lot of employees want to do “really good work,” but they’re not willing to give up their lives to make the business that 1% extra profit. If things get too hot and heavy – if crunch time starts eating into their life – there are plenty of other boring IT jobs out there. Terrible jobs push people out in the corporate IT world because there are options. Even if every business eventually hits crunch time, there are plenty that aren’t in it *right now*, and they probably pay about as much. Maybe you lose one week of vacation a year, but you gain back 2-4 hours a day or more.

Game development is different. I’ve done a very small amount of game development over the years, and it was an incredible experience as compared to building boring WordPress site #52324. People WANTED the thing I was making. They willingly spent their precious free time using the thing I helped to create. It made people laugh. It short, it was awesome.┬áIn the game industry, the work is passionate. It’s art. You become emotionally involved in the product. It becomes part of you. This is where things start to get messy…

I don’t know if game companies consciously acknowledge the emotional attachment people make with the games they’re working on, but they certainly exploit it. The project is the employees’ baby – they’ve spent crazy amounts of hours over several years making this awesome, incredible thing. It’s not like corporate IT where the average worker couldn’t care less about boring business app #53423 – a game is the result of pouring heart and soul into something. There are message boards and tweets and YouTube videos and fan sites all clamoring for the thing’s release. It’s not something that the average game industry employee can just walk away from, because they’re too attached.

So now the game company has a bunch of engineers and testers and designers all emotionally tied up in the game. They can turn up the heat a little to try to meet a milestone, and the team will mostly stay around. “This is how the game industry works,” they tell themselves. “I really need to go home and be with my family, but there’s a team of 300 here counting on me and there’s fans everywhere and I really want to see this through because it’s awesome.”

This escalates until people are working 12 hours days 7 days a week. People are now burning out, and perhaps the business loses an employee or two. Uh oh, maybe the business needs to let up if people are starting to quit. The business doesn’t think that though, and now we run into the final nail in the coffin for “employee rights” – in the game industry there is essentially an unlimited resource pool of extremely talented people, all willing to do WHATEVER IT TAKES to break into the exciting world of game development. So what if some programmer quits – there’s probably a line three miles long at the HR office of people that will give anything to work on that project. There’s almost 0 incentive for a game company to *not* crunch, because they can easily replace anyone that’s not “tough enough” to handle it.

Is this a terrible situation? Absolutely (at least for the employees). Does something need to change? Absolutely. Will it ever change in the current environment? Not a chance in hell. Remember, companies exist to make money. If the company is making money while working its employees for insane hours, the company will continue to do so. Without either a shift in the availability of resources willing to endure crunches or some major new laws, nothing is going to change.

And so we (finally) come around to my point in writing this article. Game development in its current state isn’t for everyone. It’s unrealistic to think that a company is going to change just to be nicer to its employees. People that want to get involved in the game industry need to realize this and decide whether it’s worth the sacrifices to be involved. If someone doesn’t want to work ridiculous hours, then he or she probably shouldn’t get into the industry. That sounds harsh (and it is), but the real world *is* harsh. It’s unfortunate that everyone can’t make tons of money and have a perfect life balance doing exactly what they love to do the most, but it’s the truth.

Look, I’d love to be a professional musician. To do that, I’d have to give up any sense of a regular schedule or a regular home life. That’s part of the music business. It’s not for me. I’ve love to do that instead of working on boring WordPress site #52334, but I’m not willing to give up the things I’d have to sacrifice to make it happen. The same goes with many jobs that you might be passionate about – they’re within reach, but only if you’re willing to sacrifice (probably quite a few things) for it.

It’s terrible and disgusting that the game industry doesn’t *have* to be this way, and it’s terrible and disgusting that companies most likely realize it and do nothing to change things. However, it’s immature and naive for developers in the industry to expect anything to change because of some angry tweets or 1700 word blog posts. For now, if you want to work in the game industry you must be willing to sacrifice for it. I’m in NO WAY endorsing and agreeing with the current state of things, but I’m a realist. It sucks, but that’s life sometimes.

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