The Passion of the Developer

By Thomas J. Allen and Matthew Sakey

Ask a game developer why he includes the ability to shoot people in his games. Then ask Neil Simon why he chose to have a robber steal Marsha Mason’s groceries in “The Goodbye Girl.” The answer is obvious in the latter case; the robber is a creative device, his role is to create emotional conflict for the character. Quite simply, he “fits.” He makes sense. He’s a robber in New York City. No questions asked.

Game developers, on the other hand, are often asked to justify their content or even their constitutional rights – an obvious indication that games aren’t blessed with the same “prestige” as a good chick flick. We don’t yet live in a society where Will Wright is a guest on Letterman, where audience members in the Ed Sullivan theatre marvel at the legendary showman’s demonstration of Spore or the latest interactive Emily Dickinson game.

The frustration of game developers everywhere reached its peak in 2004, when an anonymous blogger calling herself EA_spouse posted a withering account of her husband’s life as an overworked, underpaid Electronic Arts employee on Livejournal.comi. For the man she loves, “quality of life” is defined as chronic illness, insomnia and exhaustion – and no comp or overtime: “…Production had accelerated [to] eight hours six days a week… …[then] another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.”

EA_spouse’s blistering indictment of the industry dumped fuel on the smoldering push for global unionization. This possibility – viewed by most insiders as both inevitable and ruinous – looms ever larger. There is a growing sense that developers are justified in their concerns but searching for the solution down the wrong path, leading to silent apathy and philosophical divisions. Developers feel resigned to their fate, and the answer for most of them has been to leave (a normal career in the industry is only 5-10 years)ii.

The two issues – game content and industry quality of life – may be intertwined. Game developers may produce violent content as a way to unconsciously exorcise their anger at increasingly dismal working conditions. Alternatively, they may be worked to such unhealthy extremes that they’re simply too exhausted to innovate beyond the clichés of crazy weapons and crazier boob sizes that any zombie can churn into the market. Either way, the overwork, lack of recompense, and desensitizing day-to-day exposure to abusive management eventually takes its toll and has some effect on the final product.

My Boss is Captain Crunch

Greed and ignorance also fuel the quality of life problem. An alarmingly large portion of the industry honestly believes that privation is part of the business, that if it were to change, games would go away. It’s the standard retort of many studio heads and publishers confronted with evidence that crunch times are harmful. They have publicly argued that game developers are “passionate” people; that “passion” can only manifest itself in relentless schedules and minimal compensation, like a deranged high school football coach screaming at a player to make a touchdown with a broken leg. They insist that if scheduling or compensation models changed, the passion would evaporate – that poor quality of life is necessary for the industry’s existence.

During the Quality of Life Summit at the 2005 Game Developers Conference, one manager slyly tried to get attendees to agree how many hours per week should be considered “acceptable.” By lobbing the ball across the aisle, the manager successfully divided developers as they argued for 40, 50, or 60 hours. Until everyone accepts the strong researchiii indicating that a 40-hour week results in better productivity and fewer errors, managers need only feign interest in fixing the problem.

In more than one instance employees have sued publishers for unpaid comp timeiv, but the industry’s stalling tactics practically guarantee that the plaintiffs will run out of money before anything is truly decided.

Read My Lips: Save the Children, Slave the Parents

Such misery could be prevented if labor laws were clearer. As it is, ambiguities allow companies to claim that game developers are exempt from such benefits. Unfortunately, American lawmakers have not been friends of the development community over the years. American politicians, quick to stereotype and scapegoat the medium in order to grandstand for the cameras, are eager to introduce legislation against video games, however censorious or unconstitutional.

The same politicians who pass laws “protecting” children from games will not consider “protecting” them in more obviously beneficial ways. They believe in causality when a child experiences violent content, but ignore it when a child’s parent is held hostage by 80 to 100-hour weeks that cripple that parent’s ability to provide direction and a sense of personal responsibility in a child.

Many developers and their families are now agitating for improved quality of lifev, but reports conflict on how much has been accomplishedvi. Meanwhile, overworked, under-compensated drones amass war stories of evil corporations, making it hardly ironic that so many games in our history feature evil corporations, not to mention corollary themes – slavery, psychological oppression, and violent confrontations with “boss” enemies. These themes appear more and more in games from the last decade.

“I Was Employee of the Year, and Now I’m Dead Meat.”

Abe’s Oddysee has a deeply sympathetic alien slave as its central character in a futuristic, industrial world of alien races. Employees at development studio Oddworld Inhabitants knew this game had to be a hit or the company would fold. As with Final Fantasy, team members were prepared for the project to be their last. Perhaps the employees could relate when Abe says, “I was Employee of the Year, and now I’m dead meat.” What crystallizes the connection to the company’s predicament, however, is Abe’s revelation that the antagonists “were scared because profits were grim.” Oddworld, as it happened, was a major hit and spawned a franchise that only recently met its demise when Oddworld Inhabitants retired from the realm of game development.

Beyond Good & Evil offers a more subtle, psychological theme of cultural subjugation through a convoluted web of deceit obscuring truth behind a militant occupation of Hillys. The people in this province are depicted as a mindless, apathetic population, unwilling or unable to absorb the revolutionary message disseminated by the protagonist. They aren’t convinced that the oppresive DomZ occupiers are evil, and even if they are, they believe themselves powerless to do anything. The lethargy is finally shattered by the protagonist’s broadcast of evidence so damning that even the most indifferent must question the status quo. “The Hillians have spontaneously shown their support,” says a character in the game. It wasn’t until EA_spouse transmitted her similarly devastating testimonial that the gaming press began to cover the quality of life disaster, though it had been eating away at the core of the business for years.

In Half-Life 2, an alien horror called the Combine invades and conquers Earth. People are herded into urban concentration camps. Procreation is blocked with arousal-dampening energy fields. Drugs in the water erase memories of the past. Agitprop read by human collaborators blares from ubiquitous monitors as cattle prod-wielding riot police prowl the crumbling alleyways. The Combine has made life good, say the viewscreens. The Combine keeps us safe. The Combine is watching over us. The Combine knows what humanity needs. Stop asking questions. Conform. Quit bitching. The lethargy and indifference is such that people practically oppress themselves.

Consider this exchange between two characters in DOOM 3.

Dr. Betruger: Do I need to remind you of the groundbreaking work that we’re doing here?

Councilor Swann: No, but I’ve been authorized by the Board to look at everything.

Betruger: The Board authorized you? The Board doesn’t know the first thing about science. All they want is something to make them more money; some product. Don’t worry, they’ll get their product.

Swann: After how many accidents? Tell me, Doctor Betruger, why are so many workers spooked, complaining, requesting transfers off Mars?

Betruger: They simply can’t handle life here. They’re exhausted and overworked. If I had a larger, more competent staff and bigger budget, even these few accidents could have been avoided.

According to this argument, something else is being said between the lines. Replace “the board” with “the publisher,” “science” with “games” and “accidents” with “bugs.” The thesis is unexpected and potentially misleading – games may simply be violent because they’re violent – but it would be ill-advised to casually ignore the possibility of a link between game content and poor working conditions in all cases. Good cheese, after all, comes from happy cows.

id Software, the studio behind DOOM 3, has developed a long-documented reputation for demanding ridiculous hours from its employees, and for firing them without warningvii. Games might simply reflect the frustrations of those creating them. Flashy characters, full of confidence, heroism and willingness to apply brutality to any problem may just be a mechanism of escape from those frustrations.

Delusions of Grandia

The quality of life problem begins and ends with crunch, those increasingly-required 80 or 100-hour weeks. Eliminate it (by law or policy), or properly compensate those who endure it, and the problem is solved. Crunch exists in the first place because game development lacks optimized processes capable of achieving the aggressive milestones demanded by the industry production cycle. And there is that persistent belief that long hours are crucial to the creative process.

Once the industry lets go of the ridiculously misguided notion that crunch is positive, the solution will be simple: adopt formalized, proven development and quality processes to manage productionviii. An assortment of methods are used elsewhere in software development, yet professional game developers freely admit that they didn’t even realize such solutions exist. Two studios that have implemented formal systems, Vicarious Visions and Blue Fang Games, have brought crunch under control and are consistently releasing successful titles on time and under budget.

Despite claims to the contrary, the truth is that passion and creativity alike are more effectively destroyed by draconian working conditions than by efficiency and fair hours. Quality of life is akin to global warming in that sense. During this year’s G8 Summit, British Prime Minister Tony Blair announced that, despite universal commitments to increase aid to Africa, he could not get President Bush to back his global warming agenda to reduce emissions. Everyone agrees that certain emissions are harmful. The debate lies in whether or not that harm has global effects. There’s no denying that crunch is harmful. But many, faced with the choice between doing what is right and what is easy, prefer to leave the problem for others to fix. It begs the question, “Are you a Bush developer, or a Blair developer?”

It Takes a Village

With so many developers desensitized and demoralized by the brutality of their quality of life, it’s not terribly surprising that games are correspondingly brutal. Developers battle against savage requirements in increasingly hostile communities. The problem is that some in our village: the parents, politicians, and managers most of all, are unsympathetic to that fact. They would rather play the blame game – the most interactive game of all.

Awareness of the turmoil in the development community, and of the possibility that maligned game content is but a symptom of a much more serious problem, may not change the opinion of the casual observer. Even dedicated gamers have little interest in industry quality of life, perhaps because they haven’t connected it with stinkers like Enter the Matrix or no-show laughingstocks like Duke Nukem Forever. But whether or not they realize it, the issue has become so serious that, left unchecked, it could collapse the industry again.

Many developers have fallen in the line of duty, and their contributions are unlikely to be remembered based on what we’ve seen so far. Perhaps in the months and years to come this will change. But our best possible future is the one that regards crunch as an evanescent memory of the industry’s naïve youth.

***

You’ve Got (Hate) Mail!

Thomas J. Allen directs the awards program for the National Academy of Video Game Testers and Reviewers (NAVGTR), an organization that celebrates game art, technology and production by recognizing developer talent in 48 categories. NAVGTR is comprised of journalists from local, regional and national media. For more information on the Academy and its awards show, visit www.navgtr.org or email info@navgtr.org.

Matthew Sakey’s monthly column, “Culture Clash,” is published at the International Game Developers Association (www.igda.org/columns.clash). An outspoken game scholar and theorist, his work has appeared in many magazines and websites. He consults with universities to develop game studies curricula and works with corporations to leverage games-based learning technologies. For more information, visit www.matthewsakey.net or email matthewsakey@comcast.net.

Further Reading

i “EA: The Human Story”
By EA_Spouse
November 10, 2004 http://www.livejournal.com/users/ea_spouse/274.html

ii IGDA Quality of Life Survey, February 2004
http://www.igda.org/qol/IGDA_QoL_Survey_Raw.zip

iii “Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work”
By Evan Robinson
http://www.igda.org/articles/erobinson_crunch.php

iv IGDA Quality of Life Resources: pending legal actions
http://www.igda.org/qol/resources.php#legal

v IGDA Quality of Life White Paper, April 2004
http://www.igda.org/qol/whitepaper.php#dl

vi “Video Game Workers Still on the Fence Regarding Unionization”
By Paul Hyman, The Hollywood Reporter
August 9, 2005
http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr/columns/video_games.jsp

vii “Masters of DOOM: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture”
By David Kushner
Random House, 2003

viii “The Business Case for Improved Production Practices”
Game Developers Conference Quality of Life Summit Keynote Speech
Given by Steve McConnell, Construx Software

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