On January 7th, 2010, a blog article by anonymous user “Rockstar Spouse” was posted on Gamasutra.com. It details how management at Rockstar’s San Diego studio has been instituting mandatory 6-day work weeks and up to 12 hours each day. Not only that, but it has been continuing and deteriorating for about 10 months straight, since March of 2009.
Rockstar Spouse wrote that employee morale has plummeted, some have seen new health issues crop up, developed signs of depression, and even suicidal tendencies have been seen in one person. Promises by management to improve the conditions were made, but not kept.
No matter how one wants to spin it, it does not sound like a safe, productive and enjoyable work environment. I send my sympathies to the employees and families of those working at Rockstar San Diego. I was inspired to write this in the hopes I can offer some constructive ideas towards improving the conditions many of us have experienced in game development.
With experience, I have learned that to be passionate about making the best game possible requires that I am more passionate about keeping myself in the best shape, mentally and physically. A sports athlete does their team no good if they play with a serious injury that harms their performance and the team’s chances for a win.
I think it’s important to come up with a valid argument that works for both sides of the issue if you are going to openly talk about unpaid overtime. I’ve found that it helps to say things like, “I am concerned about the quality of the game and I want it to be the best possible game, but we can’t do that with all of the overtime. A couple solutions are to ask our publisher for more time or cut features so we can make a better, higher rated game.”
At least with that approach, you don’t sound selfish but instead see the bigger picture. The battle against unpaid overtime is a tricky fight because one doesn’t want to lose their job suddenly. Yet, there’s the saying, “A job not worth risking is a job not worth having.”
Many opponents to combating unpaid overtime often say, “If you don’t like it, then quit.” I love this industry to much to quit and I want to make it better. Quitting will do nothing to improve things. The same thing happens in politics, people tune out and then corruption runs rampant because all those left in power take advantage of the situation.
Another comment I hear from those who accept unpaid overtime is, “We do it because we’re passionate about making awesome games.” Working many hours and being mentally and physically deficient is not respecting the important role you play in society as a game developer. You are under valuing yourself when you do that and the quality of the game will suffer.
As Jason Weesner correctly said in the comments of the original Rockstar Spouse post, overtime usually happens as a result of three things; “iteration time, creative direction, and expectations.” Iteration time comes from proper development tools. I have never had the luxury of working on a game with a mature set of development tools. I have never had a project not have overtime. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
I have also worked on several projects that had unrealistic expectations in terms of what we could deliver in the given timeframe. I think this is the number one reason projects have a lot of overtime. You can have shitty tools and ship on time, as long as the expectations for what can be delievered using those tools are realistic.
I can’t remember a project that had a lack of creative direction however, but I have known about other projects that did and their overtime was extensive because the decision-makers procrastinated until the last minute.
It’s important to recognize these three contributors to overtime and bring up concerns about them before they explode in your team's face.
You may have noticed I have not used the word “crunch” at all, instead I am calling it what it is, “unpaid overtime." Perhaps that will help people get the right perspective on this problem facing our industry. Let’s stop calling it “crunch”. It sounds macho and tough. Like we ought to get a fucking t-shirt after ship that says, “I survived crunch.” Let’s call it what it is… unpaid overtime.
I think it’s really important for people to take charge of their own mind and bodies. Unpaid overtime continues because people put up with it. Why do game developers put up with it? There are two reasons:
1. Need for steady income
2. Need for steady health insurance
Regarding need of a steady income, not many people, especially families can afford to be out of work for more than several months. That’s why it’s important to save as much as you can into a separate account just in case you lose your job. Having that financial safety net will enable you to survive for several months until you find a new job. It will free you to do what is right and not be unfairly exploited.
For steady health insurance, as recently as January 5th 2010 game developers can sign up for their own healthcare coverage through the IGDA. This is a big win for game developers who are looking for more security in the work place if they are willing to fight for better working conditions.
Not only can your employer compensate you more if you do the IGDA health program (because your employer doesn’t have to pay for your health insurance), but you don’t have to risk losing health insurance if your employer fires you for confronting them about unpaid overtime. You are free to demand the conditions improve, go on strike, or quit without worrying about losing health insurance because it is separate from your employment.
Once you have the financial and health safety nets setup, stand up for your rights. Do this by talking to your producers and upper management. Let them know what changes you want to see happen to improve the situation, preferably in a straight forward, concise bullet point list. That might be getting rid of incompetent managers or leads, improving tools, or extending the schedule. It might even be compensation either with a higher salary, bonus payments or more vacation time. Other options are to suggest changes to the overtime policy, maybe rotating who has to stay late who gets the weekend off.
Everyone has the right to be gainfully employed and be treated with dignity. It might not be the law, but laws aren’t always right. State laws are often pro-business. But businesses have yet to learn that being pro-people is good for business. Until they learn that, your only option is to position yourself so that you will feel more comfortable talking to management about improving the situation.