Gamasutra: The Art & Business of Making Gamesspacer
Are Game Developers Standing Up for Their Rights?
View All     RSS
September 2, 2014
arrowPress Releases
September 2, 2014
PR Newswire
View All





If you enjoy reading this site, you might also want to check out these UBM Tech sites:


 
Are Game Developers Standing Up for Their Rights?

January 9, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next
 

So, what else do developers do?

Some engage in sabotage. This is another thing that all employees do. Sabotage can range from minor (you take some of the office stationery home) to more serious (you vandalize equipment). In white collar or knowledge work, a serious form of sabotage is leaking important or confidential information to competitors or the press. This is very risky because this can threaten the employee's reputation -- and the employee can often rightfully be sued, because of all the NDAs in the video game industry. This is not a common, nor very fruitful action for dissatisfied developers who want to remain in the industry.

A unique form of sabotage particular to the game industry is to drop an "Easter egg." This is used specifically to gain credit for work. The acknowledgement of intellectual property rights and the proper crediting of the people involved in each game is a sticky issue in the game industry.

With crediting largely unregulated, individual developers often have to bargain from scratch. Their success is highly dependent on their individual skills or their specific context. The practice of dropping these coded signatures within the gameplay became a way for developers or teams to make their mark.

This did have an effect in drawing attention to the issue of crediting, and the search for Easter eggs and decoding their meaning is great fun for hardcore fans. But, it is only one response to one challenge, and not as common, nor as easy, as it once was.

Some developers complain or make suggestions when they don't like something about their working conditions. This is called having "employee voice." Some of the developers that we interviewed said that their studios had formal policies for managers to listen to employees. Some referred to "open door" policies. One was more specific: "Managers, for instance, have to allow a certain amount...30 percent or so... of their time, or more, to answer employees' queries in general."

Our interviewees were mixed as to the extent and intent of employee voice mechanisms, like general meetings and open-door policies. Some thought that many senior and HR managers are open to such one-to-one discussions. As one developer said, "It's important to have a voice, otherwise you don't really feel that you're... You know, you're just there, you're not contributing. I'd say for the most part, if I feel strongly... I could take the effort to bring it to the attention of the upper management." As well, some women in particular reported gratitude for specific arrangements they received regarding work-family balance.

Others had mixed feelings toward the role of HR in helping employees. One said, "Sometimes they feel like they are not necessarily there to help you, because they are employees of the company." Another intimated that HR is complicit in perpetuating the negative norms of the company -- "Because a lot of people, even in HR, have a kind of 'well, you know how it goes' way."

Open door policies and other mechanisms of employee voice are not a universal norm in the industry and, like other workplaces, success often depends on the manager or team lead involved. In a 2010 blog post that was widely and favorably received on the web, Insomniac Games' Mike Acton shared his tips on how to be a good manager. He wrote:

One-on-ones: This is probably one of the most important aspects of my job. I do my best to meet with 20-something people for at least a half-hour, at least once every two weeks. For sure, that's a lot of time. But no time is better spent than this. It's an opportunity to listen. Every person is different. There is no "format" for these that works for everyone. Sometimes it's about technical advice and feedback. Sometimes it's about personal issues. Sometimes it's about the day-to-day struggles of development. But whatever it is, it's always about letting each person simply tell me what's on their mind and doing my best to help them, as best I can, grow as professionals.

Acton goes on to say that even these one-on-ones aren't enough: "It's fine to have an 'open door policy'. But more than that, it's necessary that I constantly seek feedback. I can't just wait for someone to come to me with a problem or suggestion. I need to use every tool at my disposal to figure out what's on people's minds. That's absolutely part of my responsibility."

This shows that successful employee voice requires trust and commitment on both sides of the managerial divide. This is not always easily built, and is definitely not built within times of conflict. For successful voice, employees must speak up with legitimate and reasonable concerns and employers must take their comments into real consideration.

There is a real sense in the video game industry that mistakes are repeated time and again; that managers, leads and development teams themselves do not learn from their mistakes despite the post-mortems. In the 2009 IGDA Quality of Life survey, developers were asked if management seeks their input and acts on it. One quarter said no. Over one-quarter were "neutral"; they couldn't decide. Only 12 percent strongly agreed that management sought and acted upon employee input.

Voice is a superior option than quitting or sabotage if the complaints or suggestions are received and produce positive results. Exercising employee voice also has more potential than employee exit (quitting) for the problem to be addressed for more than just one person.

When managers hear of a problem from an employee and act to resolve it for that employee, they may also permanently change policy for all employees, or at least consider their past decisions to maintain equity of treatment. Some of our interviewees did say that changes don't come easily and swiftly, but they do come if the issue is supported by a mass of employees or is particularly sensitive. "So there is an attempt to proactively respond to people, but in the aggregate," said one.

On the whole, according to those of our interview respondents who had voiced grievances, the workplace offered an ongoing discussion. That said, voicing your grievance is not a guarantee of it being addressed. And managers can cut side deals with individuals that do not benefit anyone else. This is called arbitrary treatment, and though it can have great outcomes for "superstars" or others management wants to appease, it is never guaranteed, and can create a lot of inequity. As we will discuss more below, the context of voice also matters. As one developer said:

They are really happy when you are in a meeting with your manager, privately talking about your salary and your performance, and you're having a say with HR. I think they are not so happy if you would go out and say, start a blog, or talking about how you or your spouse was very abused of their job -- and that forces them, a little more, to deal with the problem. So, having your say is contextual. Like you can have it, but they probably would rather have you talking directly to them, which doesn't give you very much ground to stand on. The public way could be dangerous for them, and they don't like it at all... So, it's not cool with them if you're saying publicly things that contradict... That can potentially damage the corporate line, especially if it's a publicly traded company, or something like that.

Another action that dissatisfied employees can take is to sue their employer. But employers have a lot more resources than employees, and sometimes the law might not be strong enough to support some employee complaints. Sometimes legal action can be more successful and less of a burden when done collectively. This also solves the problem for a larger group and is more likely to ensure permanent changes to the system. There have been some successful class action lawsuits in the video game industry -- especially over unpaid overtime.

Programmers and graphic artists have launched and won a number of suits of this nature against Sony (Wilson v. Sony Computer Entertainment, Inc.), Electronic Arts (Hasty v. Electronic Arts, Inc.; Kirschenbaum v. Electronic Arts, Inc) and Vivendi (Aitken vs. Vivendi Universal Games). These settlements totaled more than $39 million, and affected over 1200 employees. The settlements also resulted in the reclassification of many employees to be below the pay and responsibility grade that would make them exempt from receiving overtime pay.


Article Start Previous Page 2 of 4 Next

Related Jobs

YAGER Development GmbH
YAGER Development GmbH — Berlin, Germany
[09.02.14]

Visual FX Artist (f/m)
Quantic Dream
Quantic Dream — PARIS, France
[09.02.14]

Animation Director
Vicarious Visions / Activision
Vicarious Visions / Activision — Albany, New York, United States
[09.02.14]

VFX Artist-Vicarious Visions
Vicarious Visions / Activision
Vicarious Visions / Activision — Albany, New York, United States
[09.02.14]

Animator-Temporary-Vicarious Visions






Comments


Johanna Weststar
profile image
I hope you find this article interesting!

For more information about Quality of Life in the video game industry also have a look at http://gameqol.org

You can download and comment on a new report co-authored by me and Marie-Joseé Legault
about the 2009 Quality of Life survey that was administered by the IGDA.

This site is also an archive of the Quality of Life related stories that pop up online and in the news.

Glenn Storm
profile image
It may not be apparent to those in commercial games that challenges such as these exist in the realm of serious games as well. And due to a relative lack of maturity of this sub-industry, as compared to commercial games, these problems are magnified.

The impression that this is fun and games, overriding practical consideration, is a pervasive viewpoint held by all but the most savvy of non-developers that the serious game community works with.

CT Bon
profile image
Hi Glenn,

Can you clarify the distinction between commercial and 'serious' games?

Glenn Storm
profile image
Sure. Serious Games: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serious_game

Despite the challenges described in this excellent article, the entertainment-based commercial games segment of the industry tends to be more mature in terms of funding models, development expertise and general recognition than the serious games segment.

The comment was aimed at raising awareness within the game development community at-large about the steeper challenges facing this sub-industry. The question seems to reinforce the point.

Bruce Wilkie
profile image
"EA later banned work on Sundays and adopted a policy favoring five working days a week."

EA did not ban work on Sundays after EA_Spouse. Was that only at EALA? Certainly at EARS Sunday became the new Monday many times after EA_Spouse. I'm curious where this information came from?

Johanna Weststar
profile image
Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your inquiry. Unfortunately I don't have a satisfactory answer for you. Over the years we reviewed and gathered a lot of information from published sources, news sources and social media. I have trolled through my material and I am coming up short with a specific reference for this information. The trouble with online sources is that they often vanish and I am afraid we did not practice our due diligence with saving a copy of this one.

I would be interested to put this out to the community to see if anyone has more information about EA's response to EA Spouse or to the law suits that occurred in the same time period. I do have this link: http://www.joystiq.com/2004/12/02/ea-responds-to-disgruntled-spou
se-in-leaked-email/

From comments below @Samuel Burnstein it seems like any policy adjustments that might have been made were short lived.

Thanks for reading!

Legault Marie-Josee
profile image
Hi Bruce,
Thanks for your inquiry. I found out the source, but it has disappeared from the web... it read : Once the EA Spouse, Erin Hoffman fights to keep the video game industry in check - February 27th, 2007 - By Ted Boscia - PALO ALTO, Feb. 27—In late 2004, Erin Hoffman sounded the alarm about worker exploitation at video game publisher Electronic Arts. Now she’s trying to keep EA and other gaming companies from hitting the snooze button and lapsing into old habits.... It was Erin Hoffman telling this about banning work on Sundays. If you want the whole, just ask me!

Erin Hoffman
profile image
I believe what this is referring to is EA's "five great days" policy, which appears to date back to November 2005. There was media coverage of this at the time, but it appears to have evaporated. I don't believe it was just EALA. Someone -- Probst? -- released a statement, or perhaps it was a leaked internal document, discussing the changes they'd made (this was about six months before the two lawsuits were settled IIRC). I distinctly remember the phrase "on Sundays we rest", which is what I would have expected to yield a google search, but the source is gone, though you can still find references to "five great days". If it was late 2005 this would have been near the end of Probst's time, so maybe Riccitiello rolled it back? That would be disappointing to hear if so. Someone should ask him "so, whatever happened to that 'five great days' thing?" ;)

TC Weidner
profile image
its starts with the problem of supply and demand, When the supply of workers outpaces the demand for workers, you get certain companies that will take advantage of the situation. We are seeing this across all spectrum's of business now with this one world economy fiasco. With business convinced that making money and profit trumps all else, taken advantage of workers falls into the category of " just doing business". I find this preposterous but MBA programs everywhere say otherwise.

Then again its why I dropped out of MBA business school and have been self employed most of my life. Its also why I eat free range and organic foods, I'm nutty that way, I think quality of life matters, for everyone and everything.

Great article by the way.

Lance McKee
profile image
I really liked this article! Thanks for helping to shed some light on what continues to be a major problem. After 7 years in the industry I finally decided that it wasn't fair to my wife and kids to have to put up with an overly stressed father/husband who was always either scrambling to find a job or working way too many hours at a job. I've now got a much more stable and better paying job and can just develop games on the side for fun.

Jonathan Jennings
profile image
I always feel sad reading posts like this because I know game development is a very passionate career and for people to devote so much of ourselves only to be pushed to a breaking point is disappointing. I hope I don't come to this point myself but i hear far too many stories about developers who worked hard, gave all they could to game development, and ultimately sound like they received very little in return in terms of respect and the impact on their well-being .

Samuel Burnstein
profile image
EA banned working on Sundays after EA Spouse? Well, that's one policy that's been quietly rolled back.

Judy Tyrer
profile image
Sadly, the devs perpatuate the situation by believing crunch is necessary, you can't make a good game without it. It's not just management that causes this problem. Once some good games start coming out of studios that aren't playing the crunch games, people will see this as the myth it is. At least, that's what I'm banking on.

Michael Herring
profile image
It's not just management that causes the problem, but it is just management that has authority to fire employees.

Nat Tan
profile image
More like: New features and ideas are added in by Management that doesn't have to work the OT and have never really been part of any core development, while the timeline apparently is not allowed to change.

Michael Rooney
profile image
@Nat: It's not always management. Our management works at least as much OT as any developer; a lot of them stay at the office anytime anybody is doing OT so that they can coordinate schedules and deliverables with what actually gets done during OT.

edit: Executives/marketing are usually much more the culprit, but I wouldn't exactly put executives in an envious position work wise despite how their job generally comes off.

John Harmon
profile image
As someone who respects the artisans within the gaming industry, I would love to see it unionized. But history has shown us that isn't going to be easy, and I would imagine that the publishers will put up a great deal of resistance. Knowing this, I was tried to think of ways that workers can give themselves more power. One alternative might be that all new up start up studios begin as worker co-ops. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker_cooperative This would probably be more akin to the Valve style of business, just with a bit more democracy. I've always imagine that indies within the industry would spearhead in this type of alternative style of business, as they do not have adherence to publishers. As for studios that are own by publishers, I think that resistance would be the same as if it were a union. This could help workers rights in the short term, maybe in the long term, but it's something that would give each individual a voice. Of course they're could be problems with a worker's co-op, like managing deadlines (Half-life 2: Episode 3 anyone?) or trying to keep financially afloat (it's not like everyone has a Steam like service to keep their employees well payed). Who knows maybe Valve will be the only one to pull anything close to this in the next decade. There's two cents from a nobody that only sells video games in the middle of nowhere.

Michael Joseph
profile image
As long as there are no steep artificial barriers in place preventing independants from bringing their products to market, I don't think unions are necessary.

The answer is for independants to avoid entangling themselves in debt and a lifestyle that requires a certain cash flow that ends up being a faustian bargain chaining them to their fulltime jobs and trading their tomorrows for a little of todays comfort.

Michael Rooney
profile image
I think a part of the problem is also that developers are generally very passionate about what they are making. I've seen a good amount of people who work overtime because they want to when they've been told repeatedly to go home. There's definitely some studios that become toxic, but I think it has a positive reinforcement loop that's fed by both sides; executives want developers to work more than is reasonable, and a lot of developers want to work more than is reasonable. Those factors combined put a lot of pressure on people who don't want to work more than is reasonable to stay relevant in the company.

With that in mind, I don't think the industry as a whole is bad. I think it's just that there are some parts that are very very bad and give it all a bad name. I have never worked unreasonable overtime as a developer. The worst was fairly isolated as there was a major bug found really late in alpha.

I'm generally not in favor of unions for skilled labor. The companies that treat their labor the best will get the most skill and produce the best results. The market rewards treating skilled employees well. It's not like unskilled labor where you are treated more like a commodity.

Edward DiNola
profile image
My latest job has been great for quality of life so far. Usually work 8-9 hour days, excellent benefits, haven't worked a weekend yet, the respect level is high, and the team and management have been very good about needing to leave work early or postpone arrival for health and family obligations. It's interesting because it's a very large studio, and I've seen nothing but evidence to the contrary that it's an excellent place to work.

This compared to another gig at a much smaller studio, where I was working 12-14 hour days regularly, had horrible pay, would often be yelled at by producers, and where there were a number of walking HR and contract violations (such as being payed days or even weeks late), and which is a company which will probably never get called on it.

Johanna Weststar
profile image
Glad to hear your positive story! It is important to note that in the IGDA's 2009 Quality of Life survey "Almost 40% of the sample report crunching rarely and 6.2% never
crunch." So almost half of the 3000+ people who answered that survey do not crunch. That is a great news story about the industry! (note, not all the respondents were in core dev though).

The important message is this article (I hope) is bigger than crunch and OT. In all workplaces employees need to have an effective means to voice their opinions and concerns and have a hope of seeing them addressed.

@Dimitri Del Castillo - I totally agree with you. Game devs need a way to influence their workplace to make it better for them - quitting is a bad solution to long-term problems. The question is...what other solutions are out there and which ones work or might work?

Michael Pianta
profile image
When I was in high school I wanted to make games as a career. I thought games were an exciting emerging art form and I had lots of ideas for cool things you could do with them. I took a lot of programming classes, but as I learned more about the industry I read a lot of stories like this. (This was before digital downloads and indie developers were a thing). I learned that working in games meant longer hours and worse pay than other industry - which you would accept because it's games and you're privileged to have a job in that industry at all! And also I learned that I would be a gear in a very large machine and that creative freedoms would not be given to me for a long time and that I certainly wouldn't be able to make the games I was dreaming of probably ever, and definitely not without putting in decades first. So I said "Being a creator is more important than working in games per se," and I majored in fine art instead (although I still have a great interest in games and develop them as a hobby). Who knows how many others did the same? Do these companies not realize that they are driving away potential talent?

Jonathan Jennings
profile image
I have always heard the reason they abuse their powers is because no matter how much talent they drive away ( i almost quit on a career in games myself before starting for the same reasons you did). there are droves of people everywhere who would probably switch places with a developer any day of the week. it's easy to treat your number 1 commodity as disposable if there is an endless supply of other commodities to replace it .

Jacek Wesolowski
profile image
Michael - No. They've developed a system of rationalizations to help them cope. They're also not terribly interested in long term thinking.

There is a dire shortage of potential employees in my home city and everybody keeps acting like they have no clue why.

Last year, I went to a job interview that lasted for an hour and a half. I talked to three guys at the same time: one did his best to convince me they didn't need me, another was openly hostile, and the last one spent the entire time contradicting all of my opinions just to prove he knew better. They basically spent an hour and a half trying to make me feel bad about myself. They seemed disappointed when I eventually declined to take a test.

Fortunately, the situation is actually improving. Roughly half of the workplaces in this city (or at least half of those that I'm aware of) are decent. The job I have now is the most balanced and most creative ever, which is a bit ironic, because this is a porting company that doesn't make games of its own.

Michael Pianta
profile image
I think you're both right. I also think that the example of independent developers will influence this in a positive way. If you were a talented young designer/developer, now that you have Jon Blow and McMillen and countless others sitting there in front of you, why would you give these companies a moment of your time? Perhaps you would just to see how it worked, how projects were organized or how to work on a team or something, but I would think that such people would have a greatly reduced patience for ridiculously unfair practices, compared to the past when it seemed to be that or nothing. That will ultimately force these companies to change I expect.

Tony Giovannini
profile image
"Some people convey a sense of toughness or machismo about "surviving" an epic crunch, and these episodes become part of the lore of the industry. "I was there when..." This means that those who do not survive or who complain are sometimes considered as those who can't take it -- "this industry is not for you."

--This attitude needs to die. If the industry is to progress in any way, shape or form, this sort of machismo needs to go. There is nothing macho about making video games, or crunching to make a video game (Nor should there be). Crunch doesn't build camaraderie at all, crunch just simply destroys lives.

mikko tahtinen
profile image
Agreed, totally!

Dimitri Del Castillo
profile image
It's a matter of advocacy. When the only people you can go to about your work issues are your supervisor or an HR person employees begin to feel that the only people that are looking out for their well being is themselves.

mikko tahtinen
profile image
Ultimately people need to ask some questions:

1. Do we work OT?
- If we do? Then go to next question:

2. Why do we work OT?
- Did we underestimate: Workload, Time, Difficulties or Plannnign needed.
- Or, did we even negotiated the price totally wrong? Meaning we got underpaid and we pay the price?

3. How do we cope with planning?
- Do we keep the scope fixed or do we keep adding tasks?
- If we change scope do we adjust dates? Or dates are fixed and we keep adding to the scope?

Overtime should be treated as a instrument. The instrument gives an indication if something is wrong, in this particular case: Overtime. Overtime should be a serious indication that something is wrong.

Overtime will always be there, but should be treated as something you want to eliminate or minimize. If OT is used regularly and often then something is clearly wrong. Either the planning, budget, scope or knowledge, has clearly failed.

Erin Hoffman
profile image
This is certainly one of the best articles I've ever read on game industry quality of life. Thank you for your work on it, Marie-Josée and Johanna.


none
 
Comment: