Epic Games president Michael Capps is speaking out at length in an ongoing industry quality of life debate sparked by comments he recently made at the IGDA Leadership Forum.
Outspoken design veteran and Manifesto Games CEO Greg Costikyan recently took Capps -- whom he implies is a "management dickhead" -- to task for stating that working beyond the 40-hour week was part of "corporate culture" and expected at Epic.
"The notion that a f*cking board member of the IGDA should defend (and indeed, within his own studio, foster) such exploitative practices is offensive on the face of it, and has caused a considerable kerfluffle within the organization," Costikyan wrote on his Play This Thing blog.
It's since been a topic of heated discussion on IGDA forums and among the development community. The issue was further complicated, according to Costikyan, by comments from IGDA chair emeritus Jen MacLean that the organization, which represents the interests of game developers, "doesn't exist to 'dictate' to anyone what hours they should work."
Now Capps is speaking at length to consumer weblog Joystiq, explaining the comments that sparked the "kerfluffle" and the context in which they were made.
"We haven't really dove in to the forum discussions because there haven't seemed to be a lot of folks there who really want to discuss facts," Capps says.
"Honestly, I'm not sure which of the various things that got everybody so upset. I think the main one was that if someone walks into the door and says, 'I refuse to ever work past 5pm, I'll never work more that 40 hours a week and you can't make me', they're probably not a fit for us," he says.
He likened the issue to a journalist who dictates rigid hours during E3 coverage, or an obstetrician setting a fixed working window for when he's available to deliver babies. "I mean, our average number of work hours is what, 49, 50 in the U.S.? So to have someone walk in and say they refuse to ever crunch for an E3 demo, it's kind of silly," says Capps. "It just shows that they're probably not passionate about what they do. That's very different from saying that we force people to work hard all the time."
Capps says the working policy at Epic restrains employees from working past 2:00 AM -- "The rule I have the most trouble here with these guys is kicking them out at 2. That's the one that pisses folks off," he says. "It's not the 8 hours a day, it's the 2 AM and I'm still working and I'm on a 'I've got a bug by the tail and I want to finish it.' And we'll have someone going around banging on doors, kicking everybody out because they need to go home."
The Epic Games executive says that Gears of War 2 required approximately 12-hour days, five days a week for "maybe" six weeks during crunch -- but that outside of such situations, it's "dangerous" to enforce or even permit long working hours during normal points in the development cycle. "There's no way you could work someone 12 hour days, 250 work days a year because they just, they'll break down. It's crazy," he says.
Capps says the staff of Epic is particularly passionate about the work they do, especially working on the Unreal Engine, and that in part working outside conventional hours is an elective process for a happy staff. "My guys ask to crunch," he says.
"These guys get to work on games they really want to make," says Capps. "There's no dog product here at Epic, right? You work on the engine and your code is seen by thousands of programmers and it affects hundreds of games all over the world. That's awesome."
Financial incentives also play a role, Capps adds -- he tells Joystiq that "the average person here made more on bonuses than they did in salary for Gears 2. And we've only seen royalties for 2008. We haven't even seen this year's royalties. Gears 2 is still selling strong."
The proof is in the numbers, Capps says, and Epic sees turnover rates that are "shockingly below" industry standards -- "In 2006, our voluntary turnover rate was 1.3 percent. In 2007, it [was] 1.1 percent. In 2008 it was 1.03 percent...we basically have one voluntary departure a year, or something like that."
The exec concedes, however, that many other studios may use Epic's working practices out-of-context as an example of what they should and should not do.
He recalls being confronted by someone after the panel who worried his own management team would "point to what [Epic does] and say, 'Oh, see? Crunching is okay because they're doing it.' Then that company would not be treating their employees the same way and would not be making a product based on passion rather than schedule and that sort of thing."
"Using what we said as an example to mistreat people -- That was kind of a scary thought," says Capps. "So, I definitely am trying to be a little bit more cautious about saying how we do things here and trying to caveat it a lot," he admits.
Capps added, later in the interview, that he understood why the industry had a potential problem: "There've been people who've had a really bad experiences and we've heard the stories, the EA spouse horror stories about folks being worked way too hard and never getting any time for their families, that sort of thing. Our guys vote on how they want to crunch and last time they chose having weekends off, so you could spend a whole weekend with their family and recharge. Other times, they've chosen six days a week, but fewer hours, you know that sort of thing."
"And hearing some of the horror stories, that's just frightening. How do you work someone a 100 hours a week and get anything useful out them. It doesn't even make sense, right? So, I get it. I get why people are scared and upset and worried about abusive employment. I understand that."