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Game Over: Parting thoughts from the Game Developer team
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Game Over: Parting thoughts from the Game Developer team

July 4, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

Crunch, Burnout, Layoffs

The game industry is subsidized largely by the enthusiasm and passion of its employees. At least, "passion" is the only reason we can imagine that devs would enter an industry where layoffs are routine, unpaid overtime is the norm rather than the exception, and job applicants need multiple shipped titles and years of experience under their belts even for entry- level positions.

For some devs, working conditions have gotten better since the "EA Spouse" days. But crunch is still seen as a relatively normal part of a standard game development cycle—one that is still sometimes worn as a perverse badge of pride—and we think this is unsustainable and wrong.

Here's the deal: If you can't afford to make a game without overworking your employees, you can't afford to make it. Make it cheaper. Find a way to use a prototype or minimum viable build to bring in more funding. Make a different game. Budgeting for software dev projects is hard, but once your projects routinely rely on unpaid overtime to ship, you can't use that as an excuse. You can probably get away with it, thanks to a yearly crop of fresh game program grads, but it's a lousy thing to do.

Game developers, by and large, are smart, hardworking people. Smart, hardworking people eventually figure out that other industries are willing to treat them better. When you're young and hungry, you might be willing to put up with the bullshit for The Love Of The Game, but at some point you will probably sit down and think that it simply isn't worth it any more. The human cost of game development can be measured in friendships lost and family time missed by every person in the list of credits at the end of a game. We don't think it's worth it. And sooner or later, we find that many devs tend to agree, especially once they're looking to settle down, start families, buy houses, and so on.

What's more, the endless cycle of crunch, burnout, and layoffs holds the industry back from a quality standpoint. When you let dev talent leave your studio office, you're losing all the experience and expertise they've cultivated specifically for building your games. When we let dev talent leave the industry, every amazing game they could have made walks out the door with them.

A strong work ethic is a fine thing, and worth being proud of. But we don't think it's a good thing to value your work ethic over other important things, like friends and family. And we especially don't think people should be proud of a culture of overwork, especially when that culture has deleterious effects on not only your health and your relationships, but your colleagues' as well. (Also, we suspect that the people who stand to profit from your overwork do not have your best interests in mind.)

Make QA Better

Many smart people have spoken about how one can judge another's character by observing how they treat others; we think the most quotable version is from J.K. Rowling's book Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: "If you want to know what a man's like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals." This quote is from a powerful wizard discussing how another powerful wizard treats his servant elf, but it's not that far from describing QA's relationship to the rest of the game industry.

Fact is, in most of the games industry, QA gets no respect. It's a career dead end, the pay is awful, and the best thing that happens to most QA folks is that they get routed into a different discipline. In any other industry, this is called an "internship"; game dev has created an entire caste of people meant to do menial work. We admit that we're just as guilty as the rest of the industry, in that regard; we don't publish a regular QA column like we do for other dev disciplines, and we rarely address it elsewhere in the magazine.

The thing is, it doesn't have to be this way. If QA was seen as a field worth staying in for its own sake -- and compensated as such -- we could easily see studios develop a competitive edge by building vastly improved testing methodologies and incorporating them in different stages of the development process, so as to make sure the right feedback and testing reaches the right people at the right time. Career QA specialists could go on to develop specialties related to different aspects of game development. Imagine having a dedicated QA veteran working in tandem with an artist or audio designer to more efficiently ferret out graphical glitches or audio malfunctions, or a game design QA specialist devoted to homing in on balance issues, and you have the idea. Considering more and more publishers are tying bonuses to Metacritic performance (which doesn't allow for changed review scores and thus is heavily affected by bugs and release-day issues), we don't think it's impossible that properly investing in QA would have a significant boost on a studio's bottom line.

Beyond the money stuff, though, we think there's a real human cost to making QA a slog—especially when it's the de facto point of entry for the games industry if you aren't already a whiz programmer or artist. We can appreciate that every profession demands a certain amount of dues -- paying in the beginning (we too were interns once), but from some of the stories we've heard, QA seems like a cold, capitalist version of fraternity hazing.

Think of it this way: QA is the entry point for the industry. As a discipline, QA is largely characterized by endless drudge work for low pay, and a lot of hopping around from contract gig to contract gig until you can find a studio that likes you enough to take you on as a QA lead or entry-level in a different discipline. Logically speaking, it follows that the people who made it into the industry through QA have already established that they're willing to work long hours of drudge work for low money and minimal job security. Now look at the labor issues that extend across the entire industry, not just QA—long hours with relatively low hourly pay, and alarmingly frequent layoffs. We don't think this is a coincidence.

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 4 Next

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