Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Crunch Time - Do we need ethical game development? I think so.

Last week, an article about 'crunch time' appeared on the Ars Technica website, about the problem of crunch time in game development and it got me thinking.

For the unitiated, crunch time is the period in a games development cycle where the developers have to shift their working patterns into the highest gear in order to ship a game on time. The worst of these are 85-hour working weeks that can last for months, but the practice of operating at a 60-hour working week for periods of up to a year is becoming increasingly common.

There are two reasons for why this happens. Firstly, when a game is set to release on a particular date, delays hurt profits. Well, that's the theory anyway. In this age of pre-orders and easy internet patching, ensuring that the game is released on time is of paramount importance to studios and their bean counters. Secondly, and somewhat more cynically, working studio employees harder and therefore shortening the development cycle means less money spent employing full teams of staff per project and a higher bottom line.

Most gamers will be familiar with the EA_spouse essay from 2004. In this letter, Erin Hoffman, then fiancee of EA developer Leander Hasty, highlighted the horrendous labour practices that developers at EA were subjected to. Read the letter. It's a hugely depressing tale of 12 hour days and 7 day working weeks. There was huge attention drawn to this issue at the time and it led to some law suits and some changes to the industry at large. All good right?

Not really. Following the release of Red Dead Redemption, Rockstar were criticised for using excessive crunch time. Mike Capps, president of Epic Games, made comments suggesting that his studio wouldn't employ anyone who wasn't willing to work 60 hours a week. It would seem little has changed. Indeed, if industry insiders are to be believed, the practice has got worse.

There are obvious drawbacks to crunch time. There is a tangible human cost. Individuals who are working an 85 hour week (12 hours a day, 7 days a week) are paying a toll with their physical, mental and emotional health. Working those kinds of hours leave no time for anything short of eating and sleeping. No kids birthdays, no Sunday lunch with the family, no hungover Saturday mornings in bed with the other half. In short - no opportunity to do anything that makes life worth living.

As well as that, it destroys people creatively. The standard 40-hour working week has been shown to generate more employee productivity over an extended period than an increase in hours. The more hours an employee has to work, the less productive they become. And in an industry that relies heavily on creative people being productive, heck, needs creativity to survive, treating game developers in this way is nonsensical. To paraphrase the Ars Technica article, do you think that Clint Eastwood would be directing movies aged 80 if he was expected to work twelve hours a day?

Erin Hoffman aka EA_Spouse

It is also worth noting I'm not talking about a team of developers throwing their weight behind an unplanned game feature that they have to rush to finish before the game launches because, to quote Tenacious D, that's fucking teamwork. I'm talking about treating people like machines.  

One could point out obvious comparisons between games developers and, say, junior doctors who work a similarly punishing schedule. Why should it be any different for games developers? I'm not saying it should, I'm saying that asking an individual to work 80+ hours a week isn't desirable in any profession, but at least there is a possibility of making changes to how the industry operates.

You see, as consumers, we endorse this system. Every single time a studio employs ridiculous crunch time practices, only to see the game in question make millions, we are sending a message. We are saying "Hey, it's ok! Run these men and women into the ground. Show no regard for their wellbeing or that of their families. Just make sure you get that game out in time so I can claim my pre-order bonus. I don't give a fuck about the people who made this product, and I will prove as much by giving you my money." Don't get me wrong; I'm not claiming the moral high ground here. I have bought crunch time games, and because the practice is becoming more pervasive, I will probably do so in future. It also doesn't help that we often don't find out about these tings until well after the game is released, so it is impossible to make an informed choice on release day.

Either way, it makes me feel fucking shit doing so and I would like it to stop.

Personally, I would like to see studios sign up to a voluntary code that ensures their developers are not subjected to unreasonable and damaging crunch time, and that they are properly remunerated for those periods when overtime is unavoidable. Similar to the Fair Trade mark which idenifies genuine fair trade products, a stamp could be awarded to those studios who can prove that their games are ethically produced. It would not only provide reassurance to the consumer, it would also identify those studios whose labour practices are in tune with what we expect from a decent society.

I was recently interviewed for the Culture NI website on whether games can be considered art. It occurs to me that this issue has relevance here.

How can we ever elevate games into an art form if we allow their creators to be treated with such contempt?

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  1. I agree that excessive working hours are not ideal, but the games industry, along with most of the entertainment sector, is a highly competitive place. In all highly competitive industries, people work longer hours because if they don't, there are plenty of people who will jump into their place.
    I don't think that we, as consumers, condone the actions of the publisher by purchasing the game. If anything, we show the developer that their long hours and hard work have been appreciated. Would you rather work an 80-hour work and see your game fail, and be unemployed, or have it laden with accolades, and be congratulated on a job well done?

  2. That's a fair point, and it is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, yes, buying the game is rewarding the developers for their hard work. But it also sends the message to studio bosses that these labour practices are successful. In the linked Ars article, they mention the developers of APB, who after busting their ass in development hell, lost their jobs shortly after release. That isn't a desired result. So boycotting these practices clearly isn't practical.

    At the end of the day, it clearly isn't a desirable state of affairs for developers to run themselves into the ground. It harms the developers and their end product. The only benefits are greater studio profits, and I would like to see studios thinking beyond their bottom line and taking better care of their staff. But that might just be wishful thinking.

    Thanks for your comments!