Video game industry and crunch time

19 posts / 0 new
Last post
flaneur's picture
flaneur
Offline
Joined: 25-02-09
Jan 21 2010 23:02
Video game industry and crunch time

Yet another spouse has written a public account of the conditions their partner is experiencing working for a video games company, following one about EA a few years ago. Dunno if that was ever posted about, but these stories when they come out are pretty grim and shed light on the madness that is unique in some respects to the video game industry. The crunch time period, that workers have to endure during the end of a game's production is absolutely mental, often being more than 5 days a week and more than full time hours for a lengthy period of time without overtime pay. I think the poster 888 is a video game tester, don't suppose anyone else in in the industry here?

Incidentally, Rockstar are having trouble getting two of their games out on time in what articles say is related to poor conditions.

http://uk.gamespot.com/news/6246424.html?om_act=convert&om_clk=hot-stories&tag=hot-stories;title;2 and http://uk.gamespot.com/news/6245225.html.

RedHughs
Offline
Joined: 25-11-06
Jan 22 2010 02:59

I haven't been able to get a job in the computer industry recently due to my unwillingness to work 12 hour days (I'm in gaming in particular).

I wonder if anyone can keep tabs on the number of formerly "middle jobs" which now pay at or below $20/hour based on the actual hours put in.

$80K/year at 12 hours/day = ~$20/hour
$80K/year at 18 hours/day = ~$13/hour,

These rates might be better than some retail but basically sucks considering the mental and physical exhaustion involved.

Django's picture
Django
Offline
Joined: 18-01-08
Jan 22 2010 08:22

One of my friends lives next door to a worker in the video game industry, and apparently the "crunch time" period is industry standard and part and parcel of working on games. He was describing how workers took their sleeping bags into the office to get one of the recent Harry Potter games out on time neutral

One of the guys in the Yes Men used to be a programmer at Maxis, and coded some hidden features into Sim Copter in protest against the working conditions there. Details here. So it not a new phenomenon in the industry.

flaneur's picture
flaneur
Offline
Joined: 25-02-09
Jan 22 2010 12:25

You do have to wonder why people work in the industry, interested in what they produce or not. Rockstar's name being in the mud again is no surprise, as they shut down their Vienna office a year or two ago, in a really charming manner; locking the doors one morning when workers tried to get in with security guards outside.

And yeah, crunch time is an inevibility of the process. One horror story in particular I read was for an arcade game that was never released called Tattoo Assasins. The name was an indication of how shit this thing was, a arcade rip off of Mortal Kombat. My favourite thing about this game is how a character is meant to resemble Nancy Kerrigan, the Olympic ice skater who was attacked in 1994. [url=http://www.bunnyears.net/tattoo/Accounts from both a tester and developer[/url] on the game are at the bottom of the page.

And cheers for the link, Django. I don't recall reading that about Simcopter.

Tojiah's picture
Tojiah
Offline
Joined: 2-10-06
Jan 22 2010 12:04

Interestingly, it is the spouses who are organizing against this, not the workers themselves.

flaneur's picture
flaneur
Offline
Joined: 25-02-09
Jan 22 2010 12:37

Well take the case of that Tattoo Assassins, it was a shit game competing in a time where 2D fighting games had reached their apex. It was pretty much dead in the water. If anything, going by the developer's account, it just made conditions worse. With the two recent cases at Rockstar, people are working on fairly big games there so I would be inclined to say no.

ToJ, think this is the heart of the issue with the industry; if you're not willing to do it, such is the demand that there will be numerous people willing to take your place. Organising is definitely possible in the industry but I imagine it would be extremely difficult.

flaneur's picture
flaneur
Offline
Joined: 25-02-09
Jan 22 2010 14:18

Came across this just now, a fairly detailed account of how shit things were at Rockstar New York City, by a web designer, from 2007.

Steven.'s picture
Steven.
Offline
Joined: 27-06-06
Jan 22 2010 17:08

I suppose it's like a lot of creative industry jobs - because theoretically you might enjoy the kind of thing you're doing, there will be lots of people that want to do it. My housemate works in the music industry, and does ridiculous hours with unpaid overtime. My ex was a journalist, who worked for months for free, etc.

Whereas probably most jobs are just jobs, nobody would want to do them, they just need a wage - like me, an administrator, or like street sweepers, data entry clerks, call centre workers, etc

Yorkie Bar
Offline
Joined: 29-03-09
Jan 22 2010 20:07

Interesting. My dad works for a software developer (not in games) and I definitely recognise the symptoms: multiple all-nighters, sleeping bag under desk, etc.

888's picture
888
Offline
Joined: 30-09-03
Jan 23 2010 04:17

I did work at Nintendo for a year (2007), doing testing and proofreading in French. The workforce was made up of a few permanent testers and managers along with a much larger number of temps. Some of the "temps" had actually worked there for several years, but every year they were laid off for a month then re-hired in order to get around laws that mean long term temp employees are entitled to the same benefits permanent employees receive. Nintendo was praised by the state governor, Gregoire, for providing a high level of benefits for its employees despite the fact that the majority of workers there are temps who receive no benefits at all.

The managers were patronising arseholes who spent more time tallying how many minutes people were late than anything else and discussing World of Warcraft strategy with their favoured underlings. The game testers were looked down upon by the "professional" permanent employees and were specifically de-invited from some celebration or other of Nintendo's success on one occasion, which was particularly insulting. There was a high school atmosphere, fostered by the management as much or more than it derived from the youth of some of the testers. The pay was low ($10/h, slightly higher for bilingual testers).

Despite all this it was still fairly enjoyable to work there, most of the time - compared to, say, doing data entry or similar office work, since we were playing games after all - albeit in a very specialised, repetitive manner. The enjoyment level was very dependent on the type of game being tested. The temporary and precarious nature of the work, the fan-like nature of some employees and the division between temps and perms meant I could not see any opportunities for collective struggle at the time, although if I returned now (very unlikely) with slightly greater experience and confidence I might be able to envision a few opportunities. I also worked in the warehouse doing assembly line packing of Wii boxes, where the largely immigrant workforce are treated worse.

I was fortunate enough to experience "crunch time" only once - and the game being tested was the great Super Mario Galaxy. I believe we worked nine to eleven hour days every day of the week for three weeks. Due to the nature on Nintendo, the crunch time pressures are experienced more severely at the software development companies and in the Japanese headquarters, I believe. Fortunately I was not a salaried employee, so I benefited from overtime during this period. Since it was only once, for a limited period, with a good game, and I had no family obligations, the crunch time was tolerable for me.

Boris Badenov
Offline
Joined: 25-08-08
Jan 23 2010 05:03

Jesus playing Super Mario for 11 hours straight is the very definition of torture imo.

ludd's picture
ludd
Offline
Joined: 4-05-09
Jan 25 2010 07:10

Here's a slashdot discussion about this story if you are interested: http://games.slashdot.org/story/10/01/23/177206/Rockstar-Employees-Badly-Overworked-Say-Wives?art_pos=9&art_pos=9

Slashdot is a site read by many IT workers (most vocal are programmers and sysadmins I think, but many different kinds of IT workers use it who are technology enthusiasts). The kind of responses I am seeing there now are unimaginable even 1 year ago. I recall that in the early 2000s, when some issues related to work or labor politics were discussed most responses had a very individualistic and "libertarian" (pro-market) tone. On that site readers can rate each discussion post up or down and the responses in favor of unions or collective bargaining typically were getting rated down (and automatically hidden due to low score), while many pro-business responses were rated highly. A common problem was (and still is) outsourcing of jobs to India and the common proposed solutions were to get new skills, to learn business side of things (i.e. get an MBA), move to China, or possibly to support laws that reduce visas for foreign high tech workers in the field. Collective action was not discussed except as unions, which were mostly seen as harmful.

Since conditions, status and pay for these workers have been slowly getting worse (longer hours of thankless work) doctrinaire "libertarians" were gradually getting less of a hearing and more moderate responses were getting voted up. Things were slowly getting better during Bush years and the 2009 financial crisis turned many people around. "Libertarians" started getting voted down and were mocked for their ridiculous faith in free markets. People started discussing collective bargaining more and different pro/con union perspectives were getting more even hearing.

There were two interesting stories recently about that kind of stuff. A month ago there was a story about some IT helpdesk workers being told to wear uniforms (a demoralizing drop in status for many). Slightly later slashdoters were discussing a report that the majority of IT centers in companies were understaffed. Many slashdoters said the report confirmed their experiences of hectic work schedules and overtime. Most responses were about measuring "understaffing" and not about work conditions, but both pro and anti union voices had a good hearing. Futhermore, many of the anti-union points made were not deeply ideological ("libertarian"), but based on shitty experiences with corrupt American unions.

The story in the link above is unusual, since the union question is the major part of the discussion. Better yet, many of the posters are questioning how their relate to their companies and their coworkers. More people are talking about this as being a "workers issue" and not "game developers issue". I don't mean to overstate importance or degree of this change in tone, but from having read Slashdot (sadly, not so much from talking to actual real living people) it seems like the free-marketeers are gone for now and folks are open to collective action like never before. On the other hand, it could also be just a temporary outrage to a single story of terrible abusive work, though I doubt "libertarians" will be given much hearing any time soon.

P.S. I worked as a game programmer for a while. Other workers spend their time in cubicles and didn't talk much. The lights were always turned down, so it was very dark in those cubicles. I was pretty miserable. Collective action was helping your buddy get a job in a better company. I was pretty isolated from everyone, mostly cause I'm not very outgoing and being miserable makes it harder for me to talk to people. Also, it felt like very few things were acceptable non-work topics for conversation - food being the biggest. That made interactions with people more depressing. Then I got laid off and soon after the studio got shut down. I didn't have any crunch time luckily (and I avoided any extra work), but some of the "better" workers would come in for weekends. I don't want to work in the game industry ever again.

Tojiah's picture
Tojiah
Offline
Joined: 2-10-06
Jan 25 2010 22:06

Even Penny Arcade have something unpleasant to say about game testing, making fun of Sony's new "Tester" reality show. Coincidence?

Auto's picture
Auto
Offline
Joined: 12-04-09
May 4 2010 21:49

Thought I'd write a post on this, as my life has taken a turn in this direction. I apologise for the long rambling post... this is something of a political stream of consciousness. Just in case no one reaches the bottom, I'm definitely up for organising in the industry if anyone else is...

I've now been working in the industry as a tester for about 6 months now, working for a company that deals mainly in third-party software but has recently branched out into games development. If I'm honest, I've not found it too bad... though I think that's more to do with the company itself and the people around me than the job... it's very small for a game studio, so there's a proportionately smaller volume of shit falling down from the upper echelons than at the big studios. Our manager in the test team is alright... he's been in Testing/Production for some ten years, and I get the feeling he's a tester first, manager second.

As for crunch time, I won't lie, it can be hard. During crunch time, I was working 8am - 8pm most days over about a month-long period -including most weekends. We stayed later on deadline/submission days, with about 10 O'Clock being the latest. Now I know from anecdotes that this is not late by industry horror story standards. One of my fellow Testers told me that at the last place she worked, 10pm would be considered an early finish. Our manager has told us that he once worked three days without going home.

Which brings us to why people do it. Our overtime was actually voluntary... it was considered beneficial to the project if you stayed late. I noticed a division in the workforce with regards to overtime. Everyone who stayed late wanted, to a greater or lesser extent, to pursue a career in the games industry. Those who didn't stay, were generally just doing it as a stopgap job and didn't much care for the industry.

We were actually better off doing overtime than the permanent staff, as contract employees we got paid extra for our overtime - the salaried workers didn't, and some of those guys did more overtime than us. We're talking working late at work and then working from home as well.

However, now all of us contract workers are worried. The project is wrapping up, the testing work is beginning to dry up... and we face the prospect of unemployment. The tester's job is by definition fleeting. Most business models have testers brought in just for the end of a game project, then wring as much overtime out of them as possible before the inevitable sacking. There are other proposed methods... such as the Agile method of game production, which argues the case for having 'Embedded' testers, people who are permanent employees at a company and are involved in testing, test planning and general production assistant duties from the beginning. Despite the fact that this method seems to potentially produce happier employees, greater job security, and fewer problems to firefight down the line, it is still very rare in the face of the traditional method, most likely because it's more expensive.

This is one reason why people are willing to work such crazy hours in the games industry. It's not just testers that have to worry about this, even the permanent devs have to fear it... every time a project ends, they have to worry about whether or not there'll be another project afterwards. Depending on how badly your company is run, you may even be worried about whether there'll be a company left... So in turn, everyone gives their everything to their work in the hope they'll be kept on.

But the one thought I can't avoid is that it doesn't have to be like this. The games industry is filled with creative, dedicated people. People who like games, playing games and making games. The main problems, in my eyes, come from the pressures emerging from the profit motive. For example, the constant drive for games to have all the bright, shiny new features that publishers want (irrespective of whether it was in the initial design scope) while at the same time getting the game out the door quickly for a fast turnaround and a nice tidy profit. If this means driving the workforce into the ground, then so be it.

Now when it comes to organising in the games industry, I would be all for it. The industry most definitely needs it. My thoughts are that it would have to be done secretly, or at least not out in the open. Bosses in most of the games industry are very much anti-union and watch out for that kind of thing like hawks, My other thought is that how do you organise about people like Testers. They are definitely the most 'Proletarian' of all the games industry positions, definitely the bottom rung on the ladder... but how do you organise among people who may only be employed for a few months at a time and then be out of the industry?

Mike Harman
Offline
Joined: 7-02-06
Jun 11 2010 06:02

I haven't read this whole thread yet, but in the comments on http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/RockstarSpouse/20100107/4032/Wives_of_Rockstar_San_Diego_employees_have_collected_themselves.php I found

Quote:
Sharing information about your workplace - this site was set up by an ex-game dev guy:

http://yourworkplace.biz/

It needs some wider commitment to make it really beat; many companies' stats aren't displayed because of the rule that 5 employees' votes are needed every period in order to have enough data.

I've also just had a poke at glassdoor.com, and found it hard to find a specific company. It also presses you for your own user contribution before it'll let you investigate its database further.

How about collaborating to safely share information on what our employers are like?

I work remotely as a web developer (at the programming end of it since the past year or two), and the patterns here look very similar to me - same as BigLittleJ pointed out. Working remotely I have more control over my time than in an office, but it's possible (especially remotely and in a different timezone) to start work at 9am and finish at 4am during crunches, can take breaks in the middle and have a degree of control over work intensity but the pattern is the same.

I'm full time at one job at the moment, but when I was doing a lot more short contracts / part time freelancing at multiple companies etc., the main idea I'd had was something along the lines of http://yourworkplace.biz/ - was thinking more about a private discussion forum for comparing rates/working conditions but the public rating doesn't seem a bad idea either.

Will read the thread later, but I'd say exactly the same issues face workers on any kind of software project (deadlines, scope creep, long hours, various strange mixtures of contract / temporary / full-time / part-time employment). More later.

medwards's picture
medwards
Offline
Joined: 9-01-09
Jun 11 2010 10:17

Hey, just thought I'd pitch in a couple of thoughts:
First off - the change in tone on Slashdot *is* huge. These guys were traditionally middle-to-right libertarians who would poo-poo even the small measure of collective good that open source achieves (preferring to see it in terms of improved market performance). I have also heard reports that recent hacker conferences have had prominent "SQUAT/OCCUPY EVERYTHING" banners. So far in Europe I have seen a correlation between open source users and left-libertarian values that doesn't exist in North America (there being a strong split between left-libertarian interpretations of free software and right-libertarian of open source). Anyways, my point is that the point of view shift on /. is really important to me and I try to keep my finger on the pulse of it. I think it has a lot ot do with the maturing of the industry, as a comrade pointed out we're not really an industry right now so much as optimized artisans.

Anyways, on to the game industry specific stuff. I don't work in the industry (in reality a sector of entertainment with close functional/social ties to a variety of trades) but I have friends who do. I don't know the specifics but there was a functioning video game union that crossed trade boundaries but it ultimately failed to gain traction within the workforce and my friend ultimately dropped out when he recognized it had no functional power. He considers his workplace somewhat more worker-oriented than others but I inquired about a recently announced release date for a game that struck me as awfully fast and he and others confirmed that it was going to be a crunchy release.

There was a forum started in the aftermath of EA_Spouse that I crawled for a little while, but it seemed more oriented towards initiatives like the IGDA's 'good workplace' charters which were like "Hey, these things are healthy for your workers and you should honour them" which are about as defensible as the Maginot Line. The general tone on the forums seemed to treat this mission statement material with great gravitas so I dropped out after awhile. Later some RockStar spouses complained and it was obvious that the IGDA stuff only had lasting impact as long as there was a recent spouse scandal in memory.

Anyways, in general, IT is difficult to organize because of an institutionalized belief in professionalism as meeting your commitment to the boss. A strike in IT would be as trivial as shutting down the servers 'for maintenance' but this idea strikes people as grossly unprofessional. Ultimately they artificially paint themselves into a corner where there are no actions that they see as legitimate and can actually influence the boss. Then they give up because they believe there are no other workable options. Then we're back to 'collective action is helping your friend find a job at a better place' which I have contributed to as extensively as possible!

flaneur's picture
flaneur
Offline
Joined: 25-02-09
Nov 5 2010 17:16

Another anonymous account of working for EA came out this week.

Understandably, the employers are surprised. After all, they "just won a top 100 employers award".

Anarchia's picture
Anarchia
Offline
Joined: 18-03-06
Jul 24 2011 04:13

Article in today's NZ Herald, the biggest newspaper in New Zealand.

Quote:
No fun and games for 'zombie-like' employees
By Andre Hueber
5:30 AM Sunday Jul 24, 2011

A programmer at an Auckland-based computer game company has alleged staff were forced to work extraordinary hours - including a case where one worker clocked up more than 24 hours in a row.

Former Gameloft head studio programmer Glenn Watson has complained to the Department of Labour, which is deciding whether it needs to investigate.

Gameloft, a French-owned company with about 70 staff working from its Parnell headquarters, makes games primarily for mobile phone devices based on movies like Avatar and Harry Potter.

Watson claims he worked up to 120 hours a week and his colleagues walked around like "drained zombies".

"I'd often start work at 9.30am, go home at 2.30am and then come back to the office at 8.30am." He said one employee worked 36 hours in a row.

Watson said performance dropped and people started making mistakes.

"Fatigue doesn't help when you're doing a technical job."

He said he complained to management which failed to address his concerns.

The programmer's claims have been reported on gaming industry websites.

Despite a visit to the Parnell building, and calls to marketing officials in Australia, there was no comment from Gameloft to the Herald on Sunday.

The Department of Labour confirmed it had received a complaint. A spokesman said legislation did not stipulate the maximum number of hours an employee could work but working excessive hours could lead to health and safety issues.

A Gameloft employee, who asked not to be named, said a clause in their contracts allowed for a "reasonable amount" of unpaid overtime.

By Andre Hueber | Email Andre

flaneur's picture
flaneur
Offline
Joined: 25-02-09
Mar 26 2012 22:30

Someone just got the heave ho from Rockstar so decided to leak a load of information about the new GTA.

http://www.computerandvideogames.com/341349/rumour-gta-v-protagonist-map-details-leaked/