Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Gamasutra - Features - "Unionize Now?"

If you're a faithful reader of this site (all two of you), you've read my rants about crunch time and about EA's response to the now-famous EA_Spouse. The article linked in the title bar above is from Gamasutra, and it discusses the idea of unionization among game developers. Is it a good idea? I dunno. It's definitely interesting that it's coming up, though.

I won't get too much into the argument, since it's all handled in the article itself, and I won't let you get away without reading it, because it's a good article. Seriously, though, something has to be done, and really, if there's talk of a union, then publishers and developers ought to come together and figure out how it got so bad so quickly.

The main issue here is, really, crunch time. In other businesses, an employee might be asked to work overtime when there is a project due or when the team has fallen behind. In the game industry, crunch time is essentially scheduled into the project and lasts for months at a time. Employees are expected to work 60-100 hours a week for months at a time and to be grateful when the company says, "We know what you're going through, go on home if you're feeling burned out." Yet, when you do go home burned out, or if your burn-out shows in front of your fellow employees, then you can get into trouble for "hurting morale," as if the mandatory hours don't hurt morale enough already. What compensation you get is meager at best; I think I made $1000 in ~$150 monthly bonuses and 5 extra vacation days for 7 months of 60-70 hour weeks. And that's FAR more than most people get for worse schedules. In a previous post, I figured out what I'd be owed if I got time-and-a-half for that time, and if I were making the bare minimum of $8/hour, and it ended up being six times as much. The extra $1000 and 5 days bought my health, my free time, my emotional health, my social relationships, my enthusiasm for the job, and my relationship with my fiance'. To this day I haven't recovered, and I'm trying to combat the feelings of apathy for the job and resentment for the employer that wouldn't accept "I'm exhausted and burned out" as an explanation for performance problems that, clearly and demonstrably, started in about the fourth month of crunch after a sterling three-month review.

Essentially, game developers and publishers ask their staff to hitch themselves to the company wagon and pull, with only the token sugarcube as a reward for all the towing. "I Worked 80 Hours This Week" machismo and blind corporate jingoism aside, that's essentially what they're asking. And it doesn't matter if you're the producer or if you're a temporary QA tester, it's shit to expect people to work so hard for so little payback. Even if you're from one of the "good guys" like I am. My angelic employer only expected 60-80 hours a week for seven months.

Everyone thinks there's no answer to crunch, but I disagree. The answer is out there, and if a company professes to having searching for the answer as a high priority and they haven't found one by now, then they're lying to you. Either they found answers but refuse to use them, or finding an answer isn't a priority.

The number one answer is Better Goddamn Scheduling. Don't schedule with crunch time in mind; see what you can do in the time given you with normal hours. On the project I worked on, active writing and plot work didn't end until after the voice-over was being recorded. In fact, the VO recording sessions marked the deadlines for when a given character's lines had to be locked down. Even in the last week or two before certification began, we had leads saying things like, "No arbitrary lockdown date is going to affect us." We had a major boss change with a month to go in the project, and no one bothered to tell me about it until I got a question from Prima wondering why the boss changed and seeking information for the strategy guide.

So it goes like this: Preproduction, in which you nail down story and a features list as well as possible. Prototyping (possibly the most important step), in which you create versions of the game that work in previous engines or on tabletop. Production, in which you take lessons learned from prototyping and apply them to the actual game engine, developed during the prototyping phase. Post-production, in which you test, test, and test the stuff you did in Production and polish the game so that it looks finished. The game I was just working on never really entered a "post-production" phase, not until there were only weeks left to go before certification. And, as far as I can tell (I wasn't there), the game went through little or no prototyping: No box levels (where designers can place characters and monkey about with the scripting and stuff) or other prototyping efforts.

Also, the production team needs to learn to say "No." A number of features were suggested in the later days of the project, and a fair number of them got okayed for testing. Which meant that someone had to implement them, test them, and then remove them when they didn't work. Add all that wasted work (which wouldn't have been wasted during a prototyping phase) to the fact that the production team had scheduled demos (each of which required its own tiny crunch time from those working on it) to be developed just about every two or three months, taking development effort away from the final project. For example, the first few hours of the game we're putting out were singled out to be a press demo, and so they got the focus from the team and full testing for two or three weeks with only a couple of months left to go before certification. Given that kind of attention, it would have taken fourteen weeks to give that amount of polish to every part of the game, when we only had, at that point, six weeks left, including lockdown and testing. And so, we squeezed fourteen weeks of work into eight weeks.

The real answer to crunch time is just to not do it. If you're scheduling crunch time into the game's schedule, then something is wrong. Hire a scheduling consultant, hire a few more warm bodies for the project's staff, etc. Don't let anyone fool you; if you're counting on your employees to work 60-80 hours a week for more than half a year to get your game done, and if you're not willing to pay them more for the extra work or hire more people so you don't have to work everyone so hard, then you're EXPLOITING YOUR WORKERS. You're saying, "I expect my employees to give of themselves for the company, but I'm not willing to give anything back." The old "But they love their jobs!" excuse doesn't fly any more than my own "I'm exhausted and burned out" excuse did. When people are taking long coffee breaks and thinking about unions, the "job love" excuse is invalidated by the fact that those people do not love their jobs. You're like an abusive spouse taking advantage of its mate's loyalty to keep with the beatings.

Unions are probably not the answer. The answer is to bring down every single publisher and developer who exploits workers in this way, but the public won't get behind that. After all, if Johnny Twelve-Year-Old wants a football game next year, he has to get it from EA. Consumers don't really care about how a game was made, as long as the game's Quality-to-Hype ratio is fairly even. No, change will have to come from the inside.

And so, yay for unions.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Over the past few years there has been a handful of games that, out the outside, looked really cool but that were secretly designed only for alien robot cyborgs from outer space. These games, including such knuckle-exploders as Ninja Gaiden and Devil May Cry 3, are obviously some Last-Starfighterian attempt to recruit our young into military service (or, in this case, ninja service) and not regular play-for-entertainment games of the human variety. Sure, when you play, you feel like a badass for the thirteen-point-seven seconds between instances of the reloading screen, but... well, there are no legends of ninjas flipping off walls, slicing people in half, and reloading several times per mission because some white-ninja mook killed them.

Sure, there have been a couple of games that were both awesomely cool in combat and accessible by those of use without two thumbs on each hand. Legacy of Kain: Defiance was one of them. You can do so many cool things (and do so, repeatedly, ad nauseam) that you almost forget that you're doing it in the same level over and over. Crystal Dynamics knew they were dealing with a badass vampire lord, not some spoiled, washed-out newbie hoping to save the world. So you could swing a big sword, telekinetically toss people around, perform huge combos, and drink blood from across the room. Fricking awesome, right? Imagine what would happen if someone combined that sort of empowerment with, like, more than one level!

In God of War, you are a mighty warrior, chosen of Ares, charged with destroying the God of War himself. Doing this requires, as you might imagine, mowing down wave after wave of evil bad guys, many of which were ripped from Greek mythology and had their togas and sandals replaced with AWESOME. Kratos (you) does this with a pair of bigass swords chained to his arms, but he could just as easily do it just by bludgeoning things to death with his scrotum, because he drips awesome from every pore. He's even bald, and he has a goatee, too, and big unicolor tattoos. In the beginning of the game, he wakes up with two naked women in his bed, and he's unsatisfied because his awesomeness is too much for two naked women. The developers could have just as easily replaced the model for Kratos with the word "AWESOME" and had the word "AWESOME" wield two bigass swords (or a scrotum).

The thing is, Kratos' awesomeness comes across in gameplay. Moments from the beginning of the game, you're grabbing enemies and tearing them in half. And you're doing this before the tutorial text tells you how to do it, because the combat is so intuitive (once you get past the fact that X is jump and not the main attack) that you can generally figure things out on your own. So, minutes after you start the game, you're fighting hordes of dudes, tearing them in half, and doing insane air-juggle combos that would make Soul Calibur's Maxi go, "Good lord man, just chill."

Then you see the genius of the balancing system. Every time you get comfortable, they toss in a new monster. First it's the minotaur, which does all sorts of blocking and isn't in any way simple to kill. You first run into two of them, and you have to figure out how to win. Things like parrying (which is what happens when you time a block perfectly, and which is insanely simple to discover and perform) become important when the enemy isn't just loafing about like the undead dudes you fight at first. Then you get the mini-game symbol, which brings you into a "kill it" mini-game that is different for each type of enemy (Minotaurs require rapid button presses, gorgons require rotating the analog stick according to prompted patterns, etc.), and if you kill an enemy that way, you get a specific power-up reward (Minotaurs always give Health). Essentially, every time you see a new enemy, there's a real sense of, "Well, damn, how the hell do I beat that," coupled with a likewise real feeling of, "Guess I better just get to work." The challenges in the game generally feel daunting-yet-doable, and the cannon-fodder battles are just enough to remind you that you are a badass, no matter how badly that stompy ogre with the jawbone club clobbers you.

One amazing thing about the game is that it is apologetically epic in scope. Before you even finish the tutorial mission, you meet up with the hydra and beat it up. Soon thereafter, you enter Athens, which has been attacked by Ares and his minions. You beat up a few minions and work your way into the town, and there you see Ares, all 200 stories of him, stomping about and tossing people around. The scale is such that Athens seems like a puddle to him, and the people are like little tiny bugs. The hydra was huge (at no point does the entire hydra, or even any two of its heads, fit onscreen at the same time), but Ares is a monster. And you get to fight him. Again, "Well, damn, how the hell do I beat that?"

I have never played a game that made me feel so awesome and insignificant at the same time. Kratos shoves aside ogres and minotaurs; he wields Medusa's head as a weapon against his foes; he has the attention of the other gods, who hate Ares but won't break Olympian policy by directly waging war on him; and he sleeps with two naked women at the beginning of the game (oh, and they are really naked; somehow, Sony got away with naked boobies in God of War). On the other hand, his enemy is a god to whom Kratos himself is roughly the size of a horsefly with no flight ability or annoying buzzing sound. Knowing how awesome Kratos is only helps you anticipate how awesome your enemies must be. Oh well. Guess you better just get to work.

And that's the trick. God of War doesn'y rely on making you learn the hardcore ins and outs of the system to win. When you beat it on super-hard difficulty, no spaceship from ancient Greece is going to come and conscript you into taking on Ares for real. The game is pretty, intuitive, empowering, and cool, and you don't have to be part of that 1% of gamers who don't mind reloading 25 times to get past the first boss.

Well, damn. How the hell will anyone beat that?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005


If you don't know anything about the game business, there is one thing to know: E3. If you know a little bit more, there's another: GDC.

E3 is the Electronic Entertainment Expo. In theory, it is supposed to be an industry-only show in which game publishers show off their wares to buyers. E3 was meant so that EB and GameStop can know what Actision is up to this year. In practice it is the ultimate masturbatory fantasy orgy for the video game industry, where the idea of rich publishers owning the world is reinforced by huge-ass booths full of hired porn stars who pretend to like sweaty journalists and half-drunken buyers.

GDC is the Game Developers' Conference. In the past, you could describe the event by reading its name out loud. You have keynote speeches, some game demos and stuff, and tons of classes and workshops about how to become a better game developer.

In recent years, though, many publishers have begun to see how useless E3 is as far as getting the good word out to gamers. The gaming press HATES E3, except in the way in which it tweaks their horny gaming fanboy vibe. They hate covering the event, but they like to go because the convention center is full of Pamela Anderson clones who can somehow manage to pretend the press members are sexy. The publishers have realized that to a journalist, E3 is a drunken flurry of hot chicks and loud noises, interspersed with a handful of games that the press remembers because the hype was so huge that the games managed to punch through the din.

For the past few years, the publishers have been making special "Editors' Days" in which they take a full day (or two) in April and show off their E3 titles. Then, when the press shows up at their booth at E3, no one has to do anything but go through the motions and promptly forget.

Some publishers, however, have set their sights on GDC. It's perfect! GDC is held in San Jose, California, in mid March. It's a place teeming with game developers, some of which don't even get out to E3. It's the home of the annual Independent Game Festival, in which the little guy gets a bit of recognition. It's also cheaper and perfectly timed to be a test-run for E3.

This year, apparently, Microsoft gave away a thousand HDTVs at its keynote speech. Meanwhile, Nintendo staged a bit in which six people came onstage and played Mario Kart DS over wireless network with Nintendo's president and Bill Trinen. At the end of Nintendo's bit, they asked the participants for the DSes back.

I've heard people bringing this situation up and using it to comment on Nintendo's stinginess. Nintendo is, indeed, pathologically weird about who gets their materials and when and for how long, but in the end, it's Nintendo's prerogative, because it's their materials. But I think people are looking in the wrong direction. I don't think Nintendo's wanting the DSes back is so odd. I think Microsoft's handing out a thousand TVs at a game developers' industry conference was a bit inappropriate.

It's jsut dirty. Here we have all these starving game developers who are taking time out of their busy schedules of working 80 hours a week to hang out at a conference for 14 hours a day. Some of these people can influence decisions as to what platform their team develops for. Some of them might even be up for grabs to a hungry publisher. Meanwhile, Microsoft is handing out free TVs... and not just TVs, but thousand-dollar TVs. Microsoft took a keynote speech (which was essentially an ad for the next Xbox) and made it a bribe-fest, while simultaneously making Nintendo look like misers for not handing out the DS systems they rightfully owned.

For those who are confused, here's a breakdown: E3 is for handing out free shit and giving the industry a hand job. GDC is for getting together with other developers and trading ideas on how to make better games. Just to keep things straight.

When you go to GDC, you're a developer hoping to connect with other developers and learn something. When you go to GDC and receive a free TV from Microsoft, you're now a gleeful consumer who got something for free. To some extent, one that differs for each person, you've been bought by Microsoft. If you're there to learn something or teach something, as opposed to being there to win something, then you lose. If you're there to win something, then don't fucking go.

Enh. I really have no problem if Microsoft wants to hand out TVs to people and buy a certain percentage of the developer population (they own a lot of them anyway). My problem is that people are seeing this and thinking that Nintendo is a bunch of stingy bastards. It's like someone pulling out a machine gun during a boxing match. You don't think, "Oh man, Henrico Rodriguez Gonzales is a shitty fighter because he's boxing without a gun!" The gun-guy isn't a pioneer changing the face of the sport, he's a moron playing unfairly. That sort of thing would threaten boxing as a sport, just like this sort of high-profile press-moment nonsense threatens the usefulness of GDC as a developers' conference, as opposed to a pre-E3 hype factory.

Stop fucking co-opting things for your greedy personal use, publishers. Let some things exist as they are. Let GDC be a boring (for outsiders) conference at which developers trade ideas and come away better developers. You already took over E3, so let those of us who care about the QUALITY of games keep GDC. You can make your own pre-E3 thing and call it "Industry Wankfest No-Fans-Allowed *Wink* Conference 2047."

Don't kill GDC, you bastards.

Monday, March 14, 2005

"Here's a bone, suckers," says EA

Is antone still out there? If so, read this: Gamasutra - News

My favorite part: Rusty Rueff sez, "The employment environment at EA was built to allow you flexibility as professionals, with the expectation that time on the job could be managed without watching the clock. Unfortunately, labor laws have not kept pace with this spirit of entrepreneurialism, innovation and creativity."

Goddamnit, Rusty. You just don't get it. When you have so many of your employees casting about looking for fairness, you come up with this shit. So now, any employees eligable for overtime pay become hourly workers with a strict schedule and "very structured work days." Now, anyone who accepts overtime pay is no longer eligible for bonuses or options.

Damnit, Rusty. You and EA are criminal geniuses.

EA's options are violently worthwhile. The company, despite its inner evil, makes money hand over fist. Its games sell a lot, and thus its bonuses are pretty high. Is that worth more than the appropriate overtime? Nah. Does it make going hourly a tough sell for an employee? You betcha.

Adding up my crunch time, I'd say I have... roughly more than 500 hours of overtime in the last seven months. If I were making $8/hour normally (I assume I make more than that), that overtime would come out to $6000 assuming time-and-a-half. The EA employees making the fuss were probably working more like 80 hours a week, so $13,420. That's on a wage that is approaching minimum. I imagine that the folks at EA would be getting at least $40/hour with time-and-a-half based on their current salaries. Now we're talking huge money.

Now, EA will take this into account. They will do complex calculations to make sure they aren't paying their employees that much money. They'd probably take the amount they pay someone now and figure out how much that is per hour for an 80-hour week, then work it out from there. Without painting EA as evil, it just makes sense. After all, we're talking about paying each hourly employee another 50% or so of his or her salary.

So, EA employees, look this over closely, and don't believe Rusty Rueff's bullshit about how this is an insult to you. What you're essentially doing is giving up the ability to amble in at 10 am in return for what is likely to be notably more money. MAKE EA pay you overtime, folks. The industry is watching you, and all of us who worked all the extra hours are cheering for you. Rusty Rueff makes it look like the evil California labor laws are trying to bring you down. Don't listen. Don't move to Florida. Don't let them showhorn you into a sweatshop. Because man, if you leave EA, there are tons of good places that would love to hire an old EA guy. Seriously.

Dude, win. Because until there's a union for game developers, you are the little guys' only hope.