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.