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Epic Marches On

Posted April 5th, 2009. Filed under ,

How did I miss this kerfuffle? Apparently the head of Epic said that he purposely hires devs that he thinks will work 60+ hour weeks and that it is expected as part of their corporate culture to do so. Except that he apparently followed these practices while a board member of the IGDA, an organization formed to support developers. Oops.

In this post-EA_Spouse era, studio heads should probably be a little smarter concerning how they openly and knowingly trade their charges quality of life to fulfill their dreams of working in a creative industry. Most studios know to just put out meaningless statements that say how hard they strive to achieve quality of life goals*. Where the asterisk should lead to a footnote that says: “Unless it is perceived to affect the bottom line.”

And here in 2009 everyone knows that working in game development means long hours. The sort of entitlement philosophy that many (including Costikyian in the linked article) hold that say a forty-hour week is their right is absurd. But what is also absurd is the assumption that “long hours” in this industry is the measure instead of productivity. That we work eighty-hour weeks in alpha or near milestones shouldn’t be expected, it should be a consequence of poor planning, poor execution or both. Developers don’t like to hear about iterative design because it means more throwaway work and longer periods of uncertainty which always leads to running out of time. So plan for it.

Nowhere is “nature abhors a vacuum” more prevalent than in our industry. Where is the drive to plan successfully or code super-cleanly when that just means that the hours saved will be filled with more tasks down the road? The elephant in the room is that we schedule to 200%, work ourselves to death and then mark the remaining features unimplemented as unimportant and the remaining bugs as shippable. And nearly everyone I know in the industry at various studios works this way. Why? Because everyone else does it?

Entrepreneurs work their asses off to run a business or create a product or service. Why? Because they can see and reap the benefits of their sweat. But we designers and developers work extra for what – a bonus dependent on the stock price which itself is independent of the quality of our work? At least the truly rank-and-file sometimes get overtime. Forced overtime beyond a certain threshold should be paid extra, even to salaried employees. This would eliminate the “free labor” that many studios seem to want to exploit by working flat-rate employees until they drop.

It makes sense that the businessmen want the highest return on their investment. The rank-and-file want their projects to succeed too. It’s kind of sad that one has to come at the expense of the other though. And in this economy expect it only to get worse – there are hundreds of resumes pouring in for every open position and certainly one would rather work sixty hour weeks at a forty hour salary than continue to be unemployed.

Just remind me not to apply at Epic.

2 Responses so far

  1. Greg C. says:

    Zack:

    I don’t actually think a 40 hour week is “my right,” but I do think it should be the default assumption of management. If there’s a deadline looming, and I’m asked (nicely) to spend more hours to make sure we meet it, I’ll certainly do so, assuming we’re talking about a 6 week crunch, and not a 6-month deathmarch. But I’m damned if I’m going to be told that I’m working “mandatory” weekends and 60 hours are expected of me henceforth. In fact, even the demand is idiotic; a somewhat shame-faced plea to help out in hard times is a lot likelier to get a positive response, and not only from me. You catch more flies with honey, and so forth.

    Of course, I’m also senior enough that I take a dyspeptic view of this kind of thing; -I- could have planned your development process well enough to avoid a 6-month deathmarch, and if you can’t, then you’re damn well incompetent, and I don’t see any real reason to agree. Not that I’m holding myself out as a super-producer; I’ve met a lot of people I’d rather have as producer than me. But this kind of thing is a clear indication of poor management, not lazy developers, and ought to be treated as such.

    The assumption that developers are going to spend absurd hours has deleterious impacts that you’ve only begun to cover. Among other things, as people acquire expensive habits, like, say, spouses and children, they simply cannot continue to behave like unmarried 20-somethings. Which means that if you continue to adhere to draconian scheduling, you will ultimately lose your more experienced talent. In any other industry, that would be viewed as a negative.

    For my part, I -will- cook, get dinner on the table, and clean up. Every day. So I will be leaving at 6 at the latest. And very likely going back online at 8 or 9, and spending another 4 hours working, at crunch times at least. And getting up at 7:30 to get my youngest to school, and not showing up until 9.

    An employer who can’t deal with that does not deserve my loyalty.

  2. Zack says:

    I think we agree more that you think. Nobody is in favor of half-assed planning and the reason most projects are put into death marches is either designers that think every task should take two hours at the most and producers who play along, management-types who don’t know what they want or producers who think they can get away with putting their charges on death marches because they’ve always gotten away with it in the past.

    But the question is: what’s to stop the company from only hiring unmarried twenty-somethings like Epic apparently does? Certainly shaming companies won’t work and as long as it is the status quo to work like slaves, that’s how it will be.

    In my last job, when I’d cause a stink over something or another one of my many bosses told me “You work in video games. Just be glad you aren’t *insert shitty job here*. And I knew that – everyone had it in the back of their minds. Working in games is exciting, so you put up with bullshit to do it. And the folks in charge know that and exploit that.

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