Home Editorial Sweat Shop Developers: Road to Redemption

A casual stroll through the virtual streets of Liberty City, Renaissance Italy, or Post-WWII Los Angeles yields universes of magnificent detail and proportions.

So much so that one LA-Noire reviewer gushed, “I spent half an hour poking around a superlatively realized Los Angeles Art Museum. The billboards in this game, advertising products such as Cola King, EV-R-Mint Gum, Alaco Gas, and Valor Cigarettes, deserve their own making-of documentary. The civic research alone that backstops L.A. Noire is frightful to contemplate.”

However, it is a tragic fact that the majority of gamers would play through the game without so much as a glance towards the painstaking detail and effort put in by the developers in their re-creation of this historically and culturally-vibrant city, even a city that has been brought back to life after 60 long years of slumber.

How many of us would really take a step back from this immersive world and ask ― at what cost was this made possible? How much sacrifice was made for us, the consumers, to enjoy such a marvelous work? The hours of sleep lost by a faceless coder frantically trying to make the latest deadline? The regular family Sundays someone spent researching the exact geographical locations of an office building instead of playing catch with the kids?

Ever since the infamous “EA Spouse Blog” detailing a studio-wide 85-hour work week with constant pressure and ever-increasing stress, the public has slowly but gradually increased its awareness and acknowledgment of the insane amount of work put in by the developers under excruciating working conditions.  Said EA Spouse, “The stress is taking its toll. After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off, fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially…. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing.”


What’s a gamer’s responsibility?

Some gamers may respond, “Who cares? LA Noire was one of the best games I’ve played in a long time. If people had to bust their asses to make it, so be it. I paid good money for it and I deserve an excellent product.” But for every successful blockbuster hit, there are probably hundreds and thousands of games which failed because of poor working conditions and organizational management. As Kellee Santiago (co-founder of Thatgamecompany and responsible for the 2006 hit Flow and 2009 hit Flower) noted:

“I think gamers should care [about this issue] as much as anyone who supports the arts and/or entertainment should care,” she says. “The act of creating anything is, in and of itself, a strenuous process. The better the quality of life developers can have during that process, the better the games are that come out from that process. I see the sacrifices in video game experiences that are made because the development team simply couldn’t support through their crunching-six-days-a-week-12-hours-a-day-for-9-months-straight development schedule. I see extremely talented game developers who have to quit game development because of burnout. If we, as gamers, support games with more sustainable development processes, we ensure better video games in the years to come.”

Another prominent industry figure, game attorney Tom Buscaglia, had this to say: “If gamers think there’s a disconnect between the quality of life of the people who make games and the quality of the games they make, they’re sadly mistaken.”

To continue with the LA Noire example, only a few months ago it was revealed that there were serious workflow problems within the developer Team Bondi (ironically, Bondi Beach, located in Sydney, Australia and one of the hottest tourist relaxation spots in the world, is the backdrop for such issues) including excessive ‘crunch’ time development, the absence of overtime pay, and poor leadership. Within two months, Team Bondi was placed into administration, and now it’s been reported that the developer will be closing shop completely due to unpaid wages and other debts totaling in excess of 1.4 million Australian dollars.

A Team Bondi developer, relaxing at Bondi Beach, Sydney.

So sure, LA Noire was a successful game. But at what cost? Is the industry better off having lost a brilliant development company? What if LA Noire came out a few more years later? Isn’t it worth the wait if this means the company can remain active and churn out more titles in the next 5-10 years?

So what can the industry do about it? Companies are owned by investors and profits must be made within certain time frames. You can’t take 10 years to make a game – it’d just take too much time and money. Surely some overtime is necessary.

5th Cell’s lead animator Tim Borrelli recently examined the phenomenon of overtime in game development, delving into the art of overtime management. Detailing the theory of diminishing returns, he explains that, as with all things, overtime can be beneficial in moderation under the right circumstances, as long as it is monitored closely and balanced with a healthy amount of rest.

With the latest report from the UK suggesting a rise in employment opportunities for game studios, let us hope that game developers, especially the trend-setting giants of the industry, sit up and take notice of these issues. If they address the questions of developers’ working conditions and quality of life seriously, it can only be good for us, the gamers, in the long run.

11 replies to this post
  1. As an aspiring game developer, articles such as these are very informative and eye-opening. Thank you for writing this.

    • As an aspiring game journalist, comments such as yours give me more encouragement and inspire me to write more articles to the best of my ability!


  2. Dohohoh
    You think there’s compassion in the business world. There’s hardly any, any company that’s overworking their Devs, is probably going to keep doing that. If the people being abused aren’t complaining, and can’t risk losing their jobs in this horrid economy, they really can’t do squat. I think that we should start doing something about this, obviously, but what can we do to help?

    Dev abuse.

    • Thar the troll reveals! Ha ha!

      Jeez, I had no idea what conditions game developers have to work at. Yet, I pretty much only pirate games that were made terribly long ago, by a team where I can be sure they were not abused, or by Ubisoft.
      All others, I buy, I swear!

      The image of game designers as slackers working only half the time others do and that at home is somewhat too good to be true, I guess.

  3. I can’t help but wonder how much the player base might — either unknowingly or intentionally — exert pressure to rush a game to launch.

    I remember thinking around the time that the first Fable came out how Molyneux promised all of these amazing things that would be included in the game and really got the community drooling. The community in turn demanded to play this amazing game as soon as possible. What got shipped was good, but I believe ultimately disappointing.

    Now, it’s obvious that Molyneux was talking out of his ass as he is wont to do. Still, part of me can’t help but think that the game might have been rushed to release to satiate the demands of the community, something which ultimately kept it from reaching its full potential. It might not have been the second coming, but it probably would have been better than it was, and it was already solidly good.

    Although it has been attempted before and I’m not sure what kind of success it met with, I think that for gamers to understand and appreciate the real scope of the development cycle of a game that they need to be shown just how much work goes into creating one blockbuster. I’d like to see a documentary detailing the work from even a single department that is struggling to come in under the deadline. I think that if we saw just how hard people are pushing themselves, we’d all pay more attention.

    • Love the idea about a documentary, even if it’s just a small budget online project. I agree that it’ll probably change how people perceive game developers and really appreciate some of the struggles that they go through on a daily basis.
      Something that is similar is Mark Rosewaters’ column on MTG Design: http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Archive.aspx?tag=makingmagic&description=Making%20Magic, which really shed light on the design processes from the creators’ angle.

      As for community-based pressure, I’m not so sure they are a big part of the reason for such extreme working practices. Games are not the only medium in which fans clamour for speedy releases. Although if you argue that this happens across the entertainment industry then perhaps it’s possible. But if so, then I’m not sure there’s much that can be done about it at all.

      • I know that Electric Playground used to (they still might, I haven’t seen the show in quite some time) have little segments about the various game jobs and interview people in that position, but it never really showed them doing serious, heavy duty work.

        Aside from enlightening people about how much work it takes, if the industry opened up the production process — even for just a few titles — then people that want to become designers, artists, programmers, and the multitude more of positions can also learn beforehand what’s expected of them and gain some valuable insight.

        You know, it’s strange that no one has done this before or seemingly considered doing it currently.

    • Honestly, I don’t think the player base/community has much of an impact at all on how a game is made, what’s put in it or how it’s made; They’re just not a feasible concern to the publisher and developer who, let’s not forget, are in this to make money.

      With Fable, I was one of the people who looked at the projected features and thought it would be awesome. A number of the features in that game wouldn’t have been removed or changed because the community were bleating for it to be released but rather that it would eat up more time and money than they had available. If you want to release a game at a certain date (which for a long time is just a year, then a year and a season etc) then some stuff has to be cut because it’s not in the budget.

      Going back to the example of L.A. Noire in the article, do you remember how many players were saying that it should be completely free roam like GTA? It even persisted when the game was released and they took to the forums like a storm saying that it was nothing like GTA and it’s a waste of money. If developers/producers feel under pressure by the community, they would have radically changed the game.

      As soon as you know things that the player base doesn’t or as soon as you have an authority higher than theirs and you’re exposed to them more and more, you quickly learn to tune them out. This is especially true if you have the unfortunate job of being a community liaison for something huge like Gears of War or World of Warcraft. The shit those people have to put up with is staggering and how they don’t just lose it amazes me. In fact, another good example are some of the unban requests for Xbox LIVE and some of the funnier/more idiotic ones can be found at whywasibanned.com .

      So yeah, player opinion isn’t a massive concern for game companies so long as they ship on time, keep to the budget and make a profit.

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