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.
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.