The Game Industry

This is a game for 2 – 2,000,000 players of all ages. It should last anywhere from here to eternity (average one hour).

I don’t understand the video game industry. I’ve been paying more attention in the last few months, because I look at my project as a business, not a hobby project. I’ve read books and blogs, had conversations with lots of different folks, wanting to soak up the accumulated knowledge. And it doesn’t make sense.

When management makes a mistake in scheduling, the employees are punished with mandatory unpaid overtime called “crunch time”. Employees are scheduled to work 10 to 14 hours per day and 6 or 7 days per week for weeks or months at a time. Sometimes crunch time is even deliberately scheduled from the start. It actually looks like something out of Dilbert where the manager is blindly pressured to “bring the project in on schedule” and fired after one or more failures to do so, ignoring the software development lessons from 30 years ago in books like The Mythical Man Month and Peopleware (let alone current research).

There’s no drive to improve game development culture, no feedback loop other than simple postmortems to help improve the quality of products and workplaces. Culture is a sick hybrid of Faceless Cubicleville and Macho Cowboy Coders. Even ignoring a century of research into workplaces, current surveys confirm the widespread perception that working environments are poor and failure rates are high:

For young career-oriented people fresh out of school, our industry’s shortcomings, with its endemic long hours and 95% marketplace failure rate, may not always seem obvious or crippling. But after a few years, all-nighters fuelled by coffee and pizza lose much of their appeal. Most people come to want significant relationships, a more balanced life, and sometimes, children as well. None of this is easy to achieve in the typical game company. As a result, many experienced developers fed up with the crunch cycle decide to leave the industry, taking with them a wealth of talent and experience that we can ill afford to lose.

This quote is from the white paper on Quality of Life the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) released in 2004 (shortly before the industry practices got a lot of attention). Quality of Life is IGDA’s flagship advocacy issue.

In a video from the IGDA Leadership Forum released a few weeks ago, a member of the IGDA Board of Directors casually mentioned (video, around 21:00) his company mandates 60-hour work weeks and he propagandizes the exploitation as proof of employees’ passion. Two of the other panelists were also board members, but this failure in leadership went uncriticized until IGDA members raised the problem on IGDA forums.

Others trumpeted the issue and tried to push IGDA into action, but without success. IGDA’s memo in response said that individuals should always be able to choose to be exploited by the industry and that, as a volunteer-run organization that does advocacy it would not be publicly contradicting, apologizing for, or condemning the statements of its board that its white paper points out as detrimental to the industry.

This may seem like an odd response.

Nine of the eleven members of IGDA’s Board of Directors are or have been owners or managers at game companies. It’s not a labor union, it’s an industry association that works for the benefit of the entertainment giants that make up the industry. Game companies can point at IGDA and say “Oh, yeah, they’re taking care of QoL standards, we just have to wait another three quarters for the subcommittee’s interim preliminary report, which will have some firm guidelines for the organization of the committee for the draft report…” It doesn’t even need to deliberately act that cynically, it’s a natural production of managers working in their best interests. IGDA gets donations from companies, companies don’t have to deal with Marxists coming over the wall, fresh crops of developers get networking to opt into poor workplaces, and the band plays on.

Looking in, it’s clear that the game industry is broken and not getting fixed anytime soon. I will not be joining the game industry. I’m interested in building a profitable business making fun games in a good working environment, and that’s simply not what it does. Maybe I could hoist one more flag in the indie games parade, but I think of myself as building a Micro-ISV in the web software business. It’s a much nicer community.

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