If you’re a fan of The Simpsons, you might recall an episode wherein Lisa Simpson visits the factory that assembles her beloved Malibu Stacy accessory dolls. The smiling tour guide makes some quip about there being a “hint of fairy dust in the air” while Lisa gazes down at the reality: An assembly line of cursing, flabby employees in grey jumpsuits who only stop their mind-numbing work long enough to unclog the torso chute with a broomstick when necessary.
Video game development isn’t as grim as the broken Malibu Stacy assemblers in their dun-colored jumpsuits (though there is plenty of cursing), but it’s far from a frolic with fairy dust and rainbows. To the frustration of many developers, however, game development is romanticized as a profession that involves less work than play. The opposite is actually true: While game development is certainly rewarding, it’s not a job for anyone who wants to punch in at 9 and roll out at 5. In fact, as the last few months tick down on a game’s deadline, it’s not unheard of for cots to be dragged into the office, and for ramen cup-a-soup to become the main meal of the day. This is crunch time. This is hell.
Problem is, crunch time is creeping upwards, grabbing more weeks and months, gobbling up developers’ leisure time. Many devs are, frankly, overworked and underpaid.
“Sure, so’s everyone else,” planet Earth scoffs. And planet Earth does have a point. Anybody who perceives game development as a goof-off profession gets a rude awakening almost as soon as they begin their relevant schooling. As long as there have been games, there have been ladies and gentlemen working crazy hours to get those games out the door and into the stores.
“I don’t know anybody in game development who calls it a 9-5 job,” said Michael Pachter in response to a recent story about former Team Bondi employees being upset over the notion of “extended crunch time.” “I’ve never heard a developer say ‘I don’t work overtime and I don’t work weekends’. If you’re getting into the industry – if you’re going to be a developer – you know you’re going to work plenty of hours.”
Where Pachter’s opinion might split with developers’ viewpoints is his claim that salaried employees shouldn’t expect overtime pay. “If you are a salaried employee – if you’re not told what to do – then you are master of your own domain and you don’t get overtime,” he said. “I do get that it is a bad and unfair business practice to work 18 months non-stop overtime, [but] I don’t think anybody was entitled to overtime pay.”
Pachter also noted that if a game does well, employees should expect bonuses. He’s right, in theory. Problem is, there is no guarantee of said bonuses trickling down past the marketing guys and into the hands of the men and women who actually worked 100-hour weeks put the game together.
Thus we loop back to the problem of overworked developers who feel under-appreciated. It’s no secret that crunch time can wreak havoc on a marriage, and it takes a lot more than a pat on the back and a free beer to compensate someone who had to let their family life run into the rocks in order to get a game done.
That’s just for a regular crunch period. What do “extended” crunch periods do to developers’ lives and health? And what’s to prevent extended crunch time from extending a little more, and a little more? Will there come a time when game developers are simply expected to sacrifice their health, their home, and their social life just to make little electronic amusements for the rest of us? Should anyone who objects just “go find another job?”
Game developers get into the field because they’re passionate about it, and they cherish the games they grew up with. While it’s true that no game developer should take on the job expecting steady hours and easy work, neither should CEOs and other higher-ups in game companies assume the people working under them just took the job because they decided, “I gotta make a living somehow. Shucks, may as well make some games, I guess.”
Crunch time is unavoidable, but higher-ups have a responsibility to time releases in a way so that extended crunch time shouldn’t go on a minute longer than necessary. They should also make absolutely certain that everybody on the team is compensated fairly for their hard work with monetary bonuses. The teams behind our favorite games are bright, inspired, and aching to do their best. They don’t deserve to be broken down like joyless pack mules so the rest of us can have a good time.