Stress killing game dev creativity?

Slashdot discussion:

I have to admit I certainly went into the game industry with great heaping mountains of passion and dedication and was thoroughly burned out and sick of it five years later. For me to go back, they would have to pay me rather more than I am making now at a “regular” tech industry job.

Wow. Slashdot has just generated into post after post of inarticulate frothing and finger-pointing with all the “gotcha” posts front-loaded. Ick.

The article is very interesting though.

“just” ?

This thread is also going on in a simultaneously posted parallel dimension.

No kidding? Funny how that happens. Maybe someone should make a thread discussing it.

Or three.

Or some extra redundant posts.

I know 3 people that were pretty good at their jobs that have left the industry for good. I also know a lot more that have changed companies searching for that ever elusive “better company”. For them it’s probably just a matter of time. Hell, one of the reasons I quit was burnout. Working too many projects with too few resources. I find it ironic that after I left the number of people dedicated to the audio department doubled. Maybe they realized how much work there actually was.

Then again, this industry still has a myth surrounding it like Hollywood. People assume that working in games is this cool job and sometimes it is. However, after the shine wears off you realize it’s a cool job wrapped in all the politics and BS of a regular job with the added fun of insane hours with little compensation. Maybe you’ll get lucky and be part of a buyout like the BioWare folks or maybe you’ll just work 5 years with 6+ months a year of crunch and then just be burnt to the point of not caring anymore. I love games and I love wokring in the industry, but as long as there are people willing to feed the meat grinder conditions won’t improve much.

That’s true for any job that sounds cool from the outside. Radio & TV have far more people wanting to work in them than can be gainfully employed, and it breeds a feeling of disposability on the part of management, with the exception of certain “name” talents. Many times the only way to get a foot in the door is to work for free (or cheap) for a while, since it’s better to be a face than just a name on a resume.

Since this thread took the ball and ran away… from the other thread:

This article just highlights what a change I made coming from my previous job to my current. My boss at my previous job is quoted as saying “You cannot work smarter, so you can only work harder”, at an IGDA meeting no less.

At the place I’m currently employed, managers actually care for the well being of the employees. For instance, I’m known for working too much. Happens, when I like the project/task I’m working on. Well, I came in one monday completely ragged and tired, due to non-work related issues. My manager actually took me aside and said “Look, I know you were in over the weekend. And now you come to work monday and you look like you didn’t sleep. Do you have too much of a work load? Is this my fault? Do I need to help delegate out your tasks?” It was amazing. It was the first time in my 6.5 year career as a game developer that I actually felt like the people I’m working for actually cared about me. Fact is, in that specific case, I just didn’t get sleep for reasons absolutely not related to work. But the fact that it was noticed and commented on meant a lot to me.

On top of that, this place pegs almost everything that Jason mentions as being beneficial, while avoiding all of the things he says are killing the industry. They actively discourage overtime, we’ve been making our major gameplay changes during our pre-prod process, and now that we are entering production, we’re pretty much high and clear for smooth skies all the way to ship.

Fact is, some companies are learning, and those companies are the ones who are going to be cleaning up in a couple of years. And on that same note, companies like the one I left last year are most likely going to go out of business.

But do games really have more people trying to get in than can work the jobs these days?

I think the actual pool of actual talent is pretty small. And that’s just seperating the resumes “written in crayon” from the ones that aren’t.

Hiring good programmers is a cast-iron bitch.

Nah, there’s a giant amount of people looking to get jobs right now. Studio closures, layoffs, and kids who want in – all contribute to a huge pool to draw from. Barring the studio closures and layoffs, there’s always an endless supply of eager suc^H^H^H students looking to get in to the oh so glamorous world of games.

There is an effectively infinite supply of 18-22 year olds who will agree to anything to get to work on games. The quality will of course vary wildly, but there are certainly a sufficient pool of young, enthusiastic, and entry-level-skilled to feed the grinder.

But when you combine the double whammy of “people leaving the industry” and “people leaving the company to get a significant raise because people always pay more for external talent than talent they already have”, you end up with an insane amount of institutional knowledge and expertise walking away on a regular basis.

A good rule of thumb when considering a company is “what is the churn rate”. The lower the churn rate, the more likely it is to be a place you want to work.


In a way, this is a huge part of the problem. Studios hire these green motherfuckers, knowing that they are looking to be abused, explicitly so they can abuse them. It never ceases to amaze me when I hear someone who just got in to the industry bragging about how they’ve been working 24 hour shifts… This Is Not A Good Thing.

On the upside, more people are coming in to the industry knowing the problems, and actively avoiding doing the crunch thing on principle, which is certainly helping, though it can be problematic on the times when you do need to give that extra little push.

That’s the big issue. Companies are losig the people with the most experience. Burnout doesn’t happen over night and there are signs that are often ignored. Not saying every company out there is oblivious or that they don’t try to keep talented people. It’s just they often don’t have the skills or experience to know how to do it themselves. I mean look at the top level of a lot of game companies and you see people that are programmers, designers, etc. Not people that have any real training in HR at all. Often the response is to throw money at the problem and that will help for a while. In the end though people are often willing to give up big paycheques for less stress. That was my situation. Mind you it gets replaced by an entirely different type of stress, but there is a period of relief after you are out of that environment.

I look at creative people like rechargeable batteries. If they aren’t given the time to recharge they run out quicker and eventually they stop holding a charge at all. Stress does that and working in an environment where you need to be creative on demand can get really stressful. Especially with long hours, moving target milestones and the arbitrary nature of creative decisions from above.

Well, there are times when crunch can be fun. Remember the really late nights on MDK2? Some of those nights were a blast. Everyone was pulling together, there were some hilarious practical jokes, etc. The problem is that wore thin when the crunch went on far beyond reason. Crunch in small doses can make a project shine and can pull a team together. In larges institutional doses it does the opposite. Just watch companies that ship a game that is long overdue or has a bad rep and see how many senior people they lose in the months after. That’s a very telling sign.

I still chuckle remembering that time when it was about 4am, and greg was playing MDK2 in the lounge. We were all watching the TV, and then suddenly Kurt was running in to a wall and doing nothing else. Took about two minutes before one of us looked over and noticed that greg was asleep. I’m pretty sure you were there.

But fun times like that don’t actually justify the work practices that make them necessary. As much fun as I’ve had at times during crunch, I would never actually wish for crunch, and if I never saw another day of it in my entire life, it would be too soon.

Right now I’m doing the E3 extra work thing, but it’s only an extra 3 hours or so a night, and they bring in good food, and make sure that in general we aren’t suffering for that extra time. And it’s absolutely not forced. They just expect that if you aren’t going to get your stuff done you let team leads know in advance so they can spread the workload and make sure it gets done.

The ‘frat house’ crunch time atmosphere is actually one of the most corrosive quality of life issues we face. When you’re in your early 20s with no family or life outside of work, it’s fun to maximize the only thing going on in your life-- work. The stress and sleeplessness maximize the giddiness, and you get a collective survivor-stress syndrome that works as bonding, and Getting It Done becomes the rallying cry, not Getting It Done Right.

And now, years later, many managers remember those days fondly, and assume it’s somehow fun for employees to do the same, because you enjoyed it when you did it. Not to mention the macho overtones–I’ve heard people brag about 30-hour shifts. That’s not healthy in any way.

Bottom line: I’ve got kids now. I’m going home to see them at night at a reasonable hour. Many of my employees have families too-- and I absolutely will not agree to any course of action that prevents them from going home when I do.

3 extra hours isn’t bad, that’s under 60 hours a week. I get snippy if I have to work 80 hours for any great length of time, but I could do 60 forever.