Opinion: The Game Industry’s Workforce Problem

It’s been awhile since I’ve posted, but I figured it was time to write something new.  This is an opinion post based on what I’ve observed with the game industry, mostly relating to video games versus board games or tabletop, so your mileage may vary.  In it, I will cover two main issues involving the industry’s workforce:  Crunch and Layoffs.  At the end, I will point out what I believe needs to happen for a healthier workforce.   Unfortunately, I am well aware that it would require massive change on the part of the industry to enact any of these ideas, but if no one is willing to point out the elephant in the room and name it for what it is, then no one can begin to look into alternatives.

The Inhumanity of Crunch

Many of us have done it. We spent our school year diffidently doing our homework, studying when we had to, but then crammed the last week or two before the final to ensure a good grade. If we haven’t done it ourselves, we probably know several people for whom this is their usual modus operandi in school. This is a broad-strokes analogy to what crunch is like in the game industry. Developers go through their days working ‘normal’ hours for a good bit of the game’s development cycle (and by normal, we mean probably 6o+ hours a week), and then as deadlines loom, they go into crunch.

These deadlines may be for internal milestones or for the game’s actual launch, but it doesn’t matter. Things have to be done by that time or else. Developers are asked or required to put in more hours to get the job done ‘on time’, sometimes to the exclusion of all else. Want to go on a brief vacation with your significant other for a weekend for the first time in a few years? Sorry. Your kid’s got their big play/game/birthday party/social event that all the other families are gonna be at? Nope. Your family member is sick/in the hospital/has passed, and you want to support your family by attending? Forget it.

It’s not all fun and games in the game industry, no one is likely to lie to you about that. No one I personally know in the industry could be characterized as lazy or unwilling to put in a few long hours to get a product out the door. Most of them are intensely passionate people who voluntarily put in more hours than I have to at my call center job to ensure their game is the best it can be. Long-time players of Lord of the Rings Online can remember how Bree was before a former dev nicknamed Scarycrow went in on his weekends off and revamped it in his spare time a few years ago.

However, I also see behind the curtain to some extent. My elder sister is in the industry, and I am blessed with friends who are game devs, and I can see the toll that crunch takes on them. You hear stories about devs who haven’t slept in days, or worked themselves so hard that they wound up in the hospital. You hear the jokes about having cots in offices or bringing an overnight bag so someone has a fresh set of clothes. These are not just stories, they’re not jokes. This happens fairly regularly, and it’s considered a normal way of doing business.

Now, imagine that you’re not just cramming over a long weekend to pass a test for a class whose skills you may never use again. Imagine you’re in this for months. As an example, Blizzard’s been in crunch on World of Warcraft: Legion for at least four months to my personal knowledge, and it’s another month to launch. That’s almost half a year of putting in more hours per week than any three people at my call center job put in on a regular basis. Again, this is considered normal.

There have been some who patronizingly state that it doesn’t take much to be a game dev, just sit in a chair and push a mouse around. After laughing that asinine opinion away, we still have to consider the subtle bias against developers. Because their job is in games, some people don’t think they’re entitled to the same sort of access to health benefits, paid time off, or work/life balance that the rest of the working populace may have. I remember both times in the past year when voice actors protested working conditions with the help of SAG-AFTRA and threatened to strike. Some portion of the conversation involved encouraging game developers to protest the ‘special’ treatment the actors were requesting because they put in even more physically and mentally intensive work on the games before the VAs ever got to an audition, much less put in a performance. It was also pointed out how disparate the salary was for a Hollywood voice actor versus a cubicle-dwelling game developer in, say, Austin Texas.

However, if one ignores the attempt to pit devs versus fellow creatives, it’s easy to see how it’s a zero-sum argument. Both groups of people deserve suitable working conditions, but only one has ready access to collective bargaining. One is seen as more valuable to the enterprise, the other is much more dispensable. While you can hire a voice actor like my acquaintance James Arnold Taylor who can impersonate another well-known voice for a video game based on a movie (i.e. he does a certain Caribbean pirate’s voice in their video games), you’re not going to get away with having Mass Effect‘s FemShep be anyone other than Jennifer Hale. Not even relatively high-ranking game devs are immune to this psychology that they can replaced at the drop of a hat.

For every game developer out there with a solid resume and experience, there’s probably twenty or more other potential devs with a similar skillset who are looking for work or are willing to do whatever it takes to land that job if a vacancy opens up. Those higher-ups who manage the business know this, and they bank on this fact to keep devs in line. I see it too at my call center job. We don’t work on contract, it’s an at-will arrangement. I know fully well how easily I can be replaced, and in fact given my lengthy tenure at the company, it’s actually cheaper to train a new person than continue to pay me at my current salary because I have gotten decent raises every year – something else that doesn’t happen in the industry with the regularity of non-industry jobs, routine raises to even cover cost of living increases. To be frank, my hourly wage is greater than that of a similarly-tenured, similarly front-line developer at an AAA studio whose work is seen by millions. To me, that’s insanity.

One of the key problems with the game industry in general is that it’s not run like non-industry businesses. It’s treated like a special snowflake that shouldn’t be run like other industries because it’s games and somehow magically different from any other business. Some might say that game publishers and investors require a swift ROI and that justifies crunch. I say this a fallacy because many other industries have publisher-like entities and/or investors equally pressuring of the front-line creatives and support teams to get projects completed and products out the door.

The game industry works under a sweatshop mentality, and it’s the elephant in the room. No one really wants to drop that word in there, because it evokes images of children slaving away over sewing machines in third-world countries, and nearly everyone insists that working on video games isn’t as rough as that. Of course it isn’t, and no one with any sense is arguing that. It’s once more a diversionary tactic to get people to overlook just how terrible working conditions can be in games. However, psychologically, that’s how the juggernaut that is the industry regard the creatives who make it all possible.

The Layoff Cycle

The other big issue is the layoff cycle. It’s like the basic notion of seasonal or migratory workers. You hire people for when you need them and then you let them go until/unless you need them again. It’s big news when a game studio is required to lay off a number of employees after certain milestones are met or for what invariably is referred to as ‘business reasons’ in the eventual press release once the news gets out. Here’s how it most often goes down:

  • Employees start getting called into meetings
  • Rumors leak out via social media
  • Confirmations from laid-off employees start cropping up
  • Scoop-happy news sites start posting preliminary articles after scouring employees’ social media accounts
  • Companies that are hiring or some of their employees start posting job listings to help out
  • Initial official press releases occur
  • News sites update their preliminaries
  • Some sites get to update with official responses
  • People who get laid off start looking for new work

The most noble aspect of this is how swiftly the rest of the industry starts reminding others of what jobs are available at other companies. The industry itself is fairly small despite its overall social footprint, so most folks know each other. To be fair, I know that some game devs immediately post their company’s job openings to help out because they’re fully aware that it might be them next year who needs the support. Bear in mind that the average life expectancy of a career at any given game studio is generally in the 2 to 5 year range, even at the big companies like Blizzard.

Thing is, layoffs happen for a number of reasons. Sometimes, it’s the post-launch layoff, such as what happened at BioWare Austin a few months after Star Wars: the Old Republic originally launched in 2011. Other times, it’s because the studio itself is changing focus, such as what recently happened at Turbine. Unfortunately, sometimes it’s for a fully business reason of needing to cut costs in major ways and fall in line with a new parent company, such as what happened with the transformation of Sony Online Entertainment into Daybreak Games.

There are many facets to the layoff cycle that are unhappy at best. Players hate that their games suddenly have far fewer devs working on them, and there’s greater anxiety that something is wrong, especially at studios that were struggling even before the layoffs. For the devs themselves, it means upending their lives in major ways. The industry pretty much doesn’t do telecommuting, even for jobs that don’t really require daily face-to-face communication. There are many reasons for this, from companies wanting to strengthen team bonds to simple security needs, and have you ever tried to get work done when your ISP is having an outage that day?

So, if you want into the industry, you should expect to have to move… multiple times. The logistics of moving can be rough even on a good day. For one thing, unless an incoming employee is pretty high up (manager or director or above), most companies won’t pay for relocation. They might have HR people who can help you with some of the minor logistics, but for the most part, you’re on your own. Also, let’s consider some of the other aspects of having to move every so often. Are you married? In a stable long-term relationship? Is your significant other employed? Do you have kids? Are they still in school? Is your significant other a stay-at-home parent? How much stuff do you have to move with you? What about pets? Are you taking a job in a foreign country? Do you need work permits or visas and passports to get where you’re going? Do you or anyone in your family have proactive medical needs or the services of certain medical specialists? How old and established are you socially where you are right now? Is your extended family here? Do your aging parents need supervision and you’re the closest available relative to take care of them?

All of these questions and many more factor into the viability of a career in the game industry. It’s not unknown for laid-off employees to be forced to restrict their searches to their local areas for family or medical reasons, and not all of them live in cities with multiple game companies that are hiring for their particular skillset. Even if you live in places like Southern California, Montreal Quebec, or Austin Texas with multiple companies on hand, you may be hard-pressed to find something available for you for months or even years at a time.

So, all of this is how things work. It’s considered the normal way of doing business in the industry.

Where It Needs to Go

Most devs I know understand the nature of the beast that is the video game industry. They understand that their careers are not entirely theirs to direct, but their passion for making games is greater than their desire for the sort of work/life balance that people in non-industry jobs have as a matter of course. They know that all the swag they get, all the free energy drinks, the epic food trucks that show up at their studio are gildings on the cage they voluntarily locked themselves into. And again, no one with any sense is going to point at the game industry and proclaim it’s the same as a third-world sweatshop making cheap t-shirts for first-world consumers. However, other first-world industries have options for things like collective bargaining, even if managers and front-line supervisors are trained on how to legally break up union-forming activities (even my company has this, because I saw the training documents on a supervisor’s desk one day a couple of years ago).

Still, more needs to be done to improve the overall health and stability of the game industry for the sake of the front-line developers and employees. We all know that money and the corporate structure is what controls the industry. We need leading companies to step up to the plate and rework their release and development cycles so that employees aren’t grinding themselves up in order to meet deadlines, make them be more in line with how other industries do it. One option would be to have de-centralize a game’s development, so that multiple studios under a corporate umbrella would work on multiple games at the same time, so that employees could shift to another project in another phase of its development cycle. BioWare is doing something like this with letting both Edmonton and Austin work on the new Mass Effect. With today’s technology, in-person meetings aren’t as necessary as they used to be ten or even five years ago. You can just Facetime people in the other studios when you need a meeting.

There also needs to be better human resources options, better health benefits across the board, so that employees can take care of themselves and their families, including having better access to mental health options. (Quite frankly, access to full proper medical and health benefits should be universal across the world, but that’s my truly pie in the sky desire that goes well beyond the game industry).

I know, it’s really easy to say that X, Y, and Z really need to happen. After all, I’m doing it here, and I’m deliberately speaking in only the broadest of strokes. This may seem like common sense, especially to folks in the industry who know vastly more than I do about the topic simply because they’re in the industry. The game industry has the basic ability to shift its course to be more dev-friendly. Every company has the ability. Hell, my non-game-industry company is swiftly becoming a dinosaur in the face of new technologies and new ways of acquiring the services we offer and we are having to shift our entire basic paradigm to keep up. Whether the game industry chooses to exercise their ability to change their paradigm is the main question here. Sure, there will be loss of revenue. Some might argue with their armchair economics knowledge that it then follows that there would be less jobs available, but we see the financials that companies release and we know how well the shareholders are making bank on the backs of the front-line game devs.

At the end of the day, do I see that change taking place? Not soon, and maybe not at all. The ones who are truly profiting under the current methodology aren’t going to easily give up those profits, whether we’re talking only money or other less tangible measures of success in this business.  I’ll drop the inflammatory word exploitation in here, because that’s what it is, however anyone might want to sugarcoat the issue, no matter how many game devs admit they’re knowingly and willingly putting up with this because they’re that passionate about making games. Still, I hope for the sake of people I personally know and care about that things do begin to change. I’m sick of hearing their anecdotes of how they missed their kid’s school event, how their spouse couldn’t cope and left them, how they crashed out on a couch in their office because they had a too much work to do, how they couldn’t find work for a year and a half because they weren’t able to relocate due to family needs, all of these stories where people had to make choices for themselves and their families based on a deeply insecure industry that didn’t value them as well as it ought.

And if I’m sick of hearing their stories, imagine how sick they are of living them, over and over again.