GDC 2002 Moderator's Report:
Developer Quality of Life Roundtable
On March 22nd, 2002, at the Game Developers Conference, I hosted the first roundtable dedicated to the delicate topic of quality of life in the game industry, as part of the IGDA's program track. This article summarizes the discussions held during the session, and attempts to draw a few conclusions about future action.
There were a total of approximately 12 people (including myself) at the 9:00 AM session, and almost all of them spoke at least once.
Among the participants were several leads, managers and company executives. While this seemed representative of this year's GDC population as a whole, it was somewhat surprising to me given the session's subject matter.
The topic that consumed most of the discussion, by far, was the long hours that are so common in the industry. The group identified several causes for the frequent crunch times:
- Lack of planning. In many cases, the people in charge of setting schedules and budgets in game development studios (whether they be producers, executives or leads) have insufficient training to do so properly. The result is unrealistic expectations, that can only be met at a huge human cost.
- Ego problems. Some developers resist any attempt at scheduling and management, an attitude that leads to chaos for everyone who depends on their work.
- The .com mindset. For years, it seemed that everyone in the Western world was going to join a technology start-up, pile up the stock options, work like crazy for a few years, cash in when the company went public, and retire. While the payoff has rarely materialized (especially in games), the hectic schedules haven't yet gone away.
- Unfair competition. If two companies work on similar games with similar budgets, and one can make its product better because its developers perform the extra work for free in overtime, the company with the more respectful policy will suffer. A similar situation occurs when competing with studios from countries with weaker economies.
Long work hours have two related consequences. First, as developers get older, they tend to leave the industry because their priorities shift away from work and towards building families. Second, the older developers who do stay in the business (and there are more and more of them every year) tend to move into positions where they are less likely to be impacted by the long hours, or to start their own companies and impose business practices more in tune with their values.
On the positive side, several ways to alleviate the problem were mentioned:
- Better practices. One participant mentioned that the company where he is employed is growing by leaps and bounds, and even turning away business, while maintaining a comfortable schedule, all thanks to effective application of well-documented software engineering and project management techniques. It is likely that much of the problem could be fixed if the industry's stakeholders acquired more knowledge of the best ways to get things done.
- Planning the crunch times and scheduling frequent zero-defect milestones. This helps "spread the pain" over the course of the entire development process: a week of overtime once a month for twelve months is easier to absorb than twelve weeks of overtime in a row.
- Helping developers cope with the crunches. A participant reported that his company hosted a daycare center and invited employees' spouses and children to dinner at company expense during periods of overtime. While this is obviously not something that can be sustained for months at a time, it can, on occasion, alleviate the pressures of overtime and help maintain motivation.
- Paying overtime. A company that pays overtime (or, at least, grants extra vacation time in stead of overtime pay) is more likely to be careful about scheduling.
While the participants agreed that excessive overtime is symptomatic of problems that can sink a company (i.e., insufficient managerial acumen), they also think that occasional long hours will remain a fact of life in the foreseeable future, given the industry's difficult economics.
Making Work Enjoyable
The participants also discussed ways in which a company's work environment can be made more comfortable for everyone involved. Suggestions included:
- Disseminating information. To make sure that everyone gets "the big picture" about the company's status, the projects, etc.
- Careful hiring practices. A participant said that his company gave current employees the opportunity to meet new recruits and veto their hiring, which helps ensure that all team members can coexist peacefully.
- Imposing strict limits. Participants reported that some younger developers under their supervision had to be thrown out of the office, or they would work all the time. People must learn to break away from work even if they don't yet have families and homes; otherwise, they will have trouble adjusting if and when they do.
- Organizing social events, especially during crunch times. After overtime marathons, developers may not care to spend evenings with each other; however, going to a movie as a group one afternoon during crunch will help recharge the batteries before the deadline.
- Having more than one person working on a problem. In addition to the obvious advantages to the company (i.e., no lost knowledge when a person quits), this practice helps avoid frustration: what bogs a given developer down for days may be solved much faster by another, and vice-versa.
Conclusion: Gaining Control
Participants solved their personal quality of life issues in many ways: by starting their own companies (and thus building corporate cultures in tune with their values), by becoming freelancers to control their working hours, by reaching management positions from which they can ensure reasonable schedules, by working as hard as ever but only on projects they cared about, and so forth. The one thing that all of these approaches have in common is that they allowed the people who adopted them to increase the level of control over their own lives. This is probably the most important insight drawn from the session: feeling dispossessed is the worst detractor to quality of life.
Please note that the IGDA is committed to action in this area; if you support the goal of improving quality of life for all developers, please join the association at www.igda.org