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Saturday, July 30, 2011

If you're asking for crazy overtime, apologize first

Here I'm going to use Team Bondi's emails as they appear in an article on eurogamer. But if you're been working in this industry for a while chances are that you've seen something very similar at least once. I'm using L.A.Noire developers as an example just because I found these emails todays but we all know excessive overtime is common, other recent examples that went public are the story of Kaos Studios, the letter from the spouses of Rockstar San Diego and of course the one that "started" them all, the EA_Spouse blog.

Extract from an email to the team:
[...]This is an amazing result for 4 hard years and I'm proud of what we've achieved this far. The game is huge in size and scope and will be a real breakthrough. We have almost re-invented the adventure game whilst including the action elements that people expect in a modern game. Its these action elements that we really need to tighten up. 
That said, anyone who has worked on a game or film before knows that to make a AAA title is going to take a big push at the end to get it complete.  This is not uncommon within our industry and while it's not ideal, it is what we need to do to get a polished result to the standard of the competition. To achieve this result we're introducing two new working practices, effective immediately:[...] The hours on Saturday will be compensated through the weekend working scheme, giving everyone the opportunity to take payment at the end of the project, or an extended holiday period. As I said this isn't ideal, but it is typical of what it takes to get a game finished.

Another example:
[...]That means that everyone is required to keep going until the milestone ships or your lead informs you that you have done all that you can for N10 and sub-alpha. Specifically this means in the last two weeks of the milestone you can expect pretty long days. It's "one in all in" until we get the Milestone shipped and get the game ready for testing. We need teamwork to get the game finished to  the quality that we are after and that means being here to help a tester, a designer, an artist or programmer who needs your support to get their work finished. You are not required to work round the clock everyday up until the milestone ships but for the next six months we will need more from you than we ever have asked from you in the past. That's the nature of getting a AAA title out the door and into the hands of the playing public. Getting a result with this game means that the public finally get to enjoy the fruits of your hard work. It also means that we get to take a good break later this year and come back refreshed to work on some exciting new ideas for future projects.[...]

Again:
[...]To complete the project at this time, we require an extension of the ordinary hours of duty and we are asking people to give more hours. Putting a product to market of this size, scale and quality is going to require extra effort from everyone and while we are asking for it, and not saying it's easy, the company is perfectly happy to be flexible of commitments you have outside of the organization[...]

So there is a pattern to this. All these emails basically say:
  • We're making a great product
  • We should all be very proud, we're all on the same boat, let's do this
  • We need you to work harder
  • It sucks but this is how AAA games are made.
Now of course in many cases, managers who say this don't actually believe it's true. They know the project is not going in the right direction and they try keep the morale up by minimizing the problems (it's the way AAA games are made) and trying to gather the last energies of the team around the positive aspects of the product (this is a great thing, you've done an amazing job).

Now, while this can resonate well with some employees, unfortunately it's far from ideal for everyone. Remember that in a game company your audience is very varied, and when asking for sacrifices you want to motivate, but also not to piss anyone, especially not to piss your best talents! The problem here is that with this kind of communication you leave the more inquisitive types wondering if this is just a mediocre, stereotyped way of keeping the morale up or if the company does really lack the vision and the ability to make AAA titles in general.

There are plenty of studies about overtime and its risks I won't get into that discussion  so let's even assume that you're not an idiot and you're not pushing your employees past the limit of diminishing returns thus actually hurting the project by asking to work more.

You need overtime, you believe that it's going to be positive and you need to communicate this decision to the team. You have to remember that you're asking for a sacrifice, even if you're in one of the few countries or companies in the industry that pay for it. You don't own your employees, and surely you don't want to lose your smarter talents

One of the worst things to say to your inquisitive audience (especially I might say, engineers) is that "it's not uncommon" for AAA games to require such rough stretches, because you're dealing with people that will not simply accept that fact (that is indeed, and sadly, true today), but ask themselves a few follow-up questions faster than a journalist.
What else is not uncommon in this industry? Companies that do not generate revenue? That fail to meet their targerts? Massive layoffs and studio closures? And even if crunch is common, how does that relate to good products? Are the best studios, the ones generating most revenue and great games, using cruch? Maybe I should polish my resumee, I hear that [California, Uk, Canada, Germany...] is wonderful this time of the year...

The fact is, we as an industry have to grow a lot. Crunch is common, but it's a mistake, and many people know this, especially some of the more experienced talents will know that's not the way you make great games. 
Personally I've seen great games with zero overtime, bad ones with lots of overtime but also great games done with overtime but more importantly, bad games that made money and great games that didn't... We still have a lot to learn, as an industry, on how to make good games and how to make them in time and how to make money with them...
Every time you ask for crunch, you as a manager have failed. It can happen and it might be something that you'll need to ask for, but at the very least, you should apologize.

Let me suggest a different, more humble and realistic, communication style:
  • This project was hard, we had to face many hurdles. We should have been better prepared.
  • Despite the good work done by the team, we're not were we predicted we would be at this time.
  • We are apologies for not being able to create a schedule that avoided this, and we will definitely do better next time, we have learned some lessons from this.
  • We believe in the product, and this studio needs to deliver a great game in order to go forward.
  • Let's all help ship this product and make it a huge success. We'll need to work harder, and we'll try our best to compensate you for this extra effort after the end of the project.
Even better, provide example of what went wrong, of what are you going to do to make things better next time, of why you still strongly believe in the product and you think that this effort will indeed achieve the objective the company has set for it. 
People need to believe that the future will be better, that there are some problems and not everything went as good as you wanted it to be but you know how to fix things. That there is a reason to stay and work with you! Just saying "this is great", "we're making something amazing", "let's go team" can be meaningless if not counterproductive if you present no evidence.

With this in mind, let's see how the first email could have been worded better:
This is an amazing result for 4 hard years and I'm proud of what we've achieved this far! We wanted to create something amazing and accepted the many risks involved in making an innovative product. The game is huge in size and scope and will be a real breakthrough. We have almost re-invented the adventure game whilst including the action elements that people expect in a modern game. 
Unfortunately, even if the product looks good, we failed to account for everything that creating such an ambitious project entailed, we have learned a lot about how to make such a game during these years. Now, as the deadline for this game is coming, we still have some issues in our action elements that we really need to tighten up. 
We know that crunching is bad for everyone and we'll offer some bonus holiday time at the end of the project as a way of partially compensating for this extra effort we're asking you.  The studio needs to do to get a polished result to the standard of the competition in order to grow and move forward. To achieve this result we're introducing two new working practices, effective immediately:[...] The hours on Saturday will be compensated through the weekend working scheme, giving everyone the opportunity to take payment at the end of the project, or an extended holiday period.

2 comments:

Viktor said...

I absolutely agree that doing long-term crunch is a mistake. It is also inhumane. One week crunch, ok. Two weeks, maybe ok. Anything more than this means that the people who work are being abused. This is paid slavery at its finest. This is why I don't want to work in the games industry anymore.

All these stories about crunch and ridiculous overtime scares me to no end. As long as these "higher up" people put profit and competitive edge over the wellbeing (physical and mental) of the people who actually do the work, there will be crunch. Some studios here and there can manage to reduce crunch to a minimum but the overall state of the industry will remain the same.

If I were to receive such an e-mail telling me that it is just necessary to bust my ass out of good will... The reply will be simply "Fuck you guys, I'm going home.".

Anonymous said...

I think (hope) you meant

*Despite* the good work done by the team, we're not where we predicted we would be at this time.