Crunch life: Why developers shouldn't kill themselves to make a game

Crunch life: Why developers shouldn't kill themselves to make a game
Craig Chapple

By Craig Chapple

January 29th 2015 at 11:00AM

Develop investigates how widespread the issue of too much overtime is, and ways to address the problem

As part of our annual Salary Survey we asked developers important questions related to their quality of life. And the answers paint a somewhat poor picture of studio life.

Just over 41 per cent of developers said they work 31 to 40 hour weeks on average during normal periods of development. A further 41 per cent said that on average they work 41 to 50 hours per week.

Ten per cent of our survey participants meanwhile reported average working hours of 51 to 60 hours per week. Three per cent claimed they were being required to work 61 to 70 hours on average a week, and a small number claimed to work more than 70 hours.

This is above the national average of 37.6 hours in 2014, according to the Office for National Statistics’ Labour Force Survey. This shows that games development is one of the most work intensive industries in the UK, which most of our respondents are from.

It should also be noted that, by law, employers can’t force adults to work more than 48 hours a week on average (averaged over a period of 17 weeks). This is said to include paid and some unpaid overtime.

There are no instances where exceptions to this apply to games development.

Workers who want to work more than 48 hours a week can choose to opt out of this limit for a certain period or indefinitely, but this must be done voluntarily and in writing.

It is important to know that the UK Government website specifies that this: “can’t be contained in an agreement with the whole workforce. However, employers are allowed to ask individual workers if they’d be willing to opt out”.

And: “An employer shouldn’t sack or unfairly treat a worker (e.g. refused promotion) for refusing to sign an opt-out.”

It is also stated workers can cancel their opt-out whenever they want – even if it’s part of their employment contract.

The Crunch

Despite such protections for UK employees, in some cases this appears to be wilfully ignored by studios, or at least just within the confines of what is acceptable, and most staff also report being unpaid for overtime.

45 per cent of developers said they were expected to work overtime regularly. Over 80 per cent said they were not paid for this.

One positive, however, is that the majority of employees – 75 per cent – are offered flexible working practices, including the option to work at home and have flexible hours.

We asked a number of developers in the games industry about their experience in working overtime and crunch, and the effect it has had on their health and personal lives.

Tammeka Games game producer Sam Watts, speaking of his experience at previous places of work, said he had experienced crunch at many studios.

I have seen others with less understanding partners or those with children suffer break-ups of relationships, marriages and ill-health through stress and working crazy additional hours.

Sam Watts, Tammeka Games

“Typically it would be in the last ten-to-20 per cent of development before release and could involve at least double the usual number of normal working hours per week,” he explains.

“The longest period has been for three months before a global launch of a product when QA, localisation, pre-production and distribution comes into play.”

He said while he had been fortunate enough to have an understanding partner and also no children during such lengthy working periods, he had witnessed a serious impact on the lives of colleagues.

“I have seen others with less understanding partners or those with children suffer break-ups of relationships, marriages and ill-health through stress and working crazy additional hours,” says Watts.

“Sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it when you are working on a title you may not be 100 per cent confident in or believe in.”

Another developer who has worked on triple-A games at a number of publishers, speaking anonymously, said providing crunch time is well managed and short, it can be effective, and developers who know in advance can plan their lives around it.

He says, however, he has still experienced “some terrible crunch periods”.

“Early on in my career I lost a relationship because I was never out of the office. Later it affected my health and the health of people close to me,” he says.

“Once I passed out in the office and my face slammed against the keyboard; I went home for a couple of hours and then went back into work to finish the day off. One story that is amusing, or tragic depending on how you look at it, is that one colleague turned up to work in full highland dress, kilt and all, because he had not had the time to wash any clothes and that was all he had left.

“In terms of hours, at its worst, weekdays would be ten to 14 hours each, then I’d do six-to-eight hours each weekend day. On two projects, I did this continually through three weekends working Saturdays and Sundays. A conservative estimate is that I worked 180 hours over 26 consecutive days.”

The indie balance

Poor working conditions aren’t just limited to studio life. Indies can often impose this on themselves without realising the full consequences. Passion and a keenness to get that game out quickly can result in long hours, which can affect their general health, perhaps resulting in a lack of exercise, back problems from poor posture and a bad diet.

But indies shouldn’t take their personal life lightly, as Vlambeer’s Rami Ismail explains.

“It starts as a secondary thought, and invariably leads to having to adjust and learn to balance them,” says Ismail.

“It actually is the single most important soft skill you can learn, somewhere between discipline and self-care. When my grandmother would hear how many hours I work a week, she would tell me a story that, even though she had 12 kids, she would always make breakfast for herself first. If she wasn’t strong enough to make breakfast for 12, after all, nobody would get breakfast.”

He goes on to say that when Vlambeer was formed, he found everything “was continuously on the up”, exceeding expectations for its various projects. As a result, the team worked “ridiculous hours, on that adrenaline rush, trying to hold on to that momentum”. Despite being what he calls a ‘super-create time’, he admits they were not aware of how much they were emotionally exhausting themselves.

“When something went wrong – in this case, the Ridiculous Fishing clone – we were completely incapable of sustaining our pace, and crashed into a rather dark place for months,” admits Ismail.

“Our creativity was gone – Jan Willem's inspiration comes from a place of comfort, and I was incapable of doing anything but stare at a blinking cursor. We didn’t crawl out until we realised our issue wasn’t that we weren’t trying enough, but that we weren’t giving ourselves space to not try. It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that if we hadn’t figured that out, it would’ve ended Vlambeer right then and there.”

Fellow indie, Mudvark and Toxic Games developer Daniel Da Rocha says it’s highly important to keep a balanced lifestyle, but admits it can be difficult to separate professional and personal life.

He admits he used to work “crazy hours” during the latter development of Q.U.B.E. to ensure he hit important deadlines, but this ultimately led to stress and physical problems.

The nature of the work can make it challenging to have a balance, not to mention your personal passion and creative drive.

“Quality of life went out the window and my day-to-day lifestyle was completely orientated around game development,” says Da Rocha.

On keeping a more balanced worklife, he adds: “I try to be disciplined and only check email a few times a day and shut off at a sensible time. I tend to get out and do things in the evenings when I can, such as hit the gym, photo walks and other various hobbies. “

Beating the crunch

For employees at studios however, addressing the balance can be more difficult, particularly when staff feel they may let their co-workers down or lose their job should they kick up a fuss and realise their rights.

But this is something that can be solved at senior level, claims our anonymous source that has worked at numerous triple-A publishers, who blames creative indiscipline.

If you live a balanced lifestyle, the hours you do spend making a game will be far more productive.

Daniel Da Rocha, Mudvark and Toxic Games

He recommends that to help alleviate issues, hours worked by the team be made into a key performance indicator for all game team leaders, with an equal importance to the quality and the profitability of the game.

“Without this being enforced, hours worked will always be lower priority,” he says.

He also advised teams be structured in such a way that the needs of the creative and delivery side of the team are balanced, and describes a talk by Westwood Studios founder Louis Castle on the ideal team structure.

“It had a team being led by three senior people: the chief creative who is responsible for the game being good, the chief delivery manager who is responsible for the game being finished on time and an executive producer who is more senior than both of these and who arbitrates between the needs of both,” he explains.

“This ensures that there is a balance between game changes and delivery schedules and will curb creative indiscipline.”

Tammeka’s Watts says there is no one single cause of crunch, and that it can result from poor communication within a team, changes in direction during development without adjusting timescales, and the relationship studios have with publishers.

He also says he is concerned to see the indies racing to replicate the triple-A studio and publisher norms with extensive hours, health-affecting behaviour and overall bad practice for development.

“Indie should mean you are free from these pressures and able to make the game you want to make and how you want to make it, whilst being in touch directly with your playerbase,” he says.

“Don’t think that killing yourself and working every hour available is going to make your game any better, make you more successful or be rewarded in any way. These are all the reasons people want to escape triple-A and publisher-based development.

He adds: “If you are killing yourself making a game and not enjoying the process, you may as well be working at any other soul-crushing job that doesn’t reward either.”

It’s a thought echoed by Da Rocha, who says games development should be fun, and regular breaks are a must for developers.

“A lot of devs tend to crunch long hours, lack exercise, drink Red Bull and eat pizza – I did this too – but in reality, if you live a balanced lifestyle, the hours you do spend making a game will be far more productive,” says Da Rocha.

The message is clear, killing yourself to make a game is not okay, and cutting down on hours to address your health and personal life can be just the boost your game needs.

Got something to say on crunch? We're looking for comment on the issue and how studios can curb excessive overtime. You can find more details here.

Image credit: Tom Carpenter