Monty Python - mud peasants

Applicant Wanted (tolerance of crunch & job insecurity required)

Monty Python - mud peasants

The subject of game development crunch time has popped up again thanks to a lengthy piece in the Guardian exploring the changes – if any – in industry practice following the 2004 EA Spouse revelations. It does not come as a huge surprise to hear that there there haven’t actually been many changes at all. Excessive workloads and tremendous insecurity still seem to be the order of the day at a lot of developers and publishers. On the matter of insecurity, incidentally, some of the stories recounted in this Kotaku article are heartbreaking.

My own past time in the development side of the games industry, working in QA at an outsourced testing company, ended many years ago, but some of the practices I have read about since then are familiar. It’s worth noting that in outsourced testing “crunch” works differently. Because your employer’s business is in supporting the overflow QA requirements of other companies, crunch can come at any time and last for highly variable durations. It was not uncommon for testers – employed on what would today be called zero hours contracts – to work 12 or 16 hour days for 5 to 7 days a week for long periods of time, and then receive no work at all for weeks or even months. I know a few people who worked 24 hours straight on certain projects, which isn’t just unhealthy, it’s possibly illegal (I believe it’s supposed to be obligatory to sign a waiver in order to opt out, but I’m no expert on employment law).

The vagaries of workloads delivered from clients are a perpetual challenge in many outsourcing businesses, and ‘flexible workers’ are a sadly inevitable part of how companies scale up and scale down to meet client demand. This is not a particularly pleasant way to work and live, but it can work out for people if they’re young or healthy enough to work excessive hours for a finite time, and then live off that until the next bit of work comes along. A job testing games is pretty appealing to a lot of people, even if it is insecure and variable, because at the end of the day the work beats data entry, telesales or the service industry, and you do get to work with some colourful people. Personally, I quite liked working night shifts for a while, as the meal allowance helped buy me groceries, and because I was working nights I wasn’t spending lots of money at the pub. I did this for a few months and it helped me buy a new PC, an Xbox and a GameCube on top of paying my rent and bills.

I mention all of this to acknowledge that any kind of working environment can work out well for some people. I know people who relished the opportunity to work huge numbers of hours; these are mostly the people who went on to construct a career on the back of their start in QA. Those who wanted to retain more of a work-life balance were less likely to excel, and more likely to be ‘culled’ next time the variable workloads dropped off. Thus my anecdotal experience corresponds with the wider picture that whistleblowers like EA Spouse reveal: that there is a widespread cultural conflation of willingness to work excessive hours with the employees who you wish to retain. It is not hard to imagine that this mindset, writ large, is problematic. It is no secret that a large number of developers leave the games industry after ten years or so, having been effectively burned out, and the attitude of many employers has historically been that it doesn’t matter because a new crop of graduating young coders, designers and artists will be served up next summer.

Then there is the matter of lack of security. To discuss one without the other is to fail to see the big picture. Again, turning to anecdotal experience, I recall hearing horror stories much like those outlined in the Kotaku article I linked above. One that has really stuck with me is a major corporate publisher whose QA workforce was largely composed of people working on short-term rolling contracts. As I understand it, employment law would have obliged said publisher to take testers onboard on permanent contracts once a certain number of months had passed; instead they sacked workers on the cusp of passing this threshold and told them they couldn’t re-apply for a certain number of months, but were welcome to do so after that time. Surprisingly, many workers did re-apply, attempting to build a career around openly exploitative employment practices.

I have no idea whether that sort of behaviour still goes on, or if so how common it is. One piece of evidence comes via the free indie game Game Test Life which, although poorly written, does a decent job of highlighting just how arbitrary and callous working in QA often is – and although QA is usually regarded as less important than other fields involved in development, I don’t doubt that such problems and criticisms are unique to QA.

There are strong indicators that groundwork is being laid for future improvement. The Guardian article quotes Chris Avellone (currently the co-owner of Obsidian) saying “Developers and managers should never have to work more than 40 hours a week. It’s a fun job, but it shouldn’t be an exploitative one. Everyone has a life. Let them live it, it’s short enough as it is.” Avellone goes on to explain how this can be accomplished via sensible management and cultural practices. He’s reportedly not alone in his views, with an increasing number of senior manages ‘coming up from the trenches’ and recognising the harm and damage that crunch culture, as well as similar exploitative practices, can cause.

The IGDA (International Game Developers Association) is also being looked to to offer leadership on these issues. It is unlikely to do so, being a trade representation body and not a union, but the expectation that it should act is not wholly unreasonable given Erin Hoffman’s – the famous EA Spouse – presence on its board of directors between 2010 and 2011. In any case, pressure on the IGDA may lead to another outlet springing open. And, unexpectedly, the article states that the question of unionisation is an increasingly hot topic “in Montreal, an important centre for game development with major Ubisoft, Square Enix and Warner Bros studios in residence. Here, there are now regular and very passionate meetings about the viability of unions and worker co-operatives – they could represent a vital first step in an industry without much history of labour organisation.”

It’s pleasing that there are such signs of improvement, but it is distressing that ten years on from the EA Spouse controversy – and fairly widespread reporting on damaging working practices – that more has yet to be accomplished. It would be all too easy to look at the good that is being done and imagine that such practices will naturally spread. The more probable reality is that exploitative practices will continue as long as the games industry is able to offer ‘dream careers’ to naive new generations of university graduates and young hires, and employers see no serious drawbacks to burning out parts of their workforce beyond occasional negative publicity.

The real palliatives and cures, I suspect, will be for all of us, as employees or audience, to demand better of this industry: to expose negative practices wherever possible, whether via anonymous whistleblowing or more openly; to boost the signal of those who do expose such practices; and to support, however we can, those who are demonstrating a better way of working. Institutional change is slow and difficult, so we must be prepared for the long haul.






5 responses to “Applicant Wanted (tolerance of crunch & job insecurity required)”

  1. badgercommander Avatar

    Great article

  2. guillaumeodinduval Avatar

    Good stuff, mate. Hard to forget those times. Which is weird in a way because my experience in QA was ''here's a permanent contract after 3 months'', then I stayed for 8 years. But the thing is, while this was fine and dandy for the first 6 months, then you start noticing people going left and right, from a month to a year in between, you get your hands on good testers, then the next thing you know they aren't called back… because now it's ''well, time to have a steady amount of n testers for this time of year which is 50 less than the week before!'' only to end up, in a month or two, seeing HR in a rush shouting left and right ''ANYONE KNOW PPL WHO WANT TO TEST GAME? WE NEED 80 TESTERS BY MONDAY''. And you can bet you wish some of the ''returning ones'' will include the couple of good testers you had the chance to work with in the past.

    ''(…) and the attitude of many employers has historically been that it doesn’t matter because a new crop of graduating young coders, designers and artists will be served up next summer.''

    Sad thing: it's not only in the gaming industry that this mentality is being observed. It's baffling since I wouldn't have known had I not witnessed it first hand but, in education, it seems the underlying mentality of many school boards, or even the ''reality'' that you'll have to face for 8-10 years before you get something else than substitute position, or ''maybe'' 1-year contracts. Because ya know, there's an overwhelming amount of graduates flooding out of teacher's college every year.

    I'm not saying it's as bad as ''the zero hours contracts'' but given that since you'll likely be between 10 000 to 20 000CAN$ in debts (which is sooo low, compared to other fields still) after you get out of teaching college, it's a bit stressful to say the least. Hell, the only reason my better half has a job this year is because she was willing to go far north in a remote location, in another province, to get a borderline-sketchy offer (and moving there was quite expensive).

    While we're on the topic in other professions, if you want to REALLY get depressed at how ''offer and demand'' in positions can blow things out of proportions, I suggest you look up at what is ''basically the norm'' for being a United States of America White House intern. I suggest you have a seat first, and aren't drinking while you scroll through.

    1. ShaunCG Avatar

      Even if you don't experience the insecurity yourself, yeah, you definitely notice the volume of other people coming and going. And the panicked recruiting that happens whenever scaling up needs to happen… yeah, it's hilarious to me. Total schadenfreude, because I've been on the receiving end of that sort of thing, but I still find it really funny seeing people panic because their system of logistics is short-sighted.

      I completely agree that this is not unique to the games industry – there are problems comparable to this all over the place – but the games industry is somewhat unique in that it's an entertainment industry, so a lot of people want to work in it, and there's a lot of money in it too. You could say that about the film industry, but that's probably it (arguably the music industry too but I think that the money that's really in that is so concentrated into a few hands as to utterly skew things). But as for publishing, theatre etc? Lol. No money.

      My mum's a teacher and has been pretty much all her working life, and a lot of my UK friends have taken PGCEs (teacher training college, basically), so I've got a fair idea of how tough teachers find it over here. It's different to Canada I'm sure – and I'm sorry that your other half has had to relocate, though I'm glad she found work!

      Working as an intern in politics is an edge case I think. I'll look it up later, and will be wary of blasting coffee everywhere, but I'm guessing that to intern in the White House there's all sorts of security checks and requirements, that money being paid for the privilege of working for free is likely, and that there's a lot of competition to secure one of these spots? But the thing about doing such work is that you build up political experience and connections of a kind you literally could not get elsewhere, so it would be entirely unsurprising to me if White House interns were largely from wealthy, connected US families who are already steeped in the world of politics. US politics strikes me as being tremendously dynastic (and I say that living in a country that is still nominally run by a monarch).

      Anyway, thanks for reading this, glad you found it an interesting read, and thanks for the great comment!

      1. guillaumeodinduval Avatar

        Working as an intern anywhere seems to be the ''trial'' to go through to get experience to be able to tackle the field you're going for… but it shouldn't be requiring you to slave yourself because ''that's what you want, and we know it''. Which, as a parallel to the video-game industry, as you stated is an entertainment industry, seems like is the expected norm. Sure, compared to being an intern at the White House, the requirements for jumping in QA for example aren't the highest, but the industry appears to have a nasty tendency to treat the entry-level employees the same way: ''this is your dream come true, playing games for a living, so you'll bend the way we want when we want it or else you can say goodbye to your dream''.

        And yeah, EVENTUALLY you might get good money at the White House, once you pass the intern stage which, hint, involves a lot of working for free. So in that respect, it's different from the gaming industry but, again, as you mentioned (and I agree with that fully) it IS quite the edge case.

        P.S.: sorry for the spilling of coffee about that.

        P.P.S.: Here's a link on White House ''fun'' times I stumbled on while doing a swift search on the matter which might cover a bit of the parts discussed (and some other issues on the matter) that I think you might like (when you are in a position to not blast coffee everywhere, that is):

        1. ShaunCG Avatar

          "The Obama administration, like previous administrations, allows rich parents in effect to buy résumé-enhancing jobs in the public sector for their upper-class offspring."

          "Unpaid internships have the effect, if not the intent, of providing the children of the super-rich with major advantages over the children of the lower 99 percent in the job market after college. Imagine what a benefit a White House internship is on a résumé. Too bad that benefit is not available to poor, working-class, middle-class or even upper-middle-class Americans, unless they are lucky enough to find an outside sponsor to pay the wages that the Obama administration refuses to pay."

          Pretty much exactly what I expected. Ugh.

          I completely agree that unpaid internships are a terrible thing, and the increasing number of these positions over the last few years has been disgraceful. They very much trade on the optimism and naivete, or desperation, of the young – work for free or pay to work now, because it might mean a great job later – and on top of that they exploit disparity in economic status.