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Splash Damage: UK devs suffer from "exploitation"

Thu 21 Oct 2010 7:48am GMT / 3:48am EDT / 12:48am PDT
PeopleDevelopment

Paul Wedgwood calls for decent pay and work/life balance for British talent

Splash Damage

Based in London, England, Splash Damage Ltd is an independently-owned game developer that created the...

splashdamage.com/

Splash Damage boss Paul Wedgwood has stressed the importance of good pay and working conditions for UK developers.

In a recent interview with GamesIndustry.biz, he felt that "If there's one thing we suffer from in the UK, it has been this continuous exploitation of game developer talent until we drive them into the ground and they become cynical and burned out and hate the industry."

He hoped his own studio, currently working on Bethesda-published shooter Brink, was an exception to this. "I think that at Splash Damage we've always believed in paying people more than the industry in general, giving proper benefits and being respectful of work/life balance.

"We suffer from the same challenges that every studio does, we crunch 6 day, 7 day weeks sometimes: it can be really, really challenging. But to be honest with you, when the studio isn't in crunch we still have people working 6 or 7 days a week because they like what they're doing.

"If you're at the office and you're having fun, then you're on the right track whether you're working out of hours or not."

Wedgwood also claimed that his tendency to be a "tyrannical dictator" on Splash Damage's earlier games had subsided.

"I learned much more to trust the talent, the people that had great ideas, let them go and iterate on them, and ultimately their execution was so much more important than that silly idea that I had at the beginning.

"The thing I learned, the one thing I urge any other British developer to do if their bag is the triple-A blockbuster stuff that really gets attention and they want to sell millions of copies and really good review scores and everything else, is to recruit the best talent that they can, and pay them properly."

As such, Splash Damage has recruited the likes of "Richard Hamm who did Fable II, Olivier Leonardi who did Prince of Persia and Rainbox Six: Vegas, Dean Calver who did Heavenly Sword, Tim Appleby who did Mass Effect..."

The full interview with Paul Wedgwood, which also discusses the financial realities of blockbuster development, warnings for VCs investing in developers and the perils of mediocrity, is available here.

31 Comments

Geraint Bungay
Online Publishing Director

27 0 0.0
Lockie as a "tyrant", never ;-)

Posted:3 years ago

#1

Ryan Locke
Lecturer in Media Design

45 6 0.1
*gulp*

I better thickin' my skin. I admire the honesty though.

Posted:3 years ago

#2

Tameem Antoniades
Creative Director & Co-founder

197 164 0.8
I don't think it's worse here than anywhere else. If anything, I have seen many companies get better and better at giving a good quality of life for it's employees whereas it was practically unheard of when i started out.

There is a surefire way to stamp out the idea that perpetual crunch is acceptable: leave and work for a company that doesn't do this. We sometimes have to crunch for occasional deadlines but offer time in lieu immediately afterwards.

Posted:3 years ago

#3
I am glad to say that "crunch" is a dirty word in doublesix and has been for a long time. I have learned a lot from the bad old days when I used to think it "natural" to crunch a team, but then I grew up!

Posted:3 years ago

#4

Kam Star
Managing Director

7 0 0.0
Its' okay pulling in 6 days a week when you are youngster - but come on, anyone with a family can not possibly sustain that (or something will give).

Personally I'm a firm believer in planning and executing projects based on a 40 hour week. If a studio wants to push more on its staff, are they really planning and executing projects sensibly?

Posted:3 years ago

#5

Darren Adams
Managing Director

188 332 1.8
10am till 6pm, five days a week, hour dinner break for food and TF2. Come work for ChaosTrend, live the dream not the nightmare. ;)

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Darren Adams on 21st October 2010 2:41pm

Posted:3 years ago

#6

Sergio Santos
Freelance 3D Artist

12 0 0.0
too bad they have Olivier Leonardi, the worst art director I've seen in my entire life

Posted:3 years ago

#7

Dehron Hite-Benson
Software Developer II

4 0 0.0
This definitely is not JUST a problem in the UK. As an American game developer, I currently (along with many of my co-workers) am having to deal with low pay, no benefits, no PTO, and no overtime compensation... while still working 80 hour weeks at times.

One of the above comments suggests the solution is that someone in my situation should look for work elsewhere. Well, that's easy to say when you are the owner of a company and are not currently experiencing the aforementioned disrespectful treatment. The truth is that many people that experience said disrespect ARE looking for work elsewhere, but the industry is in a slump right now and is not offering many opportunities for changing jobs.

No, I think the solution is much simpler, and the people that own development houses don't like to hear it. Unions. Developers need to stand together and demand the respect we deserve for busting our asses day in and day out. If we don't demand it, we won't get it.

Posted:3 years ago

#8

Kaye L Elling
Studying Lecturer in Computer Games

8 4 0.5
Dehron, I couldn't agree more. I left dev to work in education and joined a union within the first week. In these times, I am especially glad to have a potential bargaining partner at my side if any disputes should arise, or working conditions deteriorate. Unions may not be cheap, but I'm not sure I could go back to work in a sector without one.

I recall talking about a union for game developers back in 1996 with colleagues in the UK and we're still no closer. Why on earth not? I mean, even actors have unions, so why don't developers?

Posted:3 years ago

#9

Richard Gardner
Artist

122 30 0.2
It would seem from the comments I'm fairly lucky... development is paced fairly well and the general moto is chip in a small amount each day over a long period of time and avoid weekend work at all costs. In the last year I have spent one weekend working, although my weekly hours range from 45-55 a week, I also worked all bank holidays but was given holiday for them. I counter it by getting into work earlier leaving me with the same time of a standard working day.

I think one of the problems with how the industry treats people also happens simply because people let it. Don't get me wrong I can understand situations with mortgages and children. But if I ever felt exploited to the extents of these comments I would defiantly look at my options, if it turned out everywhere I worked treated me like that I would change career path.

Don't live to work, work to live... unless you happen to love your job :P

Posted:3 years ago

#10

Dehron Hite-Benson
Software Developer II

4 0 0.0
@Kaye: There are many reasons it hasn't happened yet. One is because most game developers are introverted folks that rarely speak up about anything. A lot of game developers also have convinced themselves that working so hard for so little is something to be proud of (which I'll never understand). And lastly, laziness is a huge factor. With the exception of when they are working on games, developers are quite lazy.

Sadly, I too have begun to look in other industries for work.

Posted:3 years ago

#11

David Rider
Publisher

83 0 0.0
Interesting. The main reasons I decided to stay out of the 'real' industry, as opposed to simply writing about it years ago (I cut my teeth as a freelancer in the MegaDrive era) were the money and conditions.

It's a little saddening to see that things haven't really changed for a lot of companies. As someone used to having to hit deadlines, I can understand 'crunch time', but equally question the need for it if everyone in a team is pulling their weight.

But that's from the perspective of someone who knows the game industry a little and man and project management, so I'm sure there are extraneous circumstances of which I am unaware.

Posted:3 years ago

#12

Saehoon Lee
Lead technical artist

50 3 0.1
The "crunch" usually comes not because talented people have run out of time to do things. It is because of poor planning and short sighted organizations skills in the beginning of the process.

Posted:3 years ago

#13
Unions are an interesting one. If one country (UK game developers) did this, a lot (most) of the game development work would move to another country sadly.

Good planning, good people and contingency... lots of it! That and a shift in the games industry power base (which is happening!)

Posted:3 years ago

#14

Yiannis Koumoutzelis
Founder & Creative Director

357 181 0.5
Crunch time. It is definitely not unheard of (for some this might sound as the understatement of the year i suppose), many of us have been there and truth is it applies for many professions. Not only game development. AFAIK advertisement guys have it worse :)

"the general moto is chip in a small amount each day over a long period of time and avoid weekend work at all costs"

This is my motto too. I have crunched a lot in my early years, sometimes even without the need to do so, i have been "burned" quite a few times as well. That is why i made it my goal when for the first time i was in a position to do so, to try and organize my production so, that my projects no matter how tight never worked on crunch for at least the last 2-3 years. Not a single leave cancelled\recalled, with only a handful of deadlines delayed for no more than 1 day. But it is very true that some times you are not able to do so. i.e. last minute "small" additions\changes from the publisher or due to public demand.

Making games definitely is fun, but it is very hard work. There are lots of games toys and consoles around accompanied by the necessary childish behaviour every now and then :) but for sure it's not a playground!
At the same time as much contradicting as this seems it requires maturity and professionalism. Hard balance to hit!

It can be done, it needs decent planning, good cooperation, professionalism, understanding and support from all team members. (Not to forget our beloved families and friends...) OFC the more high profile the team members the better the results; but that applies everywhere.

And Richard.. as I'm sure you know, we love our job no matter how hard it can be sometimes :)

Posted:3 years ago

#15

Alex Wright-Manning
Talent Acquisition Manager

172 2 0.0
I couldn't agree more Saehoon. One of the key issues with developers permanently stricken with crunch is their lack of planning and/or business management skills. Most of the top echelon in these studios are made up of ex games development and art staff and have little or no training in these important areas, except skills they have picked up during their time in the games industry; and most probably handed down by superiors in the same position.

Now the last thing I would want is studios being run by Kotick style money men, as it's hugely important that there is a level of creativity from top to bottom within development studios. However, the games industry is no longer about lone programmers doing it for the love of coding, or artists creating purely for their art (admittedly this still happens with indy and iOS style devs, but it's not these guys we're talking about). It's a multi billion dollar industry, and many of it's senior members just aren't equipped in terms of business, organisational, and in many cases the emotional skills required to run a multi million £/$/€ project.

Look at Realtime Worlds, a prime example of mis-management. 110 million dollars! Where did it go? Frittered away on a project that was deeply flawed and hugely risky. That's no disrespect to those fine developers, artists, producers, animators and everyone else involved on that project; I know many personally and I'll vouch for every single one's skill and passion. But ask anyone involved there who lost their jobs where the fault lay, and you'll get a pretty universal answer.

Games development is inherently a complex business. To run a studio you need a deep understanding of your product, an understanding that can only be gained through many years of experience. Slap an MD or CEO from a traditional technology company or other creative industry in and they wouldn't have a clue where to start. Put a publishing boss in there, and he'll veto every new concept or groundbreaking feature that your designers come up with because it'd be too expensive, risky or would affect milestones. So how do we solve this?

Well, for one I believe that those games industry professionals that move progressively up the career ladder should be provided with the skills to more effectively wield their hard earned senior responsibilities. Business, methodology (Agile/Scrum), financial and organisational training should be part of any senior employee with designs on management's skillset. These are all things which are now being learnt by trial and error, by people who have very little knowledge of these areas when they first join the industry. Where does trial and error get us? Ask the scores of studios that have closed in the past few years.

This is not in any way an attack on senior management in the games industry, and there are some great business heads out there, but we should automatically and instinctively do everything we can to ensure that the next generation of management are equipped to do the task in an increasingly cut throat and difficult marketplace.

There are still a great many other issues affecting the industry; Dehron touched on one - laziness. I wouldn't use that word specifically, I know many guys and girls who put everything into their craft, but I think there are great many distractions in a studio. Games professionals are at heart gamers, and a games studio is a bloody fun place to work! Casual clothes, toys, magazines, posters, late night gaming sessions. My time as an artist in the industry was the best time of my life - hell who doesn't want to ride a scooter in the corridor at work (it was a slow day ok) - but ultimately these are all distractions from a studio's core business.

There are many who argue that this environment is vital to the creative processes that fire the games industry, and I couldn't agree more. The last thing that I would want is to see us reduced to a Vietnamese style 'body shop' with rows of cubicles and workers tapping and drawing away for ten hours a day, that simply won't provide the level of creative freedom required to create exciting new IP.

But hang on, aren't the vast majority of big publisher funded releases existing IP or sequels with by the numbers mechanics? Stuff that could be turned around by exactly those outsourced bodyshops? That's a bit worrying eh? Games that will still sell millions without having all those easily distracted and expensive staff that don't hit their milestones, because they're all too busy on that third hour of LAN Halo? Don't think publishers aren't already looking at China, India and Vietnam and thinking exactly that.

I could go on about how junior staff, so desperate to get a foothold in their dream job will work 80 hour weeks. Or how that despite the vast value of the games industry, games programmers are ridiculously underpaid for their skills, because their love of the industry and what they do allows them to be exploited. A games programmer with 7 years of C++ experience will make on average around £38-40k. Did you know that most of the banking and financial institutions all use C++ systems, and that they will pay a similarly skilled developer upwards of £70k? And if you fancy a bit of development contracting you'd be looking at £400-700 per day?! So, underpaid and overworked, and we wonder why we lose so many great people to other sectors?

The simple fact is that games companies need to be better run, by better equipped managers with more complete general management skills. Improved structures for staff to ensure that milestones are hit. For too long the industry has been an island; insular and untrusting of other sectors; "it's just the way we do things", doesn't work when you've spent millions of pounds on a project that's lagging behind schedule, and that if it fails will result in hundreds of people losing their livelihoods and your company closing.

Games are our business, but our business isn't a game.



Edited 2 times. Last edit by Alex Wright-Manning on 22nd October 2010 5:47pm

Posted:3 years ago

#16

Luis Alvarado
Graphics Programmer

1 0 0.0
I'm not sure unions are much of a practical option for the private sector in general. On the other hand, I cannot see how these would achieve anything but contributing with unnecessary bureaucracy and offsetting the core problem - which I would be venture to say that it is more related to business processes than any other aspects; perhaps we should borrow best practices and more efficient processes from other fields.

Software development is by nature a very organic and incredibly hard to measure process - in my opinion, the major problem is that developing a video game has the additional "handicap" of requiring enormous experimentation and creativity efforts in an already highly constrained environment. If to this we add the fact that the industry seems to follow more relaxed processes than those used in other software engineering fields, then we might on to something...

Posted:3 years ago

#17

Richard Gardner
Artist

122 30 0.2
Another thing to add is many of the issues the games industry faces in terms of crunch, deadlines and most importantly bad managment and planning happened in the film industry as it evolved into a more marketed and profitable media.

The whole games industry has relics of its former development practices and new blood who have evolved, the problem is a small amount of people who have been in the industry for a long time have not evolved or looked forward, leaving themselve in senior or management positions and been run over by the bad decisions they make.

Honestly, I'm confident in the evolution of small games, xbox live and psn. It means that lets say down the line I find myself in a dark corner been beaten with the corporate stick, I can just leave it and do my own thing with the friends and people I have met along the way.

My opinion is just to stand strong in what you believe in and enjoy, fight for what you want to do and make yourself heard in a constructive way. As an example a previous place I worked outsourced 99.9% of all the art, as an artist it left me with no real satisfaction in my job and left me demotivated and frustrated, so I simply left within six months.

Posted:3 years ago

#18

Oliver Wright
Graphic Design Manager

1 0 0.0
Someone above mentioned a start time of 10am and ive seen this late start elsewhere too. To me that's the kind of start time that would appeal to single guys and teenagers not professional adults with a partner or kids. Starting late just encourages people to work in the evening at which point they become tired and hungry… having a knock on effect for the next day. The morning is a very productive time so starting at a more conventional time (around 8.30/9am) and leaving around 5pm should be the most obvious way.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Oliver Wright on 22nd October 2010 5:57am

Posted:3 years ago

#19

robert troughton
Managing Director

216 84 0.4
At Pitbull people can work 9am-5pm and can shift that by up to an hour in either direction - so they can also do 8am-4pm, 10am-6pm, etc... the "big" North East companies, at the moment, seem to be doing something like 9am-9pm... and not just for what we'd call "crunch" - they keep shifting the goalposts so that "crunch" has become "everyday life". That means that the Seniors at these larger companies are being paid less than (per hour) our Juniors.

Posted:3 years ago

#20
Personally I prefer a 8am to 4pm culture!

Posted:3 years ago

#21

robert troughton
Managing Director

216 84 0.4
I agree. I'm a real advocate for the Quality of Life issues but, in truth, I've been doing 1-2 hours' overtime everyday for years just so that I can get a bit more done - but I've been working such as 6:30am-4pm rather than adding the hours on at the end... that way I get a couple of hours in before the office gets busy. And I get home to spend some time with the kids - when you have young kids, if you work late at the office, you simply don't get to see them until the weekend...!

Actually, I've heard of a few companies, recently, asking people to work at the weekends AS WELL as adding extra hours on weekdays - and not getting paid for any of it, of course.

Posted:3 years ago

#22
@ Robert - Early starts are great indeed. It means between 6-8am, no phone calls. All the work gets done efficiently. And no folks to fight on the public transport system.

Ideally, finishing by 4pm seems to be the best way for a QOL balance. This however might sometimes mean, having the bizphone clamped to the waist whilst Europe settles down after 6pm and US wakes up.

At the end of the day, depends on where in the production cycle the product is at. Naturally midway/near the end goal line if things need sorting then QOL may take a bump on the head.



Posted:3 years ago

#23

Craig Tongue
AI Programmer

5 0 0.0
I love games too much to work in the industry.

Although it would be, as many mention, a dream job for me I don't know a single one of my peers who went into games programming that has any time to actually game or enjoys the conditions (as opposed to the work which they do enjoy). If I talk to them on Steam at 8PM or on a Saturday (and often Sundays too) the odds are they are in the office still.

As an AI graduate I have managed to find jobs using my skills in other sectors and am earning considerably more than my peers, working approximately half their hours and enjoying having time to spend on my own projects.

The number one thing I hear from everyone in the industry is how bad the working conditions are, and I can't imagine how many talented programmers, artists and designers are put off entirely (as I was) by the stories they hear.

As to the causes, as many have highlighted the management practises seem to be at fault and it is encouraging to see a number of posts stating "It is not like that where I work" but nevertheless I am certain they are not very representative of the industry as a whole.

Posted:3 years ago

#24
"days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to"

Let's not get carried away with the doom and gloom. I've done crunch. But lately I've worked on projects without crunch. That there are still companies doing crunch is to be deplored. Is it the majority? I don't know, but what I do know is that people complain louder and more frequently than they praise and brag about the well run project they're on.

Anyone entering the industry would do well to be wary. But that's a truism to be applied to any occupation. Games you will find is worse than some, but in my opinion, better than many.

Posted:3 years ago

#25
The industry does have a big problem with staff turnover, and the major reason - though not the only one - for that is crunch. I can think of very few industries where people regularly work so much unpaid overtime - lawyers and accountants often do, but then they're extremely well paid and very rarely laid off - their jobs are very stable.

As for unions, it's a great idea. In theory. In practice though, work would just move overseas - or move overseas at a quicker rate than currently. I know TIGA has a membership plan for individual developers, but let's remember they're the ones who published their manifesto for the games industry a while back - which included wanting to see a "more flexible" workforce. There was also another organisation - name escaped me right now - who was trying to start unionising the industry - think they're a decent sized union in the traditional entertainment sector. Not sure what became of that though.

Posted:3 years ago

#26

Nick McCrea
Gentleman

163 185 1.1
In the UK I think a lot of studios are making real progress on working conditions, mostly as the average age of the industry creeps up - people with families simply don't want to work every hour in the day.

What I don't see changing is the fairly poor level of pay in comparison to the rest of industry. Sure, there are superstars here and there earning great salaries, but for the average programmer in the games industry, it's difficult not to come to the conclusion that you'd make a lot more if you moved into mainstream industry.

Personally, I felt a sense of guilt over choosing to leave a fairly well-paying job in the financial industry to get into games, and the sacrifices this meant for my family. It's all well and good to say it's for the love of the industry, but when it's not just YOU who sacrifices something, but the people who depend on you, you really begin to question the decision. It's ultimately why I chose to leave the industry again, and why I probably won't be back - well, that and the chronic instability and forced life of itineracy!

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Nick McCrea on 22nd October 2010 9:50am

Posted:3 years ago

#27

John Bye
Senior Game Designer

477 434 0.9
Fran - "There was also another organisation - name escaped me right now - who was trying to start unionising the industry - think they're a decent sized union in the traditional entertainment sector. Not sure what became of that though."

I *think* it was BECTU. As for what happened, I assume they didn't get enough people signing up.

Posted:3 years ago

#28

Mark Davies
3d Artist, Character, hard Body, Environment

1 0 0.0
The lack of sign-up is going to be the problem when the majority of people working for you have either come straight from uni or a similar games company, and don't see the need for, or have any experience of unions, other than the students union bar. The last time I sat in on talks with a union, they were not interested unless they had at least 50% of the staff on board. Nowhere near that amount could see the point of a union or why they should bother with one.

At the moment the games industry relies on youth & vigour to feed it, and the constant stream of new talent. I'm not sure that will last once it becomes harder, or at least more expensive to get that degree in animation or whatever because of recent government cuts.

Perhaps then, old crusties like myself will get more of a look-in? Time to dig out that bottle of Just-for-men.

PS Alex. Please put me in touch with the people paying £700 a day.

Posted:3 years ago

#29

Alan Jack
Studying MProf Games Development

13 0 0.0
I might not be experienced enough to comment, but I have always felt that crunch is a production/scheduling issue - not just trying to cram all the work in by a deadline, but standing up for the team in establishing working practices with anyone who might affect those deadlines.

Would be interesting to see how episodic content, focus on DLC and smaller titles would affect crunch time issues.

One thing that leaps out at me from the article - should you really *let* employees work weekends when they don't have to? Shouldn't you send them home, tell them to go out and have fun? Some people can be their own "evil tyrant", best not to let them if you ask me!

Posted:3 years ago

#30
Games development ultimately is a organic product, and relies on social and combined team efforts.

Thus, it WILL have a margin of error. Realistically scheduling, producing and minimizing this error bias within a shipping launch date vs profitability vs a great product vs quality assurance (plus luck/favourable conditions) is what makes games development both a relishing challenge and reward (on all levels)

Now even the best management techniques, plans, training and uber talented folks within a social system will encounter hiccups. ALWAYS. Anyone telling you otherwise, are just theoretical self style management gurus.

This could be due to:
1/ Feature creep eg.technical challenges/innovations (requiring additional product development time)
2/ Publisher/Developer milestone issues
3/ Staffing issues
4/ The game isnt as polished as it should be
5/ Marketing/PR issues eg. marketing failure, wrong target audience, overhyped, overbudgets and overinflated

You get the drift.
Thus, coming back to crunch vs no crunch.
Invariably, there will be busy periods, less busy periods, and you can have great lean efficient workflows and a no crunch studio (which means, if there are any hiccups, this EXTRA delay has been accommodated, budgeted & planned for) and still may/may not be shipped later than expected.

So, go figure....
we all just try the best (ensure no families or staff are burnt, ensure high morale, productivity, and overall goodness). All the feel good stuff aside, when push comes to shove, the product needs to be delivered one way or another, because you ultimately, someone/team involved has to be responsible for it, and when your product is on the shelves, the efforts, blood , sweat and tears are hopefully good testament to the team effort.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Dr. Chee Ming Wong on 24th October 2010 11:52am

Posted:3 years ago

#31

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