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Ex-employees describe LA Noire's difficult development

Mon 27 Jun 2011 10:04am GMT / 6:04am EDT / 3:04am PDT
PeopleDevelopment

New report exposes trouble behind the scenes at Team Bondi studio

An investigation by IGN has exposed the tensions and employee unhappiness at Team Bondi during LA Noire's seven year development.

The article features the input of eleven ex-employees of Team Bondi, all of which requested their identities be protected, and studio head Brendan McNamara.

It describes constant crunch periods, a confused hierarchy, a lack of overtime and issues with McNamara himself.

"I don't want another job in the game industry because of my experience [at Bondi]. Most of the [artists] I know who worked there never want to work in games again," said one of the former employees.

The games was delayed four times, and faced obstacles like the release of the PlayStation 3 during its development cycle.

"As time went by and the project wasn't coming together as fast as management wanted it to, they started to become aggressive and demanding," explains another anonymous source. "That led to people quitting, or being forced out when they didn't obey direct orders."

All of the developers involved were unhappy with McNamara's habit of bypassing lead staff and going to straight to individual developers with desired changes.

"If you'd talk to your lead and say, 'Hey, Brendan's making this unreasonable demand,' they'd be understanding, but they're ultimately powerless," IGN were told. "They can't go and tell Brendan that it's not feasible, just as much as I couldn't tell him. He just won't listen to reason."

McNamara's demanding personality also drew comment, with one developer describing McNamara "screaming" at people on the the office floor, and calling him "the angriest person" he's ever met.

Another developer mentioned the long working hours, with deadlines constantly moving and extending the crunch periods, meaning 60 hour working weeks. Another said in the three years he was at the company, no overtime was paid.

"There was simply an expectation that you'd work overtime and weekends," said one ex-employee. "I was told that I was taking the piss by saying that I couldn't give every single one of my weekends away."

McNamara addressed each of the issues, but seemed unrepentant.

"I'm not in any way upset or disappointed by what I've done, and what I've achieved," he told IGN. "I'm not even remotely defensive about it. I think, if people want to do what I've done to come here and do that then good luck to them. If people who've left the company want to go out there and have some success, then good luck to them. If they don't want to do that with me, that's fine, too.

"It's like musical differences in a rock and roll band, right? People say they do want to do it; some don't."

20 Comments

Christopher Bowen Editor in Chief, Gaming Bus

459 738 1.6
To borrow something I read on Twitter: What pisses me off is that someone's going to see this abuse of personnel as a success story that should be emulated, and the process will repeat itself.

Posted:3 years ago

#1

Aidan Fitzpatrick Artist

48 2 0.0
"Another developer mentioned the long working hours, with deadlines constantly moving and extending the crunch periods, meaning 60 hour working weeks. Another said in the three years he was at the company, no overtime was paid."

This is why Hollywood has actor and writers unions.
I've worked a couple of E3 crunch times in my time - never as severe as this.
We never got paid overtime either, the best we got was free pizza - the management believed we should feel privileged to be working in the industry and that crunch was part of the job.

Posted:3 years ago

#2

Nick McCrea Gentleman, Pocket Starship

211 407 1.9
Whilst I take the point that it's usually the case that a team has to go beyond the 9-5 to make something exceptional and potentially world-beating, it's not at all clear to me that you need to be quite so abrasive and unapologetic to do it. I think that's an assertion that just has to be challenged - that THIS is how you make world beating games. So many counter examples of studios releasing world-beating games that people clearly love to work for - Valve, Bungie, Blizzard, CCP.

That said, I do think it's nigh-on impossible for studios without independent financial means to avoid crunch, because publishers basically have them by the short and curlies.

Posted:3 years ago

#3

Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer

124 34 0.3
@Chris - I agree with you, but at some point it becomes physically impossible to sustain crunching, and that usually generates more problems that will be solved with more crunching.

Posted:3 years ago

#4

Mihai Cozma Indie Games Developer

124 34 0.3
I guess this happens to all software industry, not just game development, except the very small companies (in one of which I'm happily working now, after two big multinational companies from which I'm proud I got out).

The higher the decision power of an individual in a company, the more money he has and lesser knowledge about what is technically happening bellow him. When such a figure keeps to his/her business and lets everybody do their jobs, everything goes fine, however when they tend to be the "control freak" figure, breaking the "chain of command" and getting his nose into every detail, things start to go bad, and it is usually a good time to start looking for another job if you value your free time and your inner peace, to say so.

I do game development just as a hobby, and the more I read about the life of a professional in this industry, the happier I am that I actually do my professional work outside of it, in the "usual" software industry, where I can just go home after 8 hours of work and see to my family and my hobbies.

Posted:3 years ago

#5

Diarmuid Murphy Developer Marketing, Microsoft

33 0 0.0
Another issue is the how developers hold game credits as a carrot/stick for employees. You may have worked on this game for years but if you leave before launch you don't get offical recognition.

Posted:3 years ago

#6

Nick Court Head of Production, Lightning Fish Games

1 0 0.0
In my mind, there will always be crunch in games development. Most developers feel they can always make the game better, and are happy to go that extra yard.
But, crunch stops being crunch and becomes a piss take beyond two to three months (even less if you're robbing the team of all their private & family time) in a 12 month period .
Taking the personal lives of your team for a sustained period of time will lead to a broken team, and a game developed without the passion of the team.


Posted:3 years ago

#7
crunch indicates a management failure in almost every case: poor vision, scope, staffing, accountability, empowerment, scheduling and so on are rampant in the video game industry, which remains largely immature. when management is untrained, unapologetic and unrepentant, it's further proof of that immaturity.

Posted:3 years ago

#8

Wayne Gibson UK Marketing Manager for GameKrib.com

69 8 0.1
Crunch time? Sounds more like 'Punch Time' with the staff being the bags.

Posted:3 years ago

#9

Matthew Farber Senior Gameplay Engineer, Spark Unlimited

8 0 0.0
Ridiculous that this is still going on. I worked at a studio earlier in my career where the last 4 months of development of the game we were working on, people literally slept at the studio. Barely any of us had time to go home due to a constantly-moving deadline and pressure from above to put more and more content into the game. We were pulling 80+ hour weeks, rotating people on the couches to each get a couple hours sleep and then it was back to work. Never again.

Posted:3 years ago

#10
It's things like this that make me wonder why I'm a Games development student. LOL. It's terrible that things like this happen though. I wish the management of these companies would learn that employees that aren't being ground into the ground generally work better...

Posted:3 years ago

#11

Ray Kirkland Audio designer / Composer

12 0 0.0
Sounds like a Nightmare of an environment to work in, Thanks to everyone who worked on the game because it was a great idea and ended up brilliant. hope you all keep working on games in the future because you are very good at it.

Posted:3 years ago

#12

Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd

454 443 1.0
The issue for me isn't just about crunch, firstly this level of crunch is unpaid overtime and it's unjustifiable for the employees to work twice as hard but not get paid accordingly to their work for such a long period of time.

Students, don't believe his lie, this level of crunch is not inevitable and there are companies out there that actually treat employees well and hand out bonuses for all the hard work in crunch. Secondly if this level of crunch was inevitable and known beforehand then why were the programmers not paid double time, or twice as many programmers employed? If we are to believe they could not have done this due to costing then that means that they have a project that is not financially viable.

The whole operation sounds like a shamble, and the language and rhethoric he used shows a complete disregard for his employees and a management style that offloads managerial errors onto the workers. His employees were unhappy because of their working conditions, which says a lot - but his unrepentance will blind him from seeing any error in his approach.

---

Let's hope a high profile manager responds to say otherwise.

The gaming industry does have different challenges that excite the need for crunch time, but crunch time ought to be a very natural occurrence brought on by the motivations of the programmers to complete their work. It should not ever be used to cover up a limited programmer budget.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Keldon Alleyne on 28th June 2011 5:47am

Posted:3 years ago

#13

Roland Austinat roland austinat media productions|consulting, IDG, Computec, Spiegel Online

138 80 0.6
@Davidicus, well said. Most writing in current games wouldn't even make it into a straight to DVD movie.

@Christopher, it already has happened before. Rockstar San Diego and Red Dead Redemption. Hmm. Both ultimately successful games at horrible costs - do I see a pattern here?

Permacrunch (tm) is something that should not exist, period. Short crunches in sprints or before deadlines? Sure, in any industry. But everything else is simply bad management of talent and resources.

Permacrunch does not make one more productive. Seven years, hello?

Posted:3 years ago

#14

Alan Jack Studying MProf Games Development, University of Abertay Dundee

13 0 0.0
Here's what I don't get: Studio Heads don't make games. The team makes a game. I say this having worked in production: you don't make the game. You facilitate others making the game.

A producer's job is to ensure a game is properly scoped & scheduled. Ergo every "crunch", every time someone HAS to work overtime, the producer has failed.

A designer's job is to co-ordinate the vision of a product and communicate this to the team. It's not their job to decide what's feasible or isn't - that's up to the developers. They get their restrictions from them. The best designers design around problems, rather than telling developers they have to work late to fix them.

So exactly what has McNamara achieved when he says "if people want to go out there and do what I've done"? Surely its the team that did it, not him!

Posted:3 years ago

#15

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer

579 322 0.6
Alan, not that I'm supporting McNamara, but I want to point out that the team wouldn't even be there to begin with without the vision.

Posted:3 years ago

#16

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
Yes, but lots of people have vision. What's you really want is not just someone with vision, but someone with the much more rare ability to turn vision into a successful product at reasonable cost.

The description of working conditions on this project will come as no surprise to anybody in software development; we're only starting to work our way out of the same issues in the last decade or so, despite these sorts of problems being well known since the 1970s. (Fred Brooks' The Mythical Man-Month was published in 1975.)

It's often just a refusal of managers (and developers, too) to acknowledge reality in the planning processes. People schedule assuming that nothing will ever go wrong, and when it does, it's always an exception that need not be taken into account when doing future planning, rather than something that should be assumed will happen and be planned for.

Posted:3 years ago

#17

Jonathan Cole Studying Computer Games Technology, Birmingham City University

2 0 0.0
Going to get flamed for this I am sure, but in some industries 60 hours a week is not that crazy - especially for a 'crunch' time.

However constant crunches is clearly an sign of management failure. Also if McNamara constantly missed out leads and went directly to progammers/artists then again it is probably a cause of some of these crunches.

Often I would try and put into budgets a margin for unknowns, but as Curt say they never get accepted. (still worth putting in the draft plan even if it gets rejected later).

BTW worked as a 'management consultant' before getting into games developement

Posted:3 years ago

#18

John Bye Senior Game Designer, Future Games of London

484 455 0.9
"This decision to put into effect the short work week is not sudden. We have been going toward it for three or four years. We have been feeling our way. We have during much of this time operated on a five day basis. But whenever a department was especially rushed it went back to six days - to forty-eight hours. Now we know from our experience in changing from six to five days and back again that we can get at least as great production in five days as we can in six, and we shall probably get a greater, for the pressure will bring better methods. A full week's wage for a short week's work will pay."

Henry Ford said that in 1926. It seems parts of the games industry are 85 years behind the times...

It's no secret that working very long hours for extended periods results in more errors and less productivity, not to mention demotivating and burning out your staff. I suspect that if Team Bondi had worked shorter hours, they could have finished LA Noire sooner and cheaper.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by John Bye on 29th June 2011 1:47pm

Posted:3 years ago

#19

Keldon Alleyne Handheld Developer, Avasopht Ltd

454 443 1.0
@Jonathan, the difference with programming is that crunch negatively affects productivity exponentially. Henry Ford (I believe) discovered that productivity rose when working hours were reduced and the 40 hour week was his optimum.

His observation was that much more mistakes were made when workers were overstretched, and if you consider what programmers are doing it doesn't take a genius to work out that such long periods of crunch do not make any sense. This does sound like a serious issue of mismanagement, poor communication protocols and a terrible outlook on the industry.

Also there's the issue of pay. If one is to expect 60-80 hours of work all year round then they must be paid accordingly.

Posted:3 years ago

#20

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