The revelations from within Team Bondi shock few in the industry - and that in itself is a shameful thing
It's not the celebration of the successful completion of a long and gruelling project that management at Team Bondi might have hoped for. Only weeks after L.A. Noire finally hit store shelves - picking up extremely positive reviews along the way - the studio is embroiled in a scandal over its working conditions, with present and former employees coming forward in droves to denounce the treatment of staff and the behaviour of senior management at the studio.
This isn't a new debate, of course, any more than it's a new problem. It doesn't take a very long memory to recall the "EA Spouse" controversy that erupted in late 2004, when Erin Hoffmann - whose fiancee was a developer at Electronic Arts - wrote a then-anonymous post heavily criticising the company's work practices, especially the unjustifiably lengthy periods of "crunch" which had become endemic at some development studios.
Work practices are absolutely going to have to change and improve for the simple reason that it defies all commercial logic to continue acting in this way
As such, while actual apologists for Team Bondi are few and far between, plenty of the reaction from within the industry has been to shrug expansively and say, "yeah, it happens". After the EA Spouse affair shone a harsh light on this side of the industry, things did improve a little - but more than the Team Bondi affair itself, the "hey, that's life" response of the wider industry illustrates just how little we've really moved on.
It's important, of course, to be realistic. The games industry is a creative industry, and as such it's not always possible to place exact timelines on development tasks. Flexibility is often needed - more so on some types of games than on others, granted, but the point is that in order to meet deadlines and maintain quality, a certain degree of crunch is to be expected, and a certain willingness to view the project as a labour of love that deserves the odd evening of overtime is required of employees.
This is not, in any way, shape or form, a justification for managers deciding that crunch can be factored into their project management, or can last for months at a time. It's certainly not a justification for simply having no project management worth a damn at all, choosing instead to prop up the weaknesses of dreadful management by forcing employees to work unreasonable hours. Nor is it a justification for managers deciding that since the project is a labour of love, employees won't mind if that overtime becomes expected or even compulsory, rather than occasional and given willingly.
Yet this is exactly what happens at a truly depressing number of companies in the games industry - a proportion of them large enough, in fact, that firms who don't practice endless crunch as part of their development strategy find it worthwhile to promote this fact heavily in their job advertising. It says absolutely nothing good about the games industry at all that something which effectively translates as "we're not complete bastards to work for!" is considered to be a prime selling point when advertising for new staff.
The reason that apologists haven't exactly flocked to Team Bondi is that, even accepting that many ex-employees probably have an axe to grind and even present employees are liable to exaggeration, this still seems to have been an especially unpleasant and abusive situation. The work practices in question aren't uncommon, but rarely are they quite so harsh, so liberally used or so heavily enforced by a studio's management. Few really want to condemn the practices themselves, but even fewer want to be seen to defend a fairly indefensible situation.
Yet those same work practices are absolutely going to have to change and improve, not for the bleeding-heart sake of the poor oppressed employees, but for the simple reason that it defies all commercial logic to continue acting in this way. Squeezing your employees is profitable in the short term - few studios pay overtime, so you're basically getting enhanced productivity for the price of leaving the lights switched on a few hours longer, and possibly ordering in some free pizza. In the long term, however, it's a disastrous approach to doing business.
Why? Because if you mistreat employees, pushing them too hard and demanding too much, you end up with burnt out staff - and as one of the whistle-blowers at Team Bondi noted, the value of a studio lies in its staff, not in the room full of computers and fluorescent light-bulbs. Treating staff as replaceable parts - burn one out and swap another one in - is an approach to development that ends up being vastly more expensive in the long run than nurturing talent.
Sure, there are tons of young people out there who want to work in gaming, but trotting that argument out whenever people complain about working conditions is not just cynical and nasty - it also shows a pretty tenuous grip on reality. Yes, you could continually burn out your staff and replace them with fresh, naive graduates. Yes, in the process you'd conveniently replace people asking for higher wages with people happy to work for a pittance. Unfortunately, you'd also be replacing people who know what the hell they're doing and have the experience and understanding to turn out high quality work in a way that fits into the development processes around them, with people who have to be trained up from scratch - and who's going to do that, if everyone worth their salt is already burned out and gone off to work in an industry that doesn't treat them like pack mules?
Change requires an understanding of development as a team effort - a swift fall to earth for the egos of development "auteurs" who see their studio as a backup team for their own magnificent vision
This isn't complex or difficult stuff, but implementing it requires cultural changes from developers. It requires an understanding, for a start, of development as a true team effort - a swift fall to earth for the egos of the thankfully dwindling number of development "auteurs" who see their studio as a backup team for their own magnificent vision. It requires an understanding that in any team, as in any machine, if you keep burning out and replacing parts, overall performance inevitably suffers. And it requires a clear recognition of the fact that for all that many young people would love to get into game development, few of them have the skills and even fewer have the experience to actually do it, so holding on to the talent you've got is a far better idea than hoping to exploit fresh-faced graduates on a rolling basis.
This latter point is one of the areas where the games industry is most curiously discordant, to my mind. On the one hand, we constantly hear about how the industry is starved of young talent, how schools and universities aren't teaching the skills game development actually requires and how difficult it is to recruit the kind of people needed for highly skilled roles like programming or animation. On the other hand, some of the same companies which bemoan the lack of new graduates seem to be startlingly willing to watch experienced, talented staff walk out of the games industry and off to pastures greener when they hit their thirties and want to do crazy stuff like spending time with their children or altering their diet so that it doesn't consist of free pizza in the office six nights a week.
Team Bondi is going to suffer huge reputation damage in the wake of this affair - that much is a given - and much of that will reflect personally on studio boss Brendan McNamara, whose personality seems to be at the core of the whole rotten affair. More worrying for McNamara and his studio, however is the implication that Rockstar was no more enamoured with the management style than the staff were - that's the blow that's likely to hurt the most. Yet rejoicing the "punishment" Team Bondi will receive for its behaviour is both unconstructive and unpleasant - and it misses the true point entirely.
That point is that while Team Bondi may be an extreme example, it remains an example of something that's still widespread in the games industry - a culture of undervaluing talent and acting as though the fact that game developers love their jobs is reasonable grounds to chain them to their desks. Like EA Spouse before them, the Team Bondi whistleblowers have highlighted not just a flaw with a single firm, but a malaise with the industry as a whole. Publishers and developers are lucky, lucky companies, because their employees do often truly love their jobs. Rather than abusing that love, it's time more firms started thinking about how to nurture it so that it lasts a lifetime, instead of flickering for a handful of project years and finally burning out.