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Beachside Burnout

Fri 08 Jul 2011 6:47am GMT / 2:47am EDT / 11:47pm PDT
BusinessDevelopment

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.

21 Comments

Alfonso Sexto
Lead Tester

783 589 0.8
There is a difference between the need of overtime inside the industry and unnecesary cruelty; which was the case of this Studio.

If the industry can't tell the difference between this two cases, we are going to have problems more sooner than later.

Posted:3 years ago

#1

Bigot De La Touanne Julien
Lead of Compliance Team

1 0 0.0
Every single actor in this industry (i.e. motion capture, voice-acting, localisation etc) is facing this issue. Only we speak about devs because these examples are really extreme (EA Spouse and Team Bondi) but it is foolish to think that they are the only ones dealing with this situation.
If people want more profits then we'll have to expect more and more examples like that. If people want a higher quality but are keen on investing more time and money (in trainings to name one example) for a slightly lower profit, then the situation will change and improve.

Posted:3 years ago

#2

Kristian Kramer
Games Journalist

1 0 0.0
Unfortunately the gaming industry isn't the only industry in which these kind of management practices are accepted (by the management). Especially where profits margins are small it's easy - and sometimes needed - for managers to act like this. Still, it's sad this happens.

Posted:3 years ago

#3

Alex Wright-Manning
Talent Acquisition Manager

172 2 0.0
"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."

That's a little harsh Rob. Without employees there wouldn't be any commercial profit, long or short term.

Posted:3 years ago

#4

Gregory Keenan

102 11 0.1
I've been reading the articles that come out about this "crunch" time and all the bad management practices that come with it. Do managers in the Games Industry do any training? Or are they raised from programers/straight grads?

Im always being taught and having to study different management techniques (only a few I can remember as they are the ones I agree with and use). My personal ones are the Action Centred Leadership (ACL) mixed with Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

E.g:
--
Following the above article - I think that the management has drifted into the "task" element of ACL and forgotten the Team and the individual.

This lack of individual consideration can erode the foundation of the pyramid in Maslow's hierarchy of needs and slowly work its way up.

There is way more to it than I can write here, but for anyone interested:
Maslow's Pyramid: [link url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow%27s_Hierarchy_of_Needs.svg
]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Maslow...[/link]

Brief intro into ACL: [link url=http://www.teambuildingsolutions.co.uk/Default.aspx?pagename=John-Adairs-Action-Centred-Leadership-Model
]http://www.teambuildingsolutions.co.uk/D...[/link]

More detailed:
Maslows Wiki page: [link url=http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hierarchy_of_needs
]http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maslow's_hi...[/link]
Full(ish) Royal Navy Document on ACL, well worth a read: [link url=http://www.johnadair.co.uk/articles/royal_navy.pdf
]http://www.johnadair.co.uk/articles/roya...[/link]
John Adair: http://www.johnadair.co.uk/

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Gregory Keenan on 8th July 2011 3:46pm

Posted:3 years ago

#5

Alex Wright-Manning
Talent Acquisition Manager

172 2 0.0
Your point is a salient one Gregory. Often studio management is generally drawn from those that have worked their way up through the ranks. If you have come up through the ranks within the 'crunch culture' then your management style will have been formed accordingly. I've always thought that prospective management staff should be given extra training to cope with the rigours of managing projects and teams, and not just have to rely on their own experiences - particularly if they are skewed by having been subject to crunch processes in their own formative years.

Posted:3 years ago

#6

Rafael Vazquez
Lead Game Designer

1 0 0.0
Yeah, I can attest to that too. Project managers and administrators are taken up from the ranks of programmers, artists and designers and, in my experience, mostly due to longevity in the company and not actual management skills. I agree with Alex that, admins should take extra courses thou I still think this is a short-term solution. What we actually need is for actual, experienced managers to join the games industry, making it a comfy place for them to work.

I always get the feeling that few people (other than programmers, designers and artists) see a career for them in games. We need to change this, bring more people from different backgrounds.

Posted:3 years ago

#7
In contrast, my experience with people who have moved into management positions from non-frontline development roles (producers coming from PR & marketing, etc) is that they tend to be even worse than former developers. We all hear horror stories about management who have an actively adversarial attitude to their staff. More than a few times I've encountered the assumption in management from outside development that developers must somehow be shirking or lazy, simply because the management in question had no real understanding of what the developers were doing and so assumed that they were being sold a bill of goods when it came to time to estimated schedules etc.

In a way, it's exactly the opposite problem to that suffered as a result of "developer managers". Dev managers have rose-tinted views of how easy the tasks were when they were doing them and assumes that everyone should be willing to work the same hours they worked when they were 20. Non-dev managers just assume that devs must be spending those long late nights playing Minecraft and eating all the pizza. Extreme examples, but this industry seems to spawn extremes.

I've never met an actual management-trained manager in the industry, though. Would they thread the needle, or would they fall into the same trap former publishers etc always seem to? I have no real basis for an answer.

Posted:3 years ago

#8

Marcelo Martins
President

6 0 0.0
I've been following this debate for some time and I must say that even though I agree on most of the issues pointed by Rob, I can say one thing about managing people:

It is VERY hard!

Posted:3 years ago

#9

Miguel Melo
Software Engineer

65 0 0.0
Game development was my dream job and I was priviledged to work 5 years as a coder in the games industry in the UK and, during that time, I worked for some 5 companies including stalwarts such as EA, SCEE and Take 2. Having been there I must say that general disregard for the developers and staff turnaround was a shocking affair.

I then came back to Portugal and have, for the last 10 years been working as a developer FOR THE SAME COMPANY, one that sadly does not develop games. However, the whole thing is order of magnitude more sane. The product we develop is as exciting as you can get insofar as enterprise software is concerned: it's a full suite that will allow you to graphically design web applications, compile and publish it to .NET and Java servers and do all the DB alterations, change management and integration you can think of. (check it out at http://www.outsystems.com)

We started with around 5 employees, we're now circa 120 but r&d is _still_ just 20-odd people.

To this day every single one of the original developers is still here and, not strutting my own stuff, but we do deliver with 20 guys what most companies would require 200 - and what we deliver is possibly the best platform you can get _anywhere_.

Why? Because we take an agile approach of timeboxing what we do and we never burn out anyone. Sometimes we have to drop really cool features, and a part of everyone dies for that. But the fact of the matter is we live to do another project with people with we empathise with, who work well and who you can trust to continue if you're run over by a truck.

It's a shame you don't see that in game dev, an industry that I will readily admit is infinitely more exciting and paid me better to boot - if you can believe it! And that, my friends, is a crying waste.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Miguel Melo on 8th July 2011 9:23pm

Posted:3 years ago

#10

Nigel Knox
Software Engineer

11 0 0.0
Having had to deal with these issues all my working life, I have come to conclusion these problems are a natural consequence of the laws of economics of "flexible labour" practices. Once employees start contributing significant amounts of time, for free, the market becomes skewed. I don't think I have ever met anyone who actually intends to impose a crunch, but nor does it happen by chance. (except maybe the GoW management, who actively went around shouting about how working their staff to death was what made them great)

It works like this.
a) Games are a winner take all market, the prize for the best, are greater than being consistently good.
b) The industry makes great study of success, but examines the projects that failed. Emulate the best, is the guiding principle.
c) Some strategies are high risk, producing highly unpredictable results.
d) Game-theory tells us that the the "best" games will have to use high risk strategies, meaning that the industry quickly adopts the highest risk strategies.

Having worked on over 12 completed titles, I can tell you some of these problems are so predictable it is a joke that they still continue. Lack of testing for online modes until the single player modes are completed, data pipelines designed for rapid change not rapid use, uncoordinated integration phases, general over-emphasis of flexibility over reliability.

Take the data pipeline problem as an example, the BIGGEST reason for crunch at the end of a project is that as companies ramp up production, the amount of data they produce grows very quickly. This slows increases load time, data sync times, the works. Consequently, when the game enters full testing, it not only generates unexpected work, but does so at a time when the productivity of the team is already decreasing. Some of this is a direct consequence of decisions to use "flexible" data, such as XML, or "live-loaded scripting", or multiple load files.
The decision to use flexible data, increases the ability to prototype, and be creative, and all those wonderful things that make the best games the best. However, they create the conditions where the only solution is for the staff to make up the time lost loading and sync'ing and building, with FREE time, and thus the company sees the benefit and staff pay the price. Market forces dictate that companies who adopt these practices thrive, and those that don't fail. If companies had to pay for overtime, even at just normal hourly rates, the fallacy of flexibility would quickly be exposed, and everyone wins, including companies, who would get a more predictable product.

As an insider who has been through the mill enough times, these problem are blinding obvious, and yet the industry lacks any serious champion willing to question the culture of "free" overtime.


Edited 1 times. Last edit by Nigel Knox on 8th July 2011 11:46pm

Posted:3 years ago

#11
@Alex: That's exactly the point I was making. Looking after employees effectively isn't some kind of bleeding-heart, soft touch approach to doing business - it's a basic commercial necessity that even the most "hard nosed" studio manager should be in tune with.

Posted:3 years ago

#12
Happy staff equals good retention of skilled staff which equals a very experienced team unit. Simples

Posted:3 years ago

#13

Nigel Knox
Software Engineer

11 0 0.0
@ Dr Wong

I'm afraid you put too much benefit on retention of staff versus releasing a good product. Take for example, my experience on WipEout HD. During the project, I had to cope with the birth and death of a baby. You can talk about Work/Life balance all you like, but I think most right minded people would agree, there is no question of balance in these circumstances. My responsibility lies with supporting my family, Unsurprisingly, the game director disagreed, arguing that what I needed to cheer myself up was LAN party, maybe get a few programmers on the team together to stay late after work, play the game and we happened to find any bugs, we could fix them.

Unsurprising WipEout HD was my last project for Sony. Sony acted horrendously, and lost themselves a lead programmer, but gained a strong a IP, and a code base that I would probably guess is still in use today (in WipEout 2048). Net win for Sony, I'd say. It is an unfortunate truth being a prick pays better than being well adjusted in our industry.

And my story is just one of many I could tell. Our industry acts outside of normal human rules of decency, with complete disregard for basic employment law, health and safety, or even human rights. This is why I laugh at the occasional story about who we need more women in the industry. I agree, but the industry has much worse problems to sort out first.

Posted:3 years ago

#14
@ Nigel - I hear ya and the truth in your story buddy. I think I should rephrase, that depending on the size and type of your studio (small, medium or large) and type (family orientated, corporate, open plan, multiple studio branches) this will attract and retain different kind of personnel and have different capacity of retention, work practices and capacity to hire/layoff at will.

I cannot comment on SCE Liverpool/Psygnosis - but I'm not saying its all rose tinted or a straightforward solution running a world wide studio versus a indie studio.

Posted:3 years ago

#15
"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."

I completely agree. Im nearly 20 years into this business now and (finally) Im working in a pleasant environment where I enjoy coming into work, get my bills paid and the company makes a profit. This is *ALL* without the need to have things like overtime *SCHEDULED* in. Practices like that are ridiculous! Its simple maths- if you dont have time to do the work, then you dont have enough staff or the project is too big! Really, really simple! If you then cant afford more staff, then the scope of the project needs to shrink. Then and *ONLY* then can projects be completed on time with happy staff who then get their bonuses and be happy to work for you on the next project.

Lets face it, technology doesnt count for ****, its PEOPLE that make businesses work, and assembling and holding teams of good people together really should be at the forefront of any development business looking futher forward than the end of their nose.

Aww knackers.... Im gonna stop here before I get too hacked off.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Rob Dorney on 11th July 2011 9:07am

Posted:3 years ago

#16
@ Rob - you hit it on the nail. As many folks mention - people and talent make the company (great or greater)

Posted:3 years ago

#17

Kenneth Mcmorran
Studying Game Art and Animation

16 0 0.0
I dont know this Mcnamara guy personally but its clear from his response to the situation that he is indeed delusional and egotistical. Some of his excuses are so contrived and patronising its actually embarrassing. If the guy had manned up and said 'yeh look we got it wrong, we took liberties, we learned from this and we are sorry' there wouldn't be such a public furor but Mcnamara comes across so utterly conceited and ignorant that its difficult not to be frustrated with his attitude.

But, its not the first time I've heard of poor working conditions within the games industry, it seems to be more of an issue with major developers so I will be focusing on working with Independent studios in the future, id rather be poor and happy than rich and burnt out.

Posted:3 years ago

#18

Sam Henman
Senior Artist

2 0 0.0
I worked at Team Bondi for 7 years as an artist and I think it's only fair to tell the other side of the story. Everyone at the company would completely agree the development cycle was too long- it's a hard ask to maintain enthusiasm and morale after so many years of work but there were a great many people who thrived on the project and had a very different experience to the 'bondi 11'.

La Noire was an exciting opportunity for me coming out of an Australian college and I found Team Bondi to be a friendly, supportive and motivating company to be working at. I felt very passionately about the way the game was shaping up and very much enjoyed the periods where we all pulled together to move the game towards a milestone. Being asked to work one extra hour during the week nights seemed like a reasonable ask to me. Especially when we were also told very clearly in a company wide meeting that evening work time would be rewarded with a month off at the end of the project (which came about 6 months after that meeting).

Working weekends also wasn't an issue for me as every hour worked was logged and fully compensated. The management spelled out exactly how the overtime hours would be paid out and posted it in writing on the Team Bondi intranet for all to read. I agree there was some confusion and skepticism about the clause that the overtime would be paid out 3 months after the projects completion- but the management responded to this by agreeing to pay out the full amount in 3 regular installments before the project completed. They honored this in full (a good 6 months before the projects completion).

A lot has also been said about Brendan's management style being very direct with the staff- that he would go to individual members of the team to work on parts of the game. For me I very much appreciated the opportunity to work directly with the games director. Some of my most fond memories on the game were throwing ideas around with Brendan and discussing the strengths and weaknesses in the game. Team Bondi was a very open office to work in. None of the leads or producers had separate offices from the staff- we were instead all working together in a large open plan office where we were encouraged to collaborate together and see what other disciplines were working on. Reading the article I can see some people obviously didn't like working like this but there were a great many of us who jumped at the opportunity to have such a hands on approach to the games evolution.

I agree that mistakes were made along the way but I wouldn't expect a brand new company with new staff, new IP and a new game engine to get things perfect. I have only respect for the people who didn't like the office environment and chose to respectfully move on to other things. But I'm very saddened by those who vindictively seem to want to pull down the company after it's success on LA Noire. For myself and a lot of friends still working there, I'm sure the worst part of working on this project has been the taint put on it by some of the comments.

Posted:3 years ago

#19
Responding to Gregory Keenan, in my experience most team / studio managers I have worked with have had a career path from QA, then working their way up as producers and ending up as studio managers rather than being from an art, design or programming background. Throughout that path I am not aware of commercial leadership training outside of direct experience. It may be a useful tool but I personally don't know what applies to leading game development teams that tends to have direction from within the team or a passionate director who may or may not also have responsibility for managing the team.

Posted:3 years ago

#20

Judy Tyrer
Engineer Manager

1 0 0.0
"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."

This sentence captures the fundamental flaw in management thinking. You do NOT get enhanced productivity from crunch. What you get is a less stable product, more defects, and a worse situation than you would have if you had not crunched at all. The fastest way to get a solid product is to slow down development, not speed it up. Tired employees make more mistakes than well rested employees. Angry employees who just want to check-in so they can go home make the most mistakes. And each mistake is additional time in development.

Until we can get management to understand and adopt the software development practices that have been developed over the past 50+ years in the computer industry, we will continue to make the same mistakes over and over in the name of "creating fun" and the absurd practice of creating defects at the 11th hour will continue. If you would not let your developers work on code while too drunk to drive, then why on earth would you let them work on code while sleep deprived knowing that studies prove sleep deprivation has the same effect on judgement as being drunk?

Posted:3 years ago

#21

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