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Exploitation of developers has gotten worse, says David Doak

Exploitation of developers has gotten worse, says David Doak

Fri 04 May 2012 9:00am GMT / 5:00am EDT / 2:00am PDT
Development

Dealing with "psychopaths" at exec level forced Free Radical co-founder to leave business

David Doak, co-founder of defunct UK studio Free Radical Design, believes that the exploitation of developers by the big publishing companies has worsened since he left the business in 2008.

Speaking of the development behind TimeSplitters, Second Sight and the shelved Battlefront project for Lucas Arts, Doak said that the pressure from execs, their constantly changing demands and refusal to honour contracts caused him to have a breakdown and leave the business he helped create.

"The dream job which I once loved had become a nightmarish torture"

David Doak, Free Radical Design

"Everyone knows all the horror stories about development," said Doak in an interview with Eurogamer.net. "And it's a real shame, because it turns people off it in the end.

"There's this aspect open to exploitation where because it's your dream job, doing something you really love, you should endure all kinds of abuse to do it. Having watched it from the sidelines for the last few years, it seems to have gotten worse. It's just this big furnace that burns people. It's like that thing, where if you enjoy sausages you shouldn't see how they're made. That applies to games."

Last month GamesIndustry Internationalspoke with fellow co-founder Steve Ellis, who revealed that Free Radical Design was working on two Star Wars games for LucasArts before a change of management at the company prompted it to axe staff and shelve multiple projects. Ellis, Doak and other Free Radical employees claim Lucas Arts resorted to dirty tricks in order to delay and eventually shelve Star Wars Battlefront III and avoid paying the studio what it was owed.

"My role at Free Radical meant that I was simultaneously involved in these unpleasant 'high level' discussions with psychopaths who wanted to destroy us, and then the next day sitting with our dev staff at their desks trying to boost people's morale," recalled Doak. "Helping them to pass milestones that I knew would subsequently be manipulated to cause them to fail.

"It's like you're in borstal. Getting held down, beaten around the head with a cue ball in a sock"

David Doak, Free Radical Design

"It was the most depressing and pointless thing that I have ever been involved in. The dream job which I once loved had become a nightmarish torture. I found it impossible to reconcile that situation in my head and I had a nervous breakdown. I had to stop and take time off for the sake of myself and my family - ultimately I left the company I founded feeling like I had failed it."

It isn't just Lucas Arts that Doak has strong feelings of resentment towards, but also EA Partners, who worked with the studio on TimeSplitters: Future Perfect.

"It was a bit like being groomed, you know. Here's all these friendly avuncular people that will give you all the love and attention you need to get your game out, and then after a while they go away and all the bad guys come around and it's like you're in borstal. Getting held down, beaten around the head with a cue ball in a sock."

22 Comments

Peter Dwyer
Games Designer/Developer

481 290 0.6
It's ultimately why I went the indie route too. Endless crunch with the promise of a bonus at the end and the real possibility that you'll be a burned out husk of a person before long.

It never used to be like that and isn't in small studios. It shouldn't be like that but, definitely is in large studios. Ultimately when the EAs of the world finally crumble we may see some reality and fun come back into game design.

Posted:2 years ago

#1

Rick Lopez
Illustrator, Graphic Designer

1,269 941 0.7
@Peter....

Yeah when EA crumbles and all those games people purchased on origin wont be playable, people will understand digital is not the way to go. Sorry for being off topic.

Posted:2 years ago

#2

Sean Lane
Artist/Animator

15 7 0.5
Just because Origin (a laughable service in and of itself) would disappear, doesn't mean digital is somehow going to be short lived and not the way to go. Origin hardly even makes a dent in use compared to other digital game services out there anyway. No one would miss them, EA is in no way holding up the economy of digital distribution of games.

But either way, not sure how a completely acceptable and widely used form of media consumption is somehow a fad.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Sean Lane on 4th May 2012 6:01pm

Posted:2 years ago

#3

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

550 268 0.5
It's simple:

The game industry needs to unionize.

The core talent needs front-screen recognition with creative control. (NOTE: A very large misconception among developers is that selling your IP means you surrender creative control over it. NOT TRUE! Contractually you can retain creative control EVEN IF YOU SELL YOUR IP!) The reason why core talent needs front-screen recognition is because it needs to develop clout. Otherwise, ALL talent has not clout, and the suits will continue to call the shots.

The game labour needs to organize into specialized companies - e.g. art companies, programming companies, etc. This way they can maintain stability as they move between different projects. Because projects need to wrap once they are finished and labour no longer needed. (Sorry, but you can't have it both ways.)

Posted:2 years ago

#4
@Peter - you could also make that same comment about any online game as they only keep the servers running for so long.

Even DVDs or CDs have a shelf life.

Besides if EA ever where to go down and Origin was successful I'm sure that would probably be one of their most valuable assets for someone else to buy and continue.

Personally I prefer the market going digital rather than 100% multiplayer. I like my story based and/or single player games.

Posted:2 years ago

#5

Jess Kappeler
Game Designer

16 30 1.9
@Tim

Can't agree more! Front-screen recognition would go a long way to giving the control back to the developers, at least for the well known developers.

Posted:2 years ago

#6
That's people (the psychopath execs) who never suffered anything in their lives. They have only one goal: power&money. They simply don't care about the rest.

I wish them to suffer a nervous breakdown very soon... so finally they will know how people feels and maybe they become a bit more empathic and less asses.

Posted:2 years ago

#7
"It isn't just Lucas Arts that Doak has strong feelings of resentment towards, but also EA Partners, who worked with the studio on TimeSplitters: Future Perfect.

"It was a bit like being groomed, you know. Here's all these friendly avuncular people that will give you all the love and attention you need to get your game out, and then after a while they go away and all the bad guys come around and it's like you're in borstal. Getting held down, beaten around the head with a cue ball in a sock.""

EA Partners.

I hope people defending or on the fence about the EA Indie Bundle read this. It's just like I was saying, publishers are breeding grounds for psychopathy and wickedness.

This is the future for indie developers if they fall into the publishing temptation.

Posted:2 years ago

#8

Tony Johns

520 12 0.0
That is the reason why I want to work for a developer who has creative control on the games they make, and not at the mercy of the publisher who wants a game to be finished at a certain time limit.

Sometimes I feel that some publishers make unrealistic demands that result in bad unfinished games.

Posted:2 years ago

#9

Richard Gardner
Artist

123 32 0.3
@Tim Carter

So what your saying is to get around publishers we create a union with even more figures heads to control things? Then we sell our IP to a publisher which means you can only develop it exclusively with that publisher... There goes your options. Then worst of all we form labour camps to produce individual aspects of a game and completely move away from the collaborative effort of a team? Jesus dude, I hope I'm getting the wrong end of the stick here...

Posted:2 years ago

#10

Richard Gardner
Artist

123 32 0.3
Overtime and harsh working conditions are not just down to publishers, a lot of it has to do with the developer agreeing to unachievable contracts. As an example being contracted to make X amount of maps and Y amount of features without the foresight to make accurate and well planned decisions. Now don't get me wrong, there are cases where no matter how much foresight you have as a developer an insane publisher will physically force your hand to agree to something you can't. But I still feel a developers need those bold leaders to stand up for them.

An example would be in the Epic games developer diary for Gears of War, Microsoft where asking Epic to remove the chainsaw for months. Every milestone they would get around a table and mention it "so when is it going to be removed?" but Epic danced around the decision as they knew it was core to the product. Low and behold months later the chainsaw became one of the core intellectual properties of the franchise. Its a very fine line to ignore your publisher but its an example I feel we need to see more of as developers have become almost complacent to there demands.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Richard Gardner on 5th May 2012 8:59am

Posted:2 years ago

#11

Morville O'Driscoll
Games Blogger & Journalist

1,484 1,252 0.8
@ Jeffrey
It's just like I was saying, publishers are breeding grounds for psychopathy and wickedness.
Go read the Valve Employee Handbook. Then make less general remarks about publishers. Yes, EA suck (no-one needs to be told that :p ), but not every publisher is EA.

Posted:2 years ago

#12

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

550 268 0.5
@Tony Johns:

The ONLY entity that can meaningfully maintain creative control is a person.

Companies - developers, what have you - cannot meaningfully maintain creative control? Why? Because they can be sold.

ONLY a key talent person can wield true creative control.

Posted:2 years ago

#13

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

550 268 0.5
@Richard Gardner:

I'll tell you what? You go research some of the deal terms of organizations like SAG, AFTRA (now merged), the Directors Guilds and so on, then you come back and talk. Because it doesn't sound like you know too much.

EVERY major film is made under the system I described. There is plenty of collaboration on them - even with guild involvement.

Posted:2 years ago

#14

Tim Carter
Designer - Writer - Producer

550 268 0.5
The Valve handbook is a mess. It only works for Valve - not all companies were in the right time and place they were.

I would hate to work under such messy, sloppy terms.

I could also mention that individual talent gets no recognition in Valve. Go look at their credits. No mention of what any given person's contribution is. That does NOT give key talent any clout or power in the long run - it just inspires groupthink conformism.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 5th May 2012 11:35pm

Posted:2 years ago

#15

Morville O'Driscoll
Games Blogger & Journalist

1,484 1,252 0.8
Two different arguments, there, Tim. :)

I was referring to Jeffrey's comment about publishers being wicked and evil, and pointing out not all of them are. Not disputing that it only works for Valve, either.

One thing I will say:
No mention of what any given person's contribution is
It's interesting reading this comment in relation to my love of classical music. At a live concert, unless you read the program you're not told who the members of the orchestra are. Not even who First Violinist is, and that's a very important position. Conductor and soloist are named, obviously. But other than that it's just "The Hallé". Now, I'm not saying this is altogether right, but I will say that videogames aren't the only creative medium who don't mention the individual's efforts, and that it's not an abhorrent thing to do. Even orchstra's famous for rotating leadership positions don't make a big deal out of naming individual members outside of the program.

Edited 3 times. Last edit by Morville O'Driscoll on 6th May 2012 12:22am

Posted:2 years ago

#16
"Go read the Valve Employee Handbook. Then make less general remarks about publishers. Yes, EA suck (no-one needs to be told that :p ), but not every publisher is EA."

I have. I was even defending Valve in a forum a couple of days ago talking about this very topic (should publishers encroach on indie developers, spawned by the EA Indie Bundle). Okay, so some publishers are evil and some aren't :). I think the value-adding components of Valve are a much larger percentage of their operations than for EA. The fact that they are a private company not trying to grow tenfold every quarter in an unsustainable manner helps. But I do think Valve walks a tightrope: they develop games and can help or harm the success of other studios that are their competition in developing games. This scenario is very dangerous, and I don't feel comfortable with it -- but when looking at the quality of games that Valve produces and the manner in which they conduct themselves toward gamers and other devs, they have earned my trust much more than EA.

I still feel that gatekeeping positions need more checks and balances against them. The fact that some companies behave ethically with the power they have does not make up for the companies that don't, it merely avoids fueling the fire.

Posted:2 years ago

#17

Richard Gardner
Artist

123 32 0.3
@Tim Carter

A film can be made up of separate components and I can understand your opinions on how you feel this system would work better for games. But a game isn't something you can throw around to different people, film as a medium can be very segmented because it only boils down to a single image.

I personally wouldn't hold such strong opinions towards a system until its being proven and from my knowledge I can't think of any good examples. Although that would completely change if you have an example, I would be interested in knowing more.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Richard Gardner on 6th May 2012 10:50pm

Posted:2 years ago

#18
It's not all publishers. As someone already mentioned, I believe it's most often the developer's own execs who are the psychopaths. They sign projects with impossible milestones because they are incompetent and cannot negotiate beneficial contracts. Then it's the employees who end up doing 24 hour days, literally, and burn themselves up. Employees do it, because they love games and (at first) believe the promises of bonuses and the mantra that "crunch is part of the game industry".

It's not. Most of the time these execs do not even understand what games are about. For them, games are just a product. They might as well be in the industry of making shoes or running hardware store.

I believe that team that is made out of happy and enthusiastic professionals is the key. At Kukouri, we have not missed any deadlines and have not worked any overtime either. The level of quality is much better, as people don't have to work day and night under lot of stress. Then again, we're small team of 7 people, that's much more easy to handle than army of 100 or even 50 employees.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Kim Soares on 7th May 2012 7:52am

Posted:2 years ago

#19

Curt Sampson
Sofware Developer

595 346 0.6
Tim Carter writes, "The Valve handbook is a mess. It only works for Valve - not all companies were in the right time and place they were."

This is not at all the case. What Valve is doing is a fairly extreme version of what's known in the wider software industry as "agile development." That started to become well known in the late '90s, and is a moderately common thing in the mainstream these days. While I doubt a majority of developers are seriously committed to agile methods, they are accepted as something that works, and a not insignificant number of shops have seen huge benefits from using these techniques.

"I would hate to work under such messy, sloppy terms."

It may not suit you. Some people don't like things like collaboration, or having to understand all of a system rather than just part of it, or not having exclusive ownership over some chunk of a project. But other people thrive in such an environment.

It looks messy and sloppy to you because you don't understand it. But I've worked in many such projects and there's a huge amount of discipline there that you're not seeing.

Posted:2 years ago

#20

Colin McBride
Studying MA in 3D Design for Virtual Worlds

35 6 0.2
Actually, you seem to have a rather extreme view of unionisation if you don't mind me saying so. You're not selling your soul, you're just effectively sticking together as colleagues to minimise the amount of exploitation you're subjected to...

Posted:2 years ago

#21

David Doel
Games Marketing Assistant

12 9 0.8
The industry is increasingly going the indie route, and in the end it's going to be better for games and the people who develop them. My top 3 games of 2012 so far are all under $15, and that's saying something.

Posted:2 years ago

#22

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