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Comment: Developer working conditions hide a cancer in the games industry

Fri 02 Jul 2004 3:05pm GMT / 11:05am EDT / 8:05am PDT

It's happened at last, and nobody is terribly surprised; a programmer working for Vivendi Universal Games has blown the whistle on the company's employment practices, filing a lawsuit against the firm for unpaid overtime and claiming that he and his co-workers were orderedto falsify timesheets and other records in order to avoid the company's legal duty to pay overtime to qualifying employees.

Nobody is surprised, because it was bound to happen sooner or later; not everyone will be prepared to accept the woeful employment situation which has become the status quo within the developmentsector of our industry. Nobody is terribly perturbed, either, because this lawsuit only stands a chance because of a quirk of Californian employment law. If you're outside California, or paying your staff above a certain level, you're free to continue exploiting your developers by forcing them to work masses of unpaid overtime to your heart's content.

Or at least, that's what conventional wisdom says; and many within the upper echelons of the industry's management don't see what the problem is with this approach either. After all, game development is founded on the principle of working incredibly long hours to get the game done, and this is how the industry has worked for years; why should it change now?

That's an invalid argument, however. It's one thing for a small development studio trying to make it in the marketplace to have its staff working huge amounts of unpaid overtime in order to reach a milestone; it's quite another thing for behemoths of the industry like Electronic Arts, Vivendi, Ubisoft or Activision to demand the same thing from their employees. Nobody is arguing that crunch time is a factor that can be ignored, but when companies with large turnover - be they publisher studios, or large independent developers - are consistently trying to force their workers into ridiculous working hours over a period of many months, serious questions need to be asked about the company's attitude to its staff.

More than that, questions need to be asked about the competence of management. What project manager creates a project plan that calls for workers to work 12 hour days for three months? Equally, what kind of project manager creates a project plan so utterly flawed that it requires that kind of work at all? The status quo in the development sector regarding working hours isn't just a sign of worker exploitation, but a sign of utter incompetence on the part of a certain level of development management within the industry.

For now, that status quo continues to be accepted by the bulk of the industry, and there are few legal challenges which can be mounted to it - outside California, at least. But senior management need to consider the situation very carefully, not necessarily because of the moral implications, but because of the implications for the company's bottom line. If your development management staff are incompetent enough that they are forcing workers to put in masses of extra hours to cover up, where else is their inability to do their job losing you money? What is the overall effect on the quality of the product you are producing? And, perhaps most importantly of all - what does this mean for the scheduling and budgeting at the heart of the industry's biggest companies? Have they all been living a profits lie based on the exploitation of the industry's creative talent?

This editorial originally appeared in the GamesIndustry.biz News Digest, a free email news bulletin which is distributed to subscribers every day of the week and features a round-up of the key headlines of the day, the latest major share movements from industry companies, and the day's new job postings. Each Thursday afternoon, this digest is presented in a special omnibus form with the week's game charts and an editorial focus piece.

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