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"Don't give into fear and keep adding more features" - How not to overwork your employees

EA's Criterion, one of the UK's best places to work, on how it avoids crunching

Last week, we asked the winners of our UK Best Places To Work Awards to share advice on how to avoid game development crunch.

You can read their suggestions here.

This week, Matt Webster, VP and GM of Criterion - the EA-owned studio famous for Burnout and Need for Speed (and among the top scoring companies in the awards) - provided us with their tips. We felt these tips deserved their own article. So here they are:

"If we commit to respecting the time, livelihood, and continued growth of our teams, we will not only avoid crunch but rule out its existence entirely"

Developers love to final. This is the period when we go the fastest. We build fast, we play, and we change fast. We communicate, and we make decisions. We come together, and we prioritise. There's no reason that these actions and behaviours have to wait until the end of the process - make it happen way earlier in your timelines.

There's a wealth of research from across a whole host of industries that shows you that crunch reduces output. In the games industry we think we're special and that this research and data doesn't apply to us. The reality, of course, is that it does apply. We're seduced by crunch in finalling, but it's dangerous and if unchecked it will bring real harm to your people, and subsequently your business.  

There's just really great work out there that shows you crunch doesn't help your outcome. For example, the Game Outcomes Project communicates this in real detail and concludes: "Crunch does not in any way improve game project outcomes and cannot help a troubled game project work its way out of trouble."

If we commit to respecting the time, livelihood, and continued growth of our teams, we will not only avoid crunch but rule out its existence entirely.  

Be honest with yourself and others about where you are right now and where you can realistically get to in the time you have. Plans based on hope don't work - you can't hope it all fits and expect a good outcome.

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Criterion is the Best Mid-Sized Studio to work for in the UK

Choosing not to start work on a feature that you can't finish is behaving 'player first', because you focus on finishing the rest of the features to higher quality.

Trust your people. If they say it takes an amount of time to do something then don't push them to halve it.

If you stop focusing on working longer you can focus on working smarter.

Never underestimate the productivity boost of a well-rested, happy person. Regularly get candid feedback from your team and measure their health. Listen to what they say and act on it.

Don't be afraid to cut lower priority features or content, the earlier the better.

We've created a short term 'Focus Mode' to minimise distractions and make the team's day more efficient.

Be aware of people working late or at weekends, and have a chat with them about the context for it, and how you can help them.

Staying open, positive and creative under pressure so the team keeps collaborating and seeing the creative solutions when the production constraints are raining down.

Planning and re-planning as things keep changing. I love the techniques that our directors have come to that keep planning lightweight for the team.

Crunch is the ultimate example of refusing to accept where you are, even when (and in fact especially when) it is not where you want to be.

Everyone has to believe and want to work in a better/different way - especially the leadership. Work together to agree on the rules, such as core hours, lunch times, game times, flexi, and so on.

Don't celebrate or reward bad behaviours, in any way. 'She's just passionate', 'It's only one late-night' - If you really have to compensate for these moments, then spend time understanding what led to them.

Ensure everyone feels empowered to have the best day. Are your teams viable in their makeup? Do people feel responsible for their decisions? Are they clear on their priorities and constraints?

As a leader, are you comfortable with your team making difficult decisions and do they know that? Are you giving them space? Are you protecting the process? Is everyone clear on the beliefs and what 'good' could look like? Are you measuring against goals or pre-defined solutions?

Feeling like you need to crunch is a sign that other things are wrong.  Take the time to explore the root instead.

Live the behaviours you want to see. If you believe everyone should leave at six o'clock... then leave at six.

Be mindful of your leads and managers. These people tend to be the ones that will always work a little extra and more frequently, which can sometimes result in more junior members of the team looking to this behaviour as the way to behave. A team reflects its leader.  

Build processes and structure around your beliefs and rules. For example, If you want to support multiple time-zones, then don't build processes around synchronous communication like instant messages.

Criterion has worked on Burnout, Need for Speed and Star Wars: Battlefront

Criterion has worked on Burnout, Need for Speed and Star Wars: Battlefront

Hire people who believe the same truth is possible - don't place higher worth on talent over values.

Trust and listen to your team, because it's where the wisdom is. They will often know more than you, drop command and control and never sign your team up for an impossible amount of work.

There's a mistake somewhere in the concept of 'passion' equalling time spent in the office. You can come into work and put in eight 'passionate' hours or 12 'unpassionate' hours. Time does not equal passion.

This also speaks to the fundamentals of any research around the efficiency of working longer hours equalling more productivity. Economic theory highlights how this applies to adding people to a production line in the form of the Marginal Product of Labour [the change in output that results from employing an added unit of labour], and this has a negative effect past a certain amount of labour.

Tired people make mistakes. When they're tired they create more bugs.

There's a big fear out there about whether a product is good enough and often there's not enough tools to measure this accurately. This leads to management just putting in more features, more hours and more people onto a product, to try and alleviate that fear. It's important to not give in to this easy way out and to keep the faith. Believe in your original vision and the implementation of that in the software.

Software is the truth. At the most basic level, if you don't have any other tools to measure the quality of what you're doing then at least you have the software. If you can play the game on a regular cadence, then you are able to review and gauge the quality of your software. This helps to reduce that fear.

Have a strong vision for the product and you must make decisions that are based on the value added to that vision and product.

"Teams will add every single idea and feature they can think of if you let them"

Make decisions early. Make them, make them, make them. An incorrect decision made is a lot better than not making any decision at all. It helps to move you forward quickly and make other decisions that stem from this. It also lets you see a lot sooner whether you've made a bad decision or not. You will have to make decisions on a project. If you leave them all until the end then you have a lot less time to respond to the unknown that results from those decisions. If those decisions are based around scope and cutting features, then inevitably you will have also wasted people's time and energy for working on features that could have been cut earlier. Those people could have been working on adding quality elsewhere.

Decisions are sometimes hard, sometimes unpopular and sometimes you don't have all the information available to back them up. But you need to make them anyway or you can't move forward.

Leadership has a responsibility to the product and to the studio to ensure that the best quality product comes out at the end. Quantity does not necessarily equal quality. Editing a feature set and looking at a product holistically should allow you to edit out a great deal of things that don't add a great deal of value to the player. Focus on the most important things to the player. Player first. Don't give into fear and keep adding more features.

As well as a responsibility to the product, leadership has a huge responsibility to the team. Teams are passionate. Teams will add every single idea and feature they can think of if you let them. They'll work on features until they drop, to try and add as much quality as possible if you let them. It's up to leadership to have the responsibility and discipline to know what they are making, to not bite off more than they can chew.

It's up to leadership to ensure that their team know what will add the most value to the player and game. The team need to be given the confidence that they don't have to build everything.

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