Profit is at the heart of the games industry right now and has been forever. It's understandable, given the number of companies that have become billion-dollar players in less than a decade and other such runaway success stories.
But as an industry, we do at times tread a fine moral line in pursuit of those stories, whether it's with loot boxes, gambling compulsion loops, or other bottom-line-driven tactics. When these measures arguably cross the line -- affecting children, courting government legislation, making an impact on addiction health advice -- we are in effect hurting the whole games industry by damaging our consumers and players, the life blood of the business.
But those trends are relatively recent, and as I'm sure you've noticed, the chase for profits has been damaging people, teams, developers and their families for way longer. Crunch, for example, is a primary outcome of the race to larger profit margins. Crunch is deeply embedded and has been the norm for many devs in the industry for two decades or more.
I know because I was part of some of the deepest crunch out there. I understand this problem better than most. Many years ago, I too thought that crunch was the way to get games finished. In fact, I was one of the early adopters of truly hardcore crunch.
For 12 long years as the head of Rockstar Lincoln, I'd drive my teams to deliver, to not fail, to get the game out at any cost and I would be right there in the trenches for hours, days, months. More and more... Here's the thing, it became very apparent that irrespective of a strong culture, highly capable people, and true teamwork at the studio's core, this approach was and is unsustainable.
The good news is, I'm a reformed character.
"Our people are not disposable, to be thrown away after a game launch in the pursuit of profit"
The bad news is that crunch was adopted en masse, but today teams are beginning to reject it one at a time. Crunch is rife even now. We are still burning out our best and brightest young and veteran talent for a buck. We may reward their crunch with cash bonuses, but those often barely cover the unpaid overtime worked and do little to offset the long-term impact of crunch. It's just unethical.
We all know that hard work is at the heart of success in any business. (Well, outside of dumb luck.) But surely it's a strong team with a stronger ethical value set and systems to match that will win out and become the new studios of the future that are as viable and profitable as the old.
Which begs the question - Why do we still insist on smashing our people to get to a release and then set out to make the next project even bigger and better, especially when each go-around with crunch bleeds studios of talent and damages team morale? It's madness, like punching yourself in the face and shouting, 'Again! Harder!'
Our people are not disposable, to be thrown away after a game launch in the pursuit of profit.
Overtime to meet deadlines can be motivational when it's measured, agreed upon, and comes not from inefficiency but to make the game better. But crunch is not a development method; it's a failure to plan, communicate, and manage change. So let's not pretend that real crunch is the only way great games can be made.
"It sometimes feels like a race to destruction, like financial musical chairs. There can only be one winner, at the cost of many others"
Development teams are the capability in this industry, the money is the vehicle to give that capability an opportunity. The business, the deals, and the investment are not the destination; high quality, engaging video games from happy, motivated development teams is the real destination. Because we all win financially and the consumers of our games feel like they get value, not 'Minimum Viable Product' (a term I use and hate each time it leaves my lips).
Without creativity and people, the money is irrelevant. It sometimes feels like a race to destruction, like financial musical chairs. There can only be one winner, at the cost of many others. The relationship between the development and the money needs to be balanced and truly symbiotic, with proper risk management, stable growth, and realistic expectations of people and products.
The age in the games industry of 'How much can I make, how quickly, and for how little?' -- the true salesperson's mantra -- is coming to an end. Developers won't have it anymore. It needs to be consigned to history so that we can have an indie ecosystem that works with investors and publishers, where learning and support are the norms and the values of honesty and integrity are core to relationships and collaborations, where teams don't get thrown away or crunched to death for a dividend.
The revolution is coming. There are investors, publishers, veteran and new devs alike that know there is a better way. In recent times I have worked with these kinds of people. Many are old friends going back 20 years that feel like I do. Others are fresh new indies that value people and work/life balance.
"The revolution is coming. There are investors, publishers, veteran and new devs alike that know there is a better way"
This is why I've set up Remote Control Productions in Dundee, a place where game development is in the DNA of the people of the city. With RCP onside it is my mission, and with values that are truly aligned across the RCP family, to support new or established studios in their endeavour to make great games and follow a better way of supercharging their teams and ideas.
Two of the core values that teams can and should align on when engaging with RCP Scotland are aimed at directly combating crunch at a cultural level.
The first is having a true understanding of team and studio capability, knowing what to deliver, and how to do it well for all parties involved. (That's the opposite of saying 'yes' to any deal, deliverable or not.)
The second is a studio culture that understands reward systems for its people and teams. Asks and doesn't assume or see money alone as the only reward. Work/life balance, recognition, and responsibility all factor in, too.
We have a vision of a games industry with successful studios, amazing games and fair deals, where the rising tide lifts ALL boats.
Mark Lloyd ran the Rockstar Lincoln studio for 12 years from its inception in 1999, was a founding member of Activision studio The Blast Furnace, and is currently managing director at RCP's newly established Dundee, Scotland production house. He has also written a book about excessive work practices titled 'Zero Crunch - The Best Way to Ethical, Cost Effective Software Development.'