While the industry is busy celebrating the remarkable sales success of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and Halo 2 - with Metroid Prime 2 and Half-Life 2 still to come before Christmas, along with many other massive titles which are too numerous to mention - an impassioned post on an Internet journal this week has served as a sobering, but perhaps timely, reminder that its current success is not being shared equally by all of those who have created it.
An articulate, reasonable but yet undoubtedly angry post on the LiveJournal website from someone described only as "ea_spouse" is a damning condemnation of work practices within the games industry - and while it specifically mentions market leader Electronic Arts, as that's the company where the husband of the author works, it would be deeply unfair to assume that EA is the only videogames company with questions to answer about how it treats development staff.
However much we talk about San Andreas and Halo 2 representing a maturing of the industry in the public eye, it's meaningless if the companies within the industry continue to employ work and business practices which smack more of the cowboy methods of doing business in new markets than the responsible behaviour of blue-chip companies. No matter how much profit our publishers rake in, or how much we praise the creativity of the industry's leading franchises, it's ultimately self-defeating if the talented people on whose shoulders this industry rests are overworked, underpaid, and ultimately leave the industry to seek employment elsewhere - as they do, and will continue to do.
The article written by "ea_spouse" describes working conditions which would not be permitted in any other first world industry, with crunch time lasting for months and eventually reaching a point where it genuinely compromises the health and well-being of workers - never mind the hugely destructive effect that these conditions have on their personal lives, the quality of their work, and their enthusiasm for their jobs.
Again, it's vital to emphasise that EA is mentioned specifically only because this is the company at which the writer's husband is employed, but its practices are most certainly not unique in the industry, and indeed the company is far from being the worst offender in terms of the treatment of its staff. This is an issue that the whole games industry needs to face up to, not just one for EA alone - although certainly, for the market leader to actually lead the way in this area would be a welcome step.
If this particular subject sounds familiar, then yes, it's true that we have visited the subject of the working conditions of development staff before; but it's a hugely important subject, perhaps the most important facing the industry right now, and it's worth revisiting in the light both of the immense success of recent products, and the eloquent and distressing comments made by "ea_spouse" in her journal.
The simple fact is that these are creative people, not factory drones churning out "product" to a set of specifications, and overworked talent will produce lower quality work, will introduce more bugs or sloppy design into a project, and will ultimately cost a publisher money in terms of lost sales, lost man-hours (which, admittedly, will then be covered up with more forced overwork), and eventually, ridiculously high levels of staff turnover - already a massive issue for the industry, and one which is growing and growing as traditional media industries start to increasingly value games industry "veterans" who cross over into other areas.
Sales figures and media hype represents one type of maturity. However, until such time as the industry grows up enough to deal with the type of management and project planning - be it merely incompetent, downright unethical, or both - which is causing the levels of overwork, stress and dissatisfaction seen among developers at many major studios, this business will never truly be mature, and it will always fall short of both its creative and commercial potential.
The article by "ea_spouse" can be found at this URL, and we would strongly recommend it as reading for anyone in the business of publishing or developing videogames - especially those who manage the process.
Rob Fahey is GamesIndustry.biz' editor, and can be reached at [firstname.lastname@example.org].
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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