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Game developers who run together, succeed together

Fostering a culture of exercise at your studio can lead to happier, healthier people who are more productive

Meet Jason Brackman, a game developer who works at Relic Entertainment in Vancouver, British Columbia. Most notably, Relic makes the Company of Heroes series of RTS games.

Jason doesn't look like your stereotypical soft-bellied, junk-food-eating game developer. Jason is thin and tough. He's good natured and obsessive.

Jason doesn't drink, the way that devs typically do. Rather, Jason does have a drink-just one drink-once or twice a year, usually at the Relic holiday party. Drinking makes him childlike and terribly endearing.

Instead of drinking, Jason exercises.

Jason's in the middle

Jason is an avid exerciser. He climbs Grouse Mountain on a regular basis, doing what's known in the Vancouver vernacular as "The Grouse Grind." The Grind is a grueling hour-long hike up vertical rocky terrain. Grouse Mountain is 20 minutes outside of Vancouver's downtown core. If you haven't done it before, you should try it.

Jason invites other devs to join him on The Grind. At the top, doubled over and occasionally dry-heaving-Grouse is absolutely merciless, especially for first-timers-the devs almost always promise that they'll be back. The endorphin rush at the top is genuinely thrilling and addictive. (Note: I've climbed Grouse with Jason, and I've felt it.)

Despite the promises, few of the climbers actually return.

Regardless, Jason extends invitations to everyone at Relic, and sometimes to devs at other studios in Vancouver.

The older, more mature people on your team

In time, a core exercise-positive group of devs, including a studio head, were climbing Grouse two and sometimes three times a week thanks to Jason. Jason himself occasionally did a Grind twice, or sometimes three times in the same day, back-to-back, which is challenging, and, frankly, a little dangerous.

Without a doubt, Jason is a geek. He has an easy-going gravity about him. He has the mysterious ability to pull other geeky, non-athletic devs up Grouse, or on long runs or lengthy bike rides. He gets stubborn, out of shape coders at his studio-and devs from other studios-moving in healthy directions.

"Exercise hasn't always been part of my career," he says. "For me, when I was first starting out [as a developer], it was difficult to think about anything other than making our games. You spend your mornings, your weekends, and your after-work hours thinking only about development. Being a new developer is like eating birthday cake for the first time. You're going to eat as much of that cake as you can."

"When you're out on the run or on Grouse, especially when you're exerting yourself on a daily basis behind a desk, you're leaving the stress of the job behind"

Jason recommends courting the older, more mature members of the team first. "The people who I worked with who were the veterans? They were usually the first to figure out that exercise wasn't necessarily a bad thing. So, when I invited them, they were always the first ones to say yes."

Short races are good benchmarks for success

He also suggests red-flagging shorter, seasonal races and using the races as goals to aspire towards. "No matter where you live, there's always a 5 or 10K to sign up for," Jason says. In Vancouver, the race for Jason's studio is the Sun Run in spring. "In January, emails go around the studio, asking who's signing up for the Sun Run. This is the lead-up to how you're basically going to get into shape for the year. Those races serve as a starting point for people. This is an occasion for us to rise to as a group."

Living in a city like Vancouver, where being healthy is a borderline universal value, certainly makes things easier for Jason. "Because we're in Vancouver, there are a ton of outdoor activities," he says. "We're close to Stanley Park and the Sea Wall, for a quick run or a roller blade-yes, I used to roller blade. For me, I'd always think, 'I'm getting an hour to talk to other game devs. This is our chance to talk about geek culture.'"

Conversations, he says, are about games, or an episode of Dr. Who, or whatever superhero movie is in theatres at the time. "Exercise, more than anything else, is about interacting with each other," he says.

Rarely, however, do Jason and his exercisers talk about production challenges at Relic. Instead, they talk about things like Wolverine, or Harley Quinn, or gossip about the new Zelda.

So, can we talk here? (actually, we can...)

That interaction, that socializing, is arguably more important now than it's ever been before. Why? Because game-dev teams today stay unified for unprecedented stretches of time. "Back when I first got into the business 15 years ago," Jason says, "making a game took about 9 months to two years. Now, in 2017, it takes about four years to make a game. You have to work together for longer periods of time. When you're out on the run or on Grouse, especially when you're exerting yourself on a daily basis behind a desk, you're leaving the stress of the job behind. When you run together, you get to know the people [on your team] in a more humanistic way."

Jason and Relic have entered the homestretch on their latest project, Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War III. (It's due in April.) "As a group, we know each other so well now," he says. "I know what my colleagues can do, and will do, in a more intimate way. The work is easier when you're both distracted and exhausted not by the work itself, but by exercise. It's a way of unblocking the road ahead for us."

Sometimes people in marketing or programming or HR departments at Relic join. And sometimes people from other Vancouver studios would join. "The shared experience of group exercise is good for all of us," Jason says. "That's a major part of it for me-that group conversation, that communal sharing. Out in the open, breathing fresh air, bringing people together to do something other than what we are doing at the studio."

"Exercise isn't something that people usually associate with game developers... And exercising is also a healthy alternative to alcohol"

Jason keeps his expectations reasonable and his exercise outings relatively low-impact. "People always think that exercise is going to be a grim task," he says. "It's not... I never design a run to hurt anybody, or scare anybody. I'm not trying to 'break' them. That's never the point. The larger purpose is to get them to feel good about themselves, to create a moment that they can walk away from and feel good about."

Smiles, everyone, smiles

Jason also recommends taking pictures of the activity-lots of pictures. Feeling proud of their accomplishments, participants will post the pictures on social media. "All people really see [in those pictures] are the happy faces, the bright colors, people outside having a good time," he says. "Other people see [the pictures] and they want to be part of that."

Jason says that exercising isn't an exception at Relic; exercise is, instead, an extension of the typical nerdy, studio culture that already exists. "Do we do the usual game-dev things, too? We do. We have Street Fighter tournaments. We play Magic: The Gathering and ladder systems," he says. "Exercise isn't something that people usually associate with game developers."

After a moment of thought, Jason adds, "And exercising is also a healthy alternative to alcohol."

Jason mentioned a friend who makes indie games, and how he was spreading himself thin as he tries to ship his latest game. "The indie guys usually don't exercise enough," Jason offered. "They're on their own. Exercise is an easy thing to drop. It's usually the first thing to go. But doing so is costly."

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Scott Jones