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GDC 2013: Hothead Rants Pt.2 - Anna Marsh

Lady Shotgun founder gives both barrels on crunch and being 'hardcore'

The second piece we're running from the 2013 Hothead Developers Rant comes from Lady Shotgun founder Anna Marsh, who had a sudden revelation about the fallacy of having to live 'hardcore' if you want to produce quality games. Instead, Anna says, all work and too much play can make Jack a very dull boy.

Like most of these pieces, Anna's contains some forceful language, so be prepared. For yesterday's rant on race and representation from Mitu Khandaker, see here.

"I'm Anna Marsh and I run independent developer Lady Shotgun Games.  I've been a game designer for 15 years and previously worked for large companies like Eidos, Sony and Creative Assembly.

"OK - Who's ever done overtime on a job? Who's gone home, played games and gone into work the next day after 1 hours sleep? Woo!

"This rant is called "You don't need to work 14 hours a day, sleep under your desk and shit in the corner of the room to make great games."  It's called that, because, at my first job at Psygnosis, one of my colleagues went to the Sony QA department and returned back reporting that there was a turd in the corner of the room.

"I want to make it clear to all QA everywhere that I didn't believe it, but it illustrates nicely the assumption that people who make games are so obsessed with their work that they can barely leave the room to take a dump.  There's an unwritten Law that if you work in video games, they must be your life - You spend every minute awake playing or making them and when you sleep, if you sleep, you'll dream about games because games are the most important thing ever. I'm going to rant against this mind set because I think it's destructive - it ruins our health and our lives, and more importantly, it makes our games dull!

"There's an unwritten Law that if you work in video games, they must be your life"

"First off, it's exactly this idea that has facilitated the notorious Crunch work practices of the industry. Lets have a test.  Stand up everyone who's worked 16 hours straight - cos If you haven't done 16 hours you're a nobody, right?  That means, if you got to work at 9 a.m, and should have gone home at six you'd still be working at 3am the next day.  8 hours overtime - you've just done an extra workday FOR FREE! OK, I'm going to count up number of hours worked straight, and when you hit your maximum sit down. We're going to see who's last dev standing.

(There were still people standing at 27 hours and counting.)

Why did you do that? Were you paid?  Would you have done that if you were working in a supermarket? How did you feel?

"We're not dumb. Unless you're completely independent, you know that working free overtime during Crunch is done purely to boost profits- if it was done for the good of the game, you'd get paid overtime.  Would you put up with that if you were working in a supermarket or building site? Of course not! Its been discussed time and again in many industries - working long hours isn't just unproductive, it's less productive than working sensible hours - that's been known since before even Henry Ford said it back in 1908.  I think we can safely say that Management who routinely rely on crunch are incompetent.  But - I don't think this comes down to management alone.  If you look at the reasons for crunch its usually something along these lines.  

"These are cock ups born of a lack of pre-production, not enough planning.  

"Yet many developers have an almost pathological distrust of pre-production. There's an overriding belief that its impossible to plan on paper what's going to make a game fun - that, that will only happen when you're toiling away, knee-deep in the trenches. I'm sorry, but I think this is mostly bollocks.  All other collaborative creative industries have really thorough pre-production methods.  Architects make plans and models, Film-makers have scripts, storyboards, and shooting scripts. We get a couple of pages of high concept from some joker in Brand and we all want to dive into production immediately to start making the freaking game!

"It seems like we've all absorbed this idea that the only way to make games is to eat, breathe and sleep them; that this somehow makes magical inspiration fall into our heads; that if we were less than 100 per cent committed to our games that just wouldn't happen.  We know the people on the team who perhaps don't play all the big games - we look down on them as "lightweights" - we really know what we're doing because we're hardcore. We're the genuine article, eh?  

"It seems like we've all absorbed this idea that the only way to make games is to eat, breathe and sleep them; that this somehow makes magical inspiration fall into our heads"

"It's become this sub-conscious macho standoff - the hours we work, the amount of games we play, the fewest hours slept, the most obscure title we've imported from Japan that doesn't even have an English translation even though we don't read a word of Japanese.  We're all terrified to appear less than "Hardcore". I bet everyone standing  up at the start really wanted to be the "winner" huh?

"That was me too, until I had my daughter four years ago.  And then, I just couldn't do that anymore, because I had to look after a child.  I honestly felt guilty leaving work on time to get to the nursery, and going in the next day knowing that I hadn't had a chance to play games the evening before.  It made me so stressed I got really quite sick, and I gave up my job in part because I felt that I was no longer entitled to call myself Hardcore enough to do it.

"But here's the thing - we're devouring ourselves.  The raw material of our creativity is our experience - if all we ever experience is games, then our products will become narrower, more incestuous.  You could argue this has already happened in AAA.

"Other creatives don't have this obsession with their own medium.  

"Quick example - George Orwell wrote the two joint best-selling novels of all time - which have been phenomenally influential.  Did he sit on his backside writing and reading other books? No.  He was a policeman, a tramp, a farmer, a father, a soldier, a political activist... In his autobiography he details how these experiences directly influenced his work.

"Loving games is good, playing games is great, enjoying your job is awesome.  But please let's ditch the idea that it's necessary to devote your whole life to games to make a good one.  Every once in a while, go fly a kite, take a walk or ride a very fast motorbike.  Work efficiently not obsessively - Enjoy your life. I think, you'll make a better game."

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