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Making Videogames a Better Place To Work

Much has changed for the better in the years since "EA Spouse" lamented the industry's awful working conditions; but there's plenty still to do

The very fact that something like GamesIndustry.biz's "Best Places To Work" awards can exist is a testament to how much the games business has changed in recent decades.

Had the site tried to launch something along those lines back in the early 2000s, I suspect that the main upshot would have been an inbox full of very, very sarcastic entries; the sad fact was that for all that creating videogames can be an amazingly fulfilling and exciting career, 15 years ago there weren't really very many good places to work in this industry.

It was precisely because so many people were so passionate about working in games that the conditions in which they worked became so abusive. Employees faced a combination of enthusiastic developers with little or no management competence who unwittingly abused studio staff and could never quite fathom why their employees might not quite share the company owners' willingness to work endless overtime, and more cynical executives who simply believed that most roles could easily and cheaply be replaced with the next starry-eyed creative waiting in line.

"Today, a lot of games companies are good employers; they still expect passion, but generally don't make the error of thinking that passion is measured by someone's willingness to sacrifice their family and personal life"

Things are, for the most part, better now. It's not unreasonable to point to Erin Hoffmann's 2004 "EA Spouse" blog post as a key turning point. Hoffmann wasn't saying anything that the whole industry didn't know, but airing the dirty laundry in public shamed many workplaces into making positive changes. It helped that what Hoffmann wrote about really was indefensible; were this a case of a "developer turned studio boss who really just doesn't know any better", a defence of genuine passion combined with management incompetence could have been made. EA, however, was a multi-billion dollar corporate behemoth whose labour abuses were both prodigious and entirely calculated, its mid-level mismanagement and endless "crunch" overtime built into spreadsheets and projections from the outset.

EA is a much, much better place to work now, as are a great many other companies across the industry. The pollicisation of the industry's awful working conditions helped a great deal, but there was also a cold logic behind some of the improvements. Videogames remain one of the coolest things in the world to work on if you're a creative with the appropriate skills; but in the past 15 years, the competition to hire people with those skills from other sectors has heated up massively. Videogame companies have to compete for artists, coders, modellers and a host of other professions against Hollywood, against blockbuster TV, against a host of other professional areas which share the games industry's insatiable appetite for talent.

In that environment, a reputation for abysmal working conditions isn't sustainable; even more unsustainable would be the continuation of the insanity of the '90s and early 2000s, when talented, experienced staff routinely walked out of the games business for good when they hit their thirties and wanted to start a family, something which simply wasn't compatible with industry practices at the time. Today, a lot of games companies are good employers; they still expect passion, but generally don't make the error of thinking that passion is measured by someone's willingness to sacrifice their family and personal life and spend endless nights and weekends on pizza-fuelled work binges to make up for someone else's inability to manage a project schedule.

"There remain a whole bunch of issues in terms of how staff in the games business are treated, many of which conspire to make careers in games unattractive to exactly the kind of top-notch candidates the industry needs most"

All of that being said - and with genuine enthusiasm for seeing what kind of entries the Best Place To Work Awards receive - the industry shouldn't dislocate an arm trying to pat itself on the back too quickly. There remain a whole bunch of issues in terms of how staff in the games business are treated, many of which conspire to make careers in games unattractive to exactly the kind of top-notch candidates the industry needs most. While large companies and medium-sized studios have generally managed to move away from abusive cultures of constant overtime, poor project management, endless crunch and crap pay, some of those abuses have simply shifted into the relationships that exist between smaller development studios and larger publishers, or outsourcing houses and their clients.

The power imbalances that can exist in these relationships often see conditions being changed rapidly, which has inevitable knock-on effects on staff, and there are many areas of the industry - often somewhat invisible due to outsourcing - where job security can be incredibly hard to come by. Some argue that the games business would work better if it had a more fluid system to allow staff to move from company to company and from project to project, like Hollywood production staff do; what we've ended up with through outsourcing is often the worst of all possible worlds, with staff having little creative freedom or ability to choose their projects, but also lacking much job or income security.

"The competition from other sectors for the same skilled people is also relentless. That means the industry can't afford to rest on its laurels in terms of employee treatment and opportunities"

There's also the slightly uncomfortable fact that while the changes in industry employment in the Western world have been pretty universally positive, in some other parts of the world the games industry remains a pretty awful employer. Japan is an obvious example; notorious for poor working conditions in general, Japanese game companies are often cited as a particularly egregious area of employee abuse and terrible working conditions. In many other countries, especially in the developing world, there's a risk that large publishers opening new studios without careful measures to sustain working conditions and retain talented staff are going to end up repeating the mistakes that led the industry to its nadir in the early 2000s.

Perhaps ironically, one area of the industry that's often been out in front in terms of employee treatment - including in Japan or in the developing world - is mobile gaming. Of course, crunch and overtime still exists, but by and large (there are notable exceptions) mobile gaming firms do a solid job of attracting and retaining staff by focusing on having decent salaries, good progression opportunities and attention to work-life balance issues. If one were to hazard a guess, mobile firms may find this a necessity because that field simply doesn't attract starry-eyed enthusiasm to quite the same extent that console and PC development does. I love mobile games, but I'm not sure that we've yet reached the point where 20-somethings are leaving elite computer science or art courses with a burning need to work for a mobile game company; lacking that factor may have actually made mobile firms into much better employers as a result.

Creating games remains one of the most demanding industries in the world in terms of the combination of extremely highly-skilled people it requires, and as a consequence, the industry's appetite for talented people is never sated. While there have been positive moves in recent years in terms of getting schools and universities to push young people towards the kind of skills this industry needs, the competition from other sectors for the same skilled people is also relentless. That means the industry can't afford to rest on its laurels in terms of employee treatment and opportunities. Videogames are one of the coolest things in the world to work on; but to get and retain the best people, videogame companies also need to constantly strive to make themselves better places to work.

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Rob Fahey

Contributing Editor

Rob Fahey is a former editor of GamesIndustry.biz who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.

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