by D.S. Cohen
This guide is a bonus chapter to the book Producing Games: From Business and Budgets to Creativity and Design by D.S. Cohen and Sergio A. Bustamante II. For more information please refer to the chapters on management, organization, scheduling and planing in Producing Games.
Once the book was completed I asked a few friends to look it over and get their thoughts. One of them pointed out that there was nothing in the book on maintaining any kind of quality of life outside of work. I slapped my head…”of course, how could I have forgotten”.
Well the reason it was overlooked was simple, for most folks on the production side quality of life is typically one of the last things you think of, mainly because there is too much work to do. This is the very reason my friend brought it up. As wife to an industry veteran she knows all too well of the tug of war her hubby must face every day between work and family. (By the way, he’s a terrific family man and talks about them all the time with great pride.)
THE REALITIES OF THE WORLD TODAY
Across the board, the job market today is the worst it’s been in decades. At a time when technology jobs are being farmed out of the country in record numbers, companies are focused more on increasing their bottom line through layoffs, hiring fewer staffers and tripling up the workload on those that remain. For the working world trying to maintain any quality of life in any industry is an extraordinary challenge.
While this is something that has progressively grown over the years in corporate America, it’s been around for much longer in the video game industry. Long hours that would be considered ridiculous in non-gaming jobs are considered the norm when working in the world of games.
This very subject was the topic of a (temporarily) industry shaking event when in 2004 the spouse of an industry pro anonymously blogged about frustrations with her husband’s video game publishing employer who required production teams consistently work 12 hours a day, for as much as 7 days a week, with no end or compensation in sight. Her story spread like wildfire through the video game industry and was soon picked up by major news outlets. This broke the damn of long overdue flack for unfair business practices against employees and resulted in numerous lawsuits against the publisher.
The fallout and negative publicity caused by that single anonymous blogger had most of the larger companies requiring employees leave after an 8 hour day. However most never bothered to cut back on the workload or hire more employees to take care of the overflow.
Within a few short years it wouldn’t matter what the negative practices were in the video game industry. Due to the poor economy nearly all business now require long hours, tight deadlines and understaffed teams. So for those of us in video games it was back to business as usual.
WHAT’S BEING DONE ABOUT IT?
Quality of life still remains a major issue to the point that the International Game Developers Association (IDGA) has set up a Quality Of Life Advocacy Committee to study the and improve the quality of life for development studios in the industry and encourage fair practices for developers and their employees.
WHAT CAN A PRODUCER DO?
While it is impossible to completely change the industry and its work philosophies, there are steps you can take to your own approach that will help you and your team a reasonable quality of life throughout the production process. Keep in mind these are all easier said than done, but nothing worth having, including a personal life, is easy.
The truth is, if you’re working for a reasonable company that doesn’t mandate long hours as the norm or only consider those willing to forgo a personal life as dedicated employees, an overworked and overburden team is often the fault of a disorganized and unfocused producer.
Make sure your team has enough time to complete the tasks expected. Next-gen console games cannot be made quickly. Even the most basic game needs at least 14 months to develop. While there have been those made on shorter timelines you can certainly bet that quality of both the finished game and the lives of the team suffered. Console games made in 8 to 12 months typically fail and hurt developers, publishers and each individual team member.
In my professional carrier I’ve only witnessed three next-gen console games given a production cycle of less than 8 months. One reviewed in the low 50s and although it shipped, retailers didn’t bother putting it on their shelves, another reviewed in the 30s and was a financial disaster, and the third was so bad that even first parties refused to allow it to release for their platforms.
HOLIDAYS AND VACATIONS
The most overlooked elements when planning out a schedule are vacations and holidays. When scheduling out the project the ways you plan out the time and due dates are critical. Don’t ever schedule submission crunches directly before, during or after holidays. Typically those are the weeks folks are planning vacations or time out of the office, and the absolute notorious times are the week of Thanksgiving and the time between Christmas and New Years. Religious days of observance also factor in. You can’t and shouldn’t schedule an employee to be working during their high holidays, so these are all dates to be aware of when making the production plans.
In addition to office and religious holidays, you need to plan for employee holidays. Not only does everyone need a break at some point, but you can’t expect them to know when they will want to take a day or two off a year in advance, but you need to require that they let you know as early as possible so you can make the proper adjustments to the workflow.
There are times that you don’t want anyone taking time off. These are during crunch mode, the week of milestone submissions and right before the Christmas holiday. The industry pretty much shuts down between Christmas and New Years, so there will be lots of work to do in preparation for this dry spell.
For more on scheduling and planning, please refer to Section 3 – Scheduling and Structure in Producing Games. There we go step-by-step in structuring a proper schedule.
From the very beginning of the project you should be considering quality of life, especially when working out what the game will be. Timelines should be set before production starts, so when specing out a game with a short dev cycle, don’t make it overambitious when you don’t have the time to follow-though with your plans or promises. Even games with longer dev cycles can be too large for the time allowed.
Too many teams take on games that are physically impossible to make in the timeline agreed upon. This leads to everyone working ridiculous hours and no time to focus on quality. There is no reward at the end of this path, especially for the producer. Games like this are rarely well received, tend to lose money, generate poor reviews and cause enormous strains on professional relationships and careers.
To learn more on judging the scale of your game, go to Chapter 5 – Size and Scope in Producing Games.
If stuck with a full console game with a short schedule it’s extremely important to communicate upwards what the quality expectations should be. This doesn’t mean your game is going to be bad, there are loads of fun and addictive games made on small budgets and short cycles. You just need to let management know that they shouldn’t expect the next Grand Theft Auto or God of War. Set a quality bar based on resources and time, and get their sign-off on it.
KNOWING WHEN TO SAY WHEN
A fellow professional in the biz once told me a golden nugget of advice that I’ve always strived to maintain, regardless of how difficult of a task it is. That advice is…
Only care as much as the client does.
Those are words to truly live by. Remember, no matter how much of yourself you’ve put into a game, no matter how passionate you are, if you’re working for a developer or publisher, you don’t own the game; the publisher and/or developer does.
If you’re finding executive producers, directors, and the rest of the higher ups rushing to leave early, coming in late, and refusing to work overtime, why should your team work endless intense hours? Leaders should be leading by example and if the execs don’t think they should be working crazy hours, they shouldn’t be expecting it of the production team.
Now understand you need to take a mature approach to this philosophy. You’re job is still to put out a high quality game, so during the work day you and your team should be doing their all and functioning at 100%. After an 8 hour work day where you and the team have put in a solid 8 hour day of work, there should be nothing wrong with going home, especially if the bosses are doing the same.
Leading though example is also something that falls on your shoulders as well. Don’t ever take your team for granted. Always consider yourself one of them and share in the efforts. If they have to work late to meet a deadline, so should you. You’ll never get the respect you need without pulling an equal load.
A disorganized producer will have a disorganized project. This causes chaos throughout the team which results in late hours and overwhelming, inefficient workloads. In the book, Producing Games, we go over many of the tools, techniques and philosophies on personal and professional organization.
Tips, tools and styles of being an organized producer can be found in Section Four – Managing Your Project, Your Team, Your Time and Yourself in Producing Games.