Friday, October 1, 2010

Sending a thought to the guy who designs the 28th orc feet of the day at 4 am

Have you ever thought about what it would be like to work at Blizzard Activision?

I have. I love to see those “inside” views you sometimes get when they occasionally give a guided press tour. Of course they show us only what the PR department wants us to see. It’s all very polished, it all looks so perfect.

The media representatives will take as many pictures as they can with their crappy mobile cameras, images showing walls covered with beautiful artwork, an open working space that looks modern and inviting, smiling people and corners for recreation and inspiration everywhere. Who wouldn’t like to hang out with those people? Joke around with Ghostcrawler, have a basket ball match with Chris Metzen during the lunchbreak.

Then you go to Blizzard’s corporate website and you see the mission statements, their famous eight core values, so well put that it makes your eyes tear up a bit, especially with the new illustrations they’ve put to them, making them stand out even more.

Not living the dream
Those fortunate, chosen people working at Blizzard are really leaving the dream, aren’t they?

But I’m afraid they probably don’t. Not in the way that we want to believe at least.

No, I don’t know anyone who works at Blizzard in person. But I read a blogpost today that gave a not-so-rose-coloured picture of what it’s like to work as a game developer and it would surprise me if Blizzard was totally different to any other employer in the game business. It was written by Eric Heimburg at Elder Games, in reply to another blogpost by a PR guy at Activision, who is trying to clean up the reputation of the CEO Bobby Kotick.

Leaving the discussion about Bobby Kotick to the side for a moment, the general picture that Eric gives is utterly depressing and will hopefully make some of you who might aspire to become a professional game developer one day a second thought. Is it really a road you want to go?

Listen to what he says:
“Most game developers I know have been laid off, fired, or “asked to quit” numerous times. Most game developers are already fearful for their jobs and livelihoods, trust me. Kotick wants them to fear even more, work even harder, and accept even less compensation.

And that is exactly what shareholders would hope to see from the CEO of Activision — it makes sense, at least in the short term, because it will earn them more money. Why? Supply and demand. If you’re a game developer, you know every teenage hacker wants your job, and many are happy to do your job for free — or at least for ramen, a cot, and some Dr. Pepper. Even if you have years of experience, you can be replaced by three or four newbies who may not be as good as you, but hey, they still manage to get a new sequel out the door every year, and people buy it, so who loses? Well, for starters, the employees lose.

Most game developers earn less per hour than the lowliest of web developers (again, I know this first-hand, having been both); they work very poor hours, and they have zero job security. Do you know what gets a lot of them through the grind? What they mutter to themselves as they model the feet of the 28th orc of the day at 4am? “At least I work for a fun company. It’s not some crappy bank job. And I get to be creative. ”

This is a facade — and a very thin one. Sure, they get to be creative sometimes. And the office has subsidized sodas and there’s a ping-pong table, and during lunch you can play xbox with some really fun and clever people. But does that make up for the general crappiness? No, not in general — not for more than a handful of years, anyway. Most people get burned up and go to those “crappy bank jobs” or whatever they can get, while others find niches on the periphery, making middleware, edu-games, indie games, anywhere out of the spotlight. These people still want to make games… they just can’t keep getting punched in the gut every day to do it.”
Does it matter to us?
The question is: do the problems that Eric describes concern us? We’re living in a free world. If those people want to work as game developers, it’s their own choice, so why would I care if I’m just a simple gamer buying their products?

Well, in the end I guess it’s a question of your political views. If you believe in the concept of consumer power, if you support systems like Fair Trade and different sorts of certifications that will grant that the product has been made meeting certain ethical standards and that the employees are treated in a fair way, maybe you should give a second thought about what companies you chose to buy your entertainment from.

But I think that for many of us it boils down to that we can’t be arsed to make this kind of choices all day long because we’ve got our hands full to handle our own lives, and we just want to play a good game and enjoy it for what it is, without thinking any further about it. And if we compare it to other issues we see in the production of various products - children's work, poverty, crime, oppression, environmental destruction – the treatment of game developers is a fairly trivial thing. Some game developers have to work long hours to design orcs, big deal? QQ more.

However: even if you don’t pity the game developers (which I actually do, because I’m soft like that), I think Eric has a point in why we should care about the cynical management style that seems to be predominant in the gaming industry.
"Why should non-industry people care? Because an industry with this kind of turnover rate isn’t the best it can be. Most games aren’t very good, and that’s because most game teams (especially management) aren’t very good, and that’s because developers gets squeezed and overworked and quit the industry, taking their experience with them”
Regardless of politics: as a gamer I want good games. I’m glad that people like Eric dare to speak up, in spite of the fact that it probably doesn’t gain your career to do so.

Does it help? Probably not. How many players will ever see the post at Elder Games? A hundred out of hundreds of millions? And how many of those hundred will somehow act on it? Anyone at all?

As long as we keep buying the games and as long as Bobby Kotick can keep the shareholders happy, giving them good return on their investment, he has no incentive whatsoever to change his idea to take the fun out of making videogames.

Still, for all what it's worth I'm sending a thought to the guy who designs the 28th orc feet of the day at 4am.

You're doing a great job and you deserve better than this.


Syl said...

Whether in game-designing or any other job: a good employee is a happy employee. one that works under fair conditions and gets paid properly, not one that's being pressured and exploited by multi-million dollar companies that don't care about the individual anymore because everyone is replaceable.

I always hated the term "human resources", it is very telling for the path our economy has taken. so I have the same feelings here for the blizzard devs as for any other profession; it sucks working in such an unhealthy environment and I doubt they do a better job (ultimately for us) while also battling existential worries at the same time.
and this at a working place that god knows can afford to treat and pay their staff better - it's shameful.

tufva said...

Unfortunately you will find this unhealthy employment scenario in many, many industries. Any job that is seen as fun / cool / interesting enough that many people would like to do it - you will get employers taking advantage of that. Like Eric said why should they pay you well when there is a queue of people wanting to do your job for nothing. This is the exact reason why I bowed out of the media industry before I even started. I did a degree in Media Production, but after seeing what became of the students that graduated before me - I went off in a completely different direction with my career.

They would move up to the capital with dreams of working in an industry they loved and be given work on projects if they were lucky. Never a proper employment agreement always short-term project work so you could be easily dispensed with as needed. If you were good at what you did you might be given an extension, so you could work on short-term contracts for years missing out on key rights as a full employee as well as never having any financial security. So many of us "sold out" straight away or after a short while and went into corporate work - PR, internal information departments, that kind of thing.

On the other hand I don't think that companies that do look after their staff is a complete myth either. And working for a company with a vision and a goal that appeals to you is worth a lot.

Not quite sure where I am going with this, but to say that game development is far from the only industry that suffers from this issue and I am not entirely sure what can be done about it.

Kurnak said...

Sadly this hapens in any kind of work nowadays. Greedy people in the top of the pyramid just wants more and more. They don't care if the prouct is crap as long as it keeps selling, so they also don't care bout people in the bottom on tha pyramid as long as the product is out in the stores the release day.
Gaming industry has become larger than Hollywood cinema, but has the same problems.
Some days ago a spanish IT news site published an article about why IT jobs are so precarious here, and the main reason is because IT people as treated just as unqualified labor workers and coding treated like putting up bricks.
Offshoring, delocalisation, subcontracts... all of that made a big amount of fast cash, but it will kill the company in the long-term run.
CEOs use this "take it or leave it" with employees, knowing that there're more out there who would sign-up for even less money that tehy're currently paying, but while this will make sharehodlers happy in the short and mid-term, in the long run the company's going to have big troubles. It's a dangerous double-edged sword.

Selyndia said...

The biggest issue isn’t that the shareholders push for mediocre games in a strategy of selling quantity over quality. It’s that the consumer’s keep buying the mediocre games that encourage that philosophy with sales.

Long ago, I used to work in computer and gaming retail; and more recently I have a friend that works in that area. Do you know why companies like EA keep churning out rehashed versions of their own games each year in their popular franchises? Because people line up at midnight to throw sixty to seventy dollars at them in order to play them a couple hours before everyone else.

There are very few games that I’ve seen released in the last several years that have been a “So good, they should be bought on release day” let alone why they would line up at midnight. Considering economic conditions how is it that there are that many people giving up that much time and money to buy an updated version of Madden NFL or the latest Halo 8 hours before others? And yet they constantly do. This is the audience that the gaming industry is aiming towards; and why so much dross is released. And with the record sales of the sub par games, we see the quality of others slip as well, since they can cut corners and still make sales.

The question essentially becomes, “How do you encourage people to be more selective about what games they buy, instead of buying whatever the industry throws at consumers?” And I don’t think it’s a question that will be answered soon. How many bad movies are released every year because people flock to them, and that industry is much older than the video games one?

Prelimar said...

you mean there are jobs out there that AREN'T like this? i've never had one, and i still don't. sure, my life is better (in some ways) as a freelance designer, but i am still constantly fighting to prove my worth in a market where 3 people will do what i do for less (and my clients routinely tell me my prices are "so cheap!").

Vixsin said...

Quite frankly, I'm shocked at how often this CEO of a profitable company is demonized. I don’t know the man, but in reviewing the quotes that are circulated every time someone wants to point the finger, I generally find myself wondering, “what was so wrong with saying that?”

1. He is a head of a major corporation; he's there to make the tough decisions, not to be everyone's friend. There are no easy choices in his day, and if he doesn't opt for the right tough decision, he's out on his ass (because, somewhat ironically, there are plenty of younger, hipper, more affable people just aching to take his place). It’s a *for profit* company, not the gamer’s PETA.
2. The shareholders are not some mystical overlord responsible for the downfall of the game we adore; it's their money and their investment that makes sure we all have something to blog about. These are people who have no guaranteed return on their investment, only that CEO’s word that he’ll make them proud. If they didn't invest in the company, WoW would have gone the route of Hellgate London a long time ago.
3. As so many have pointed out, the plight of the “poor unfortunate game developer” is one that almost every person in a competitive industry shares. From Investment banking, to architecture, to marketing, to real estate—all industries are full of a hungry low-level tier of people who will fight for a toe-hold. “Job security” is a great way of describing someone who doesn’t need to worry about what happens if they fail, and I for one am glad that it’s gone the way of the Dodo bird.

In the end, all of his “evil” efforts are what allow those folks at Blizzard to keep doing what they’re doing. And no product, including a game, is ever the best it can be because you have to end the development loop somewhere lest the item never make it to market. Mr. Kotick isn’t there to choose letterhead; he’s there to get the job done. And contrary to most, I'm not going to assume that that’s an easy or an endearing job to do.

Asbel said...

Here's a nice read about developer struggles from a different perspective: through

It's interesting that he's talking about the same issues Eric does, but he still loved it. Although now he's taken a job out of the games industry...

Hterag said...

I'm sorry Vixsin but I don't completely buy into the whole "he's a man who's just trying to get the job done" thing. Sure his job is tough, sure he has to make tough decisions, and sure he is at the mercy of the shareholders whom he has to try and placate with a healthy return on investment...

But he makes $15 Million USD per year to do it!

I've lived for a long time with the mantra that the amount of BS I'm willing to put up with in the work place is directly proportional to the amount of money I'm getting paid to put up with said BS. Lemme tell ya... for $15 million I'm willing to put up with ALOT.

I think it's a shame that business philosophy has gone from hiring the best people and creating a quality product at a fair price... to cut, cut, cut expenses, turn and burn out sub-par crap and sell sell sell. I am also ashamed of people like Robert Kotick who have acted as a catalyst for this kind of change.

Like Larisa I identify with and feel for the developer or the designer who is worried if his job will still be there when the current project is completed. I can't muster the same sympathy for someone who has made more money in the last 10 years than most of us will see in 10 lifetimes, even though he has a similar level of job security.

Gronthe said...

Thing is, I don't think we'll ever hear the truth about Blizzard's working conditions becuase either they are wonderful and the blue posters tell us as much, or it's a harsh and difficult work environment, in which case the blues tell us everything is great.

Even if a former employee speaks up, his opinion is tainted by his personal experience. Employees in every industry are ill treated. Why? Becuase the mind-set of business people is that "money is more important than people." Say it out loud and ask yourself if you believe that.

And CEO's don't make tough decisions, they make unpopular ones. It's not tough to make a choice that increases your year-end bonus by $3 Million, not tough at all. People won't like it, but that's because they know they are not as important as money.

Ratshag said...

Orc feet is srs bzns.

Tesh said...

Making games is a job. It's work. Those teens who think it's all fun and games rush to the industry, maybe with a Game College degree and tens of thousands in debt, then find out that it really is hard work, often thankless, rarely creative. They burn out and move on.

It's no wonder the industry is stuck in a design rut; the Will Wrights of tomorrow get burned out and go elsewhere, and we're stuck with the perpetual churn of baseline competence.

My college degree is a Bachelor's of the Fine Arts in computer animation. I'm trained to make Pixar-level movies, but I'm currently making games. From what I've seen of both industries, life on the production floor is pretty similar, and it's never just fun and games.

I happen to believe in the power of creative outlets for doing good, like movies and games... but more and more, I get creative on my own time. When I'm working for that paycheck, it's not my whimsy and idealism fueling my activity, it's my skills and training. I *am* a widget, implementing someone else's creativity.

If I wanted to do my own thing and tilt at windmills, I'd go make indie games (and in fact, I've designed several), but that's no way to make a living.

That's going to be true of nearly any artistic industry, though, so it's not that games are stuck in a unique rut.

Larísa said...

@Syl: actually I think that the term "human resources" somehow is well meant, as an effort to upgrade the importance of how you deal with your staff. Like you I think that it's not only good from a moral perspective to treat your employees well; it's also good for the business in the long run.

@Tufva: oh yes, indeed. It's present in other areas as well. I went that path myself. Combining having small kids with changing schedules all the time and always risk to become unemployed any day didn't feel like a good

@Kurnak: Yes, I'm doubtful it makes good business in the long run. Maybe they could perform even better if they didn't have to work under those extreme conditions.

: I guess that time might help a bit but the fact is that crap will sell anyway. It's the same with books and magazines too. Sure we can blog about it, but I don't imagine myself making any difference to be honest.

@Prlimar: Well it depends on how far down on the status scale you're prepared to go...

@Vixsin: I agree on that demonizing Kotick is getting a bit old, and he's doing his job. And overall bashing on bosses is way too easy. If you've ever tried the role of a manger you'll definitely have a different perspective. Which I in one way have. However I don't agree entirely with the view on staff that you express in your comment. There are many different management styles and management by putting fear into people isn't necessarily the only one that can pay off in the long run. We're talking about sustainability. I find the cynical way of using people that we see in this example very old fashioned and a dead end. The theories of what constitutes good management have developed far beyond that.

@Asbel: Thanks for the links! It was interesting reads indeed, giving further perspecitve to this.

@Hterag: Well, as you say, I don't think we need to feel particularly sorry. He's well compensated for the crap he gets. However I think we're deceiving ourselves if we believe it's just one person that is the problem. It's not. The entire gaming industry seems to be under the influence of this kind of thinking, unfortunately.

@Gronthe: Maybe in 30 years we'll know, when the NDAs are long gone and forgotten. "My life as a slave at Blizzard Activision"... The question is if anyone will still remember by then that they even existed?

@Ratshag: Oh, of course it is! You can't make pay too much attention to them, really...

@Tesh: All we can hope is that some of this creative stuff the designers are doing in their free time still somehow will find its way into production and hit the shelves (or at least serve as "inspiration" for the mainstream games. It's sad if it is as you say, that the industry gets stuck with the baseline competence due to the burnout cycle.

Anonymous said...

As a SW designer (not game designer) let me add my two cents.

YES our jobs can be "fun" to the right type of person, YES we don't wear ties to work, YES we have a license to live as geeks past 30 and even die as geeks if we choose.

For these and other traits I am willing to not care about the guys in marketing and finance who make six figures, I ignore the managers who make double my salary for talking on the phone all day and I gladly accept that carpal tunnel, brain tumors, headaches after work, my choice all of it.

What I will never accept is a company making millions out of my little code and me getting paid peanuts. I will not accept the mandatory and unpaid overtime. I won't accept these corporate hogs making my dream a nightmare.

I trust however in karma. And I have seen it at work day in and day out. The more corporate policies against the employees are in effect the worse the outcome. I cannot help but giggle when those managers have grand meetings scratching their heads to figure out why quality has gone sour when all the while there are no incentives to give more than the absolute necessary, CRT monitors a decade old, bad chairs, no natural light, no fresh air the list goes on and on.

As a gamer I must say I haven't seen anything worth while from EA since... Don't remember when. If Blizzard is falling under the same practices I would expect the quality of their work to take a nose dive and judging from a remake of SC 1 that they try to stretch into a trilogy, I think that the dive is well underway.

P.S. The only company immune from better working conditions = more quality is Microsoft. I guess it has to do with another type of karma...

Sage said...

Lets take a look at the US car industry as of right now. Would you buy a car from them? How about from Japan? There's a lot of talk out there about how US cars are absolute trash, although the recent glaring safety problems with Toyota are worrying.

Way back in 1980, Toyota was getting on it's feet, while the US car industry wasn't doing too well.
The long version is here:

The short version is that their workers were treated horribly (a worker says he saw someone fall in an assembly line, and they didn't stop it), the union could only ensure that all their workers were kept employed, people stole things, and no one trusted each-other.

Toyota offered a new idea of manufacturing, about caring about workers, adapting quickly, and so on. GM tried to do it, but didn't do it quickly enough, or take advantage of the deal while they could. They were slow at it and used heavy handed policies to create a fantasy instead of changing most of their organization and parts business.

US car companies have no real trust with some americans (beyond those who buy american). But is trusting your employees better? Well, Toyota produced more workable cars, quicker, with less workers, and less accidents. Note they changed the culture, something very hard to do here, but they benefited from the 'trust' model.

Games companies could find themselves in very hard times if they don't change their choices. Also note this isn't an isolated phenomenon. Bosses treating workers like nothing and leading through fear is NOT new. It's gone on for centuries. Just look at the early 20th century in the US, Child labour was a-ok, safety standards were non-existant, organizing was dealt with harshly, and work hours were insanely high.

Sage said...

Why is this done? Why is trust worse then power? Have you felt power, really felt being IN CONTROL of someone? It's addictive. It's also highly dangerous, because I bet you to build a car right here, in front of me. No you don't get tools, energy, or materials, you've got to go get them. The amount of energy required is staggering without cooperation. With it, you can do a lot.

But there are other reasons as well. Consider, for a moment, you're in a 'boss' position. You've got higher-ups, and they want results, better then before, for less cost. They've got people they can hire who will get the job done. So, the choices are: Try to make the best of things an still fail, or just get what you can for you out of it. Also, combine this with you being hired through networking, for your lack of ethics.

So, we've looked at part of this, along with low/mid level managers, along with a small section of the culture. Someone could genuinely believe in what they're doing, which is much scarier. But there's one more thing that it could be.

Imagine you're at the top now. 'Work' is slang for connections and the status quo. You live a wonderful life. But the building you live in is precariously structured. You're a wolf living off a lot of sheep, and sheep can be pretty dangerous if they get pissed. And there are others around you who want to keep things as they are, so best not to rock the boat, right? It's not as if you interact with the people below you much. And hell, you wouldn't be paid so well if you weren't doing good work.

K. Martinez said...

It looks like I got here late, but I just got linked to this post today. I'd like to say I don't think whether or not this sort of thing matters to you should have anything to do with your politics. From reading the post, I suspect the author and I have some very different views on politics and just how much of a role legal policy should play in business. But I do care what working conditions are like, and that people be able to get fair compensation for their work, etc. So I pay attention when someone speaks up like the game developer did. I watch what reputation companies have, and then I decide which companies I will support with my money and which ones I will not. When I make a decision to not support a compnay because of it's practices, rather than because I just don't want their product, I write to the company and let them know why they aren't getting my support and that I will be encouraging others to join me in not supporting them. It may not make a huge difference, but someone has to read that letter and know that their practices made someone unhappy enough to actively work toward costing them potential customers.

So, no matter what your politics are, please think with your heart. Accepting that this is "just how it is" keeps it that way. A few people speaking up are easy to brush aside. If everyone did it, that's a lot harder to ignore.

Sage said...

Interesting Cracked article about power:

Jormundgard said...

It is not a bad job, but it is also not a great job. I did not work very prominently in the field, but I gave it a go a few years ago. It was a lot of slacking interspersed with severe crunch time. I've seen this in other careers, but my game programming work felt like high school or uni cramming all over again. All problems eventually come down to personal responsibility, but a lot of this was also the fault of poor unskilled (if not inexperienced) managers setting unrealistic benchmarks. I can only presume that crunch culture is virtually an industry standard on how they define a realistic benchmark.

I could make other comments, but I don't want to turn this into a blog post. But when I call the video game industry an immature one, I'm mostly referring to the poor planning, management, and finances.