Life-work balance always seems to be something that comes up in the games industry. Yesterday Kotaku put an article up about some former Insomniac developers that are setting up shop in China, promising to create a studio that supports a better lifestyle for the people that work there: “We want to make great games while living a good life.”
While I think their hearts are in the right place: “[we want our employees] to pay as much attention to their social and personal lives as they do their time at work,” a quote immediately following that one struck me as a bit of a contradiction: “We will have an onsite chef for breakfast, lunch and dinner… Massages, dry cleaning, company supplied drivers, language and cultural tutoring (English or Chinese), haircuts, fitness memberships, car washing and maid and grocery services…”
This sounds more to me like Google-style work-work balance than it does life-work balance. How do you have a 40 hour work week and justify buying everyone breakfast, lunch and dinner? What you’re really doing is creating a great working environment that encourages employees to stick around more often–not necessarily spending more time on their “social and personal lives.”
“Sorry I’m gonna be late tonight honey, I’m gonna eat dinner here and then take a massage. I’ll see you at 9pm.” Before you know it, you’re working 80 hour weeks again, the only difference is you’re happier doing it. Your family and friends aren’t necessarily happier though.
The article states that soon it won’t be possible to make games in the West without burning people out. I couldn’t disagree more. Crunches in game development are the result of poor planning and (sometimes–rarely) flat-out abusive management practices. People work this hard in games not because they don’t have a choice but because they’re willing to do it. We love what we do. It’s unfortunate, but often times employers take advantage of that. It’s our own damn fault.
It doesn’t have to be this way though. Many studios are starting to take a hard look at the game development process and management practices that lead to crunches. Andrew Eades (Relentless Software) has said numerous times that “you don’t need pizza-fueled crunches to make a million-selling game,” and his company is based in the UK. And this article from the International Game Developers Association states simply: “When used long-term, Crunch Mode slows development and creates more bugs when compared with 40-hour weeks.” The writing is on the wall.
I don’t believe the argument that Western game development is headed quickly to a breaking point. I think managers in the games industry are starting to come around to understand “work-life” balance, and are beginning to put in place new practices that lower workloads and schedule pressures. I see it all around.