Game Over

In mid 2003, I left the video-game industry after working for eight years as a senior sound designer for a couple of major, um, At the time, I thought
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In mid 2003, I left the video-game industry after working for eight years as a senior sound designer for a couple of major, um, “players.” At the time, I thought I had a decent understanding of the industry, but I was so close to things that I didn't fully trust my perceptions. I was angry, I was bitter, and I was viciously critical. A year and a half later, however, after reflecting on my experiences and observing what's happened in game sound since I moved to a different sector of the audio industry, I feel even more strongly about my beliefs than I did when I left.

What bothers me is the work environment promulgated by the game companies. There are, of course, a number of reasons for it, but it seems to me there is a fundamental underlying conflict in the video-game industry. Video games are an entertainment product, meaning that shipping products for Christmas is crucial to a predominant portion of annual revenues. But the product is software, which cannot be forced to obey deadlines — Christmas or any other — no matter how skilled and experienced a developer may be. That doesn't mean a software product can never ship on time, only that it cannot be forced to ship on time if there is a quality standard in place. (Of course, it's easier if you are willing to ship seriously buggy code.)

The standard game-industry management strategy for resolving this paradox and attempting to meet the schedule is to put the entire load on the backs of the development team and impose impossible deadlines. “You'll make it because you have to” works sometimes, on a small scale, but not regularly or on a large scale. Yet I have seen company management in denial about project schedules far beyond anything I thought possible.

When I entered the industry in 1995, there were typically four to six weeks of “crunch time” (meaning 60- to 100-hour weeks) in the development cycle leading up to the release date. The E3 show (Electronic Entertainment Expo) came along and added another three to six weeks of crunch in the spring because developers needed products to display at the show. Projects grew in scope, and production values rose, but development schedules did not expand even close to proportionally. The crunches grew toward each other until, when I left the industry in 2003, I was doing seven to nine months of continuous crunch in which a mere 60-hour week was a rare luxury.

What kind of life is that? None at all: no social life, no intellectual life, no love life, no spiritual life — not even the time to do laundry. The game companies bring in food and provide all sorts of amenities, such as on-site gyms and shower facilities, so that workers never really need to leave. And indeed, they don't leave: I can't tell you how many times I stood at a programmer's cubicle and heard him bidding his young children good night over the phone.

Under this sort of pressure, marriages and relationships crumble along with emotional well-being and physical health. People burn out and leave or are shown the door, but it doesn't matter to their employers because there are plenty of young people just getting out of school who need experience, have energy to burn, and work cheaply. In short, more cannon fodder is always available. And that is viewed as an acceptable way to do business and handle staff! “A curse on your heartless ways,” say I!

The situation is reminiscent of the work environment that brought about labor laws in the first place. I suppose that it must be legal, but I can't figure out how. One colleague used to call it “white-collar indentured servitude.” I don't think the situation can continue this way forever, but I suspect it will take some major unfortunate incident to bring about change.

My experiences in game sound left me with emotional scars that I'm still dealing with. Since I left the game industry, many of my former colleagues also have bailed out in anger and bitterness. If you are in the game industry and love it, more power to you. If you thrive on all work and no play (and precious little rest), it's all yours. But if you have the slightest shred of interest in maintaining any balance in your life, be warned.