Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Game Dev Employees vs. Hobbyists vs. Entrepreneurs vs. Old-Schoolers vs. Everybody Else

Posted by Rampant Coyote on April 19, 2016

A few days ago, Alex St. John enraged the game development community with an extremely tone-deaf post about game development working conditions. A gazillion articles have been written lambasting this article, so I’ll actually sidestep that pile-on just a smidgen. I’m not going to defend him, because he’s wrong, but I would suggest there’s a middle ground we’ve got to reach.

I have a friend who worked at an independent game studio and was in charge of developing the expansion (back in the day when they were called expansions and not DLC) for a major hit game. The project manager from the publisher/studio that had made the original game was pretty much camping at the door of the office, and was super-excited, super-committed, and everything. Well, my friend wanted to go home and see his family once in a while. So he was “only” working 60-hour weeks on this expansion.

At one point, the project manager asked my friend the lead programmer why he wasn’t more committed and putting in more hours. After all, this expansion was going to make a fortune!

“Not for me,” my friend said. I don’t remember if he was expecting any kind of minor bonus for hitting his milestones, but otherwise he was only getting paid his standard salary.

The project manager was baffled. He started to say how much they were paying the independent studio to develop the expansion, but stopped himself. He hinted that it was a LOT of money, however. Plus a piece of the royalty action. Enough to really motivate a team to pull out all the stops and make an incredible expansion to a best-selling title. But it wasn’t going to the team… at least not directly. It was going to the company coffers to help keep the medium-sized studio afloat during all the upcoming times that might not be quite as lucrative.

Reasonable? Sure. But not personally motivating. Why would I want to nuke my health and jeopardize my family and work my butt off just so my bosses could get really good bonuses, my co-workers who aren’t directly working on my project could keep getting paid, and that I might see an extra four months of employment at some future point rather than taking another job elsewhere?

This is the challenge and contradiction of the video games biz. The industry has matured wonderfully in some areas from its crazy, heady early days, yet is woefully immature in others. While the big hits generate amazing revenue, everything else does poorly. We’re talking not even breaking even, considering the cost of development. Do a REALLY good job, and maybe you don’t get laid off.

The guys who have survived the industry for a long time remember the crazy early days. Then, a handful of people with an idea, passion, and an apartment they could use as an office could live on Top Ramen for a few months and crank out a commercially viable game that would at least generate enough royalty payments that they could graduate to real ramen and occasionally pizza when developing the next game. And if they had a genuine hit, the back-end royalties would make everyone on the team rich. Maybe not fly-yellow-Ferrari-and-a-penthouse-rich, but maybe pay-off-the-mortgage rich. But of course, these guys are the survivors. There were a lot who didn’t. They never upgraded from Top Ramen, and had to eventually call it quits. They aren’t in the industry or guiding things anymore.

Things are even rougher now. The industry is far more crowded than it used to be. Supply has grown much faster than demand, especially during the indie revolution. This is part of the whole “industry maturing” thing. For the biggest games, the team size is huge, and one person’s creative contribution is relatively minor. Their stake in the project is also relatively small. It’s work. It’s like any other profession.

And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to work, after a point.

You can be an employee. You can trade your chance at a big gain for relative stability and a steady paycheck and 9-to-5 hours. And that’s fine. That’s awesome, actually. And you can still be awesome and passionate about it, do excellent work (you should!), and be very proud of what you’ve accomplished. Put it on your resume. Just don’t complain when, as a result of your steady and stable work that you’ve put in, your employer or the other stakeholders get rich, and you get nothing special. That’s your choice. And as an employer, that’s great too – you get a huge gain for relatively low, steady costs. Win-win all the way around, at least when starting out and the future is hazy.

You can be an entrepreneur.  You can take the big risks, work the crazy hours, for very little more than a gamble… a stake in the prize if your team can defy the odds and be really successful. And that’s awesome, too. Especially if the whole team is that way. Everybody shares in the risk, everybody shares in the reward. Either way, it’s fair. And since there’s a higher sense of ownership and real stakes involved, sure, people may tend to work the psycho hours. Win-win for everyone, at least if the project is successful.

You can work as a contracted gun-for-hire. That’s awesome, too. You stay independent. You chart your own course. You do your work, you get paid your cash, and you are only peripherally interested in how the project fares after you are done. Sure, a hit game means a resume point and hopefully continued contracts with that developer, but it’s not about you. It’s great for the employer too, because you represent fixed, one-off costs for them. Win-win!

You can work on a project as a hobbyist. People do it out of pure passion, with little thought of the big bucks on the other side. It’s a resume-builder, a learning experience, a marketing tool, and maybe worth a little bit of cash on the side.  Mainly, it’s an investment in the future. Nobody expects to make minimum wage on the thing. Naturally, it takes a lower priority when Life Happens. Everybody expects that. People gotta do other things to pay the bills. They work on this project out of passion (and maybe token payments). This is fine and good and fair, and everything is cool here, too, so long as everyone’s on pretty close to the same page. Win-win all the way around.

All four of these approaches are fair and awesome and will absolutely work today. No problem. In fact, these aren’t the only options – you can work out some kind of balance, maybe sacrificing a some salary for a bigger piece of the reward, or vice versa.

The problem is when someone tries to mix-and-match requirements and expectations to the detriment of someone else. You can’t alternately treat someone as an employee, a contractor, a hobbyist, and an entrepreneur when it benefits YOU. This is exactly the problem that disgusted me with the mainstream games industry. There’s this legacy of entrepreneurship that is AWESOME, but companies want to treat employees like entrepreneurs who don’t actually get to participate in the rewards of entrepreneurship. When someone is asked to shoulder much of the risk without a significant portion of the reward. And that’s exactly what pushing employees to work 80 hour weeks, destroying their health, possibly wrecking their families, for nothing but a token reward at the end is doing.

It goes both ways, though. I hear some very unreasonable demands from employees, too. If you are doing work for someone else, you can’t demand everything … regular hours, high pay, great benefits, AND as big a stake in the company or project as people taking much bigger risk. Sorry, it doesn’t work that way.

Fortunately, it’s a free economy (at least where I live). In theory, at least … regulations really make things more complicated.  In spite of screeds about passion and privilege and artistry, I’m absolutely free to tell to go tell someone demanding that I bleed for their benefit to go screw themselves. That’s how it should work. Which is why I’m totally happy about people dumping on Alex St. John right now. This is not a black-and-white issue, and there are tons of variations on what is acceptable and what isn’t, and I don’t think one size fits all, or even many. But there’s a weird attitude in the games industry (and probably similar industries, like music and Hollywood) that should be stamped out now.

Look, you want me to be passionate about develop games? You want me to just create for the joy of creation? To enjoy the privilege of making games? YOU GOT IT! But then I’m not making games for you. I’ve gone indie, I’m working a 9-5 job, and I’m making my own games in my spare time and loving it (most of the time). Or getting together with friends to do something great together! Awesome. All that and maintain a balance in life that allows me to be happy and not just a starving, depressed, overworked artist.

Do you want me to make a game for you and help you make lots of money? Cool, I’m happy to do that too, but you need to offer me something significantly more than just the joy of making games. I’ve already got that one covered.

Filed Under: Biz - Comments: 6 Comments to Read

  • Steve_Yorkshire said,

    This article features reason and logic and thus has no place on the internet! 😉

    To be fair, I think that there are plenty of (normie) jobs where free overtime is expected/demanded, but maybe no were near as much (apart from any company doing anything in the Far East).

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    That’s true of all salaried jobs, I think. They are paying you to get a job done, not to put in a certain number of hours. You get paid time off & vacations & stuff, but you also have to put in some extra effort sometimes. No biggie. And if you are the one who screwed up, you put in the extra hours and weekends to make it right.

    That’s fine, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s only when the ‘exceptional’ case becomes the ‘normal’ case that I consider it abusive.

    And again… that’s in the case of employer / employee. That’s not the only way to structure development.

  • Tesh said,

    I know it’s not really germane to the arguments that should stand on their own… but when I look at the games that his company makes (WildTangent), I’m not seeing much there to crow about. If he’s putting people through absurd hours for those games and still making plenty of money at it, well, I’d say that he’s a significant part of the problem, above and beyond the article itself and attitudes therein.

  • CdrJameson said,

    I used to be that rarest of things an actual, genuine part-time game developer (and part-time child carer).

    I think I did two evenings of overtime in three years. One was a gnarly memory leak that I just had to nail and the other was to get a section in just before release.

    We always shipped on time.

    You just have to keep the deadline fixed, but vary the scope of the work. If something isn’t going to get done in time then it gets dropped.

  • Cuthalion said,

    Really good points. It’s not any one component of the job he’s got wrong: it’s the combination.

  • McTeddy said,

    This topic always frustrates me because it’s a super-complicated topic, yet both sides break down into hard sides.

    I messed up my wrists with the stupid overtime of two back to back death marches. I don’t defend the practice on a moral level, and I fully agree out that it was ineffective and did immeasurable damage to the project.

    But I made choices whether I like to admit it or not. I wanted our E3 demo to be great, I didn’t want to let down buyers, and darnit I wanted to make a cool game. I CHOSE to put in overtime (at least in part) and I’d probably do it again(To a lesser extent!)

    Passion can drive us to do accomplish the impossible… and sometimes it drives us straight into a wall.

    I don’t disagree with what he said, but I do disagree with his tone.

    In a passion driven industry, employees need to be able to focus entirely on their jobs and trust that their leads are watching the road ahead.

    Mistakes will happen, but any decent leader would try to learn from them to do better next time. He’s sure as hell no leader.