A long while ago, I worked as a code monkey for a small company. Google searches indicate they are still operating, that’s oddly comforting. I’ve worked quite a few IT jobs in the past 20 odd years, and while the technology may have changed, the processes really haven’t all that much. SDLC is still the same idea, except now we call crunch things like “SCRUM” or “AGILE”. Back then, we just called it “get it done”. Everything was pretty fresh in the early ‘00s, and the pasty basement dwellers only needed a case of Coke to meet a deliverable.
Today’s world is different, it’s bigger for one. Coding is not a 1 person shop anymore, it’s dozens of people, if not hundreds. It’s commenting code, it‘s libraries, it’s devshops, it’s grey hacks, pen-tests, throttling, package controls and a dozen other things. Oh, and QA, the one thing we always never had time to do.
There’s a fair chunk of news about how companies treat their staff, and whether crunch comes with the game or not. Crunch exists for only one reason, bad management. Either they didn’t scope out the work properly, made assumptions with mitigations that weren’t accurate, or failed to manage the schedule and their bosses. I’ve been both impacted, and was the cause of crunch. It’s not that crunch “suddenly shows up”, it’s that priorities are not managed. You don’t realize with a month to go that you need yet another month, you defer making the decision until things are that red.
This topic is top of mind when comparing things like Cyberpunk 2077 and Hades, two games that were up for best game direction and somehow Cyberpunk 2077 won. I don’t begrudge CD Projekt delaying the game over so many years to deliver something, I think that’s the right approach. And that the developers share in overall profits is great. Added incentives against meta critic scores annoys me to no end (which are apparently ignored here, just given out). It’s the last 6 months of dev work, after 8 years of effort. It’s the last minute delays that no one is aware of until media lines are out. This isn’t some line worker, or supervisor. I doubt it’s even at the director level. This is top brass stuff finally making the right call, understanding that the years of effort making it are about to be undone with a buggy mess that will just mean more crunch to patch.
And let’s not forget what Rockstar went through to get RDR2 out the door. 80 hour work weeks are insane.
Then you look at Hades, where early access (beta) showed where they were going with no big expectations past that. Things came out when they were clean, and iteration was key. Staff has mandatory 20 days off a year, and then there’s a mental health check to manage workload. In short, the people matter more than the work, which obviously creates a better work environment, and therefore a better product.
Who hasn’t tried to do something while completely exhausted? How often does that thing go the way you want it to? I’ve made TONS of mistakes while exhausted that took me longer to fix than if I had just come back to it later. Doing it once and a while, to get over some unexpected emergency (like helping someone manage their personal stuff), that is part of the job of being manager. Doing it consistently, over multiple weeks and months… you never get a chance to recover and will continue to make mistakes along the way.
Now, compound that over dozens of people, all working at much less than 100%, for long periods of time. Their heart is there (assuming they are compensated), but their brains aren’t.
There are 2 big things that motivate people – money and pride. For most people, the money thing isn’t really motivating, because you’ll get paid on this game or the next. If you get a stock bonus, then you’ll get it eventually. Few people ever get a bonus for meeting a milestone, except executives. Few people ever get a bonus due to share performance, executives excepted as well. Now the reality is that cash flow is required to pay people to work on a game. No money in = no game development work done.
Pride though, that’s a big one. No one should be ok with delivering a stinker. They may feel powerless in that space (again, a failure of management) but they are not actively trying to make a bad experience. There’s not a chance any dev working on Anthem was looking at that product and going “yeah, that’s good”. But someone in that path decided it had to ship, no matter the state of affairs.
Tangent here for a sec. Codemasters is entertaining an offer from EA for 1.2 BILLION dollars. Take Two had offered just under 1 BILLION. Primarily for the Dirt and F1 franchises. That’s insane. Taking a step back, the EA bid is seen as defensive, since they already have a bunch of racing franchises – defensive meaning they will cut like crazy. Take Two would benefit from extra work, but no mistakes either, some serious cuts would follow. Any Codemaster employee that is not an executive (who is certainly going to gain from the stock purchase) is likely updating their resume right now. This is the business of entertainment.
There are only so many FF14, For Honor, and No Man’s Sky possible. Very, very rarely will you see something launch as a right mess and come back to some measure of success. Instead you’ll get lists like this one (I am still ticked that Infinite Crisis didn’t work). None of them died out of the gate, each one had a team working feverishly to do what should have happened before launch. Each one eventually came to the conclusion that the battle couldn’t be won – curious as to how many devs actually came to this conclusion before their bosses.
Is there a single answer to all this? You’ll see “union” listed as top of pile, and certainly there’s some serious value here. Even just recognizing the “class of worker” would have huge impacts. Should games simply cost more? How does something like Hades or Into the Breach become profitable yet ME: Andromeda is a hot mess? Maybe the hype cycles need to be cut. Maybe the idea of meta critic bonuses have to be eliminated. Maybe the consumer needs to be educated and make smarter purchases? (If FIFA/NFL are any indication, I have a better chance of getting pregnant)
The real challenge here is that coders are often disposable. Entry level positions are everywhere, and an environmental artist graduates every 20 minutes. Someone coming into the market thinks it’s part of the deal to bleed themselves dry to get something out the door because they are competing against someone who will. It’s a right nightmare.
Talking about it is a major first step. Having a pile of good examples to share is another. Replacing the “old guard” is even more important, where people with different ideas come to lead. Understanding that our darling dev shops from yesterday are large conglomerates beholden to shareholders today is another. Buying stock of these companies and being part of the stakeholder process is another… they were a couple votes shy of cutting Bobby Kotick’s salary bonuses last time. Making personal purchase choices is always an option, but that lives in a grey zone that each person manages to their own delight.