Quality of Life

Thanks in part to the IGDA, Quality of Life is an issue that has remained in the foreground the last few years in the games industry. There is an entire committee dedicated to the issue. They have released a white paper, had a summit, and advocate on behalf of developers whenever they get the chance. It’s yeoman’s work. I should stop being ungrateful and renew my membership.

It’s been almost a year and a half since the ea_spouse story broke. It’s just been announced that the class action lawsuit brought against Electronic Arts has been settled. In recent months, EA has slowly acquired the reputation of being the evil empire of the video game world. However, as developers, we would be diluting ourselves if we believed that Quality of Life was an EA only issue.

I crunched before last years E3. I did a short tour of duty on The Outfit and crunched to ship that game. This years E3 isn’t until next month, but I crunched the last few weeks in preparation for that.

For the most part, the results have been good. We won Best Strategy Game of Show last year.

But there is always a price to be paid. It didn’t work out with the girl I was seeing last year. She assumed that either I was too nice or too much of a prick–probably the latter–to break up with her cleanly and that I was giving her “the fade”. My dad has a bad back and hasn’t been to work in months now. He had surgery a few months back to remove a chunk of vertebrae that was pressing up against his spinal cord. He was in town recently for a checkup with his doctor but I was unable to see him because I had to battle through a 14 hour day.

Roger Ebert’s fat ass be damned. I, as well as others in the industry, believe what we create is art. We take pride in our craft.

However, sometimes the price seems too steep.

On to the point that I actually wanted to make. Jason Della Rocca (executive director, IGDA) recently published an article at The Escapist about such issues. Jamie Fristrom (producer, Tony Hawk and Spider-Man series) provides a retort. The retort is met with a rejoinder.

I agree somewhat with Jamie. Steve McConnell comes across as a holier-than-though prick. McConnell doesn’t seem to have a problem with employees at Microsoft working 14-18 hour days. Douglas Coupland wrote an entire book about the sorid affair.

I also somewhat agree with McConnell. We need to strengthen the business case for improved production practices. Some have suggested that developers should unionize or follow the Hollywood model of guilds. I’m not sure either is a model that works for the video game industry. With professional sports being an exception, unionization has usually been employed for unskilled labour. Even professional athletes still have agents. The Hollywood model doesn’t really map to video games either. In Hollywood, productions are completed with short-term contract staff.

When production goes awry, heads need to roll at the executive level. Shareholders need to fire executive-level staff when production practices falter. The best way for developers to wield influence in the Quality of Life issue is to have voting power at the board level. This would require a co-operative type of business model where the employees own large chunks of the company’s shares.

Would it work? I don’t know. I don’t have much confidence that a union or guild would work much better.

Della Rocca: When the average career length of the game development workforce is just over five years and over 50% of developers admit they don’t plan to hang around for more than 10, we have a problem. How can an industry truly grow, and an art form evolve, if everyone is gone by the time they hit 30?

I am now 26 years old. This is probably close to the median age for the programmers on my team. Will I still be in this industry when I am 30 years old? Probably not.

At work, there are games to be made. At home, there are games to be played. With friends, there are games to be talked about. On the internet, there are news sites to be perused. On my nightstand, there are piles of books to be read.

It’s not a job or a career, it is a lifestyle. An all-consuming lifestyle at that.