Game developers must avoid the “pay me for my work” attitude

By Gurth Snisley

I read this article by Dean Takahashi the other day, and my jaw nearly hit the floor.

At least five people on the internet have complained about the working conditions in the video game industry, which means that my worst fears have come true: a culture of victimhood has taken hold. These industry “professionals” complain about long hours and personal sacrifices, as if the satisfaction of making Unreal Tournament VII isn’t enough to “feed their families” or “send their child to college.” Somehow, they seem to think criminally long hours are management’s fault! How can that be? Working for a video game company is entrepreneurship in a way that I never explain in this article. Anyway, I have a growing distaste for anyone I perceive as a whiner, which is more than enough fuel for this multi-paragraph amble through my mind. Where was I? Ah yes: people who make games are remarkable and privileged. Therefore, in no way should they be paid fairly for their work.

Now, I’ve been working at technology startups since I was a white American man in my 20s, so I think I know a little bit about hardship. My career has taken me on a wild ride, starting from the day my mother gave birth to me on the deck of a crabbing vessel off the coast of Nome. My only math instruction came from rearranging fish bones (“The fisherman’s computer,” they called it). The deck of the ship had no electricity. My toilet was the sea itself. The first time my ass touched porcelain I was already a married man. I never got a fancy diploma, but for some reason other men never had a problem hiring me for thankless tech labor. That’s weird! Over the years I worked with accomplished workaholics from all 3 sorts of backgrounds: regular, Aspergers, and woman.

I know I’m going to disgust several peasants by saying so, but we must remove the mental nets that we’ve been caught in for far too long. I’ll grant that it’s been 23 years since I bid farewell to the sea, but time has not dulled my dizzying appreciation of modern conveniences like the fax modem and food you don’t have to pry out of a shell. I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of young people are to think that sitting at a desk is work. Literally, sitting at a desk, doing nothing, which is what tech work apparently is? [note to self: do a Bing on that]. I’ve hired thousands of men and 10 women over the years, and yet somehow these people resent the fact that companies want to own their every waking hour. What a bunch of wage-slaves! This is a term I understand completely!

A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways, which I will not list here. My point is, the sense of entitlement that says you deserve to receive “wages” for your “labor” while maintaining a “quality of life” is tragic. It truly is. We live in a world where dumb people can become millionaires, so why can’t you? My point is, I am a dumb millionaire. Once on IRC I met a kid in the Florida Everglades who said he made a ton of money on the internet, and he had never even been to GDC! Can you believe that? You may not believe I’m about to suggest this, but this strangely specific anecdote involving the Florida Everglades is all the proof I need that your “labor” is essentially valueless. I also have some uninterrogated beliefs about the third world that are going to work their way into this paragraph, just a heads up. Okay, look. I know lots of people who have worked on games over the years. And all these people all say to me, “But Mr. Snisley, my hours are long, I yearn for a way to see my beautiful wife and still somehow pursue my passion, which is making realistic 3D tire assets for racing car games.” And do you know what I say to them? “You’re a whiner! Go and get a job making bank software if you want to wife it up like some normie.” I then thought some more and realized I was right. Making video games at a studio isn’t about earning pay for a job, it’s a higher calling. Like joining the clergy! You ever hear of someone named Father McFlaherty complaining about pulling an 80-hour week down at the seminary? Of course not. He didn’t join the priesthood so he could be another shmuck working a 9-to-5, he did it because it was his passion [editor’s note: priests get paid money and are subject to labor laws]. My point is, if it’s your passion, it’s not “labor.” Labor is when people in disenfranchised third world countries are forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families, amirite?

I’ve never been able to reconcile these conflicting ideas. People complain about their jobs, yet they don’t want to assume the enormous risk of becoming entrepreneurs? Buh-wha? When did people become so afraid to pursue their passion? That kid in the Everglades did, and now he’s got a girlfriend in Canada. Oh, okay. You feel entitled to a work-life balance, even though you work at a desk? Big whoop. You hate that your grueling work hours ignore the labor gains of the 20th century, weakened more with each passing day? Big whoop. I say it just like that, too, like a drunk uncle at your 7th birthday party, unimpressed when you open yet another Thomas the Tank Engine, this one green. “Biiig whoooop.” Strangely, people react to my obvious hostility not with appreciation, but with rage! How are they so ungrateful? Haven’t they heard of Kickstarter?

Having worked with many legendary game developers — and also some people who are so rich that you haven’t heard of them, because they retired as teenagers to the Everglades — I can’t help but notice a pattern. There are people who, through a combination of hard work and chance, become fabulously wealthy. Then there are other people who, through a combination of hard work and chance, only succeed in having a long career in games. I’ll tell you why: It’s the attitude. Every legendary developer I’ve made friends with has been chock full of Vitamin P: Passion. Sure, they could have opted for some kind of “work life balance” back when they were poor. But what happened to giving 110% percent? Not a single person I have ever known who went on to greatness in the gaming industry has ever exhibited a shred of wage-slavishness. Nope. Why, Cliffy B is a man who would refuse to be paid to run a hot dog stand. He’d turn a profit from passion alone. He’s that good.

Making games is not a job — it’s an art. And everyone knows that artists never get paid. Did Michelangelo get paid to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling? Did Matt Groening get paid to make the Simpsons? Did the sculptor of Venus de Milo get paid to make her arms all weird? [editor’s note: yes, yes, and probably]

You can’t “make fun” on a schedule, under budget, on time, with a bunch of commies rabbling about “unpaid overtime” and “Bernie Sanders.” It’s un-American. That’s not to say that making games is pure chaos, because clearly there’s some kind of process you can follow, like maybe agile? [note to self: Bing on that too]. Great games are exclusively made by working unpaid overtime, dedicating your entire body and soul to your art, and never seeing your son grow up. What, you think that sounds harsh? Look, comrade, you can’t make games and still go home at 5pm. It’s art. Art requires sacrifice. You might think I’m conflating artistic passion with crunch in some kind of intentional feint, but you’d be right. Now if, for some inexplicable reason, working 80 hours every week sounds “strenuous” to you…just…do it more. Like, until you’re good at it? And if you try to tell me that soul-destroying crunch is some kind of “hardship,” just remember…………we make video games! Whoa, right? How lucky are we?

Don’t be in the game industry if you don’t love working 80 hours per week, for years on end, like some kind of unfeeling robot. Creating burned-out husks of human beings is what makes our industry great. You don’t like it, move to the Everglades.

Gurth Snisley has been developing video games for the video game industry since dinosaurs invented interactive storytelling. Does he believe that absurd and mean-spirited takedowns are lowering the state of public discourse? Of course. He’s very logical. But did he mention his 20 patents related to online game publishing and being a speaker and a columnist in a trade magazine? No? Did he mention he’s rich?