Harsh Realities of the Game Industry — Part 3

In Part 2, we focused on the reasons why games are sometimes canceled, and why they might not ever ship. Today we’re going to review one of the most commonplace realities of the game industry; crunch time, and then for a change of pace, we’ll get further into the most uplifting of topics: losing your game industry job.

This article was written with game development students in mind; but anyone that wants to make video games as a career may find it useful.


Harsh Reality #5: Crunch time happens

There is one almost inevitable reality for those that work in the game industry: crunch time. It usually comes into play during the last few months of a development cycle, where the deadline is looming, and everyone on the team is putting in long hours to get the game completed. Most companies try hard to avoid this, but the reality is that it still happens… A lot.

What does crunch time look like? A mild example of crunch might be staying a few hours later each work day. So you get home at 9 or 10pm instead of 7pm every evening. Or maybe you’re asked to work one day on the weekend in addition to your normal work hours.

And then there’s serious crunch time; that might be working 7 days a week, 12 hours a day, for example. During crunch, your employer may buy the team meals, in the hopes of keeping everyone at their desk just a little bit longer. This can go on for months, and there are even some examples of it happening over years (if you’re interested, look into the L.A. Noire development saga), although that, thankfully, is rare.

In early 2004, I was part of the quest design team for World of Warcraft, and worked 10–12 hour days, 6 days a week. This was the case for much of the team — we were on track to release the game in November and it felt a bit like a crazy train at full speed, barely hanging onto the rails as we rocketed towards the ship date.

Management couldn’t get away with telling us that crunching was mandatory, but at team meetings, as we went over the deadlines and assignments, it was very strongly suggested that crunching was a good idea. As a new designer, I was just excited to be there — crunch time didn’t phase me at all. I happily stayed late each evening and came in on the weekend, because it meant more time for me to do what I enjoyed doing.

But as the months rolled by, parts of my life began to suffer; because I was rarely home other than when I was asleep, I frequently forgot to pay bills, my place was a mess, and I hardly ever saw my friends. I loved my job, but there definitely was not a healthy balance between working and other parts of my life. I also began to feel that even though I was spending more time than ever at work, I was actually less productive than when I was working fewer hours.

In November of 2004, the crunch came to an end and we released World of Warcraft to the world. When WoW shipped, we were all given generous paid time off. My December was spent recovering, and playing WoW, of course. Slowly, things came back into alignment for me.

Indeed, 2004 was the year that things changed, and not just for me. At the same time that I was coming off of the WoW crunch, the wife of an Electronic Arts employee posted a very revealing essay about game industry crunch time on Live Journal, using the name EA_Spouse. Her account of the terrible working conditions that her husband was subjected to on a project at Electronic Arts thrust the practice of crunch time into the spotlight, resonating with game industry folks everywhere.

This single essay had a massive influence. Employees of EA filed class action suits for the overtime wages they were due, and many game development companies actively changed their policies in order to provide a better working environment and eliminate crunch time wherever possible. (Data backs up this approach well; when people work more than 50 hours per week, their output decreases, proportional to the hours they are working. In other words: Crunch time isn’t the best way to get the most out of employees.)

I’d love to be able to say that crunch time is now nonexistent in the industry, but 14 years after EA Spouse, crunch time still happens. Overall, things are better, because as the industry has matured, more employers prioritize things like work-life balance and the value of taking adequate breaks. But it still happens. Chances are that if you work in games, at some point you’ll end up working crazy hours in order to get a game finished. And if you’re not careful, it will take a toll on your family, your friends, your hobbies — your life.


Harsh Reality #6: Losing your job is common

It would be wonderful to be able to say that crunching always led to success. But it doesn’t. Sometimes, despite all the time invested, projects are canceled, and companies shut down. When these things happen, the next step is often that the people are laid off from their jobs. So think about that. You work super hard for months or years, and at the end of that, your reward is that you’re out of a job.

Unfortunately, layoffs are very common in the game industry. I know very few game industry professionals who have not experienced a layoff at some point in their career. When you lose your job, it’s hard not to take it personally, but layoffs within the game industry that are related to job performance are the exception. Usually they have much more to do with time, resources, and the ability of the team leads to plan well.

Remember my story in Part 2 about Auto Assault? After launch, when the game wasn’t meeting revenue expectations, NC Soft reduced funding for the team. When funding is reduced on a project, there isn’t enough money to pay everyone that once worked on the team. In short — that meant the team needed to get smaller, immediately. I can’t even imagine what it was like for the leads to sit down and decide who would stay and who would go, especially after the entire team had worked so hard during the four year development cycle. But they did what they had to do — games are a business, after all. When the dust settled, there were only 5 of us left on the Auto Assault team. Around 10 other lucky people were diverted to a new team and new project within the company. But anyone that wasn’t part of those two groups no longer had a job. Effective immediately.

And it wasn’t about how hard they worked, how skilled they were, how well-liked they were, or how late they stayed during crunch. None of those things matter when funding is cut. It’s painful for everyone involved.

Layoffs can be something the team sees coming, or can happen out of the blue. I have seen an entire team let go all in one day. Other times, only part of the team is let go. If a partial layoff happens due to lost or reduced funding, it is usually only a stalling tactic to see if the team can continue development with a smaller budget as they work to acquire more funding. Or sometimes it’s due to the larger business entity choosing to refocus on other projects. Either way, it can be a sign that the team is going to die a slow death, dwindling until the money and support runs out.

In short, the game industry is one of the most volatile fields in which you could choose to work. If job security is something you’re looking for, you should probably look elsewhere.


A bit about why this happens

You may be wondering about why this happens so often in games — why games don’t ship, or ship and then fail, and people end up losing their jobs. And it’s largely because there are several scenarios that tend to play out, over and over in the industry. Things start out well, but there are so many points at which things can go wrong.


Startups are unpredictable

Many game companies are startups that manage to land external funding from a publisher or investors. Startups are the greatest gamble out there — they can be both amazing and awful; a mixed bag, for sure.

A startup is an unproven venture: usually everyone is super excited to be there and they want to make something awesome, but that might not go smoothly, because the group may never have worked together before. Even if they do work well together, they may not be great at running the company, because being a good businessperson is a completely different skill set than making games. Even if they work well together and understand how to run a company, there’s no way to know if the game they want to make is something that the market wants — or if they will be able to execute the idea at an acceptable quality level.

Will they pull together and make something incredible? Quite possibly! It’s happened. But there are many startups that go belly up because things just don’t go according to plan.


It’s just business

Even at established companies, you may not be safe from losing your job. Large companies like EA often have many game teams, all working on different titles. If the company has a poor year in terms of revenue, that means that there is a possibility of layoffs and project cancellations. And there have been times when a large company like EA will choose to shutter an entire studio.

Publicly traded companies are responsible to their stockholders, which adds a layer of complexity that smaller studios do not have to worry about — shareholders care about the stock price, and the stock price is impacted by the number of games that the studio produces, the success of those titles, and when the launches are scheduled. Sometimes a game will be shipped before it is ready to meet the timeline; other times a project may be canceled when it just doesn’t fit into the lineup. And then that team is suddenly just gone.


Planning, money & other variables

Whether a company succeeds usually comes down to how they use two things: money and time. In the beginning, they have some big questions to answer:

  • What product should they make?
  • Is the funding adequate to make the product?
  • Do they understand enough about the process of making games in order to use the assets efficiently?
  • Are the leaders making smart decisions about how to use the time, money, and resources they do have?
  • Can they focus on a single product and see it through to completion, or do they change course every time a new industry trend appears?
  • Do they understand how to plan for success, ensuring that they can complete development using the funds they have?
  • Have they hired the right people for key roles? (This is a big one, especially for the department leads. Hire the wrong person for your technical director and you may have a game that cannot perform well or technology that doesn’t fit the game type. Hire the wrong person for your creative lead and you may have a development team plagued with lots of drama, little organization and poor decision-making. Things like this can kill a project, and there goes your job.)

Marketing is never optional

Marketing is another areas where things can go wrong. Without marketing, players don’t know that your game exists, so they cannot play it, they cannot spend money on it, and they cannot tell their friends about it. Additionally, players are so bombarded by the sheer number of new games released that unless they get regular reminders, they may completely forget about your game, even if they had a fun time playing it in that first session.

In order to be successful, a game not only needs to be marketed, but it needs to be marketed at exactly the right time, to the right audience, in the right way. Without a method of acquiring players, your game is destined to fail — and you’ll be job hunting.


It’s always a gamble

The industry changes quickly, which makes it an exciting place to work. But it also means that it’s very possible that the great idea that you have in 2018 is no longer a great idea when you finally finish development in 2020. Maybe there are a dozen games just like it already when you finally release, or maybe your idea happens to be very similar to a game released at the same time as yours, or maybe the genre wave you hoped to ride is pretty much over by the time you jump into the water (Two examples: 2005–2008 saw many World of Warcraft clones, and 2011–2013 saw many companies jumping on the Minecraft cart).

So while it’s exciting and fun to make games, and there’s the potential to make a successful game, it’s also very high risk. The upside is amazing — a successful game that finds a large audience; being able to point to your favorite game and tell people, “yes, I worked on that!”— but on the other side of that risk is losing a job you love after working really, really hard.


This is the third part in a series relating the harsh realities of the game industry, (and trying to find a silver lining, despite the challenges!). These are drawn from my own personal experiences working at companies like Blizzard Entertainment and Electronic Arts, among others. If you were hoping it couldn’t get any worse, sorry, I’ve still got more. Harsh realities, part four is coming your way soon!

Read Part 1.

Read Part 2.