Join 3,497 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Video Game Industry Noire
July 1, 2011 7:06 AM   Subscribe

Why developing the acclaimed video game L.A. Noire was a seven year nightmare for its 100+ (uncredited) developers that resulted in an investigation by the International Game Developers Association.

Previously.
posted by Foci for Analysis (37 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Previously, cont.
posted by griphus at 7:15 AM on July 1, 2011


That might explain the (NITPICK ALERT) why they have a letter from a mother to her daughter that includes an anachronistic ZIP code.

Took me out the magical wonder of the 1940s.
posted by inturnaround at 7:40 AM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Previously, cont.

Jesus, "and she's cute"?! Thankfully I don't think that shit would fly today on Metafilter.
posted by kmz at 7:44 AM on July 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


This general mode of operating is, AFAIK, common in the games industry, and one of the salient features of it is its brutal inefficiency. Besides the obvious problems of high turnover slowing the process down because new hires are constantly relearning what exiting staff know, you have managers running willy-nilly making changes that make irrelevant hundreds of hours at work at a stroke.

Guys like Macnamara act like they're gods because they're willing to be absolute shit bosses to a lot of young kids. I'm starting to think the real manly man video game producer would be the one who sits down with his management team, designs an effective and humane process, and actually sticks to it.

What I don't understand is why the corporate overlords funding these things don't look at a much more successful model for producing content, and copy it. I mean movie-making and TV. Sure there are expensive boondoggles, but those are notable for being somewhat unusual. For the most part Hollywood and the TV industry crank out reams of content on a predictable schedule, with union labour, at a predictable expense. The obvious problem with video games is simply that the people in charge have no clue how to do it smoothly, but this is a solved problem elsewhere.

I know people who work in TV and film, and they always describe an environment in which the huge amount of pick-and-shovel work is done relatively straightforwardly. Sometimes you work hard and lots of overtime, but you get paid for it, and for the most part a shoot is a tightly scheduled dance that actually turns out the way its planned to turn out.
posted by fatbird at 7:50 AM on July 1, 2011 [14 favorites]


Jesus, "and she's cute"?! Thankfully I don't think that shit would fly today on Metafilter.

Yeah, that was pretty awful and I even considered not posting it due to the fact, but the caliber of the actual post and (especially) comments beat it out.
posted by griphus at 7:54 AM on July 1, 2011


Are there medium- or large-sized development teams out there who have minimal crunch-time?
posted by East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94 at 7:55 AM on July 1, 2011


Are there medium- or large-sized development teams out there who have minimal crunch-time?

I know someone who quit EA after ten years and went to a smaller local studio that handled contract work for content on larger titles. While there was still a lot of the same macho "it's crunch time, bitches!" attitude around, the second tier contract outfits seemed to operate in a way that had more routine and better planning, so fewer late nights and not so much stress from screaming producers stalking the halls.

Still, there's just an absurd lack of maturity in the industry and how it runs itself.
posted by fatbird at 8:00 AM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


fatbird: "This general mode of operating is, AFAIK, common in the games industry, and one of the salient features of it is its brutal inefficiency."

Software industry in general, really.
posted by mkb at 8:00 AM on July 1, 2011


Are there medium- or large-sized development teams out there who have minimal crunch-time?

As far as I know, places like Valve or Blizzard or Bungie are known to be pretty good work environments with relatively little crunch-time. They also tend to release games on the schedule of "when it's done".

Which honestly makes the whole LA Noire thing even more fucked up. They took seven years. It's not like the Madden team which has to churn one out every year like clockwork. (Which still doesn't justify at all the crappy working conditions exposed by EA Spouse.)

And this McNamara guy is just a dick.
posted by kmz at 8:03 AM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


Software industry in general, really.

I dispute that. I worked at RSA Security for five years, and it was decidedly uncommon to see developers there after five o'clock in our office, though it did happen. I worked with several remote dev teams and never got the impression that they were burning themselves out. But moreover, RSA has a definite culture of treasuring experience and building up old teams (well, until they shut down that business unit...). And generally, RSA never had a problem with massive projects undergoing feature creep and deadlines being blown.

When we got bought by EMC, I don't know how much that changed, because I left shortly after, but I didn't have the impression that EMC engineers were being death marched either. The ones I had contact with were generally older people for whom it was a good 9-to-5 job, not a glory seeking suicide mission.

The same person I mentioned above from EA ended up at Microsoft running a team, and he described the environment as vastly better than EA in terms of general working conditions and project management.

There are companies that have figured out how to treat software development like the regular process it can be, and they're doing it, and producing better software on time and on budget because they're not making rookie management mistakes. Video game companies seem to be the last holdouts of the sweatshop culture.
posted by fatbird at 8:08 AM on July 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


The kids will kill themselves writing video games because it's glamorous and cool to do it. It's the "extreme" programming sport. 18 hours a day on ten cans of Red Bull and you do it again tomorrow. FUCKIN'A BRO WE DID IT.

Unionization is probably the industry's only hope, because the Bobby Kotick's of the world will cheerfully run combine harvesters across the fields of naive kids basically forever until stopped by force.
posted by seanmpuckett at 8:58 AM on July 1, 2011 [11 favorites]


East Manitoba Regional Junior Kabaddi Champion '94: "Are there medium- or large-sized development teams out there who have minimal crunch-time?"

I've never worked anywhere where there was constant crunch-time for everyone. It's not like there aren't times when you need to put in extra hours close to a release or when something's broken but it's never everyone at once and it's never all the time. They try to rotate the tasks so that pain gets spread out and no one gets burnt out. I'm actually coming into a crunch time after this weekend and it'll be busy but we'll be done within two months and get a breather for three months or so.

The games industry exploits the allure of working on games in a way that doesn't really work that well in other software industries. I'm not sure why their workers put up with it as long as they do.
posted by octothorpe at 9:44 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure why their workers put up with it as long as they do.

The friend I mentioned above who quit after 10 years at EA because he was burnt out? He was 29 when he quit. He wasn't even 30 and he was an unusually successful and grizzled veteran of the game industry. No one in their early 20s knows how to stand up for themselves to their employer, or that the macho line of bullshit sold by game companies isn't the norm.
posted by fatbird at 9:58 AM on July 1, 2011 [4 favorites]


No one in their early 20s knows how to stand up for themselves to their employer, or that the macho line of bullshit sold by game companies isn't the norm.

Makes sense. I think that the average age of engineers where I work is close to 40 so not too many of us would put up with that crap.
posted by octothorpe at 10:09 AM on July 1, 2011


Fatbird is totally, 100%, depressingly correct. I firmly believe that the video game industry needs to unionize along movie industry lines - residuals, health insurance, and all that - not just for a better working environment, but to make better games.

There's such a tremendous brain-drain going on, because people who signed up to make games at any cost when they were 22 eventually hit 30 and want to be able to see their families on occasion, and/or not be laid off for six months of every 18. (I joke about how it's kind of fun to take every other winter off, but I've killed half of my 401k savings that way, and I am fucking lucky to be working right now - and not in the game industry.) So the people who have the most experience are the most likely to leave, and games are being produced by people whose most notable accomplishment is being the QA guy with the best social skills. (There are good, senior, competent producers out there, but there are a lot of really fucking terrible ones, too.) In a business sense, companies make the same mistakes over and over, and learn the wrong lessons from seeing each other fail, and we haven't come nearly as far as we might.

I had fun making games, don't get me wrong - but I did my five years, became something of an elder statesman in my field (seriously - how absurd is that) and I am fucking done. I just saw two more brilliant, senior people and all their teams get laid off this week, so I am extra bitter about the subject right now.
posted by restless_nomad at 10:28 AM on July 1, 2011 [9 favorites]


fatbird: "There are companies that have figured out how to treat software development like the regular process it can be, and they're doing it, and producing better software on time and on budget because they're not making rookie management mistakes. Video game companies seem to be the last holdouts of the sweatshop culture."

Well, they aren't the only holdouts, but my experience is likely colored by the startups I've worked at before my most recent position.
posted by mkb at 10:36 AM on July 1, 2011


I'm really interested in reading the article, but I haven't finished the game . . is it spoiler-safe?
posted by chaff at 10:55 AM on July 1, 2011


Man, and I wanted to enjoy playing this game.

Now all I can imagine is pale, schlubby programmers chugging Red Bull while trying to power through Hour 14 and it makes me sad.

I also cannot wear clothes except for burlap sacks I've assembled myself.
posted by Fister Roboto at 11:05 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


Blizzard and Valve and their ilk are not exactly the utopias of the industry. When a studio delivers the next Starcraft or the next GTA, people are willing to look the other direction. The pay is great. The work is great. The bennies are great. But the crunch mentality is a lot higher at the very desirable studios. They don't call it "crunch" tho'. They just expect all an employee's free time. It's a very, Very competitive dash to get into the AAA studios so there's the real fear that if one does decide to cultivate a outside hobby- or god forbid- have a family, one will find oneself on the outs, culturally. The peer pressure is very real and very destructive but a lot of people will put up with it for the (also very real) benefit of working for Valve et al. It's the Disney principle- spend five years being absolutely murdered as a line artist at Disney and you are set professionally for the remainder of your career. The unfortunate fact is non-AAA studios also pull this shit because they simply Can.

The idea that a person should just be "hardcore" as a developer is threaded through the very heart of the industry. It's wrong. It's bad management. It's driving away good talent. Any studio that accepts crunching as something that "just happens" is bad for the industry and as much as I love some the games that have benefited from this insane culture, I guarantee they could have been made without all the dev blood.

Good on the IGDA. I wish they had any real power.
posted by cheap paper at 11:12 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I'm really interested in reading the article, but I haven't finished the game . . is it spoiler-safe?

No spoilers, should be safe to read.
posted by asperity at 11:18 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


One of the sad things is that there are legal avenues for some developers to get compensation for massive crunch, but the law is difficult to understand, people are afraid of being blacklisted, and most people just assume that if everyone's doing it then it must be fine. The class action lawsuit against EA years ago set a pretty good precedent in California (where many studios are), but it doesn't seem to really have had much of an effect on other studios. I was under the impression that Australia had some better workers rights laws than the US.

As far as I know, places like Valve or Blizzard or Bungie are known to be pretty good work environments with relatively little crunch-time.
Blizzard is well known for death marches - not sure if they've changed as they've become more corporate. I believe the devs get well-compensated from a finished game to help keep talent, but the less integral members of the team are more likely to be rewarded with "Blizzard" on their resume than with cash. I'd be very surprised if Bungie and Valve didn't also crunch a ton, but offset it with compensation and just better working environment and company vacations (Valve employees all vacation in Mexico every year, for example).

"Are there medium- or large-sized development teams out there who have minimal crunch-time?"
It depends what's minimal - 2 months? 6 months? There's an important difference between everyone scheduled for 12-hours a day plus weekends, and picking and choosing which days you want to stay late and which weekends to come in on your own schedule because the hours aren't strictly monitored.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 11:27 AM on July 1, 2011


No spoilers, should be safe to read.

However, it may spoil your enthusiasm for the game somewhat.
posted by dfan at 11:41 AM on July 1, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've worked in a couple different game houses, and in different kind of software companies. It varies.

I say to every single person I interview with "I believe in crunch time, but if I'm constantly working late, that's a management failure. I like my life."
posted by lumpenprole at 12:23 PM on July 1, 2011 [5 favorites]


Wow, that develop.net article completely rips off the IGN article without adding anything new at all...
posted by whir at 1:12 PM on July 1, 2011


This is a really interesting read for me. I work in VFX for film / television and it is literally the EXACT same story...yet rarely gets as much attention or press as the gaming industry. I followed the EA scandal closely a few years ago and my blood boiled that the same alarms weren't ringing in our industry.

"It's abhorrent that these young kids are being thrown into a 24/7 corpse grinder with perpetual crunch and weekend overtime..."

This exactly. I have experienced this first hand with regularity. Cruch time, all the time. I spend a lot of energy trying to fight my bitterness and jadedness.

"There was simply an expectation that you'd work overtime and weekends," said a source. "I was told that I was taking the piss by saying that I couldn't give every single one of my weekends away. We were looked at as a disposable resource, basically..."

Both the games industry and the vfx industry take full advantage of the "we're part of a team" psychology. Management structures the work so that everyone is essentially dependent on one another, so everyone pretty much is expected to stay as late as the latest member. If you have the balls to take a stand and refuse to come in on a weekend...you're the odd man out. You either suffer in silence or you get crushed by guilt, along with the unspoken threat that you won't be hired back.

If you left at 7.30pm, you'd get evil eyes

Yup. But you know what...it gets easier to deal with those eyes. Eventually you just say fuck it.

"I've done 20 years of not getting paid for doing that kind of stuff. I don't begrudge it. I get the opportunity to make these things..."

And here we have, in my opinion, the crux of the whole damn thing. This is a dangerous, dangerous little meme...one that I believe should be stamped out. I see it everywhere, I hear it from younger employees. The management and production staff use this to their advantage. Their workforce is mainly composed of introverted, geeky computer guys that simply won't stand up for their rights, and quite frankly, in most cases seem to be happy to feel a part of something 'big.' They feel included, I suspect many for the first time in their lives. Getting "the opportunity" to work overtime with no pay is NO OPPORTUNITY, and if you believe that you've got some esteem issues. We're not building houses for the homeless or curing a disease, we make video games and movies - both of which are essentially giant advertisements. The actual social value in real human terms that these products provide is minimal. If you want to work and not get paid, go do something worthwhile...but I just can't stand it when people assume that we should be 'lucky' to work on these things just because they are big budget or high profile. Unfortunately, as long as people continue to allow themselves to be mistreated because they are working on a "cool" game or movie...the system will remain broken. Being rewarded with "cool by association" is no reward at all.

I also think, as another commented noted, that unionization is the only logical next step. The ball is slowly rolling in the vfx community...but there is an incredible amount of resistance from many of the artists themselves (there is a large libertarian contingent in vfx....unionization - hell noes!) There is also the argument that it will further spur outsourcing. Maybe...but I personally say let it happen. These industries run on an unsustainable model as is.
posted by jnnla at 1:43 PM on July 1, 2011 [6 favorites]


Thanks for this, Foci. Based on this, I am not going to buy LA Noire.

Someone should send Brendan McNamara a copy of Peopleware. Or even the Mythical Man Month. But I'd doubt he'd read it anyway.
posted by storybored at 2:05 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think it's a bit harsh to say that game developers won't stand up for themselves. Some certainly think it can't get any better and just take it, but most of the people I worked with desperately wanted to improve things, we just didn't know how. Well, more specifically, we knew exactly what had to change (Start with scheduling time for change requests. You won't get it right on the first try. Ever.), but not how to get them implemented. The system "worked" (lots of money was made), so why change it? I think most of us only had a very vague understanding of unions and how they work. And it's hard to find the energy to do research when you're exhausted all the time.

I don't know how much of the Team Bondi stories are true, but they certainly echo what I experienced at similar companies. I hope something good comes of the investigation, but there's a lot of momentum to break through.
posted by Sibrax at 3:48 PM on July 1, 2011


Are there medium- or large-sized development teams out there who have minimal crunch-time?

Definitely. Of course it helps to be at a larger, more established companies. Startups are more likely to have real or imagined pressure to get stuff done at an unreasonable rate. And the game industry is notoriously bad at exploiting developers. But in the non-game, non-startup world I've worked on several projects with only occasional, brief crunch time. (I've also worked on at least one project at a large company that devolved into Eternal Crunch, but I quit that job).
posted by wildcrdj at 4:31 PM on July 1, 2011


The system "worked" (lots of money was made), so why change it? I think most of us only had a very vague understanding of unions and how they work. And it's hard to find the energy to do research when you're exhausted all the time.

All good points. I think it will happen...I may be misrepresenting the facts, but I remember reading that games are making more money than movies these days. Gaming is an industry set to continue making huge profits....I hope some fair working practices get established as games as big as Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire become commonplace....
posted by jnnla at 4:38 PM on July 1, 2011


Part of the problem is that the people running sweatshops now were slaves in the trenches a decade ago, and have that dick-swinging "I could do it, so can you" management style. Even worse, the ones who survive to manage are an object lesson to themselves that they're the toughest of the lot.

It won't change until an outside force steps in, either unionization or investors or both, and demands a more accountable process. If I were an investor approached by some hot-shit devs with a game idea, I'd make it a condition of funding that they accept someone I bring in to actually manage the process, who reports to me. Then I'd find a successful Hollywood producer with a record of bringing projects in on time and on schedule (of which there's no shortage, I'm told *), and give her plenipotentiary powers in the office. The movie industry is plenty familiar with sometimes radical creative changes and still manages to make money. There's no reason that the video game industry can't learn the same lessons.

* a friend who spent several years in the trenches in the Toronto film community described rooms full of production assistants constantly updating spreadsheets of costs and schedules, dedicated to nothing more than keeping shit on track.
posted by fatbird at 4:55 PM on July 1, 2011


This is why I have my occupation listed as 'recovering games coder' on here. I left the game industry about the time ea_spouse appeared. I'd had enough. I really hoped things would change but reading the LA Noire reports I can well believe they are real and as bad as it ever was.

At my last game place (now long gone bust) they asked if you'd sign a wavier for the EU working time directive with a certain amount of pressure being applied especially over bonuses if you didn't. They got you a takeaway if you stayed late, which tied very quickly.

I remember being told by one of the directors that they hadn't budgeted for changes in the project plan but it was OK as they had set aside some time for me to take holiday, so they could just use that.

Another stand out was a whole project team meeting where the MD ended up swearing at us for five minutes as some people had only worked one day of the weekend as unpaid overtime, that was the point I'd had enough and started planning to get out. A friend escaped just before me into academia for a pay rise along with the much better working conditions, he also got removed from the credits for this.

I've seen an anti project management/software engineering mindset in lots of the people managing projects and refusal to even read any of the research and best practice for running big projects, this seem especially strong in the old bedroom coders from the 80s.

I do wonder how long the industry can continue down this path of increasing working hours. I still love games but I value seeing my friends and family way too much to think about jumping back in.
posted by Z303 at 5:21 PM on July 1, 2011 [2 favorites]


The problem with "on time and on schedule" is that the way to get there is, too often, to make your salaried employees work 100 hour weeks. Companies based in California aren't so bad, in my experience - EA is certainly careful, now, about making sure people aren't salaried when they shouldn't be - but in states with less worker protection, everyone is salaried, and everyone works overtime.

The big thing now is to hire people as contractors - Bioware Austin's upcoming Star Wars MMO is being made largely by people one one-year contracts with minimal-to-no benefits and zero job security. Whether or not the game succeeds financially, it's going to screw the local developer community when they let two or three hundred people go at once after launch.

At this point, stability is as big a problem as crunch, if not worse. A lot of places have figured out that crunch will not and cannot save a project, and methodologies like Scrum can be used to put together more realistic development timelines than the traditional waterfall method. (It can also be used to justify the worst sorts of idiocy, but I have seen it used effectively more than once.) But knowing that you are guaranteed, at best, a year of work before you have to roll a saving throw against layoffs/canceled projects/company shutdowns? That can break the biggest Red Bull addict out there.

It also feeds into the industry's legendary hiring practices - once you've worked in the game industry, you can always get another job in the game industry. A big part of that, in my experience, is that the ones who have roofs over their heads want to bring their buddies in out of the cold. I've done it - I'll happily recommend people I've worked with for projects I know nothing about, because they're good people and need the work. And they'll get hired on my word, too, because the people I'm recommending them to are my friends, too, and they want me to do the same for them when - not if - they end up on the street with their cardboard box full of action figures. This is great for solidarity and often shitty for the company - cliques get perpetuated, bad dynamics live for decades, "legacy" employees that are terrible (or just burned out) get hired again and again because they're well-connected. But when all you have to rely on is your people, you take care of your fucking people.
posted by restless_nomad at 5:24 PM on July 1, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's going to take me 7 years to finish playing this boring, boring game.
Great article though. Sydney's a small enough place that I keep expecting to run into LA Noire people but I never do.
posted by Lovecraft In Brooklyn at 6:30 PM on July 1, 2011


I wonder how many of us expressing outrage at these programmers' working conditions are reading this post on an Apple product?
posted by mattholomew at 6:59 PM on July 1, 2011


That's pretty disingenuous. The topic of discussion is quality of life among game developers, not quality of life among Foxconn workers. One issue doesn't make the other obsolete.
posted by subject_verb_remainder at 9:28 PM on July 1, 2011


I've been removed from credits. And I'm done with the game biz unless I come upon a lot of money.
posted by bugmuncher at 12:12 AM on July 2, 2011


It doesn't sound that surprising to me - the leaders of the team came from the UK game making scene of the eighties and nineties and that kind of work schedule was pretty much what you expected. Generally there were small groups of people working together (5 or so), writing games for the love of it and not because it was a job. The conditions the article describes sound fairly mild in comparison to those days (I once worked for five days with no sleep at all to meet a publisher deadline). But no one would have dreamed of complaining about it because we were doing something we loved - it would be like complaining about all the late nights you have to work as a gutarist in a band.

The problem comes when you get huge teams of a hundred anonymous people and the process becomes a production line - you can't expect those people to care or give as much because it's fundamentally not their game - they're just cogs in the machine and are no longer doing it for the love of it, so then you need to start treating them like employees with rights, not like your bunch of crazy friends. It sounds to me that what was missing in this situation was that understanding.
posted by silence at 4:12 AM on July 2, 2011 [1 favorite]


« Older Ida Maria is a 26-year-old Norwegian pop-punk-rock...  |  New search goodies... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments