I was supposed to post this article yesterday, however work got the better of me and I ended up spending 14 hours at the office. Luckily this ties in perfectly with what I was planning on posting about.

Work Life Balance

In recent years “work life balance” and the quality of life working in the games industry has been under a lot of scrutiny. I haven’t worked in the industry that long, but even coming up through college everyone knew that if you decided to make games you would be in for long hours and not much respect. Then the infamous “EA Spouses” letter hit the Internet and the fears of everyone outside the industry were confirmed. Employees, it seemed, were just a commodity to be exploited, when they had been pushed beyond their limits and quit, they were easily replaced. More recently the attention has been on the situation in Rockstar San Diego, and other incidents like the “EA Louse” blog who talked poorly about life at Mythic.

Along with these high profile events, there have been numerous other cases of developers being treated poorly, overworked, and in many cases not paid. I don’t personally have any experience with any of these companies. I know a couple people who do. However, in this post, I don’t want to talk about life at a specific company other than Insomniac Games – where I work.

Disclaimer for all the haters

First I need to get the obvious out of the way: problems with work life balance are not by any means unique to the video games industry. Every time I see an article on this subject I inevitably see numerous responses along the lines of “This happens everywhere, why do game devs think they are special?” or “With the economy the way it is, at least you have a job. Stop complaining.” Everyone knows that this is true. There are many companies, in every industry, that overwork and don’t respect their employees. However, just because it happens to other people, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t talk about it when it happens to us.

Young and stupid

A couple months after I began working at Insomnaic I was at E3. It was my first time and it was fun to be able to check out the upcoming games and talk with other devs. At one point I was talking with a designer on one of the big AAA titles coming out that year. We were talking about our companies and he mentioned that he was on mandatory 12 hour days, 6 days a week. He asked me how often I had to crunch. At the time I was working on tools, and I had only been at Insomniac for a couple months, so I haven’t yet been told that I had to work more than 8 hours a day. But I figured it was only a matter of time until I started to feel the pain. My friend was still excited about his job, and about the game he was making. Even though he had to work long hours he was still being treated well – but more importantly he was young and living his dream of making awesome video games.

It’s amazing what we are willing to do when we are young. I remember sitting in the engineering lab for 24+ hours straight, and it was treated as a badge of honor. Ordering pizza at 3 in the morning, and drinking gallons of Mountain Dew is part of the fun. If I could have been getting that same badge of honor for making a video game, then I would have jumped at the opportunity. Now that I’m older, and hopefully a little bit wiser, I have other priorities in my life, specifically a wife and a, very energetic, two year old. When I have to work long hours, like yesterday, there are consequences to other aspects of my life, I leave for work before my daughter wakes up and get home after she is in bed. Needless to say I don’t like doing that.

Where we are heading

According to the ESA, the average age of a video game player is 34. While the average age of game players is trending upwards it’s also true for game developers. There are more people, like me, working in the industry who now have families to think about and take care of. Meanwhile, another important change is happening. It’s not unreasonable for a AAA game budget to be 50+ million dollars. Mobile phone apps, as well as social games, have once again made it possible for small budget games to reach an ever increasing audience. According to the 2009 – 2010 State of Game Development Survey, the number of devs working for studios of 50 people or fewer grew by 7% while the number of devs working on iPhone games grew from 12 to 25%. Studios making big budget games are still able to attract both young developers as well as veterans, however, they are not the only game in town and anyone who wants to make a game is able to for almost no investment.

As devs get older, have other priorities in life, and have more options for bringing their creations to gamers, they are going to be less willing to put up with crap. Studio heads who can’t change, and continue to view their employees as commodities will soon (if they don’t already already) find themselves with a lack of experienced talent and a high turnover rate which will directly affect the quality of their games, and ultimately their ability to make money.

Hope is not lost

Despite what it may look like from the outside, I think there are a lot of companies that are doing things right. Insomniac sets very aggressive schedules. This year we have two great games coming out, we have also announced that we have another unannounced cross-platform title being worked on. The schedule for our engine team is just as aggressive.

Despite these schedules, in the couple years that I have been here I have still never been told that I have to work more than 40 hours in a week. There are obviously times, like yesterday, when I take it upon myself to stay longer to make sure I get done what needs to be done, but I do it because I take pride in what I am doing and I want our technology and games to be the best they can be. My boss probably didn’t even know that I had stayed substantially later yesterday than normal, though he does now that he has read this. But that’s the point, when you hire people who genuinely want to be doing the work, and give them the respect they deserve, they will put it upon themselves to do the best possible job and meet their deadlines.

One more example of respect that illustrates why I enjoy where I am: A couple weeks ago we had our company meeting. During the meeting our CEO, Ted Price, was talking about an upcomming game and I had a question about the publishing details for that game. I don’t work with publishers, and really have no reason to ask, but I did so out of curiosity and because I like to know where the company is going. Ted answered my question with a fairly short answer, but it seemed reasonable so I accepted it and went on my way. The next day Ted stopped by my desk and told me that while the answer he gave was correct, it was the short version and there was more to the long version, so he had stopped by to let me know the long answer to the question I asked. Again, I was more than satisfied with the answer that had been given in the meeting, but the simple act of taking a couple minutes out of his, very busy, day to make sure I had the full answer made me feel like I am not just a commodity to be used.

I know that no job will ever be perfect. There are people who have been fired or quit from Insomniac who I’m sure have negative things to say about working here. However I think as a whole the industry is trying to move in the right direction. It seems like more studios are recognizing the need to make their schedules account for the personal lives of their employees, and I don’t see my wife creating a blog asking for her husband back any time soon.

I would be interested in hearing from others, especially veterans, have you seen the work/life balance change, for better or worse, in recent years?