Special report: THQ addresses dev tensions as worker says schedule has pushed team to the limit

Exhausted insider exposes crunch at Kaos

An embittered and exhausted individual at Homefront developer Kaos has broken silence on the relentless crunch work that, he says, has been underway at the studio for around half a year.

An inside source from the New York-based Kaos said the studio been working on daily ten-hour schedules for “six months”, with the group’s owner THQ determined to release Homefront before the fiscal year-end.

If the studio did not meet certain bug-fix targets, some people “would have to come in one weekend day as well”, the source revealed.

The individual, speaking on the condition of anonymity, confirmed that other staff “are now in a 7-day-a-week crunch”, and alleged that “over the holiday many of us were on call and unable to leave to see our family”.

And in a brave act of transparency hardly ever seen by games publishers, THQ has allowed Develop to speak to Kaos general manager, David Votypka, to discuss the accusations openly.

[The full spread of accusations from the Kaos insider can be found here, and Votypka’s response to each can be found here.]

Votypka corroborated all of the source’s allegations in some capacity, though strongly denied that holiday work had been enforced by studio management or THQ.

‘Not shocking’

Votypka confirmed to Develop that the entire studio has been on ten-hour daily work schedules, for the last six months, because the Kaos team “needed to increase our velocity heading into our final Alpha and Beta phases”.

“If this seems unique or abhorrent, I would have to suggest that any assessment regarding a 10-hour work day would need to consider a much larger segment of the American workforce,” Votypka added.

“Digital media companies, marketers, PR, even accountants in various industries throughout the nation, work 10 hour days regularly, 52 weeks per year.”

Moving to the issue of Kaos staff allegedly having to meet bug-fixing targets to avoid coming in on weekends, Votypka said:

“On many games, and other digital media software projects, when the bug counts start rolling in, a blanket overtime policy is put in place. That type of practice isn’t particularly developer friendly.

“At Kaos, feedback from the team was that they wanted to maintain a level of control over their work schedule, so the policy we ended up using was goal based.”

Votypka went on to detail the process in which targets have to be met in order to avoid overtime. The finer details can be found here.

He said: “I don’t mind sharing [the schedule] because it is much more developer friendly than most, or possibly any, that I’ve seen in over ten years of making games.”

Homefront, set to be published by THQ worldwide from March 8th, will be the packaged result of a three year journey at Kaos.

In a rallying call for his team to emerge triumphant from their arduous final weeks, Votypka said: “All of a team’s work over the lifetime of a project can either be validated, or invalidated, by the outcome of the final beta phase”.

He said that the ten-hour crunch period had made up “less than 20 per cent” of the total project time, and that the team had been working regular hours for around two and a half years prior.

‘Thousand-yard stare’

Votypka confirmed that around one-third of Kaos’ 200-person workforce is now at the office seven days a week, though added that “this has only been the case for the last two to three weeks leading into our final submission”.

He said: “Unfortunately, it was misstated that this [seven-day crunch] has been going on for two months. That’s simply not the case. For the record: no Kaos developer has worked 60 days without a break. That will never happen here.”

Votypka was responding to media reports arising from a comment made by THQ president of Core Games, Danny Bilson.

Last week Bilson wrote on his Twitter account:

“At Kaos studios in NY sitting with a team that’s finaling on 7 day weeks for a couple of months. Talk about that ‘thousand yard stare’”.

The comment has been criticised by key figures within the games industry and press.

Epic Games design director Cliff Bleszinski described such overtime schemes as “unhealthy”.

News site Kotaku ran with an article entitled “Employee, Soldier, or Hostage?”

Develop’s source said: “People at Kaos do not want to hear THQ publicly say things that glorify crunch time”.

Votypka responded that “delivering a great game is the best outcome, from a career perspective, for any dev team, and the team here has shown great passion and commitment to delivering a really great game with Homefront”.

He said “it would be unjust not to communicate that Danny [Bilson] has been our most staunch supporter from the outset. He personally brought on talent to the game such as John Milius, and THQ has been fully supportive in giving us additional time and resources to deliver a ground-breaking, AAA experience.”

Develop’s source, who has been confirmed as an employee at the studio, said “a lot of people at Kaos resent crunch time in any form. The longer crunch goes on the more bad will gets built up.”

Christmas call

The only allegation which Votypka flatly denied was that staff had been forced to work over the holiday season.

He did not directly address whether some staff, nevertheless, had to come into the office during this time.

“No staff was asked to work over Thanksgiving or Christmas, and they never would be. Three days off for Thanksgiving were given, and 3-4 days for Christmas,” he said.

He went on to say that Kaos’ management team “worked with a handful of individuals on unique circumstances for their situation and workload surrounding those dates”.

Votypka suggested that staff had to work between Christmas and New Years, yet THQ said "the majority staff were actually able to take a week and a half off" across the Christmas period.

Votypka added: “Generally THQ gives that time off, but it is discretionary based on project needs, and part of the team was needed to work several of those days."

Mistakes made

Develop’s source believed that better schedule planning would have limited the levels of crunch the Kaos team is now subjected to.

“Most people at Kaos think that we as a studio should have managed our time and schedule better. The management team shouldn’t have put us on a schedule that would have led to this kind of crunch,” the person said.

“Kaos probably had enough time to make the game, but lack of early resources and over-committing on the project led to this situation more than not having the proper length of time.”

It was alleged that “some people have negative feelings because they are forced to stay late for support even if they are finished with all or most of their tasks”.

“In some cases if part of the team was behind, everyone had to stay late or work one weekend day. Management seems to be inconsistent about this though because sometimes we do not have to come in on the weekend when others are behind.”

Votypka had not been given the chance to respond to the comment.

The insider added: “Most of all, I think people just want to feel that their time and hard work is appreciated.”

One last push

The Kaos team’s remaining hours and workload “is based on the remaining bug counts, and ensuring we get through those counts so the game delivers on its great potential”, Votypka said.

He also claimed that the studio “will manage this last push closely with the staff on a case-by-case basis, and if anyone feels they are nearing their limits, they should communicate this and Kaos management will find a way to let them re-energise”.

“The goal here is always to balance the challenges of remaining developer friendly, hitting our milestones, and maintaining the high quality project goals we all uphold at this studio.”

He also revealed that bonuses and time off will be awarded to all staff after the game ships, and that the bonuses are “scaled to reward extra effort put in”.

Develop’s source claimed, however, that “many people at Kaos are unhappy about the crunch mainly because they assume there will be not be a good reward for it”.

“THQ does have a bonus program but most people feel that it will not reward the team enough. People assume the way the bonus works it will not fairly reward those that put in the extra time and effort.”

Votypka concluded: “This is a passionate team that’s giving their all to a product that they will all be very proud to have on their resumes, that will benefit their careers, for many years to come.”

[Is your studio demanding too much from you? Do you think that the issue of crunch is overblown? Speak to Develop, either on the record or in confidence, by emailing rob.crossley@intentmedia.co.uk]

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