[This feature was published in the February 2014 edition of Develop magazine, which is available through your browser and on iPad]
While people may disagree whether ‘crunch’ is a necessary evil or something that should never happen, the assumption is usually that it’s in the aid of creating a great game in the end.
This hasn’t always been the case in my experience though, and the recent insights on Deadpool’s troubled development from a former High Moon Studios employee brought to mind that feeling of being forced to give up your life for something that was never going to be critically acclaimed or set the charts on fire. The case of Deadpool seems particularly heart-breaking as I would genuinely have loved to see it become a great game. There’s perhaps nothing worse than working overtime on a game that you don’t believe in at all.
I probably shouldn’t complain too much as I’ve heard much worse horror stories than this. Thankfully, I’d say that I haven’t had too many experiences like that and I consider myself pretty lucky to have worked on a game that I truly thought could be great. I might have promised myself that I was never going to work crazy hours again and while I still probably worked less overtime than others on that project, that belief still made a difference to how those late nights felt. Of course, it wasn’t perfect and the end result might not have been quite what was expected, but I can’t bring myself to look back on that time negatively because we were always aiming high.
Even so, I have always considered my own quality of life pretty highly after that, especially as I’ve moved in the direction of starting my own family. I’ve had a break from the games industry in a closely related field but found myself drawn back eventually. My current role feels different again from my previous work, with a strong focus on there being no forced overtime at all and flexible working hours.
It perhaps doesn’t always feel as ‘glamorous’ as other aspects of games though – I’ve gradually realised that I’m the kind of person who’s quite happy to be part of a collaborative work and help others to create the best game possible, even if what I’ve done might not be obviously visible. It sometimes feels like everyone in the games industry wants to ‘go indie’. And while I think everyone has ideas for games that we’d like to work on, I’ve never been the kind of person who thought I could quite happily quit my job tomorrow just to go and make them.
That’s not to say that I haven’t worked on anything that would see the light of day. Partnering with Epic has led to me working on Gears of War: Judgment, easily the biggest game I’ve ever been part of. Specifically looking at bug fixing proved to be a nice change of pace – you have to act more like a detective than a developer – but without the late nights and takeaway pizza that normally accompanies it. Others have had the opportunity to work on very interesting areas of technology and even fly out to collaborate in person.
Working outside of the games industry has perhaps also prepared me for a more structured approach of working for a client or as a contractor. Outside of games it felt like the old adage of ‘the customer is always right’ applied quite a lot, in terms of being restricted to exactly what the client wanted, whereas in games I felt more free to creatively come up with the best solution. My role now seems somewhere in the middle of that, where your ability to think for yourself and be creative in solving problems is valued as part of set tasks.
I’m not sure whether my experience of wanting to return to the games is a growing phenomenon. I always remember being told stories of those that had burned out and left games never to return – sometimes with a spectacular meltdown involved – but I would like to think that this is becoming less common.
I hope that people are becoming aware of the fact that they can work within the industry they love and still have a good quality of life. It’s likely there will always be blips, either in terms of a rough period where work vitally needs to be completed or studios that do not appreciate their staff, but I would hope that we would gradually see less of the latter.
There will always be an element of the unknown in any creative project but we have already moved forward a huge amount in terms of planning and scheduling, when you consider the beginnings of games. And I think we are already reaching a point where costs for triple-A games are so high that you can’t afford to wing it and keep throwing money at any problems caused by excessive overtime. Working in games will never become an easy job but we can always aim for it to be rewarding and worthwhile.
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