LucasArts’ eulogy reminds us of the inhuman cost of game development
Former LucasArts composer Jesse Harlin has written a eulogy for the company, and the words have been matched with a series of images taken of employees on what was reported to be their last day of work. The eulogy is moving, and it provides a look into a group of people who are passionate about what they did, but a few lines stand out as stark reminders of how much you give up to work in this industry.
“In the trenches of game design, work was hard. Crippling crunches that lasted for months aged us and tested our sanity. Sometimes executives presented us with projects, development partners, or deadlines that were impossible,” Harlin wrote. “But giving all of yourself creatively never stopped. Ever. Marriages failed as we poured our hearts into games that the press might eventually skewer. Pregnancies were delayed in favor of project milestones. Funerals were missed.”
There are many good things written about the company and the work environment, but I wanted to pull that section out to think about the monstrosity of modern game development. Let's not romanticize this is any way; when we die, it is not likely we are going to look back at the work we did on a cancelled Boba Fett game with satisfaction. We are much more likely to regret our lack of final respects to our friends or family members.
If the cost of a fun game is a failed marriage, then it may be time to admit that the cost is too high. We all manage the timing of our children around our jobs to some extent, but putting off having children because you're in the middle of crunch is hard to justify.
The people in these images and talked about in this eulogy are artists, but what are they left with in return for those sacrifices? The legacy that LucasArts left gaming is decades old, and involves adventure games and X-Wing titles. The biggest news from the company has lately been which games had been cancelled, not which games were released.
The merger between Disney and Lucasfilm made sense from a business perspective, but stories and images like this show the human side of the games we play. These people, in many ways, gave up their lives for the company, and their reward is the closure of LucasArts because it doesn't make sense for Disney to keep the company alive.
Better personal lives will lead to better games
The cost of our games, including the 18 hour work days, the ruined relationships, and the isolation from friends and family, is incredibly high. Reporters joke with each other whenever we tour a studio and see the free coffee, the cafeteria, the movie theaters, and the showers; the nicer a corporate office looks, and the more features it offers employees, the less likely it is that you'll ever leave the premises for things as mundane as a well-rounded personal life. That expensive coffee machine and climbing wall isn't a free perk, it's the payment for when you're asked to skip that funeral or work through the weekend.
I've talked to too many people in this industry to wonder why so many of our games feel adolescent; many of the artists who make the games are given a job, they begin to live at the studio, the hours grow long, they cease to grow as human beings, and they're stuck with the same influences, passions, and sense of humor they had as a teenager. This may not have happened at LucasArts, as the men and women in these images may have paid the cost gladly or had a richer home life than is hinted at in the euology, but it's a problem in modern, AAA game development.
The best thing we can do to ensure high-quality, diverse games is to create a system where the people who make these games can take a day off to go to a museum. Where they can take their spouse to dinner on their anniversary, or watch their children's play or musical performance at their school. Where they can have a life outside of the office, and become actual adults with functional relationships that don't involve space marines and lightsabers. You shouldn't have to give these things up to create video games, and we shouldn't romanticize these realities when a studio closes.