Why your games are made by childless, 31 year old white men, and how one studio is fighting back
Guillaume Boucher-Vidal is worried about game development. He worked on quality assurance at Activision for three years, and founded the studio Nine Dots to not only create good games, but to try to fight the idea that you have to give your life to your studio if you hope to make games. The six-person team is working on the upcoming title GoD Factory: Wingmen, which I had the opportunity to check out at PAX East, and the game looks promising. I've embedded a trailer below.
The problem is that trying to create an environment where developers can take a day off here and there is harder than he assumed. The system is set up to support, reward, and expect long working hours, and Boucher-Vidal is beginning to feel the pressure that leads to unhealthy working environments.
Expectations of insanity
“Did you know if you don't claim to work 80 hours a week, potential investors will probably shun you? You don't even get the respect from some of your peers in game development who think that not working crazy hours is ‘lazy,’” he explained. “Those are the people who put pressures onto others to work more hours. The same people who will please their leads most and go up the ladder eventually, to feed this vicious cycle of immaturity. You are correct about developers being stunted teenagers. I've worked with them long enough to admit that.”
I’d like to take a step back here, because my comments about the development cycle leading to immaturity has led to some heated e-mails. Not every developer is immature, and we know that many studios are making great games. The problem is that working long hours, giving everything to the studio, and being stuck in that singular environment can impair anyone’s growth as a person, no matter the industry.
That’s only part of the issue, however. Working those hours, and being stuck in that environment is only attractive for a very short time, and Boucher-Vidal claimed that the average life-span of someone in the game industry is around 5 years. “The real problem however is not that they are immature when they get in, but that too often they get out once they reach maturity,” he said.
It’s an amazing statement. Game development becomes much less attractive once men and women get to the age where they want to get married, start a family, think the big thoughts about their life and where it’s going. We need to ditch the romantic idea that your best work is done when you’re in your 20s and willing to give everything to the project; men and women in their 30s and 40s are creatively fertile and thoughtful in a way that only comes with age and experience. That’s also the age people are less likely to be satisfied with the lifestyle of a full-time developer, and the industry chases them out.
Ironically, in starting a video game studio to fight these issues and prove that games can be made with sane schedules, Boucher-Vidal has had to put off getting married and starting a family. “Luckily, my girlfriend is incredibly supportive,” he said.
You better be young, hungry, and childless
Since developers can put pressure on themselves and each other to work long hours, is there ever even a consensus that this a problem?
“I'd say the stance of most people is that yes it sucks, yes it's a problem, but that there is nothing you can do to help it, that it's a necessary evil to make good games,” he told the Report. “The worst part being that they will do it even for bad games, which invalidates this excuse in most cases,” he said.
This atmosphere is killing the talent pool, and when an entire industry is hospitable to people willing to give up their personal life to make games, it’s no surprise that the games being released can feel so homogenous.
“I think that the real issue is that those who actually want it to be this way, and they do exist, are chasing away some very talented developers who would want a more balanced life,” Boucher-Vidal said.
I spoke with industry veteran Keith Fuller to ask about these issues. Fuller spent 12 years at Raven Software before becoming a consultant specializing in video game production, and we've often had conversations about quality of life for game developers. I asked him about talent being driven out of the industry due to working conditions.
Your average industry professional is a 31 year old white man with one to three years of experience, and no children. This man will likely leave the industry in under ten years, and another young, childless white man will take his place
“I worked with an incredibly passionate and bright gameplay programmer who went from one volatile AAA studio to a second before leaving the industry just ahead of a new round of layoffs,” Fuller told the Report. “He's now working fewer hours, making more money, and is in a much more stable industry. With a wife and recent addition to the family he said he just couldn't subject them to the capricious instability of employment in games anymore.”
A short life span in the industry is common. “The benefits of experience are downplayed when it comes to how a company is managed, but then again the big studios are always ready to pay premium salaries for the very few veterans that they can grab,” Boucher-Vidal said. “Game developers leave the industry after five years on average, so they really should think of building a work environment that make your people stay and ‘make’ veterans themselves instead of always going for the short term solution of ‘stealing’ a veteran from another studio by offering him a bigger salary.”
Things get fuzzy when I asked for a source on the five year average of industry professionals, but a 2009 quality of life survey from the IGDA showed that 80 percent of respondents had been in the industry for 10 years or less, with the most common level of experience being one to three years in the industry. 71 percent of men were childless, with a stunning 79 percent of women being childless.
Your average industry professional is a 31 year old white man (86 percent of the respondents were male, 82 percent were white) with one to three years of experience, and no children. This man will likely leave the industry in under ten years, and another young, childless white man will take his place. Turnover is high, experience is low. This is the hidden cost of our favorite art form.
How to fight back
Nine Dots is fighting these trends in some unique ways. While the idea of a shorter work week and days off may sound good to most of us, it’s still easy to find talented 20-something developers who are filled with piss and vinegar and want to work long hours to make the game better. It’s an interesting problem to have, but the downside to letting them work is that now others may feel like they're expected to exhibit the same behavior, or they could be made to feel lazy for leaving work after “only” ten hours.
Nine Dots had a novel idea: They just send those employees home to work on their own projects. If you still want to make a game after working at the studio for a day, well then go home and make another game!
“They develop expertise and there is a lot of that experience that can be transferred back in our studio,” Boucher-Vidal stated. “It's also way more satisfying to vary from a project to another than always staying on the same thing for a long time. So it can be refreshing to work more, in a sense, if you participate in more than one big project.”
This is a strategy that wouldn’t work at most studios, where employees are asked to sign away the rights to their personal projects. Many companies want to own your work even when you’re off the clock. “Here at Nine Dots, we aren't using any non-concurrence agreements, so these personal projects can actually benefit them financially if they make something that is commercially viable,” Boucher-Vidal said.
Keep in mind the creator of Spaceteam left BioWare to create new games because EA owned any game he created. The loss of talent due to these policies is very real, and working on multiple projects allows designers and artists to grow and evolve.
The world won't be changed overnight
Nine Dots needs to release a successful game to prove its point; their last game made $6,000 in sales and gathered $16,000 in crowd-funding. At the moment, Boucher-Vidal is working long hours, wearing many hats, and taking part in the system he wants to shut down. Until the studio is profitable there won't be much money to go around, and any failure will be seen as more evidence that change to the status quo is dangerous.
“I think that they won't believe it until they see it, or until they want to believe it because they are starting to be exhausted. The game being made must be ambitious in nature however, it can't be a one-button mobile app for instance,” he told the Report. “I think that the key is to be commercially successful without crunch. Then the word can start spreading around that you can make a profit without sucking the life out of your developers, and thus you lose any good reason to do so.”
They're not there yet, but the message is important, and more studios need to help balance quality of life with releasing successful games. Until there is evidence that other models will work, and that's going to take a hit game or two, very little with change, and the revolving door of young, white, childless men will continue to make our games.