Game Studios 'Waking Up' to Problems with Crunch, says IGDA boss

IGDA Executive Director, Jen MacLean: 'Asking people to work hours that are fundamentally harmful to their health [is] not a good practice.'

Jen MacLean, executive director of the International Game Developer Association (IGDA), is a passionate advocate for diversity, inclusivity, and representation… and not just in the way that one would expect her to be. She sees a future where studios work with their teams to create balance, embrace change, and “make great games” together. Part of how she envisions these pieces of the industry melding together is in building leadership skills.

I spoke with MacLean in advance of the IGDA Leadership Summit taking place in Austin,Texas from September 13-14. GameDaily is a media partner of the event.

“The IGDA has held leadership summits off and on for more than 10 years now. At the end of the day, the leadership summit is core to the IGDA's mission, which is to help developers have sustainable and fulfilling careers,” MacLean began. “As an industry, we don't provide a lot of the training that we could or should for our talent. The leadership summit is really designed to help people who want to build better teams or better companies with our management excellence track, but also people who want to develop their own leadership skills with our personal leadership track.”

Leadership skills encompass a myriad of values and behaviors, including emotional intelligence, project management (delegation, in particular), grit, and positivity. The summit hosts two tracks of leadership learning, including “Management Excellence” and “Professional Leadership.” Speakers include Trion Worlds CEO, Scott Hartsman, former Hearthstone executive, Hamilton Chu, and co-owner of Certain Affinity, Mojdeh Gharbi, among a number of other respected industry leaders.

“We believe that anyone can and should be a leader,” MacLean continued.

“The idea with these two tracks is that we're giving you really a very broad range of knowledge — from people like Scott Hartsman and Emily Greer, who are CEOs, to people who are new to management — so that they can share their insights and learnings and help everyone who attends not only build more sustainable careers for themselves, but also help do that for the industry and for their specific teams.”

The two-day conference isn’t necessarily for managers who want to hone their abilities or the current leadership at big triple-A studios. MacLean stressed that the IGDA Leadership Summit is for leaders of all kinds, including those that may not have an official management role in their day-to-day… yet. The event also has a session that helps those that have been recently transitioned to a management position without much training (or may be in that position soon).

MacLean’s perspective on the lack of training in management is that “you do your job really well as an individual contributor and you get promoted to managing other people. Then you generally aren't given any information or training or help or support about what being a good manager involves.

“Often, people expect you to manage people and do the same job you were doing as an individual contributor, so you've just been handed another job with no help and support in how to do it.

“It really helps give people concrete information on the differences between an individual contributor and a manager, how the way you use your time can and should change, and also the way that you have to approach problems differently. All of these things are really important in being a great manager, and the best managers make their teams so much better.

“We know that leaders, even if they're not formal managers, leaders make such a difference in the performance of their teams. One of the other things we did with the leadership summit is we deliberately priced it as low as we possibly could to reduce barriers to entry. Our ticket price is really as low as we could possibly go. We did that because we wanted to not only bring in people who are working at larger companies, but also at smaller companies. We want to recognize that when we are asking you to give us two days of time, two days of energy, and two days of emotional engagement, we need to deliver something back to you.”

The IGDA can sometimes come across as monolithic, as maybe only for the “big guys” in the industry who can afford the studio affiliate memberships. But as the times have shifted towards the AA, mid-sized, and the triple-I quality microstudios, the IGDA has had to “refocus” to make membership “more helpful and attractive to small, independent studios.”

“At the end of the day, helping that five-person studio become a 50-person studio, become maybe even a 500-person studio if they want to do that — that's how we grow our industry,” MacLean said, firmly. “That's how we make a concrete difference in game developers' lives.”

Too many indie developers, especially those that got started before the indie scene exploded like it has, have treated game development like a passion and a hobby, rather than as a business of its own. There haven’t been resources for indie developers to really dig into. But now that the IGDA is paying attention to the smaller studios, it’s not as lonely a road.

“The hope there is really to help anyone who is either considering being an indie or in their own independent studio journey to have someone that they can hear from and say, ‘Okay, now I have a better understanding of the challenges I'm going to face,’” MacLean noted. “‘Now I know the questions that I need to be asking, the things I need to plan for. My odds of success are increased, and I feel like I'm better prepared for this amazing, crazy, wild adventure I'm about to face.’”

In that same vein, MacLean doesn’t think that we “talk enough about burnout in [indie] studios and about the sacrifices a lot of indies make.” For some studios, it’s a big trade-off: how much game do you get for the price of your physical, mental, or emotional health? For others, like We Are Fuzzy (Sleep Tight), it’s a deliberate set of actions that move the studio towards work-life balance. Roger Mendoza, co-founder of Nomada Studios (the studio behind artistic masterpiece, Gris), said it best: “[The stress] is much worse, but I'm much happier now, to be honest.”

In addition to burnout (and the toll that game development takes on a person’s health if they’re not careful), there’s the ever-present problem of crunch. It looks very different if you’re a small (or micro) studio versus when you’re working at a huge studio. MacLean emphasized the importance of recognizing culture fit before saying yes to a gig, no matter how prestigious it may seem.

“When we think about something like crunch, if you are interviewing for a job at Rockstar, you know what you're getting into in terms of crunch,” she said. “You can have a lot of discussion about whether or not their philosophy is healthy or whether it's right for them or the game, but at the end of the day, you know what you're signing up for.

“On the other hand, if you are interviewing with a company and you say, ‘Look, I'm a working parent. It's really important to me that I be able to leave at 5 PM every day,’ and your interviewer says, ‘Yes, of course. We are totally supportive of that,’ and then you start getting pressure to stay late… that's not okay. That is really fundamentally dishonest. That gets back to, when it comes to experience and expectations, having everybody and all of the dialogue talk really honestly about their experience and their expectations.”

Part of the problem with crunch is in its nebulous definition and how it changes from one studio to another. One studio may consider working past 7pm and on weekends as crunch (and therefore unacceptable). Another may consider crunch a valuable asset for the development process and will work its developers and creatives into the ground for the sake of the project. There’s the middle ground somewhere in there, too, where sometimes crunch is necessary in emergency situations.

MacLean, a 26-year veteran of the industry, was of two minds: it’s bad, but change comes slowly.

“Crunch is such an interesting topic because when you look at the science, it's obvious it doesn't work,” MacLean began. “When you look at the anecdotes, it's obvious that it doesn't work. But we still see people who believe in crunch and who advocate for it, which is extraordinarily surprising to me.

“Saying to somebody, ‘It doesn't matter if you've done all of the tasks in your sprint. You have to work 70 hours this week and at least one day on the weekend, no matter what’ — that's not a way to run a sustainable team. It's not a way to value your talent, and I don't believe that it is the best way to get the best work possible out of your talent.

“What has been interesting to me is seeing the way people have evolved in their approach to crunch, particularly as they have had other commitments outside of work and also as they have become more experienced. At the same time, that doesn't always happen. You can't force everybody to mature in their perspective about work and the work-life trade-off.”

Source: Unsplash
Source: Unsplash

Indies may face a significant amount of burnout, in addition to assuming a lot of risk, but they do have quite a bit of wiggle room to define what their culture looks like, if they make the right choices (and have the right conversations with the people that they work with). Unfortunately, indie studios, triple-A, and mid-tier studios are facing the same kinds of problems when it comes to social media, akin to what ArenaNet bungled in early July. It all comes down to having uncomfortable conversations and setting expectations before it’s necessary to exercise those expectations. Developers must think ahead and be proactive; don’t rely on handshake deals or airy promises.

“I think it's really important that we have [these conversations], because we will not see game developers' lives improve unless we have really honest and really difficult conversations about the changes that need to be made,” MacLean commented. “One of the first things that I always advocate for is: make sure you get everything in writing. When you look at some of the things that have happened recently over the last year in game development — people not being paid minimum wage, people being fired for violations of a policy they weren't aware of — a lot of that goes back to getting it in writing and making sure that the expectations of what you are going to do and how you're going to be compensated for it is very clearly understood.

“As a manager, and this is one of the lessons of the leadership summit, you have no business being angry at your employee if they're not meeting your expectations if you've never made your expectations clear.”

It isn’t just up to the employee or team member to get expectations set out in writing, either. “Companies have an absolute obligation to make sure their expectations are well-known and well-understood by their employees,” MacLean said. “If you don't do that, then you are failing in your responsibility to your game development team.”

It’s also important to get a good understanding of a studio’s culture before you settle into it, which may be a no-brainer to the veterans in the industry, but if a person is looking for a specific kind of development environment to work in (specifically somewhere diverse and inclusive), they need to initiate the conversation about it.

“Ask for numbers before you join the studio,” MacLean said. “Tell me how many people of color you employ. Tell me how many women you employ. Also let me see who's on your leadership team. I think that is particularly really instructive. If you have 40% women in your company, but your leadership team is 95% male, that's a really big indication that there's a problem there, no matter what people say.”

Asking questions about culture shouldn’t stop there, either. In today’s climate, where studios like Riot and Telltale Games have had a propensity toward toxicity and harassment, it’s hard to know what to do if harassment starts to spin up and becomes part of one’s day-to-day at a studio. MacLean was adamant: “Understand your rights.” The IGDA couldn’t officially offer any resources, namely because they are a global entity and rights (and laws surrounding harassment in the workplace) are different all around the world.

“The rights that somebody has in, for example, Finland versus Florida or Vietnam versus Victoria [BC, Canada] [are] very, very different,” MacLean stated simply. “For [the IGDA], a lot of our role is helping developers understand their resources, helping developers connect with each other. We cannot be experts on employment laws in over 100 countries around the world. I wish that we could.

“Along those lines, one of the things that we're doing is starting a human resources [special interest group] (SIG), and you might've seen the survey that we recently did. That is in part because we think it's really important for all employees, not just HR employees, to understand what to do when they're a victim of harassment. Understand where to go to find out more about your rights. Understand how to bring the harassment complaint up, especially in smaller companies where you might not have a dedicated HR person and the person you would normally go to is the person who's harassing you.”

Ultimately, MacLean knows that the industry’s drive always comes down to making great games, even though studios may disagree on what “great” is or even how to get there. But what’s apparent is that if studios continue to glorify crunch and force their employees into burnout (temporary or permanent), they’ll move into other industries, where they’re not forced to work 70-hour work-weeks.

“At the end of the day, we all want to make great games,” MacLean said.

“Asking people to work hours that are fundamentally harmful to their health, to their emotional health, to their physical health, even to their financial health and their family health, that's not a good practice. It's not something that is frankly sustainable in the long run.

“I think you also see this particularly with engineering. A lot of game development engineers are leaving for positions with companies like Google and Facebook and Apple, Amazon, because they get paid much better and they work far fewer hours. To me, what I've seen in talking with a lot of studios is that they are starting to wake up to that. That is starting to be one of the drivers of implementing more reasonable working hours, which of course carry over for everybody.”

Managing Editor

Amanda has been meandering around the game journosphere since 2010, mostly covering indie games, culture, and industry news. These days, she talks about the business of making games through a critical cultural lens. She adores RPGs, weird narrative indie games, and strategy games that take forever to learn. Amanda is also the managing editor of SuperParent. You can find her on Twitter as @AmandaFarough or you can email her at amanda.farough@gamedaily.biz.