We Asked Nintendo, Microsoft, and 12 Other Devs How They Deal With Crunch
Some didn't want to talk about it, others praised governments with pro-labor laws, and most were somewhere in-between.
Jul 9 2018, 4:58pm
Image courtesy of the ESA
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How is Nintendo committed—and what are you doing now to—to ensure that there is good work-life balance and fair conditions across first party title development, your executive level, your support roles, the stuff happening at Nintendo, and hopefully even at close partners? How are you combating an industry wide relationship to crunch that can often be deeply unhealthy.
E3 is a huge event, and it’s one of the rare opportunities where you’re given direct access to the creative talent behind a variety of games. Game publishers hold individual marketing events for their tentpole releases—a preview event here, a review event there— but E3 puts everyone under the same roof. There’s a chance to have a broad reading of the industry. We wanted to take advantage of this opportunity, so in nearly every one-on-one interview we scheduled, we asked the developers sitting in front of us about a constant refrain at Waypoint: labor practices.
Waypoint has written about labor numerous times before—here, here, here, here. While an ongoing dialogue in some circles is a welcome change, it’s a far cry from actual change. See: the unceremonious firing of two ArenaNet employees last week.
You only have a few minutes with a developer at E3, and with rare exceptions, interviews are only 10 or 15 minutes long. By the time you’ve exchanged pleasantries, set up recording equipment, and tried to establish a flow with the person you’re interviewing, there’s not much time to have a meaningful back and forth. But given how little space subjects like unionization and crunch are given at a place like E3—gaming’s biggest stage every year—it seemed worth having everyone, at least, on the record.
That way, we can hold them accountable in the future.
What follows are 14 different interviews with members of the video game industry who run the gamut, from the head executive at Nintendo of America to a developer from a team with only a few people. Some people tried to sidestep the question, while others tackled it head-on. This is meant to be part of an ongoing dialogue regarding the way we, as a culture and medium, talk about how the people who build the games we love are treated. The status quo isn’t acceptable.
(Note: Waypoint took more than 14 meetings at E3, but the moments where we brought up labor were instances in which a real conversation could happen. It didn’t happen at every meeting.)
Reggie Fils-Aimé, president and CEO at Nintendo of America
How is Nintendo committed—and what are you doing now to—to ensure that there is good work-life balance and fair conditions across first party title development, your executive level, your support roles, the stuff happening at Nintendo, and hopefully even at close partners? How are you combating an industry wide relationship to crunch that can often be deeply unhealthy.
Fils-Aimé: So look, I can only answer this question from Nintendo of America perspective and for us, crunch happens differently. It's not a development crunch, but it could be a bug check crunch. Or it's a crunch in preparing for an event. Or a crunch in preparing a game to pass our lot check process. Our approach is this: We flex through the use of contract employees. We flex in the way we work with our agency partners. Our mentality is we're going to flex by adding headcount as appropriate to help us get over a crunch. That's the way we approach it.
Does that mean bringing on more employees so that work hours don't become extensive?
Fils-Aimé: That's correct.
And you have examples of doing that recently? That's just the normal strategy?
Fils-Aimé: That's is our course of business. That's the way we operate. And so we're not asking people to go for a couple days without sleep. We're not asking people to ignore their family and friends and their social life. We're not asking people to do things that are unhealthy. That is not our approach.
Do you think that there is as Nintendo, as a platform holder, some ability that... You know, Nintendo can't fix the world, I understand that, but as a platform holder, some ability to attempt to address this industry-wide problem?
Fils-Aimé: Well, again, I believe the best way to lead the is through example. And so what we do is reinforce with the way we encourage our business partners to act with the way that we encourage, if you will, the community that we touch.
And it's not only on work life balance. It's issues like diversity and inclusion. You know, with all of those tough conversations our mentality is that we're going to model the behavior that we want seen. So that's why I have a diverse senior management team. That's why as a black man leading a Japanese company, I feel good about the things that we do to deal with higher order issues and to deal with them in a way that models positive behavior.
Raoul Barbet, game director on The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit
A lot of the things we're talking about with a lot of developers has been the idea of labor in the industry, right? Labor practices, unionization, crunch—what the culture is like. I think a lot of developers talk about feeling pressured to crunch, or feeling pressured to have their passion be exploited sometimes. We're asking a lot of folks about their feelings on that, their feelings on finding a healthy balance between making amazing games and being passionate and having so much excitement for your games, but also having a life and being able to sustain yourself.
Barbet: I think I will talk about my team, so the team of Life Is Strange. As you know, Dontnod has several projects, so I will only talk about the Life Is Strange team. I think [pause] the problem with our industry is that we've got a lot of people who are very passionate, so you can always find someone who want to work for free for you, and if not, you will say "There are hundreds people like you who want to come to my team." So it's easy to profit from that, and to use that too much. I really think we never have something good from someone who spends nights at work, and I think inspiration comes a lot by your other life out of the game industry and game development, so it's really important to have time in your life for friends, family, or whatever.
It's easy to say that, but...I think you can very easily—even people who are working on the team are really dedicated and they want to create the best game they want, so sometimes will stay.
Is that something where maybe you, as a creative lead, have to step in and manage people? Realize people might stay here, but sometimes you need to tell people, "Hey, we can do it on Monday."
Barbet: Yeah, yeah. Maybe it's it's not there, but to spend a good weekend is better. I'm quite lucky because our team, we haven't crunched so much. Life Is Strange 1 was difficult but every game is difficult to create. Every movie, every comic. It's always difficult. This is one of the projects I'm most proud of, and I think the team was happy to do it. All the things you talked about in the industry is a problem because of all the reasons I've told. You've got a lot of passionate people, so it's easy to abuse.
It's a tough balance. One of the reasons we're asking is getting people to recognize it, and one of the things you did here was acknowledge this is a problem we have to talk about and think about. That's the first step. There's no easy solutions to it.
Barbet: For sure, I think it is possible to create games without crunch, and a lot of people say no. [laughs] So I say yes.
Matt Booty, head of Microsoft Studios
Right now there's a lot going on, a lot of conversation around labor in games, lots of conversation around crunch. Game Workers United at GDC made a big splash. We're just curious, how do you address issues like crunch and work-life balance at Xbox, at Microsoft Game Studios. Like specifically for your company, how do you think about improving that as you move from project to project? If you could offer some insight into, like, people are passionate about games but also they have lives, they have families...
Booty: You know I'd love to sit down and kinda get into like, top to bottom, how we think about our studios. I'll just say, in the interest of time, that's one of the big advantages of being part of Microsoft. There's a huge cultural focus at our company on work-life balance. Our CEO has got this amazing thing he says: "Really, the company is there to work for you, not for you to work for the company." He wants your job to be in service of moving your life forward.
And that's really how I like to come in and lead the studios. We want our game teams, we want the folks working on our game teams to be thinking about how is this personal to them, and how are they moving themselves forward and their careers forward. Back to the studios with games we announced today, it's like, what are the studios that are run by dedicated leaders who takes those things seriously. That's one of our criteria.
Adrian Ciszewski, creative director on Dying Light 2
We've been asking a similar question to everyone we speak to this year. It's been a very big year in the game's industry for talking about labor, for talking about crunch, for Game Workers Unite. We're just curious, at your studio, how do you make sure there's good work-life balance, how do you make sure you're handling issues like that? And what's the experience been like for you over the course of your history as a game developer?
Ciszewski: Well, my experience is kinda obvious. In the game industry, it's really hard to avoid crunch. And in my perspective, it's not the problem of bad planning at all. Sometimes, of course, people do some bad planning, and we need to do the work all over again, and therefore they crunch. But the problem is that people... Crunching in our company is actually something that all of the workers think that they need to do right now, because they want to have their work look better, you know? There always can be improvements made, so it's more about that.
And I think that crunch isn't bad if it's occasionally during the production, like if there's a huge milestone. We had this created this demo [early] actually, because we've kind of advanced in the things we do in production and this system and stuff. We've done it in like two or three weeks or something. So it wasn't a big, whole year thing. I know some other companies will spend one year on a demo.
And this [demo] was, no fakes, that's Dying Light 2. Over two weeks, we did certain improvements in term of the quality of graphics. For obvious reasons, we're not that far into development in terms of [visual] quality, so we've done certain new assets, but systematically-wise, that was [Dying Light 2].
And if it's something like that, there is a punctuation. Like, at the end of the day, there is a reward—like, bam, I did it! So if there's something like E3 or a huge milestone, like a release date very soon, yeah, we should kind of think there will be a crunch, because it's really hard to avoid. It [the game] always can be done better, so that people really like it.
And in Techland, we help people to have great work-life balance. For example, they can bring kids, we have a daycare, those kinds of things. You know, we're family, it's not a big company like Ubisoft or Activision. So we all know each other and help each other. You know, there are people who go into work very late because they have problems at home to resolve, because first thing first: Family is always the first thing. So no one will kill you because you have a problem at home, your daughter is sick, it's not like that.
But still, I think the crunching for companies that crunch for three months, four months, without weekends. That's nonsense. That means they actually did something wrong when planning.
So that sort of crunch you actively work to make sure is not part of your studio's culture?
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Is that just about setting smart milestones and honest expectations?
Yeah, smart milestones.
Is it telling people you could work on this for another 12 hours, but it is good, it's great. move on to the next thing?
Yeah, yeah. But sometimes it's really hard! Sometimes [on the weekends] I drive close to our office, and I see there are cars. And there's no crunch. But they're very creative and very engaged, and so like...Ahhh, can I do something? Then, on Monday everyone will see that the game is looking better. So, it's up to them. It's not that we're forcing them to crunch. They're really engaged with the company, the mission, and the goals.
Andrew Shouldice, designer of Tunic
How big is the team, it's you, it's Kevin Regamey from Powered Up Audio on audio...
Shouldice: Yeah, and Terrence Lee is doing soundtrack.
So you're doing art, programming, combat design...Level design...Character design...
Okay, so I have a follow up, then. One of the things we're doing this year is talking to everyone about the emerging conversation around organization and labor and crunch in games. I'm curious, as a solo developer, how do you manage your OWN time, how do you prevent burnout, how do you make sure that your own work-life balance is maintained--if it is at all?
Shouldice: Right, so. I feel like I am, maybe a little—without bragging—maybe I'm a little bit better at maintaining this balance than other people. Because if it's 9PM and I'm tired, I'll just decide: You know what, I'm gonna be so much better at this tomorrow. And also, I keep maybe obsessively meticulous time logs about how I'm spending time, like on a minute-by-minute basis, which things have received attention and whatnot.
So I try to be careful about doing much crunch. Obviously, for things like putting together a trailer for Xbox, there's gonna be some deadlines and some unexpected stuff. But by having treated myself well before that, hopefully I'm not going to just evaporate into ash when trying to get this game done.
Patrick Mills, quest designer on Cyberpunk 2077
We've been asking this to everyone we speak to E3, and I think it's a question relevant for Cyberpunk, a game that's about class, a genre that's about class. It's about labor. There's lots of conversation inside the space, inside games, about organization, about unionization, about crunch, about work-life balance. We're curious for CD Projekt RED, for your studio, how do you attack those issues? How do you make sure your work-life balance is good? When you have those conversations, how do you implement those things to actually make people's lives better and keep that balance safe?
Mills: There's a big amount of management question there, which I can't answer because I'm not management. Personally, for me, and I think for a lot of the people who work here, it's a matter of continually looking at the situation that we have and work that we have and deciding if we want to keep doing it. It can be a difficult decision to make, but it's a decision that we wind up making again and again.
Is there for ways, as an individual, to make sure you have the resources available, that you're compensated for all that stuff?
Looking back at your own history with crunch, how do you approach that going forward? Sometimes, things are out of your power. And it's so easy to be like "I'll do it, I'll do it, I'll do it, because I love it."
Mills: I will say one great thing about this company is that I genuinely do believe that management cares. Whenever I have needed time off, I've gotten it. That's something I can say about that.
Magnus Nedfors, game director on Rage 2
There's a lot of conversation every couple of years about crunch and the development process and should developers unionize. I'm curious from your perspective, as someone who's made games since the 90s, what's been your experience with crunch, trying to make sure you have a real-life balance, while also being passionate for the project? What's the state of that at Avalanche, especially as you come up on a game that's coming out next year. Certainly you're scheduling out at this point.
Nedfors: I've been doing this for a while now, and it's changed tremendously over the years, and it's all due to the fact that time has gone by. When I started, everybody was young. Nobody had families. Everybody had so much energy.
You could stay up until six in the morning, and it's no big deal.
Nedfors: It's very different back then because everybody [was the same]. There were no old guys like me around. I'm old now. [laughs] I'm 50. So the industry has changed so much over the years, and to the better, I think. There is no point in working 16 hours a day. Of course, you can do it for a couple of days when something super important needs to get done—you can hold up to it. But even 10 or 12 hours a day, the last few hours of that period, you're not effective. You are more effective if you go home, rest, take it easy. [pause] I should listen to this advice myself. [laughs] Take the work out of your brain for a while, relax, do something you find is fun, hang with your family or whatever. Get energy.
Then, you come back the next day and you're full of energy and you can be super effective eight hours a day or whatever the time period. That's what a human being is capable of doing in one day. I really appreciate the new style. It has been around for a while, but we have been growing as an industry. People are getting older. It's not that you get more tired, perhaps, but you get a different perspective.
Life's not forever. You want to spend it doing a lot of different things.
Nedfors: It's been a learning [experience] for me. I've changed from working 16 hour days to normal work days...almost. [laughs] It's a process. But I also have a unique situation compared to many others, where I work with ideas and I work with the team. So I can be working by sitting home and talking with my wife.
In some ways, you can never totally turn it off.
Nedfors: Exactly. It's in my brain.
Are there specific steps Avalanche has taken as a studio to recognize when people are killing themselves? Over the course of E3 when I've talked to different developers about this, I've heard how certain people in management need to find people and say "Hey, this is good enough" or "You can do this on Monday" to stop people from letting the passion take them over.
I think Avalanche is an excellent employer in that sense. They are doing many of the things that you said, like watching out for the employees and saying "Hey, man, you should go home." In the right way. [laughs] They really are trying to help everyone, to have a good work balance towards private life.
[We have a] great HR department that supports everyone in a good way and looks out for injustices and so on—people doing stupid things without thinking about it. Things like, we have one studio in Stockholm and one in North America and there are cultural differences. When people move from one office to another, helping them to understand "Hey, in this nation, it works like this." It's like, it can be anything. We Swedes are relatively okay with English, but sometimes, you can use words that are offensive to American people just because we have learned them in the wrong way. Stuff like that. They're great at taking care of that.
It's intriguing to see how they, as a company, help everybody to have a good time and be the best possible team. Of course, we do crunch every now and then, for an important thing. Like E3, for example. For some reason, they don't do E3 just because our trailer isn't done. [laughs] I don't know why. That's stupid, I think? So then you need to do a few extra hours, but keeping it short. Being honest with people at work. "Look, guys, you know E3 is coming up. Can you please just plan your life a little bit around that? Work a little bit extra here, and you'll get three days after E3 to keep everything fair."
Sam Lake, creative director on Control
The notion of crunch, work life balance—these issues flare up all the time as people learn new things on new projects. I'm curious about your history with crunch, and especially as you get older, where people have different competing interests for their life and what makes them happy, how is Remedy, as a studio, dealing with people getting older, having families? Obviously, this game [Control] is coming out next year, at this point you must be scheduling out the milestones you're working to to ship the game.
Lake: I feel...I've been at Remedy 23 years. It's been a long journey. [laughs] Almost from the very beginning, basically with every game. Though all that time, the company, as we are growing up, the company has been growing up a lot. Today, we are 180 people? We are a multi-project organization—two game projects and a third team looking after our Northlight engine and tools. But a lot of growing up, and with the growing up, I feel comes also the responsibility for the well-being of everybody in the company.
I'm really happy. I think we've managed to do that in a really nice way, making sure that [we] never go crazy with crunching and always planning, and learning from one project to another. I think Control is a really good example of making a really solid plan, going through pre-production, discovering what we've actually made.
Also what's helped a lot is that Northlight tech is in very good shape. During Quantum Break, we were rebuilding many many things in the engine, so it meant we were creating content we knew that was not final content because we [couldn't] make final content. You are pressed to do a lot of content fast. Now, basically, the engine is in a shape where everybody can hit the ground running, and already started creating content that we know that this is the final content for the game. It also helps to make sure crunching doesn't go insane.
But I feel it's a really, really important point. My perspective to this that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It might seem, at certain points, that "No, no, we need to push hard for this." Ultimately, looking back to it, three months after, it wasn't that important. We could have just taken it with the normal hours. I think there have been a lot of lessons on that along the way. I think Remedy's approach has really helped.
Different developers I've talked to this week, one of the important takeaways I've had is that often the word "passion" is used in a good way and sometimes in a bad way, where people have these moments where they're just gonna work this weekend, gotta get this thing done. But then, sometimes that can go toxic. It can go too long. Does Remedy work to try and identify folks who are having a process, let them work through it, but also realizing that can go too far, we need to recognize and tell people "Hey, you should go home. We can do this on Monday."
Lake: Yeah, yeah. The balance needs to be there. It's passionate people, and passion is absolutely required to make high-quality products, and people need to believe in it. They need to want to be working on it. But at the same time, yes, sometimes people have trouble understanding and seeing where they themselves are, how tired they are. When you are more tired, you lose the ability to understand that. Yes, we look after people in the company, and HR follows these things, and is on top of. Sometimes, it's not easy, but it's required.
There's no red line. It's case-by-case, person-by-person.
Lake: It always is, and it needs to be flexible.
Michael Gallagher, president of the Entertainment Software Association
I was wondering if you could comment on the current conversation around unionization and labor organizing practices, and if the ESA had any comment at all about, for example Game Workers Unite, and some of those conversations that are starting up.
Gallagher: So, this is fortunately an issue we haven't had to deal with much in my time as the leader of the ESA, and I think there's a reason for that. The wages in the video game industry are very high. The barriers to exit for employees are very low, and the opportunities to create within the industry are abundant. [There are] multiple platforms, multiple publishers, multiple companies, spread out all around the country.
The market is global, so that provides a lot of opportunities for individuals to be fully empowered. And you see those choices being made every day. We have a map called "Are we in your state?" and it is a map of what we count, as all of the video game companies, as well as locations. The number of locations is something around 3,000 around the country. So the industry has been democratized. The tools to make games have been democratized. The returns and the revenue have never been higher.
When you put all of those elements together, it’s created great opportunity for individual laborers, or the game makers, at whatever level, to make choices that empower themselves. So I think that’s why we've had less... it hasn't been a significant issue in the game industry for the last ten years.
But is there any discussion whatsoever, because there have been discussions, especially in the last year or so, especially around GDC—I know this isn't about GDC, but just seeing those discussions, has it come up?
Gallagher: I love GDC because I actually get to visit with people! It’s much harder...
You get to have fun, you don't have to do these interviews
Gallagher: I love doing these interviews! We are, of course, paying attention, and we are listening because these issues, we've learned, you have to pay attention to them when they're small because they can become big. And then when they're bigger, they're much more difficult to manage.
But right now, the dialogue that's happening is at a level that is, I would say, in its infancy, to the extent that its going to grow, I don't know.
[Another journalist refers to the crunch conversation in relation to this]
Gallagher: What I hear about that is that, yes, where crunch is in effect, there's definite impact. But also I hear more and more publishers saying—and they're doing this for competitive reasons, for culture reasons, they're rejecting crunch, and saying “That's not how we operate.” And that is an attraction for the best and the brightest to see those opportunities and make those individual choices, to go to those companies.
The marketplace that's very, very competitive, and remember, the marketplace for talent and labor isn’t just video games, it's all of tech. When you broaden it to the Internet, when you broaden it to tech, you look at the skillset it takes to be a great worker in our industry, other industries are pulling at those as well.
I think there are different challenges in those industries and probably a lot less excitement, because our industry rules! So, that's what I would say: that there are other choices to be made and we'll see how it plays out. But yes, we're listening.
Lars Gustavsson, creative director on Battlefield V
The game is utterly gorgeous, but I think about all the work that goes into it, and the pressures of performing for this big an audience. How do you approach quality of life issues within the studio, work-life balance issues? How do you make games like this, but also make sure it’s a healthy environment to make a game?
Gustavsson: I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a daunting task. We’ve been going at it—I started back in 99. We’ve been growing from a very small studio to one of the big ones, with titles like Star Wars, Mirror’s Edge, and Battlefield. It’s definitely been a lot of pressure, but also very rewarding to reap the rewards. And we’ve gained so much experience, and gotten a lot of new team members that bring in experience from other studios. It’s a constant process within the studio. We also learn from our studio here in DICE LA, which has done a great job. I love the mentality they have within the studio in regards to how you approach focus, and being careful with your personnel. I think DICE in Stockholm have a lot to learn, as well. We share a lot of knowledge.
On that one you’ll never be—it’s like learning in the games industry. If you think you’ve learned it all, you’re probably doing a bad job. You need to be humble about it. The same thing for how a studio operates, especially when you grow. It’s something that’s definitely on the agenda. I wouldn’t say that we’re perfect. We’re doing our utmost to do constantly improve.
OK. So regarding growth, I mean, I’m with a company that used to be small, now it’s grown a lot. And it’s weird, in some ways, the bigger it’s gotten the harder it’s gotten. I’m curious, when you were small team and you were getting this franchise off the ground, was it crunchier and harder back then when it was your baby? Or is harder as a massive, multi-million dollar franchise?
Gustavsson: Personally, I shouldn’t even mention the hours I used on Battlefield 1942. It was our first big one. I wasn’t used to the responsibility of a crew that maxed out on 24 [employees], plus some part-timers. Probably we have a bigger UI group on this team. IT was a different world then. Coming in the morning, and making sure that the crew got breakfast to motivate them to come in after a late night. But we worked far too much, and far too late in those days. I wouldn’t recommend it whatsoever.
There’s definitely pushes and hard work these days, but all in all we’ve come a long way both as a company in supporting pensions, benefits, uh, fruit baskets and massages and God knows what [else] in order to make it better from a work-life perspective.
But as long as we go, it will be a journey. But I think it’s also about building an identity in the studio. We were a small studio, just 25 of us, when Red Faction games joined DICE and we became 50. How do you build a studio culture when you’re bigger? It’s down to the people at the studio. Building a sense of belonging within your team, within your franchise. It’s about being open, welcoming. Swedes sometimes they say can be less talkative but I think when you do get to know them, they open up.
Scott Phillips, game director on Assassin’s Creed Odyssey
With development on this winding down, one of the things we’ve been following in this industry is issues of crunch, quality of life. What do you do to ensure that you’re making a game in the most humane way possible?
Phillips: It’s a challenge. Making any creative product, you don’t really seen the whole picture until near the end. So it’s a challenge.
For me as game director, we set out with a vision three years ago and we’re finally close to seeing it finished. So you can finally see all the fine details of like “Oh man, if we changed this or that we could really crack a much better experience.” So that time at the end is vital. Like it’s super key.
Me personally, I have no problem putting in the hours then, because I know that now it really matters. It’s either going to be a super big hit or it’s going to okay. And I’m going to do everything I can to make sure it’s amazing. But it’s a challenge. And I don’t think there’s any simple answer to it. I think it’s something every industry goes through and we’re working through it as well.
Julian Gerighty, creative director on The Division 2
Something else we’ve been interested in, observing development in general, has been an increasing focus and discussion on labor issues and working conditions in the industry. I’m curious, when you look at production of the Division 2, how are you approaching labor issues within your team?
Gerighty: I love that question. I can’t speak for all the studios working on The Division. I can speak for Massive. Massive is located in Sweden, and there are very, very positive labor laws for this stuff.
We do work hard. But it’s not super exaggerated. Any overtime is paid. To me, it’s been a very stable production. I think the industry in Sweden has a very bright future with work life balance, with a focus on balance, which is phenomenal. That’s why I think there’s more and more Swedish dev teams that are rising and a lot of great stuff coming out of sweden.
[At this point Ubisoft’s PR handler, who had texted nonstop throughout the interview, is glaring]
You think those protections for workers help the industry in the end?
I think it’s essential. I think the balance that we’re about is absolutely key. So for me, I work every [day] from 9-6, but it’s super important to my balance and that of the rest of the team to go out and do other things beyond video game development. I want to be with my family. I want to be with my friends. I want to watch movies. If I’m just thinking about the game, it’s bad.
I’m curious, when you hear stories coming out of North America and other development houses—
[PR: Rob, I’m sorry, we’re just trying to stay pretty focused on the game. Happy to follow up with an email at a later time, we’re just going to try and I will respectfully ask that we [stay on topic]]
And again my answer was very personal, based on my impressions of Massive as a development studio.
[PR: Not that we’re not happy to talk about the topic. But we’re just here with limited time.]
Leif Walter (senior designer) and Pawel Wojs (art director) on Total War: Three Kingdoms
A couple weeks ago Simon Parkin wrote about how it’s harder to find longtime veterans in the industry, because people feel there’s not enough room for advancement, the work is grueling. How do you navigate those issues? How do you make a game that is this labor-intensive while making sure it’s being done in a healthy way and no one is getting burned-out by crunch.
Walter: I think the important thing is to not crunch. That’s kind of an obvious statement, but at CA [Creative Assembly] we’ve always had a very healthy approach I think. Crunch is something that we look at as a symptom of a healthy development. It’s where people want to do extra, because they’re so into what they’re doing, they’re passionate about what they’re doing, and they just want to do a little bit more.
That dedication, building a team that is dedicated and interested in what they’re doing, they will naturally want to do more. But we should never be in a situation, and we never have been, where we’re telling people ‘we have to do more, we have to do more’. We schedule for it to fit. You don’t schedule crunch. You schedule out the calendar months you have, and you make that fit.
Wojs: It’s part of the company culture not to expect it. To plan for development without crunch. If people are willing to work more because they love the game, they’re passionate, then….
Walter: We’ll support them! We’ll get them overtime for it! But it needs to come from the individual because they want to make it a great thing. We’ve been around for 18 years for Total War, 20 years as a company, and that kind of philosophy is one of the things that keeps us going. And we have a very, very low turnover. I’ve been there 14 years. A lot of developers have been there for multiple projects because it’s such a great place to work. And we love the game. It’s like, so many of us, we’re gamers, but we also love history. And being able to have that love of history and to be working on the game is a great thing.
How do you make sure your passion—I’ve definitely worked in places where it’s all like, “We all love our jobs, we want to work harder,” and the person saying that is either taking advantage or is maybe just being pressured. How do you make sure that people are putting in extra time for positive reasons, and not like a weird unspoken pressure?
Walter: It’s a tricky one. It’s a balance. Part of it is that you don’t always know. It’s something you have to watch. You have to know team dynamics, and the way people are working together. Sometimes you can kind of tell that the individual is feeling that pressure and doing more, and it’s our job as managers to go in there and find that and kind of address that.
Wojs: Communication is basically one of the big values that’s important. To find out what is the situation with this guy’s or this lady’s head? Is this a healthy passion or a forced passion?
Walter: I’ve had situations where there are people who are doing more and giving the impression that they’re loving it, some individuals have that drive and do want to do more. It’s tricky. But I think the really important thing is to plan. And to plan well. And adjust and rescope if needs be. And you have to have the plans and the way your project manage them has to be dynamic. You cannot be rigid.
You cannot say, okay, this is the plan, this plan will not change. It must be this and it will be this. You cannot do that. That’s going to get you nowhere.
You have to be able to shift and adapt during development. Because things change. We get things running, we see how things play, we want to change it. And you have to able to accommodate those shifts. And the only way to do that is being flexible and able to adapt. I think a lot of studios have a problem with crunch because they’ve got these hard deadlines and they can’t cut features. Not to mention they feel like they can always schedule overtime.
How much is it made easier for you because, after 20 years of Total War, you’ve probably gotten pretty good at making Total War games?
Walter: That experience definitely helps. You can look back at your past and that definitely helps. Back in the day, when you’re kind of doing it from scratch, yeah, there’s a lot of unknowns. There can be a lot of problems. But it depends on the experience of the team. I have an experience team. And they kind of know, even when they’re on something new, they kind of know the pitfalls they’re going to encounter in development. And they plan around those.
Markus Friedl, executive producer on Hitman 2
We've had lots of conversation in the industry this year about labor, about organization, about crunch, about work-life balance. I'm curious, as a leader at IO, how do you ensure that your people have comfortable lives, have their work-life balance met. I know how passionate you can be—I know how passionate I am as a creative person—but how do you make sure the work-life balance is where it needs to be so that you're not pushing too hard?
Friedl: I would want to talk about Hitman 2 at this point.
How about this then? For you, personally in your history in games, what are some experiences you've had in relation to these issues?
Friedl: Personally, the issue is not really... We can have a personal conversation about that off record if you want. What I can tell you is that, of course, [is] a topic of importance for Io interactive and we are doing everything we can. And I would actually say we are succeeding pretty well in making sure that it is a pleasure to work at Io Interactive. And I'm very, very confident that most of my colleagues would say the same thing.