Game Developer Unions?

Code Union, Code Better in the latest Escapist talks about the benefits of organizing software developers to reverse the pendulum which has currently swung “in the direction of upper management, to the point where workers are forced to accept low pay and long hours out of fear”.

The author fears that besides the threat of outsourcing cogs in a wheel to cheaper nations, the current developers are working for longer hours and little pay as it is. He compares the situation with the meatpacking or coal mining industries of yesteryear.

In ea_spouse, we had our Upton Sinclair, but we’re without a Teddy Roosevelt. Without a friend in politics, we’re a massive blob with no direction, no drive. Someone is going to have to step up from within to give us a figurehead. The industry is in the middle of a rockstar drought, but we need someone like the industry’s founding fathers, able to capture our hearts and minds, not only with a game, but with a personality and a cause. But with corporate cultures disintegrating as bottom lines and mergers usurp artistic vision, rockstars are getting harder and harder to come by.

Pray for one to rise from the bowels of some dungeon-like cube farm. We need a savior-caliber leader to keep us together, and to keep us employed.

I’m not intimately familiar with EA’s work practices, but I’m familiar with the stories. Near-80-hour weeks without pay to make up for it. If you can’t handle it, we’ll find someone who will. With EA being such a giant in the game industry, a lot of people feel that they have no choice but to work in such dismal conditions.

But Blancato has brought up a good point: where is the strong leader to say “No!” to EA? With EA working with so many development teams and such big names as Will Wright and now Steven Spielberg, why haven’t any of them said anything?

Obviously some people love working for EA, and the bad news is getting a lot more press than it might otherwise have at some other company. Still, if people hate the conditions so much, wouldn’t some of their major game developers have a say? Will Wright at EA Maxis? Rick Hall at EA Origin? Heck, Peter Molyneux’s games get published by EA. Why not him? Wouldn’t someone want to step up for their teams and say, “You know, I don’t think you should treat the rest of them so badly. They need better work conditions, or I’m out of here.”? Would it be too farfetched to hear one day that Spielberg decided not to work with EA due to the conditions of the developers?

It’s generally considered normal in the game industry to work long hours and go through crunch periods to meet deadlines. It’s almost been a badge of honor. Still, plenty of studies have shown that there are fewer errors when working sane hours and people get to take breaks and go get some sleep. Forcing people to work 60+ hour weeks for months at a time is not only abuse but also counterproductive. EA took it to an extreme.

Some EA studios apparently do better than others as far as employee satisfaction. They come in expecting crunch periods towards the end of a project, but they also get great benefits and extra vacation time. According to ea_spouse, some or all of these benefits were going to be revoked. It definitely can’t be all good there.

I write all this not being someone on the inside. I’ve never worked at any major game company, let alone any of EA’s studios. I don’t really know too many game developers, but I’ve heard and read from some of them. Everyone knows the horror stories, whether they are glorified or not. Maybe someone will read what I have to say and dismiss it as just another irrelavant opinion. Still, why haven’t we heard from some of the studio’s major figures regarding EA’s work practices? Obviously no one wants to lose his/her job, but they can’t really fire everyone, nor could they allow some non-EA game studio to pick up their stars, right?

2 replies on “Game Developer Unions?”

I think unionization is a bad idea, though I also think the conditions described by ea_spouse were deplorable (and I *HAVE* worked in the industry — it got bad at times, but never as bad as described in that blog entry).

I don’t work in Hollywood, but I hear about how the unions work there — and it seems to me to be insane. It’s the opposite of efficient. I mean, it’s good that it’s helping to protect people’s jobs. But you’ve got a situation where you have to stop shooting so a specialist can come onto the set, rearrange a piece of furniture that would have taken an actor already on the set two seconds to do if union rules permitted. And Hollywood has been forced to adopt all these really weird common practices to adapt and minimize that impact. But you still end up with budgets that are probably two to four times what they’d be if studios didn’t have those strict requirements but still practiced “humane” treatment of cast and crew.

Why do I care if EA gets stuck with four times its budget to make games? They got all kinds of money, right? Well, yeah… personally I could not care less. However, I’m worried about the little guys – the independently owned studios that are living from contract to contract. I also know that the amount of risk a publisher is willing to put into a title is inversely proportional to its budget. As game budgets have risen, the level of creativity and originality have plumetted.

There’s GOT to be a happy medium in there somewhere.

It’s a huge reason why independent game development is so appealing. It may be risky to do things on your own, but it is a lot better for your physical and mental health.

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