In this episode of Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, I answer a question from Gena, who wants to know whether the work life balance in the video game industry is as bad as she’s heard it is?
In this episode, you’ll learn:
- Why video game dev teams often have to do “crunch time”
- What the industry is doing to achieve a better work/life balance
- How you can avoid working for game companies that don’t value a healthy work/life balance
If you have a question you'd like to get answered on the podcast, leave a comment below or ask me anything here.
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Hello and welcome to the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast, episode number 3. I’m Jason W. Bay from the gameindustrycareerguide.com website. Today, I’m answering a question from Gena about the work life balance, or lack of it, in the video game industry. Gena asks, “I’ve read some really negative things about working in the game industry, like you will be expected to work crazy hours and basically lose your life outside of work. Is that true?”
This is a great question, Gena. What Gena is talking about is what people in the game industry call crunch time. It’s when people on the game team are expected to work really long hours, sometimes up to 80 or 90 hours a week in order to finish their work before a certain date.
So, first let’s talk about why is there a certain date. Well, for most game projects, they’re driven by deadlines. A certain amount of work needs to be finished and delivered by a certain firm date. For example, maybe there’s a big game industry convention coming up, like E3 or GDC, and the game team needs to get a demo of the game finished in time to show the industry press at that convention. Or if the game is tied to the release of an upcoming movie, then it needs to be done in time to be on shelves and ready to sell when the movie’s released.
So, there are dates that are fixed in time and if the game team doesn’t get all the work done on time, some pretty bad things can happen. The first thing that can happen is they might not have a build of the game to show the press. So, why is that bad? Well, a big part of selling video games is people knowing about the video games and getting excited about it. It costs a lot of money to advertise and market the games, and so game companies like to get as much free press as they can. So they don’t wanna miss out on having their game talked about for free in the gaming media. And that means that they need to be ready to go and to show a build of the game to game journalists, so the game journalists will think their game’s really cool and they’ll write about it and give free press to the game company.
Or if the game is tied to a movie, like let’s say there’s a new Harry Potter movie coming out and they want to make a new Harry Potter game to go with it. Well, the game needs to be ready to play by the time the movie is in theaters. So, when somebody goes to see the movie, they get excited about the movie, and they come out and they wanna buy the video game. If the video game’s not for sale, then what happens is the companies that are making the game, they lose out on those sales and that translates to a lot of money. Video games make a lot of money when they’re tied to a movie and they’re released at the same time as the movie. So it’s very important to video game executives that the game’s ready to go when the movie’s released.
Sometimes, game teams are hired by other companies like publishers, such as EA or Nintendo, and they’re paying the game developer to make the game. When a publisher contracts a game developer to make a game for them, part of the contract is that they have a series of sequential dates that are called milestones, and those are specified right there in the contract. So they say you need to get this amount of work done by April 30, this amount of work done by June 30. And if the game teams don’t meet those dates, then they are breaking their contract and that could lead to them not getting paid on time. Not getting paid on time could be bad for a game studio, because it might mean they can’t pay their workers. Or it might mean that they miss a Costco shipment and the developers run out of energy drinks and Red Vines. So maybe it’s not so bad. But it’s good business to get your work done on time and get paid on time. So that’s why it’s important to hit those milestone dates that are set forth in the contract.
So, it’s very important to deliver the areas of the games that are promised by the dates that are promised. So now let’s talk about what sorts of things would make a dev team miss a date. The most common thing, I think, is that the development team maybe miscalculates how long it will take to do the work. It’s very tricky to take a bunch of people, anywhere from 12 people to a few hundred people on the game team- it’s very tricky to have that many people and be able to figure out how long it’s gonna take them to do a certain amount of work. It’s a very hard, challenging problem. People spend their whole lives trying to get better at it.
Another reason could be that maybe they did calculate correctly how long it will take to do the work, but they encountered some unexpected problems that delayed their progress. For example, maybe somebody on the development team got sick or maybe a whole bunch of people got sick. Maybe a really bad flu came through and so there were a bunch of workers that couldn’t do any work for several days or maybe even weeks depending on what happened. Or maybe someone unexpectedly quit and went to a different company or moved away, and the game team is now down by one or two members and they have to be replaced. And it takes a long time to hire new people and find a right fit for the team. So that could delay the work as well.
Another thing that happens is that sometimes, in the middle of a milestone, the managers of the game studio change the design of the game. Sometimes it’s a little change to the design and it’s not really a big problem to make that change, but sometimes it’s a really big design change. And maybe it’s because the game wasn’t fun and they needed to change the way a feature or maybe even an entire systems worked in order to make the game more fun. But what it means is that the game team has to throw away some of the work they did and they have to redo that work, and they didn’t expect to do that. And that can really set them behind on their schedule.
And something that you’ll see every once in a while when a game studio is doing work for a publisher is that sometimes the publisher has to pull in the dates due to something that they couldn’t control. Like maybe if they were trying to tie the game release to a movie release, maybe the company making the movie changes the date of the movie and now they don’t have as much time to get it done. So there are a lot of different reasons that a team could miss a date.
So if a game team thinks they’re going to miss a date, how could they deal with it? Well, one way they could deal with it is the topic of our conversation today. They can go into crunch mode. There’s only so many people on the team and if there’s more work than can be done by the team in 40 hours, then they just have to work more than 40 hours in a week. And that can mean that people come in early and leave late or it could mean that they come in early and leave late and they work part-time or full-time on the weekends. And that could go anywhere from a few days to a few weeks. Some of the giant AAA projects, I’ve heard of them crunching for months at a time, where they’ll work 60 or 80 hour weeks for months at a time. But there are other ways that you might be able to deal with it besides just crunching.
One way is that you can reduce the scope of the game. So you can cut some features or you can pick some features that you were gonna do this milestone and maybe you can negotiate to push them to the next milestone. So you’ve essentially changed the rules of the milestones so that you have less work to do, and now you don’t have to crunch to get as much work done. Another thing you might be able to do is actually move the date. You might be able to go to your managers or go to whoever’s hiring you to make the game and ask them for an extension, or you can otherwise negotiate for more time to get the work done and then you might not have to crunch, or you might not have to crunch as much.
So historically, the game industry is well-known for having lots of crunch time and having a bad work life balance, but things are getting better all the time. Every year I hear game studios having less and less crunch time and I think things are generally getting better. There are several reasons for this. I think one reason is that the people who are managing the game teams are just learning how to be better schedulers. There are better scheduling tools available and as people in the industry get more experience estimating work and doing things like negotiating contracts and planning the work that needs to be done, they’re getting it right more often. But there’s still a lot of crunch time. I have a lot of friends at different game studios around the world and I often see Facebook posts from them working on the weekends or working late at night, so I know that crunch is still happening, but I do think that it’s happening less than it used to.
So how can you avoid working at some place that crunches a lot? If you wanna work in video games, but you don’t wanna crunch all the time, how can you work some place that doesn’t crunch a lot? There’re a few ways to do it. One of them is that you do research on the companies before you take a job. One good website for researching companies is called glassdoor.com, and that’s a place where people that work at game companies- and any company, really- can go and make complaints about their company or say good things about their company. So if you go to glassdoor.com and you look up a game company that you’re interested in working at, you might see some reviews from people there and you can get a sense of how often they crunch.
You can also try to talk to people that work at that company. You can use LinkedIn as a great resource for finding people that work at a certain game company, and then you can e-mail them through LinkedIn and just ask them for their opinion. Just say, “Hey, I’m just starting out in the game industry. I’m kind of interested in working at this company. What are your opinions about it?” And maybe they’ll open up to you and give you a little insight into the company. Another thing you can do is that when you are interviewing at a game company, you can just ask them. Just ask them, “How often do you guys crunch? How many hours per week do people usually work?” You can ask them, “What’s your approach to a work life balance?” And when you hear their responses, listen closely and see if you can get a sense of whether they feel like it’s a problem there or whether they feel like things are good.
Another thing you can do if you’re going in for an interview is you can just look around the studio for some warning signs. Look around to see if the people working there have bloodshot eyes like they were up late the night before. Look around to see whether people are walking into work kinda late and kinda looking like zombies, like they’re just exhausted. And look around for empty pizza boxes and soda cans lying around everywhere, which is a pretty good indicator that people have been working late and ordering pizza and drinking a lot of caffeine to keep themselves awake. And if you see any of those things, maybe you should keep interviewing with other companies and not take a job at that company if a work life balance is especially important to you.
Thanks to Gena for the question! For more information and inspiration about getting a job in video games, you can go to my website: gameindustrycareerguide.com. And thank you for listening. I’ll see you next time right here on the Game Industry Career Guide Podcast.