Friday, 22 January 2010

Crunch Time in the Games Industry

As written for the regular Jury Service feature for Develop Online...

Overtime is a deeply damaging habit which is easy to fall into on both sides of the Developer/Management divide.

If you care about a game (and most of us get into the industry to make things we care about) then it's so easy to do the odd late night to make sure you get what you want done properly and on time.

If you care about timescale and budget, then it's ok to ask a few late nights of your troops on occasion. A few well-worded requests for extra effort usually produce the desired effect.

The problem is that it gets out of control very quickly, and there are a multitude of ways it can cause damage.

The most obvious is that it makes people tired and less productive over the long term, and shortens tempers. Small discussions can turn into heated debates at the tail end of a project, while simple solutions are missed while people get bogged down talking about the wrong thing or are distracted more easily.

The main worry I have is that the industry still doesn't seem to grasp the true scale of the long term effects. What essentially boils down to poor management by everyone on the team has a huge negative effect. Employees get disgruntled, families get affected, faith and trust in the company's ability to successfully manage a project (especially if mistakes are repeated), and tolerance for failure of any sort just hit a downward spiral. All of this stuff is accentuated by overtime, and can fester beyond recovery.

It's worth saying that this 'poor management' includes the coders, designers and artists who get used to doing overtime, but then forget to factor it into subsequent tasks.

For example, it's all too easy to forget the 3 late evenings you did one milestone when estimating a similar task on your next project. This can be solved by eliminating overtime in the first place so all estimates are used as reference when they're inaccurate, or explicitly tracking those inaccuracies and referencing them when it comes to planning the next project.

Not all the blame can be laid at our collective feet though. Vey few other creative industries have to deal with a regular, 6 year cycle of new technology.

This frequent sea-change means that sure, we can build up some experience with various tasks and become more accurate in our work over time, but before you know it half of that stored knowledge is rendered inaccurate, and you're forced to re-learn a large chunk of your skills again.

How can anyone accurately predict how long a level will take to make with brand new tools that don't even exist yet?

Of course some companies offer time in lieu, some pay for overtime, and some claim not to have it at all.

Honestly though, the only time people should be doing overtime is when they want to accomplish something outside the remit of the product - something that, if it fails, will not negatively affect the product or the schedule. Look to other industries - call centres where overtime is made available to those who want it, not because there is a deficit somewhere.

Nobody likes things being late, and we're a passionate and creative industry, but that doesn't mean we should put up with being exploited.

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