Project Management Part 1: Avoid Brain Damage From Working With Games

Why do so many game studios work overtime? How do you avoid burning out the passionate people working on your team? And how do you get your fellow developers interested and motivated to do their best work? And is there an alternative to the infamous game developer crunch? If you’re a manager that plan crunch into the project from the start, or if you’re convinced burnouts are a necessary part of making games, this series of blogs posts might not be for you. But if you’re curious on why it made sense for us to cut down on hours spent in the office, if you want to minimize the stress on your team or if you want some recipes for game development project management: then read on!

Before co-founding Midnight Hub I’ve worked at Paradox and Tarsier, among others. We’re now making Lake Ridden. Comments and feedback on this piece are always welcome here, or you can find me on Twitter. This is the first part in a blog post series about making games in a smarter way.

The Average Length Of A Video Games Career

This summer I attended an event for fellow video game CEOs and studio managers. The meetup was hosted on an idyllic island just outside the coast of Denmark, and managers from all Nordic countries got together to talk about the state of the industry. During this conference, people discussed the average length of a career in the Norwegian games industry. Guess how long it is? Four years. After four years the average developer leaves the games industry. They seemed to be burned out, have lost passion or simply run out of money by then. I don’t have the raw numbers for this, but what we do have are reports on how this industry time and time again burns out the very talent that keeps it alive. Crunch is often seen as normal, and it’s not unusual to work 80 hour weeks. But, it’s scientifically proved not to improve games.

“A hundred years of industrial research has proven beyond question that exhausted workers create errors that blow schedules, destroy equipment, create cost overruns, erode product quality, and threaten the bottom line. They are a danger to their projects, their managers, their employers, each other, and themselves.”
– Evan Robinson, IGDA “Six Lessons On Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work”.

When starting our own games studio in late 2015, Midnight Hub, we wanted to make a change. Previously to this, we had been working on Minecraft, The Division, and various other games. Our goal was, and continues to be, to make unique games in a sustainable way. We’re five indie developers, now two years into making our first game as a team; “Lake Ridden”. It’s a single-player first-person mystery filled with puzzles. We don’t always get all the things right, but we’re determined to keep on trying.

During this time we’ve had almost no crunch, we even cut down working hours and gained plenty of press coverage for our upcoming game. We’ve been doing our best to measure effectivity in the team, and making sure to log everybody’s stress levels. I’ll share our project management philosophy here, how we try to minimize the chances for stress-induced illness AND hopefully get the game shipped in spring 2018! This is quite a big topic to cover, so I’ve chopped this into three different blog posts, each focusing on their own thing.

Keep in mind that we’re based in (communist)Sweden and here the general norm for any job is roughly 40 hours a week and that employees are entitled to multiple weeks of vacation and plenty of paid maternity/paternity leave. The general culture in the video games industry here is more of a flat hierarchy and foreigners often praise us for taking pride in helping our fellow developers. We’re also often encouraged to make our own decisions, and the boss is not seen as the person who should know everything. But unfortunately, we also crunch and plenty of people work crazy hours in the games industry, take no vacation or try to meet impossible deadlines for years, leading them to ultimately exit this industry or suffer stress-related damages for years.

Why Do We Work This Way?

The first real-life game developer I ever met was a designer who had worked on the original Battlefield 1942, at DICE. He told me about how the team had crunched so hard people lost their eyesight, they slept under their desks instead of going home, their brains slowly shutting down, people forgetting how to talk, panic attacks, insomnia, memory loss etc. All these are signs of severe prolonged stress. This is literally damage to your body, general nerve system and brain from extended exposure to stress and the chemicals that are released during stress. Think about that for a second, brain damage from creating a game. It is possible to recover, but the road back is often long and hard, even in a country like Sweden, where we have universal healthcare.

At Midnight Hub we have a post-it system where we give each other post-its with a friendly note or praise if we think someone has done something outstanding. All employees are encouraged to recognize the efforts of their teammates.

One obvious problem with this kind of work environment is that we continue to lose some of our best and most passionate developers. And they who stick around start to think this is normal, that this is how things should be done since it’s what they endured and that’s how they got their game out the door. This is not a way to build up long-term experience in the industry, improving games as an artform or storytelling medium. The lives of fantastic creators are destroyed for years, and many of them will never want to return to the companies that perhaps invested huge amounts of time and money into making them the best at something and then burning them out. If you have ever suffered from a burnout, chances are you are still battling the symptoms up to ten years later. How are we supposed to bring the medium of video games forward like this?

When you have this mix of creative people, hugely passionate about their job, a lot of them perfectionists, and mix them with budgets of 100 million dollars and bad planning, things often get ugly. People are forced or encouraged to work too much, and we end up losing their talent forever, not to mention crunch does not improve the quality of a game.

Why Make Game In a Sustainable Way?

So why do we want to minimize stress, avoid working overtime and offer our employees pre-paid leave from day one? Call me crazy, but being a decent human being simply feels good. It also seems totally counterproductive to burn out your team if you aim to make more games with the same awesome people. Stress also decrease our patience and how we communicate (raise your hand if you have ever said stuff like “I don’t have time to explain this right now, figure it out”). Game development is a team sport, and if you don’t communicate things will fall apart. Stress is one of the main reasons people start arguing in the office, according to my experience.

When making almost anything, may it be a video game or a house, you basically have four main resources to manage; money, time, materials and humans. Money is usually the easiest to understand. When there is no more money in the bank, projects really tend to come to a halt. Time is kinda straightforward, it’s 24h hours per day and you can’t get more of it, deadlines are set. Materials are kinda easy to understand when making games, it’s clearly dependent on money and usually include things such as computers, licenses, office space, coffee etc.

Humans, on the other hand (sorry if I come across like some robot overlord that labels human as a mere resource). My experience as a project manager is that a lot of managers see humans as the variable that can be squeezed just a little bit more. If the money is coming to an end, time is running out and we already have all the material, then people choose to push the human factor harder. That’s mainly because it’s hard to know how much you can theoretically get out of a human resource. Some people work 80 hour weeks and love it, others have very little output after 6 hours a day. So management often tends to push the human resources for as far as they can. You know when you don’t have any money left in the bank, but how about your employees? When you have pushed someone to burn out it’s often too late. In my opinion, it’s easier to raise more money than to fix the longterm damage done to someone’s brain.

The Science Behind Shorter Hours

There’s a lot of studies showing that more work hours does not equal better output. Just like the illusion of multitasking, it makes you feel effective but does not work. If you are required to do brain-heavy work, such as programming or writing a creative story, chances are good that the human brain can only churn out good stuff for about 6 hours a day. After this, you start to slack and make errors (however, it’s important to notice people may still feel productive). Then you have to spend the next day sorting out the mess you made yesterday and cleaning up after your colleagues. Aim to work smarter, not harder. I believe it should be the goal for a smart manager to use all resources as effectively possible, to get the best possible game out there. Why should this not apply to the brains of their employees as well?

Finding new team members, relocating them, getting them up to speed, making sure they fit into the team etc etc is hard work, so taking care of the people you have is almost always a better investment, compared to systematically churning through your talent and then trying to replace them with new (less experienced) people. But honestly, it’s mostly because we believe that there must be a better, less predatory way of making games that developers thrive working on and that people like playing!

Before and after (still work in progress). Working iteratively is at the core of our game making processes at Midnight Hub. We literally whitebox a lot of stuff when testing things out, like on this level here.

I think that a lot of burnout, missed deadlines and crashed budgets comes from the failure to plan and scope game projects realistically. We as an industry tend to overscope, to dream of creating the impossible and see working overtime almost as something romantic. Of course, things like unexpected engine updates, sudden competitors on the market, key members quitting do play an important factor too. But I think that if you have a clear way of managing your game project then you increase your chances of keeping stress at bay, shipping the game on time and building a sustainable team. Most importantly it’s one of the very few variables you can actually control and so something about. You can’t control if your lead designer decides to move to the other side of the world, or if your release platform gets hacked or the new version of the game engine breaks your game. But you can, and should, control your planning, game scope, and project management. No excuse.

Some Hands’On Examples of What We’ve Done To Minimize Stress

Here’s what we have done in order to try making Midnight Hub a place to work where people don’t burn out. Remember that if you’re in a leadership position or a senior developer, other devs in your studio will look to what you do. If you say that you don’t want others to work overtime and then do exactly that, a lot of people will start to think you actually expect them to stay late, too. Actions speak louder than words.

  • Cut down on hours in the office. We’re at the office 9-5 and have one hour for lunch in the middle of the day.
  • Everybody leaves at the same time, no one is left behind to work alone.
  • Management has stated it’s a goal to avoid crunch and overtime.
  • Pre-paid vacation for all our employees.
  • Possibility to work 80% or 50% if you’re currently dealing with a “Mammoth Task”. This is those tasks that totally drains you out. They are usually: something you have never ever done before, very difficult to do, takes weeks or months to complete and have serious consequences if you get them wrong. An example could be crafting a shareholders’ agreement contract for the studio, putting together a pitch for an investment etc.
  • Days off to recover if you’re traveling or have to work on a weekend.
  • Closing down the office entirely during summer and Christmas vacations, no one works alone.
  • Giving employees 80% pay from day #1 when they are home and sick, (the norm in Sweden is no pay the 1st day of sickness).
  • Getting better at realistic time guesstimation at our sprint planings (more on this in the next blog posts).
  • Developing the ABC-method for making games (more on that in upcoming blog posts).
  • Rating everybody’s stress together on Friday when we close the sprint (more on this next time).

Wrapping It Up

In the beginning of Midnight Hub, I wrote about how we white-boxed the game, worked iteratively on each part. How we used an agile methodology to go from white boxes to placeholder art to shippable assets, one iteration at a time. This way we got the chance to test things out before we committed too much time to refine them. We have now distilled this process even more. I’ll do my best to explain it in a useful way in my next post, give you “our recipe” to experiment with. We call it “ABC”. After that, I’ll walk you through how we use real-life coins to estimate time and how we plan our sprints. My goal with sharing this is to maybe help someone out there to find a more sustainable way of making games, and perhaps improve on our own methodology if I can get some feedback from you 🙂 The price you pay for working with your passion should not be brain damage. See you next week!

Cheers,
– Sara, producer and studio manager at Midnight Hub

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