On the 3rd of August 2015, a financial newspaper called "The Nikkei" released a report on the work environment the devs at Konami make their games in. Konami recently stirred up a decent amount of controversy when they cut ties with Hideo Kojima, the creative mind behind the universally loved Metal Gear Solid series, but this unfortunately isn't the only thing that's wrong with the way Konami treats their employees, and what's more, this is not unique to Konami.
I will go into the situation at Konami later, but let's start with the basics first. Something you have to realize when you're reading this article is that the game industry as a whole tends to be pretty tight-lipped when it comes to the inner workings of their companies, so I'm going to be quoting journalistic outlets and statements made by ex-employees of these companies. Because of this, it's pretty hard to get info from an unbiased source, so I would advise you to take some of this with a grain of salt.
So let's get down to the facts, as according to a study released in July of 2014 by Indeed.com, a search engine for job listings, the average game designer earns between 36 and 85.000 a year. Devs routinely work 40+ hours a week, sometimes more in the months and weeks leading up to a game going gold, and often this overtime does not net the devs any form of compensation unless you're a contractor or paid hourly.
One incident that dragged the overtime compensation into the limelight was a class-action lawsuit in 2011 filed by Infinity Ward, creators of the Call of Duty franchise, against Activision for reportedly withholding 54 million dollars in bonuses promised to the devs for working on Modern Warfare 2 to keep them working on Modern Warfare 3. This ordeal ended in a settlement in Infinity Ward's favor. The details of the settlement, however, remain a mystery.
Let's jump back a bit further. A livejournal post in 2004 by ex EA employee Erin Hoffman talked about the stressful "pre-crunch" period she was a part of during the development cycle of one of EA's games. The dev team was put in a sort of preventative crunch period months ahead of release that was meant to make the actual crunch period in the few weeks before release easier to handle. The team started worked for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week and were given a deadline for when the pre-crunch, as the producers called it, was going to end. That date came and went, and got extended multiple times and their work hours got upped from 8 hours a day, 6 days a week to 12 hours a day, 6 days per week. Hoffman had this to say on the subject:
Weeks passed. Again the producers had given a termination date on this crunch that again they failed. Throughout this period the project remained on schedule. The long hours started to take its toll on the team; people grew irritable and some started to get ill. People dropped out in droves for a couple of days at a time, but then the team seemed to reach equilibrium again and they plowed ahead. The managers stopped even talking about a day when the hours would go back to normal.
And then the real crunch happened. Again their work hours got increased. Now the team had to work from 9am to 10pm and they had to do this for 7 days a week. For those among you good with math, they know that this equates to an 85 hour work week with only the odd Saturday off. Do remember that these hours were mandatory and that the overtime was not compensated, at least not in a monetary sense. Hoffman had this to say about the arrangement:
[caption id="attachment_50031" align="aligncenter" width="660"] How the mighty have fallen.[/caption]
For the honor of this treatment, EA salaried employees receive a) no overtime; b) no compensation time! c) no additional sick or vacation leave. The time just goes away. Additionally, EA recently announced that, although in the past they have offered essentially a type of compensated time in the form of a few weeks off at the end of a project, they no longer wish to do this, and employees shouldn't expect it. Further, since the production of various games is scattered, there was a concern on the part of the employees that developers would leave one crunch only to join another. EA's response was that they would attempt to minimize this, but would make no guarantees. This is unthinkable; they are pushing the team to individual physical health limits, and literally giving them nothing for it.
Before we jump into the Konami stuff, I quickly want to mention game testers, who are essentially the first and last line of defense to shield the consumer from a faulty product. An IGN article from 2012 talks about testers not getting compensated for overtime, while earning a wage way below what they actually deserve. One tester talks about sleep deprivation, a minimum work week of 65 hours, and the fear of being fired any second because they didn't fill their quota of bugs that they had to find each day. Again, these are stories from biased sources so take them with a grain of salt.
And then there's Konami, the company that can be added to the fortune 500 list of worst employers ever. I mentioned the Nikkei report at the start of the article, and since that report came out, Kotaku posted an additional article about the inner workings at the major Japanese company based on info they got from inside sources. According to those sources, Konami has been monitoring their employees' internal communications, as well as keeping an eye on them with CCTV cameras, and erected a special department called the Internal Audit Office to take care of all those things, as well as contact new employers of ex-Konami employees just to tell them how awful their new employees are.
When they want to leave the office they have to tell security where they're going, how far away they're going, and why they are going there, and the company tracks all their workers' movements and adds that data to their file. If Konami thinks you're leaving the building too often, you will get reprimanded. The article however does not state how you're reprimanded though.
On top of all this, employees are REQUIRED to watch a recording of a manager's meeting and failing to do so means that your name plus the name of the department you work in gets announced through the office-wide intercom. Frankly, I find this an invasion of privacy that goes above and beyond what's acceptable, and Konami should be held accountable.
Now I don't want to come across as if these things are the norm across the entire industry, because they are not. Things have been improving over the years. But it's these last remaining pockets at some of the biggest and most influential companies in the industry (among them is Cloud Imperium, the developer behind the Kickstarted Star Citizen, who allegedly don't treat their employees well) that give me pause, and a lot of cause for concern. Being a game developer has been romanticized for as long as I can remember, and a lot of hopeful and talented developers would love nothing more than to work on a medium that they feel passionate about, and it's because of these people that I wanted to write this piece.
It's a tough world out there, and the gaming industry is a very competitive work field. Wouldn't it make a lot more sense to give the designers of the games we love some breathing space to make the best version of their product as they absolutely can, and not destroy the very thing that they're so passionate about? Maybe it's time to take another look at how companies treat their creatives, so that the process of making things that are fun to us, stay fun for them as well.
These examples are just a few cherry picked pieces of the entire pie. Have you got any stories to share on the subject? Should this be an acceptable occupational hazard for game devs? What can be done to improve the working conditions at development studios?
Update: Cloud Imperium is currently dealing with allegations that the work environment at the studio isn't treating their employees right. This are however not publicly proven to be true. We have clarified this in the text.