Game makers see workplace changes

Unions, older workers among factors likely to put the kibosh on 80-hour weeks, insiders say.

SAN FRANCISCO--The tradition of the 80-hour workweek is on the way out in the video game industry, but it won't be lawsuits and gripe sites that kill it.

That was the consensus among a group of industry insiders here at the Game Developers Conference, which devoted a day to discussing "quality of life" issues Tuesday.

Such matters have gained broad attention in the past year, thanks to several disgruntled employees at leading game publisher Electronic Arts. The anonymous fiance of an EA developer gained international notoriety with a long Weblog posting describing workdays and other morale-busting practices at the company. EA has also become the defendant in two lawsuits alleging the company failed to pay required overtime.

GDC panelists agreed such developments have brought extra attention to the problem of "crunch time," a long-held industry practice in which developers are expected to put in long hours to keep a project on schedule.

But more prosaic factors will actually prompt the industry to change, they said, starting with improvements in smarter business practices.

Numerous studies have shown that developers and other workers putting in 12-hour days routinely make more mistakes as the midnight oil burns, said Francois Dominic Laramee, a freelance game developer and author. That means any extra productivity is eaten up by hits to product quality.

"If your company is in crunch mode, drunken zombies may be checking your code right now," he said.

Changes in the work force, both in the world at large and the game industry in particular, will also force workplace changes, said Clarinda Merripen, director of operations for game developer Cyberlore Studios.

"The population of technical workers is getting older," Merripen said. "We'll have to find a way to deal with that and keep these jobs attractive to those people."

Laramie added: "Three weeks in crunch time may be fine when you're 19, but it's not too great when you're 35 with a 35-year-old's digestive tract."

Unionization may also be part of the mix in changing workplace conditions, said Tom Buscaglia, a lawyer specializing in the game industry. Especially for publicly held companies, union rules may be the best vehicle for making expensive but necessary changes in working conditions without attracting a swarm of shareholder lawsuits, he said.

"We've all heard terrible things about unions," Buscaglia said, "but we may want to look at what happened in the animation industry when Disney was unionized in the '40s. It didn't turn out to be a monster for Disney, and it forced the bar up for the whole industry."

Many have looked to the International Game Developers Association, the group that puts on the conference, to take on more of a union role. But Executive Director Jason Della Rocca said the group's role is to educate and advocate.

"We're not a union--we can't go in there and start breaking legs," he said shortly before the conference. "What we can do is make a big stink about this, and provide an environment where people doing things badly get called out and educated on better practices."

"I don't know if a union can solve the problems that need to be solved," Della Rocca continued. "Extreme working conditions are a problem of inexperienced management, of public companies struggling to make quarterly goals. A union would be more of a Band-Aid to deal with the current state of challenges."

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