Quality of Life, or the Captain Confesses to Not Flogging the Crew (much)

There appear to be similar sets of expectations surrounding startup companies and game developers; both relentlessly drive employees to tremendous hours and efforts, working them late nights and weekends. ‘Crunch mode’ is a common spectre for developers as they grind into the early hours in the hope of making a milestone. This excellent IGDA article on Crunch Mode by Evan Robinson makes very clear what a terrible idea this is, illustrated by decades of studies. Even that good old fascist Henry Ford believed in a forty-hour week! I’m with Henry on this one.

Electronic Arts’ regular practice of over-working its employees seems to have toned down since the EA Spouse debacle, but the practice remains commonplace. Indeed, I suspect it’s probably more common with smaller developers and startups, because they are often reliant on the income from the next milestone payment or funding event. Crunch time is also a kind of perverse ‘fun’, fueled by a machismo camaraderie. In many cultures it is inappropriate for an aspiring worker to go home before the boss. The late nights and weekends demonstrate commitment to the project and the team. The delirium of sleeplessness is akin to psychoactive drugs or the euphoria of sports.

I would rather get my euphoria and late nights outside of the office. Perhaps, as Nabeel’s fine post on startups as a lifestyle choice indicates, this just means I am ‘slowing down in old age’. I don’t think it’s that, at least in my case; most of my colleagues are younger than me, and most of them have significant others to go home to (which is in itself interesting to me; we have a lot of ‘settled 20somethings’, many of whom have moved from smaller towns to be somewhat anomalous here in the gamophobic Bay Area). Only one or two of the crew can begin to give the Capn a run for his money at carousing, not that I’m necessarily proud of my achievements on the tiles. Oh no.

Rather, having started a few companies and done the through-the-night thing plenty, I am convinced that people simply do better work when they are happy, relaxed, and have a life outside work. Three Rings has never mandated working weekends, or late nights. Sure, mates sometimes work from home, and sometimes I leave the office at 8pm telling one of the usual suspects to ‘go home’, but this is not something we encourage. This apparent luxury has a lot to do with our scrupulous avoidance of a deadline-driven project schedule, along with a fortunate lack of external partners who can enforce such deadlines. Our only experience with this was back when we shipped the Ubisoft Puzzle Pirates box gold master. It was rather surreal.

Strangely, as we grow we’ve found that a lot of our folks find our ‘when it’s ready’ culture baffling, and want a bit more goal-driven structure. We’re experimenting with ways to provide targets to work towards, but we’re adamant not to introduce arbitrary, immovable deadlines. Sometimes, however, they creep up on us. Right now we’re trying to get MetaSoy to alpha before the Game Developers Conference so that we have something to talk about.

So, mandatory 16 hour days and six-day weeks all round! Swab those decks, you dogs!

4 thoughts on “Quality of Life, or the Captain Confesses to Not Flogging the Crew (much)”

  1. In my experience the attitude and energy of the makers does come through in any made thing, and even if it is very subtle, whoever holds (or plays) the made thing thereafter will benefit(or suffer) from it. Part of the appeal of the Three Rings games is that they feel very well crafted, with a dash of love and freak sprinked in. I was pleased to read this because it confirmed my thoughts. It is very refreshing to hear of a software company that really understands quality means a lot more than pool tables in the break room.

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