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The Dark Side of Making L.A. Noire 242

Posted by Soulskill
from the games-are-serious-business dept.
JameskPratt writes "Long-time readers have no illusions of how awful the video game industry can treat its workers. Eleven ex-employee of Team Bondi, who made LA Noire, have now cited 60- to 110-hour work weeks, unusual compensation rules, and the 7-year development cycle as reasons for frustration and discontent. They claim their boss, Brendan McNamara, crushed office morale with verbal abuse and unreasonable goals. As the saying goes, the two things you don't want to see being made are law and video games." The International Game Developers Association will be investigating the matter.
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The Dark Side of Making L.A. Noire

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  • Re:Guess (Score:4, Insightful)

    by MemoryDragon (544441) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @02:37AM (#36608032)

    Just to sum it up, stories like these kept me away from the games industrie even when I was younger.
    Your life and health and family is not worth it to work on the next cool game. Sorry, but the game will be forgotten
    within half a year, a burnout a divorce or even worse damage wont be forgotten in a 10 years timeframe if ever.
    All I can say is stay out of hellhole companies wo seem to have a history of burning through
    their employees.

  • Super Chicken... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Gavin Scott (15916) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @02:49AM (#36608068)

    You knew the job was dangerous when you took it Fred.

    These days is anyone surprised that working for a games company is something that's best done by the young and unattached? And asshole bosses exist everywhere. Learn from the experience and move on. From all accounts I've seen, you guys produced a pretty darn awesome game.

    G.

  • Re:Bad Industry (Score:5, Insightful)

    by im_thatoneguy (819432) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @02:49AM (#36608070)

    The problem is that it's destructive to society. There is a halo to the Film and Game Industries. They seem like they're super exciting and people invest a lot of time and money on training to be able to get a job doing it--and then a year in discover that the reality of 10 100 hour weeks back to back is very different than the idea of it.

    So yes, they do eventually quit. And a whole new batch of young and naive fools fall into the meat grinder. The normal market forces where you run out of talent just don't exist.

    Another problem is expectation. As it said in TFA most of these people were told it was a 12 month job and that they would get bonuses/overtime if they stuck around to the finish. You get into the Gambler's fallacy pretty quick. "I've already put in 6 months. I can tough out another 6 for a huge fat bonus." And then 12 months promised turns into 5 years so they quit having put in longer than they had hoped but gotten less than promised.

    The real tragedy is that it doesn't need to be that way. As was pointed out in multiple interviews with ex-staff you have huge waste. You don't have to run a 24/7 crunch for 8 years. That's just poor management excusing their incompetence. I've seen it before many times. The leadership treats the people as dispensable. The people quit. They fall behind. They treat the next people like shit. They quit. They fall further behind. If they had paced themselves at the beginning and been honest that they couldn't match their deadlines then ultimately they would be more productive and finish sooner. But they also have the publisher breathing down their neck and they know that admitting to needing a 100% larger budget will end the project. Asking for 10 10% extensions to not "let the work done so far go to waste so far" keeps their death spiral alive.

    Eventually the game gets released. Eventually if it's halfway decent it'll probably make its money back. The whole fucking fiasco looks like it was the right decision and they do it all over again.

  • by Petersko (564140) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:01AM (#36608110)
    The first time somebody pulled something like that I would find them alone and tell them point blank that I'm not going to take that. Ever.

    The second time I would pull my prepared letter of resignation out of my desk, sign and date it, and hand it to him right in front of everybody.

    Yeah, yeah, yeah. Blah blah want to get in the industry blah blah need a job blah blah. If he was hired at a gaming company he's got the resume to get a job doing something different.
    Being treated reasonably is not something I'm willing to give up. You know that "Animal House" initiation scene? "Thank you sir, may I have another!" Well, if they keep doing that to you after pledge week it's time to quit the fraternity.
  • by billcopc (196330) <vrillco@yahoo.com> on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:04AM (#36608118) Homepage

    Every time I hear a sob story like this, I can't help but wonder why employees tolerate this kind of abuse. If the job is going to shit, LEAVE! If you have any saleable skills, you can take them elsewhere. I'm not saying they need to unionize, but almost... If game developers stood shoulder-to-shoulder and said no to hostile work environments, the industry would be forced to adapt. It sounds very much like these people are afraid to say no. You'll say "but what about the house" ? Fuck the house! What good is a house when you spend every waking moment at work, eating advil by the handful ? Fuck the house, and fuck the job. You have better things to do in life than pad some greedy sociopath's stock options.

    Conversely, if Rockstar needs 110 man-hours a week for every coder, they should hire 2 extra coders to meet the demand. If that breaks the budget, fuck the project, it's an unprofitable project. If it can't be profitable while adhering to reasonable work conditions and timelines, then it should not be undertaken in the first place. If a guy called me tomorrow and said he wanted a Facebook killer for $50, I'd cheerfully invite him to die in a fucking fire. No, scratch that, I'd go to his house and beat him to death with a Chia Pet for even proposing such a ridiculous venture. Game devs need to learn to do the same thing. Democracy only works if you have the brass balls to stick to your guns.

  • It didn't work (Score:4, Insightful)

    by phantomfive (622387) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:04AM (#36608124) Journal
    Apparently it didn't work. Wisdom says treat your employees badly, and they'll do shoddy work. What happened after several years of poor product management, treating employees like dirt, Rockstar had to seriously cleanup a lot of the code, which is why the game was delayed. Rough stuff.

    As a programmer that makes me feel happy. I like to hear that their is an advantage to treating employees well.
  • Re:No way... (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:12AM (#36608148)

    but this is about the GAMING industry.. quite a different environment.

  • Re:No way... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by ShakaUVM (157947) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:13AM (#36608154) Homepage Journal

    >>There are some parts of the industry that are not managed by psychopaths, or permanently in OMG PANIC mode.

    Yeah, and even game development doesn't have to be crazy like that. LA Noire, IIRC, was handed the GTA engine on a platter, so they didn't/shouldn't have needed to worry about implementation details too much except their game-specific stuff (interviews and the like).

    I'll have the occasional crunchtime... but I generally see crunchtime as a sign of bad time management skills, on my part or someone else's. Or, very infrequently, as the result of a crisis.

    When I used to work doing game development, it was a 9 to 5 job, and I had a perfectly reasonable manager and very intelligent co-workers. YMMV, in other words, in the game industry and outside of it.

  • Re:Outsourcing? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by mustPushCart (1871520) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:18AM (#36608174)

    You cant move coding offshore for game development. You can do it for generic software/website/enterprise system which is brain dead boiler plate coding for some huge bank that they can milk for maintenance contracts. But making a game requires very rapid prototyping, a huge variety of technical skills, creativity and honestly? a bit of love. Knowing what you are making and being passionate about it will be lost when transferring code oversees where there are no designers and no beta testers to fix it. How can u explain a level or gameplay mechanic through a requierment spec?

    India is already a source for artwork for games and film but programming? no way. I know, ive looked for jobs here (a lot of art studios) and there are very few end to end game studios.

  • by bonch (38532) * on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:25AM (#36608212)

    Every time I hear a sob story like this, I can't help but wonder why employees tolerate this kind of abuse.

    They're young, naive, and afraid of rocking the boat.

  • Re:No way... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Nursie (632944) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:48AM (#36608302)

    Oh sure, a friend of mine started out there and reported much the same as TFA, which is why he left for more sensible parts of the industry. But the OP said "software industry", not "games industry" which is what my reply was about.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @03:55AM (#36608322)

    After being in a couple of startups on both ends of the org chart, I am constantly surprised by one simple thing - bosses don't appear to understand that the incentives of their employees are not the same as their own. Here we have McNamara talking about his employees only worked the same work week as he did, but why should they do even that? He presumably owns this game studio and stands to make a lot of money from a successful product. He is completely invested in this product, so its hardly surprising that it trumps almost any other priority in his life - health, family, entertainment, none of that matters to him as much as this product succeeding and making money.

    His employees, though? They make fixed income, they are unlikely to have stocks in the studio, and at worst the product will fail and they will have to get a new job. So why should they neglect their lives for a product in which they have so little personal stake? Either give them some financial incentive, or accept that any of them who do share your passion for your product are loyal above the call of duty and treat them appropriately well.

  • Re:Bad Industry (Score:5, Insightful)

    by LandDolphin (1202876) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @04:07AM (#36608358)
    If only there was some sort of way the employees could group together to increase their bargaining power with employers to avoid these situations.
  • Unionize! (Score:4, Insightful)

    by delirium of disorder (701392) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @04:12AM (#36608376) Homepage Journal

    If workers want to have a say in their conditions and want to retain the value of what they produce without bosses and investors taking most of it away in profits, than we need to organize a union. The time is long overdue for an IT industry union [iww.org].

  • by mcvos (645701) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @04:46AM (#36608528)

    Conversely, if Rockstar needs 110 man-hours a week for every coder, they should hire 2 extra coders to meet the demand. If that breaks the budget, fuck the project, it's an unprofitable project. If it can't be profitable while adhering to reasonable work conditions and timelines, then it should not be undertaken in the first place.

    Shorter work weeks or hiring more coders to do the work will likely make the project more profitable, not less. I can't believe for a moment that prolonged 60-110 hour work weeks are really more productive than a 40 hour work week. Of course, the first week of crunch you get a bit more work out of your people, but it comes at a cost. Soon, productivity will drop despite the extra hours. Demanding more hours will just tire them even more. A healthy, well-rested work force is far more productive.

    One or two weeks of crunch before a real actual deadline can work, but after that, you'd better give them a week off to rest. If you can't afford to give them a week off, it's not worth it to demand that amount of overtime.

    Considering these stories, it doesn't surprise me at all that LA Noire took 7 years. I bet a competent development house could do it for half the cost in less than half the time.

  • by Rogerborg (306625) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @05:08AM (#36608616) Homepage

    You learn very quickly how not to develop software: deluded, unrealistic, underfunded expectations from the get-go; lies, concealment, finger pointing and circling the wagons in every tiny fiefdom; turds eternally rolling downhill; perpetually moving goalposts; two-jobs-for-the-salary-of-one; demanding that each fresh noob immediately picks the job of the burned out vet that they're replacing; and beatings that will continue until morale improves.

    But hey, that one Saturday back in 2007, when we only worked 10 hours and then had pizza? Dude, that was awesome.

  • by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @06:29AM (#36608934)

    Simply because, as Duke Nukem Forever is an excellent example of, assets have a short shelf life. Once you have things ready to assemble in to a game, you have to do it fairly expediently, like a year, so that things don't get stale.

    Now that doesn't necessarily result in crunch time and sure as hell should be all the time crunch time, but you can see why it is a situation that can favour it for a bit on a project.

    However that said there's a real difference between "The game ships in a month, we need you to do what it takes to get the final testing and polishing done in that time," and a perpetual, 80+ hour a week crunch.

  • That's fine (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Sycraft-fu (314770) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @06:37AM (#36608966)

    So long as you don't want up front pay/benefits. You can't reasonably expect a company to give it to you both ways. If you are willing to be a part of the financial risk of a project, meaning your pay, or lack thereof, depends on how well it does then sure you can have part of the profits. That is basically how it works for all small business owners. How much they get depends on how well they do. However that means you have to accept that you only get paid when it makes money and that if it bombs, you don't get anything.

    On the other hand if you want the company to front the risk, to put up all the cash for something, to pay you a regular salary and so on while you work, then you need to accept that they get to reap the rewards if there are some, because they'll also eat the failures. They need the reward from successful projects to cover the costs from unsuccessful ones (if you think ever game makes money, you are dreaming).

    You can't have it both ways where they are expected to pay you up front, to bear all financial burden, and then to give you the profits when something succeeds, yet not to dock you when something fails (which they cannot legally do).

  • Re:Bad Industry (Score:3, Insightful)

    by collar (34531) on Wednesday June 29, 2011 @08:29AM (#36609562)

    The real tragedy is that it doesn't need to be that way. As was pointed out in multiple interviews with ex-staff you have huge waste. You don't have to run a 24/7 crunch for 8 years. That's just poor management excusing their incompetence. I've seen it before many times. The leadership treats the people as dispensable. The people quit. They fall behind. They treat the next people like shit. They quit. They fall further behind. If they had paced themselves at the beginning and been honest that they couldn't match their deadlines then ultimately they would be more productive and finish sooner. But they also have the publisher breathing down their neck and they know that admitting to needing a 100% larger budget will end the project. Asking for 10 10% extensions to not "let the work done so far go to waste so far" keeps their death spiral alive.

    People leaving / burning out is the big problem, you just can't drive people to do any kind of non-mechanical work for those kinds of hours over an extended period of time. When they do leave, they take most of the knowledge they've gained about the project with them (regardless of the documentation procedures you have in place), which puts the development even further behind, driving management to crack out the whip and feed the cycle some more.

    The absolute worst thing you can have is staff turnover in software projects, if you had 30% more workforce and your turnover was low, you'd gain more than those wages back in compression of delivery schedule and hence less wage duration (i.e., maybe it wouldn't have taken them 7 years to finish the game). That's without even thinking about if the 80th hour of a programmers work week is as productive as the 40th (it's not).

    The problem is that game dev managers; see a willing workforce out there that they can abuse because of the industry, have stupidly optimistic deadlines and budgets set to even get the project approved and a general distain for project management as a task (it's all about getting people to tap keys as long and as quickly as possible).

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