Sanya Weathers on MMOs and the cult of celebrity.
Good news considering scuttlebutt had the BHG studio closing after layoffs last month.
Well, I Been Workin' In The Pixel Mine, Goin' Down Down, Workin' In The Pixel Mine, Whew! About To Slip Down!April 6, 2009
Mike Capps, head of Epic, and a former member of the board of directors of the International Game Developers Association, during the IGDA Leadership Forum in late 08, spoke at a panel entitled Studio Heads on the Hot Seat, in which, among other things, he claimed that working 60+ hours was expected at Epic, that they purposefully hired people they anticipated would work those kinds of hours, that this had nothing to do with exploitation of talent by management but was instead a part of “corporate culture,” and implied that the idea that people would work a mere 40 hours was kind of absurd.
Now, of course, the idea that a studio head, which Capps is, would have such notions is highly plausible; but he was, at the time, a board member of the IGDA, an organization the ostensible purpose of which is to support game developers. Not, you know, to support management dickheads.
To be fair, some game developers are also management dickheads! That being said, this taps into quite a bit of pre-existing discussion, both about the IGDA and whether or not it’s actually of any relevancy at all (Adam Martin and Darius Kazemi both have had a few things to say about that) and the long-running discussion over whether long overtime (“crunch”) is a workable model for game development.
My views on the former are simple: meh. My views on the latter are also pretty simple.
Crunch doesn’t work. You simply don’t gain more productivity by applying a 1.5 multiplier to everyone’s work hours. More likely, you start to introduce failure into the system as people get sloppy and careless as a best case scenario, and as a worst case scenario people start to flip you the virtual finger and spend their hours at their cubicle playing World of Warcraft instead. (I’ve seen both.) This is not a problem unique to game development, and there have been literally hundreds of studies that show that the productivity gained from crunching is minimal at best. It should be noted that the management consultant who originally came up with the 40 hour work week was Henry Ford, who was anything but a soft humanist.
Quality of Life is a choice. I’ve been lucky in my game development career to work on teams (Mythic, our team at NCsoft, Webwars, and my current Player To Be Named Later) which agree that part of keeping the best team members is in offering a work environment conducive to, well, being a well-rounded human being. I, and my peers, are older now. We have families, friends, and lives outside of work, and that helps shape who we are. Effective managers understand this. Ineffective managers don’t ship good games.
60 hour work weeks usually aren’t. Although there are exceptions (such as the weeks before a milestone or a big demo or if your entire production timeline has fallen apart) generally keeping people in the office for their waking hours does not mean they are actually working. What you are doing is instead creating a very efficient subculture of slacking. People will watch online videos, post to their blogs about how abused they are for never leaving the office, killing each other in this week’s shooter of choice, and have a Naxx raid going on the other monitor. Some companies fight back by aggressive firewalling and system monitoring. Those companies find out how easy it is to bypass those systems. If you treat your employees like enemy children, you’ll find that they can throw a lot of stones at you.
Note to the game industry: the economy collapsed. Maybe I’m pointing out the extreme obvious here, but this is not a good time to go on a tear about working conditions given that there are quite a few of out-of-work people quite willing to put up with whatever horrible pixel mine conditions exist, over and above the usual “holy-crap-I-can-work-on-games-and-come-to-work-at-10” college kid talent intake, thank you very much. Of course from an ethical standpoint, that shouldn’t matter. Yes. And from an ethical standpoint unicorns have pretty flowers in their manes, and that’s about as relevant and realistic. You pick your battlegrounds, and this isn’t a terribly good one.
Shortly after Age of Conan launched, Funcom saw subscriber levels of 400,000, which rocketed up to 700,000 within a few months.
While Funcom’s cash position remains robust at USD 39.4 million, the company reported a full-year net loss of USD 33.8 million. According to estimates by DnB NOR Markets, subscriber levels for Age of Conan are below 100,000, reports E24.
However, revenues in the fourth quarter of 2008 rose to USD 8.7 million, up from USD 1.2 million year-on-year, due to subscription revenues from the MMO.
Making Games, By EA’s John Riccitiello:
- Recessions are cool, because they put our competitors out of business.
- We will spend this year cutting headcount, closing facilities, and minimizing risk.
- Cutting headcount, closing facilities, and minimizing risk is a bad idea.
Electronic Arts CEO John Riccitiello says the current economic climate is “a blessing in disguise,” because it will force the industry to rethink stagnant attitudes and methods — and lead to “clearing away” some of the “junk” that currently fills gaming retail shelves.
“Junk is hard to compete with,” said Riccitiello frankly.
“I’m not pro-recession,” EA’s Riccitiello was quick to add, “but to quote Rahm Emanuel: never waste a crisis.”
“We did get fat in too many places. It seemed like anyone who could draw a guy with a gun with a crayon could get funded.”
But Riccitiello cautioned the audience of game industry execs against simply cutting head counts, closing facilities, and reducing risk. “That’s a recipe that you follow at your peril,” he said.
Electronic Arts: We Create Irony.
Only in 2009 can you have the intersection of game balance kvetching, business ethics, and charts about the Great Recession. And believe it or not, this time it’s not even me!
This was brought to my attention by a hit on my referral logs from my earlier primal scream about the omnipresent spectre of the gaming industry collapsing into a Schwarzchild radius of incompetency; namely that I’m a big whiny baby pounding at the keyboard with my hamfists.
If there is a product to work on today, the employee will have his salary. Tomorrow is another day. If there is no need for so many workers, they will no longer be employed. It’s that simple. Obviously if there will be need for some workers, the company tries to keep the better ones, fireing the underperformers. It’s obvious self-interest.
If the employee thought of his employer as a friend, his coworkers as a group of friends, he will feel betrayed. But whose fault it is? Actually I’ve never heard any company’s slogan to be “We are here to make our employees feel good”. They usually say “we are here to serve our customers” and mean “we are here to serve our customer’s money to our owners”. No one, ever offered the employee a “freindly helpfull group of peeps”.
Well, if your coworkers aren’t a subset of your group of friends, it may well be because you are an antisocial package of chemicals that everyone installed IM at work for specifically so they could make lunch plans without you overhearing. Most of us that have moved past the point in life where we have to wear nametags and hairnets when going to work, and now work in ‘teams’. Teams of like-minded individuals, selected in part due to personal compatibility. A key part of any employment interview process, after all, is “can we work with this person?”, which should appear closely behind “can this person actually do the job we’re looking to fill”. Both, after all, are important.
But beyond that, there is a small matter of business ethics to consider. There are some, like Mr. Greedy Gecko, er Goblin, who consider the only responsibility of a company to be its bottom line. Profit uber alles, and devil take the hindmost. It’s a fairly common viewpoint – who needs ethics when simple mathematics determines the victor!
But of course, there are other factors, or should be in a world that people not goblins may want to live in. Profit is all well and good and necessary, but at some point, someone may figure out that it’s cost-effective to dilute your milk with, say, I don’t know, something wacky like plastic. Of course long term, killing off your customers may hinder your bottom line. There are long term considerations.
One of those considerations involves the welfare of your employees. These are people who have engaged in a very clear bargain with you – for a given amount of money per week, they will spend that time helping you collect wealth. It’s a standard economic transaction, on the face of it. And for lower level employees, that’s also where it stops. Someone else pays you more, you move on. Shrug.
But past the point where you wear name tags and hair nets, it becomes incumbent on you to treat your assets as assets – and your team members are definitely assets. Because when the economy isn’t busy melting down into goo, they do have options – they can move elsewhere, say to places that don’t treat them as industrial cogs. So there is a certain level of capitalist self-interest there – you keep your assets happy, your assets stay with you and don’t become someone else’s.
But that’s not all of it, at least for most of us. Most effective managers see themselves as responsible for their team. Their team members rely on them to keep the engines running so that the explicit part of the bargain – come to work daily, get paid bi-weekly – continues to happen. That carries with it responsibility. The effective managers make sure their teams, and their projects, are successful, not only because it’s part of their job description to run a successful project and generate wealth, but also because your team members are relying on you to steer that ship through icebergs. Effective managers worry about this. Effective managers lose a lot of sleep about this — and I guarantee you, it’s not because they might deliver 22% less profit to the Mothership. It’s because they’re ethical.
This is not something you’d think would have to be explained in such grueling detail, but you’d be wrong. You’d be wrong because apparently the latest craze in Pinhead Public Company Management 101 involves divesting yourself of as many employees as you can before earnings reports so that your balance sheet looks good – regardless of whether or not you’re actually making a profit. Which is disturbing enough, but then you get apologetics like this who think that there’s nothing at all wrong with throwing your ‘assets’ over the side, and invalidating your implicit contract with them, solely to make a bar on a chart move from 43 to 48. You see – it’s really your fault.
However most of us get into situations when incompetent managers order us to do something obviously stupid and harmful to the company. Creating a malfunctioning product is not a crime unless it is dangerous to people’s health, yet it is stupid. The punishment for stupidity is market loss and the subsequent layoffs.
While employees acted as instruments of managers, this “instrument state” do not relieve them from the responsibility of their actions. They could write a memo to the higher management or simply say that “this management is stupid, I quit and find another job”. While it was a strong ape-subroutine that made them obey, they had free will to act differently. The fact that the managers would deserve layoffs more than the employees, does not change that the employees deserve it too.
I read things like this, complete with pseudo-scientific references to “ape subroutines”, and wonder if 50 years ago this guy would have been on the Warsaw Judenrat. There’s apologetics, and then there’s disturbing apologetics. (And hey, he went all Godwin first, with a somewhat disturbing equation of dissenting employees and the Nuremburg trials. I’m just finishing the neuron loop!)
Of course, many of us aren’t in the position exhorted by this blogger and MMO bloggers everywhere, namely that if you disagree with the direction of the company/design decisions/overuse of the color brown you should hand in your walking papers forthwith. As pointed out by a commenter to his blog:
I don’t know if you have a family that relies on you for its income, but tell me again that I’m free to quit a job at any time with 2 kids and a wife relying no me as the sole support of income.
To which the blogger responded:
Kids are investment to the future, cost a lot today but pay back well later. However a wife is a grown person who shall be able to support herself AND half of the kids. If YOU made the choice of supporting a grown person than it’s you who have to live with the consequences.
Hey, he’s got a point. I recommend octuplets. Better return on investment, donchaknow.
I realize this entire long blog post was the rhetorical equivalent of punching a baby, but business ethics has been something on my mind lately for fairly obvious reasons. Said blogger’s image of me as a caterwauling child ramming the keyboard with my forehead aside, I have been in the position of my failures as a team member and manager being in some way responsible for people losing their jobs. Interestingly enough, the fact that it was an eminently justifiable business decision – and in one memorable case, one I personally recommended – did nothing to help me sleep that week. Because I failed. Despite the fact that recommending a course of action that resulted in layoffs was, in a business sense the right decision – that was a failure.
And the rampant, smug self justification that we’re seeing with this year’s model of layoffs and cutbacks and corporate jets and stimulus explosions is telling me that there’s quite a few people who have no problem whatsoever sleeping. And that bothers me.
Enough to slam the keyboard with my hamfists.
1: OMGCHINA. It’s not broken down in the figures, but my suspicion is China is a pretty hefty portion of World of Warcraft’s revenue stream as well, despite the revenue per user being significantly lower. The Chinese MMO market dwarfs the Western market, both in subscriber numbers, and more importantly in revenue. China’s the new Korea. It’s tempting to say that “someplace else will soon be the new China”, but it’s difficult to imagine unless all of Europe becomes obsessed with Diablo 3 or something. It also means that the Chinese market is very vulnerable to collapse if that audience moves to something else (again, see Korea, where many users have moved on to FPS games).
2: Installable client is still the king in terms of revenue, which is somewhat surprising – and promising, it means that much of this market is still being driven by the “hard core” willing to download gigabytes of data to try out a game. As web installs catch up this could open the market still further.
3: This may be an artifact of DFC tossing up their hands and going “I dunno” at trying to guesstimate income figures, but recent high profiles have all interestingly fallen into the same “tier” of $50-150m annual income. LOTRO = AoC = WAR = Runescape. Note: one of these had a somewhat lower budget than the others…