Insight to life of a game programmer

Interesting story here over the “harsh” working conditions that game programmers are forced to endure to release a product on time.

Yeah, it is a rough industry. I got a few insights into it as well, also from friends and guys on the Internet I knew.
If you want to read more like that, Penny Arcade had “tales from the trenches”. Some really tough stuff in there.

Might i suggest “in the video game industry” as an addendum to your headline? Because that is certainly not the case in all industries that employ software developers.

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Is there any difference between the “crunch” they are describing and any other profession? On one hand I feel bad for the guys/girls, but on the other, its like we used to say in the Marines: U.S.M.C. "U Signed the Mofo**** Contract.

Only difference I can think of is typically after the crunch, vast majority of the team gets fired.

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I haven’t read the above article. However I was the night shift QA lead for Acclaim Entertainment (you might recognize such titles as NBA Jam, and Turok), for several years. So unlike a normal dev team, we crunched with every SKU that we put out, not just our project. I have on occasion put 102 hours on my timesheet in a week, slept at the office, etc. Heck my first official task as the shift lead, was to send someone to get blankets and pillows from target, since we weren’t going home until we went gold. I don’t know how much overtime food we ate at the office etc. I AVERAGED 80 hours a week over my time there. Just to give you an idea of how crazy that was, we got about 2-3 weeks off (as in not in the office, zero productive hours) after we wrapped up a project. We spent a LOT of time in the office.

The big thing I can say about crunch culture, is that a lot of it is the result of corporate mismanagement. Most games don’t need to be on a hard launch date. RDR2 for instance could have been pushed back 6 months and still sold as well as it has.

I’ll be more than happy to answer any questions about the gaming industry I can. It’s been over a decade since I was in it, but I have a few friends still there and it hasn’t changed all that much.

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I don’t know laws about overtime remuneration in your country, but if you’re not payed more for overtime, then the company saves a bucketload on personnel costs by working their programmers as hard as possible (at least on paper, productivity per hour goes down considerably if you work more than 50 hours a week, but that usually doesn’t register on performance reviews). I don’t have your insights of course, but i’d wager that a good portion of that “mismanagement” is actually conscious effort to keep the publisher happy by showing them that you’re really getting their moneys worth out of the employees.

In a competitive industry that is leveraged by big publishers who only care about keeping the costs down, you end up with working conditions such as these.

Did you guys get paid overtime or just on salary?

Is the issue with the “crunch” that you have to work long hours without extra pay? Or just that it shouldn’t be necessary? Like should games take longer to make rather than trying to spit one out on time?

Crunch is really bad for the mental health of the developers and is usually not providing much benefit after the short start period of the crunch. It’s much like the mythical man month, where they presume throwing more developers at the problem will speed up time.

So me and my guys got OT, the rest of the dev team was salary. The issue with crunch is that it’s largely unnecessary for most titles. The ship date is usually set by some yahoo at corporate (or for small houses, by some yahoo at the publisher), who has no clue on when an appropriate date would be. For example you want to release a baseball game (ours was All-Star Baseball) to coincide with the World Series, or maybe the playoffs? Cool, you can look up roughly when that’s going to be, and give yourself a 30 day cushion easy enough. Corporate, nope hard date that turned out to be 3 months AFTER the world series, what do you think happened to our schedule? They lopped three months of development time off.

We actually didn’t have issues with crunch when it mattered. The couple of weeks before submittal, the turn around before resubmittal, etc, those where fine. It’s expected, rubber meets the road kind of stuff. We actually even tried to push NBA Jam out the door sooner, as we (the team) wanted to get it out before EA’s NBA Street made it out. On that occasion ironically corporate told us in no uncertain terms that we weren’t moving the release date up, so slow down.

Another example of time mismanagement, E3 was THE place to release a game demo. A polished playable demo for E3, takes on average 6 weeks out of the dev schedule to produce. So if you want to release a demo at E3, add 6 weeks. Simple right? I think every project I worked on we ended up having to pull an E3 demo out of thin air, with no additional time in the production schedule, leading directly to crunch. It’s not like the folks at corporate were new to this, some of them had been involved in all of this since the NES was the big thing.

As a young guy, who had just moved in with his girlfriend, no kids, etc, I could make crunch work. Same for my guys. It’s a bit ridiculous for a 35 year old guy with 1 kid, to MISS the birth of their second child to be in the office 5 minutes away from the hospital the birth is occuring at. If you have 10-15 programmers/designers/artists on the team, and that one guy is so pivotal that he can’t be out of the office for two days, WTF are you doing as management?

So Acclaim was an interesting beast, when I worked there we were a publisher and a developer. We had studios all over the world (literally), but Austin was the biggest. We were actually the only one with an inhouse QA unit, I was actually the night manager of the largest studio QA unit in the world (all 11-14 of us lol). We would do a lot of stuff in house, and then later in the production cycle corporate up in NY would start picking up stuff too. They had between 100-500 folks on QA depending on where in the production cycle all the different titles were.

So to an extent we had to keep corporate happy, but by and large unless something had gone horribly off track with a title (Turok 5…) we were left to our own devices. There were a few guys I’d work with at corporate for some of the testing issues, and I’m sure the other leads (code, design, art) had the same thing. In general though on a title that was on track, we didn’t have to answer to corporate much. Except when it came to release dates.

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@jenrick Great stuff here, thanks for sharing. In those days of the cartridge and disc, there were no patches or updates. Probably pretty stressful QA’ing something like that for the masses. Today is probably no less stressful, but at least there is the ability to support a product after it leaves the office.

I was a Beta tester for Fly II. I saw the “crunch” from a testers point of view. I’m pretty sure my NDA is still in effect (unless the developer isn’t still in business…maybe). All I will say is that it seemed to be a pretty steady pace of development for months and then Bang a lot right at the end. Why? I have no idea. I suspect that the release date was set so as to move “talent” to another project…but that is just a guess.

Personally, I have more respect for a company that says “It will be done when it is done”…of course we don’t want to wait like we did for Daikatana…but that’s another story…

So Turok 5 for the Nintendo Game Cube. We send it to Nintendo, they send back about 25 items that have to be fixed for a green light, no problem nothing major. We send it back, and they run the entire protocol again (you have to pay for each submission so might as well get your monies worth I guess), and it’s green lit. I send my troops home after 42 straight 16 hour days. Hell we slept in the office for the last 2 weeks. We come back 2 days later, and have a nice picture in our email waiting for us, of the gold master disc for the pressing of Game Cube version, pretty cool. About three hours later I hear a particular buzz, that freezes my blood. It’s the buzz a hard locked Game Cube makes. I slowly walk over to the cube it’s coming from, praying it’s someone messing around with an old version. My guys face is white as a sheet, and the rest of my crew gather round, 16 of us gathered in one cube, starting in mute horror at a frozen Game Cube with the approved release candidate of Turok 5. Time to do some boss stuff, can we replicate it? Might be a one off, bad hardware, bad burn, could be plenty of things besides a bug. Yeah no. Replicateable, on every machine we’ve got, on 15 different discs. !$&*#&$(@&#(&(([email protected]#!!! In case you’re wondering it shipped like that, no way in hell corporate was going to sink the money it had already spent to press copies. No patching for the GC either, not a capability. No “second version” release either, why risk having another bug sneak in fixing this one?

Honestly, I’d imagine that being able to patch/update has made QA worse. On any major label title (EA, Ubi, etc) I can guarantee you that 98+% of the bugs that people locate and post, even game breakers were logged in the QA database. The dev team just decided not to deal with them. That attitude was in effect back when you couldn’t fix software, imagine how much they probably leave for “the first patch.”

Oh man I had forgotten about Terminal Reality, they had some good games for the Mac. You’re probably right with them being a Mac/PC house at the time. Those tend to have much smaller teams, as the amount of money in a given SKU is a lot lower, leading to swapping people around from different teams all the time. Also most projects don’t stay on schedule for a variety of reasons, and the accumulated slippage has to be covered somewhere in the project.

Oh wow you had to go there! I had a buddy that was working for Ion Storm on that one, he managed to dodge getting stuck on Daikatana and instead went and worked on a little project called “Deus Ex”… That was about the time I decided to go back to college and finish my degree, so I passed on an offer to come work at Ion Storm here in Austin. If I had taken it I’d probably still be in the gaming industry, or not, who knows?

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