Australian Games Industry Study: Working Conditions

One of the recurring themes arising out of the interviews with Australian games developers is the issue of ‘crunch’ time, the period in the development of a game – usually towards the end of a project – when overtime (often unpaid) becomes mandatory. Crunch time is often necessary, as one interview participant in my current study reported, becuase “there just isn’t enough hours in the day to get everything done”.

The occurrence of crunch time is not unique to the Australian industry, it has been a standard practice in software development internationally for decades. Many development studios in Australia and internationally operate under perpetual crunch time (Japanese games development studios are well known for the practice). In one interview a managing director of an Australian games studio reported operating under perpetual crunch for many years before acquiring the experience in production planning and management necessary to limit the crunch time until the very end of their product’s development cycle.

The games industry is not alone in the amount of unpaid overtime it extracts from its workforce. From my own experience, and as my family will attest, the life of an academic is one of perpetual crunch. It is nothing to work ten hour days, six if not seven days a week and during peak assessment periods it requires up to 14 and occasionally 16 hours a day just to get through the work load. Part of the issue for the academic is the nature of the work, like Boyle’s observation of gasses, the work expands to fill the available container. The problem is compounded by the contractual nature of temporary academic positions, especially research only positions where there is an end date and a requirement of productivity and an absence of a defined period of work hours.

The issue of the ‘quality of life’ working conditions in game development studios was brought to the public attention in 2004 when ‘EA Spouse’ posted a revealing account of the working conditions for EA programmers. Other big games studios are equally guilty of exploiting their staff mercilessly, including RockStar, who was outed most recently in 2010, by a group of programmers’ spouses threatening legal action over the treatment of staff at Rockstar Sandiago.

It is not unsurprising then that Team Bondi, the studio responsible for L.A.Noire (link), which was published by Rockstar, has been highly criticised recently for its culture of long hours, abusive and dysfunctional management, following anonymous and not so-anonymous public comment. Team Bondi’s treatment of its staff has led to calls for a boycotting of the game and other games by studios with poor quality of life working conditions.
This coverage from IGN on Team Bondi and the seven years Team Bondi spent working on L.A. Noire, is a must read. I saw the director of Team Bondi, Brendan McNamara calling for greater federal government support for the games industry back in May (it is a long standing discrimination against the industry) and at the time I recalled industry gossip about how bad conditions were at Team Bondi, but I had no idea of the extent of the situation. (The massive attrition rate at Team Bondi, a sure sign of bad management and unethical working conditions).

McNamara believes that it is ok that employees “be “killing themselves” in the line of duty making games. He believes that is simply what it takes to get a game like L.A. Noire made in Australia. Of course, these types of unfair working conditions are not unique to the games industry, and McNamara is not alone in his approach, teachers, nurses, journalists, among many others, all get accused of ‘not pulling their weight’ if they don’t work longer hours than they are supposed to by their managers, but like those in other entertainment and media sectors, there is the insidious view that the creativity, passion and ‘fun’ involved in developing games makes up for the exploitation of workers.

I love doing research, and I love teaching, it enriches my life, but the ridiculous hours of marking, content preparation for courses and lectures, and the endless demand for more research output, make the job just another occupation trying to cram work into the limited amount of time in the day. I’m sure I could work more productively, more efficiently and better manage my workload but the expectation to deliver doesn’t come from me alone, and the love of the job doesn’t diminish the fact that other parts of my ‘life’ suffer.

As one interview respondent commented, playing games for a living is fun, but the endless hours of testing and Quality Assurance involved in ensuring that a product does what it is supposed to do takes the shine of ‘play’ making it a highly intensive (if immaterial) labour like any other.

One of the outcomes of the EA Spouse’s outing of Electronics Arts, is GameWatch.org, and some studios have attempted to create a profitable and productive ‘no crunch’ working conditions  but the politics of labour in the model of networked production are unlikely to shift positively. One interview respondent suggested that things are probably only get to worse as companies like Rockstar use their multiple studio locations around the world to enforce a constant 24 hour production cycle, rolling out crunch time across all locations.

An ethical games industry would have to be backed up by an ethical games journalism industry, which is far from the case at the moment (see the Games Journos Tumblr blog – , previously know as called Games Journos Are Complete Fuckwits) in order to hit studios where it hurts the most – their Metacritic ratings. Ethical games reviews, would by written by journalists not so complicit with baiting practices and marketing ploys of publishers, and reviews of games would also take into account the quality of life of employees of the studio as much as the quality of the games themselves.

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