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The Ultimate Challenge: Balancing Work and Personal Life

The vital question of 'quality of life' for game developers was raised at the recent WIGI event in Dallas, leading to significant insight on the issues involved from a panel of developers from Ensemble, Aspyr, Stormfront, and BreakAway Games.

May 4, 2006

7 Min Read

Author: by N. Evan Van Zelfden

At the recent Women in Games International Conference in Dallas, Texas, the closing panel opened with moderator Graeme Devine exploring the subject of balancing work life, and personal life. “What does that mean to most of you? Well, it means crunch.”

The panelists proceeded to introduce themselves. Mike McShaffry, who began his career in 1990 at Origin Systems, recalled the 100 Club, where employees would work one-hundred hours in a week. “So, quality of life is very near and dear to my heart. I've dedicated my career to work on it constantly.”

“I started in the industry two years before Graeme,” said Paul Jaquays, an artist at Ensemble. Jaquays, entered games in the 8-bit years, serving as Director of Game Design at Coleco. “I've seen both sides of it. I've worked for hellish companies, and I've worked for fantastic companies. I've got opinions on both sides of what makes them work, and what doesn't.”

Lori Durham described herself as a late-comer to the industry, with prior experience in management and product management. Durham is VP of Operations at publisher Aspyr. “Because I've worked in a lot of different industries, I know it's not unique to the game industry, but it is definitely something that is worthy of conversation. And I think we have more control over it than we sometimes think we do.”

“I just realized, after hearing Lori talk, that she's going to steal everything I want to say,” Leah Heck said. Heck works with Durham at Aspyr, as Director of Marketing. Heck agreed, further saying that the game industry has more control over certain aspects – especially when compared with client-based service businesses – and this extra control adds to a greater possibility to achieve a better quality of life.

“Interestingly enough, when Graeme was at Atari, and Paul was at ColecoVision, I was Director of Game Design for Intellivision.” said Don Daglow, now president of Stormfront Studios. He saw the hand of the steering committee in this coincidence, “Because the old-timers have seen this issue dealt with in a lot of different ways, and a lot of different settings.”

Don Daglow (Stormfront Studios), Leah Heck (Aspyr), Lori Durham (Aspyr), Paul Jaquays (Ensemble Studios), Mike McShaffry (BreakAway Games), Graeme Devine, moderator.

Devine asked each of the panelists to describe what quality of life meant “right now.”

“The interesting thing about quality of life is that it's so personal,” Durham said. “You really can't define it.” Durham's quality of life priorities have changed at different stages of his life. A number of factors can affect it, from personal health, to family health, to parenthood, to hobbies, to whether you work at a place you enjoy. “There are so many things that can affect it.”

Personally, the most important thing to Durham is that she has a reasonably good quality of life inside of work, and outside of work. “You won't always have a perfect balance as far as how many hours you're outside of the office, and how many hours you're inside the office.” As long as you feel good about where you are at that moment, Durham thinks that's what matters. The biggest question you have to ask yourself is, ‘What are my own personal values today?'

Daglow sees things in terms of his team. “As a studio head, you have a sense of who's hurting at any given time, just as you walk around the studio.” Sometimes it will be coincidental. One team member recently lost a parent. “That's a hurt you can't do anything about. You feel it, but you can't do anything about it.” Daglow admitted. But when the team is hurting from the level of effort that's being put into a project, “That's something that you feel. And it gets me right in here.”

“What quality of life means to me,” McShaffry said. “Is that you're just a generally happy person.” You have to have some level of happiness inside work, and outside work, in all the aspects of your life. These are going to ebb and flow, McShaffry concedes, but he thinks people are happiest at work when they are pushing themselves a little farther than they thought they could go. He warns there is a delicate barrier that you can easily push past.

If you begin to feel yourself pushed way too far, whether by management, or your own drive to create ‘the thing that you just can't,' then struggling to attain what you cannot have is something that creates unhappiness. “We love to struggle to attain what we can have. But if you struggle to attain what you cannot, you will be unhappy.” McShaffry said.

One of many, many moments of levity during this panel.

“Quality of life is feeling what I do on my current project matters,” stated Paul Jaquays. What he loves about his job is: when Monday morning rolls around, he can't wait to get into work. “I'm ready to put the weekend behind me, and get back to doing what I love.” He further cites the feeling of making important decisions that affect how the game looks, and plays. Enjoying the daily challenges, and being able to go home at the end of the day, and draw a line between work and home.

And finally, being able to surround himself with people he likes working with. “Everyone that's been hired while I've been at the company, I've had a say in whether they get hired or not.” Just as previous employees had a chance to say if Jaquays himself was hired. “So I'm working with people who brought me in, because they wanted to work with me.” Which creates an incredible team synergy where you're not working with someone the boss brought in, “you're working with people you want to work with.”

Heck agrees, saying that across the spectrum of experiences, the thing she's identified as her quality of life is working with great people. “The games industry is a creative, supportive environment.” One thing she found interesting at Aspyr, as a growing company they've been adding people left and right, is that you have to be careful when you start tinkering with an environment that's been “so supportive and lovely. You put a bad seed in there and it takes really quickly.”

Seeing so many people come in, and realizing that they're not really accepting that same supportive environment, Heck has been trying to convey a work code, an ethos to new hires. “We don't deal with assholes, and we have no egos, and there's no bullshit. Those things are very important, because it is a team—”

“We accept cursing,” Durham adds.

“—As a publisher,” Heck continued. “We have a marketing team, we have a project management team, we have developers, we have producers. It's a pretty large organization. And we all have to work together.” No one person in the company is more important than the other. “The point is, the structure of people within the organization, to me, has what defines whether my quality of life feels good or not.”

It doesn't matter to Heck if six-thirty, seven o'clock rolls around, and she's still at the office. “Everyone there is fun, wonderful. And I feel like we're working together as a team, for a common goal. And we know at some point, there's going to be a launch party. Because it's going to be done.”



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