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Opinion: Working For Big Game Publishers

Following Gamasutra's <a href="http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/3656/quality_of_life_does_anyone_still_.php">recent quality of life feature</a>, Dynamix and GarageGames co-founder Jeff Tunnell looks sharply at the challenges and pitfalls of working f

Jeff Tunnell, Blogger

June 23, 2008

9 Min Read

[In the wake of Gamasutra's recent quality of life feature, Dynamix and GarageGames co-founder Jeff Tunnell - currently blogging at the Make It Big In Games weblog - revisits a no-holds-barred editorial he wrote on the potential dangers of working for large game publishers.] Publishers such as Electronic Arts, Activision, Ubisoft, and Microsoft are the largest sources of money and employment in the games industry. They create billions of dollars of revenue, then reinvest it in development, marketing, distribution, and overhead, and what is left over is their profit. In some cases this profit is huge (Electronic Arts), and in some cases pathetic (Atari). If you are considering working either directly or peripherally for these publishers, it is important to note these profit numbers. Here’s why. Companies that are on the very edge of existence such as Atari (or Acclaim not too long ago) may very well go out of business before your check is cashed for either direct wages, expenses owed, or developer/contractor milestones. In addition, this financial condition makes them desperate, with the treatment and well-being of their employees and developers being the last thing on their minds. Quality of products goes out the window as well, further exacerbating the downward spiral. The lesson here is to make sure to check the financial condition of the company you intend to work for. A simple check on Yahoo! Finance will give you all of the information you need to know. Look at their profits and losses for the last two years. Are they making money? Look at their balance sheet. Do they have any cash? Finally, just talk to your friends. Have any of you been impressed with any game they have come out with in the last two years? Do they have any products you are looking forward to? Have they dealt away their best franchises to other publishers in an effort to raise cash? You can take a calculated risk and go to work for a publisher that is on the ropes, but remember this is a business of, “What have you done for me lately?” Working on a game for a year or so that does not ship, and is then held under NDA so you can’t even show your work to prospective employers produces a big hole in your resume and makes it difficult to get another chance. My advice is, no matter how desperate you are to get into the games business, don’t go to work for a company teetering on the brink of collapse. So, if you should not work for a weak, money losing publisher, what about the powerful, money-making giants? Publishers that make a lot of money have their own set of problems. Now, a lot of these problems described below are the same in any big company, but you should be aware of what goes on before you take the plunge. Most large companies pay lip service to being a great place to work, but in reality they make so much money that they tend to not care for their employees. Large companies chide their middle managers into exercising a process they call “churn”, using a simple phrase like, “How is your churn coming?” Churn is a code word which means firing the bottom-performing 10% of your employees every year and replacing them with a new, promising group of wide-eyed recruits who will not have chips on their shoulders, and who are willing to play into the “work them like dogs until they break” business model. It is easy to see how employees become unmotivated when they are expected to work incredibly long and intense hours for months on end. In the widely-circulated blog post written by an EA employee’s wife four years ago, the pressures of crunch time on employees became a nationwide issue, causing the company to consider its methods. The blog post detailed how the company pressured employees to work 80-100 hour weeks starting nine months before the completion of the game. Of course, everybody in the games business can expect to crunch four to six, or maybe even ten, weeks prior to the end of development of any game. That is just the way it is, but nine months was an indicator that it is actually in the company’s business plan to overwork and burn out employees. So you know you will have to work at least 50 hour weeks with a crunch at the end, but everything else will be hunky dory, right? Not exactly. A natural part of working for a big company is politics. In a word, you will be judged on whom you know and where you choose to put your internal allegiances almost more than what your work product looks like. If you choose to back an ambitious producer or VP who has a falling out with an EVP or other higher executive, guess what happens to your product and your future chances of advancement at the company? Yep, poof! Or, even better, you befriend one of these ladder climbers and tell him your best ideas for how you think your project’s development could be made better. Imagine how great it feels when, at the next staff meeting, your ideas magically become his! Welcome to the world of big company politics. For all of this anguish, you will be compensated fairly well. Average programmers at large publishers make decent to good wages. But, when you consider publishers are almost always located in the most expensive areas to live such as Los Angeles or the Bay Area, these wages will not go as far as you think. In addition, most people get caught up in the stress of the situation and start to give themselves “presents” such as expensive new cars, exotic vacations, and other such baubles as compensation. Add in stretching for an overpriced home, and soon, the need for this steady stream of large income is an addictive process and cannot be easily escaped. If you ever want to go indie or start your own company, you must resist this temptation. You do not want to become a “sharecropper” for the rest of your life. In the early days of the high technology industry, stock options were widely circulated as the ultimate payoff for employees expected to work as if they were a principal of the company. As companies such as Electronic Arts became publicly traded and grew from several million dollars in sales to hundreds of millions to billions, their market cap grew quickly, so that four or five years on the front lines could often mean a million or so dollars in stock option appreciation, in addition to traditional wages. These kind of rewards made it worth the effort, but now stock options are only reserved for the select top few and are increasingly coming under the scrutiny of the SEC, and the upside of any game publisher’s stock is no longer as attractive. As a result, wages made today are the only compensation you will get for working harder than you ever have in your life. But, if the work is hard and the politics are bad, then working on great games will make up for it, right? As anybody who plays games knows, the industry is getting more and more conservative, and good games are getting harder to find. Sequels litter the landscape. If an idea was good once, won’t it be even better the sixth or eighth time? Licenses from books or movies seem to calm the executives' risk worries, so Harry Potter, Spider-Man, the NFL, The Simpsons, and other big name IPs are used over and over. Even original, game-driven IPs are stretched to the limit. Does anyone doubt, with the recent success of of GTA IV, that game makers will eventually be toiling on Grand Theft Auto IX? But work on these monstrous, next-generation versions of big licenses and sequels will be interesting, won’t it? If you consider creating algorithms for realistically making sweat roll off the eyebrow of an ultra-realistic football or basketball player interesting work, then the answer is yes. You will not get to work on the creative design work at the front end of a product. That is reserved for the executive design team of producer and director. Instead, you will be forced into the tiniest of niches, much like a modern age factory worker, dutifully cranking out code snippets or art widgets under the strictest of controls and supervision. Should you find the work tolerable and the products acceptable, and you decide to commit your life energy to helping bring these products to market, making high-level executives rich, surely the companies will reward you with a secure job considering the amount of profits they make? Not true. One of the biggest mistakes people make when working for one of these huge corporations is thinking they are secure. The executives at the top of the company care about one thing, and one thing only: profits, and not just profits, but increasing profits on a quarterly basis. Remember, the people at the top are paid in stock and options, so their wages are tied to making the price of the stock go up. As a result, they feel no remorse in laying off an entire team once a product has shipped or it is canceled. Consider this: two years ago, the entire Digital Illusions Canada team was laid off after completion of the latest Battlefield product. Two weeks later, EA announced its largest quarterly profit in company history. The moral is that even the best teams working on highly successful products for the largest and most profitable game company in the world in the best financial quarter in the company’s history can immediately find themselves out of a job. Putting in some slave labor at an established publisher can teach you a lot about the game’s industry in a couple of years, and give you a good resume to start you own company. Just remember, if you do choose to work for one of these companies, please follow much of the advice in my Foundational Five blog piece, keep your resume up to date, and always be prepared for the worst. Remember: these people are not your family, in fact, they are not even your friends. [Jeff Tunnell is a serial gaming entrepreneur, having co-founded Dynamix (sold to Sierra/Vivendi) and GarageGames (sold to IAC, Inc.). He has produced, directed, or designed over 70 games including The Incredible Machine, Starsiege: Tribes, and Trophy Bass.]

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