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Q&A: Keith Fuller on the business realities of crunch, and how to overcome them

Veteran producer and consultant Keith Fuller speaks with Gamasutra about what it takes to push back against cultures of overwork in game studios, especially studios that are supporting living, evolving games.

In this (lightly edited) interview, veteran producer and consultant Keith Fuller speaks with Gamasutra about what it takes to push back against cultures of overwork in game studios, especially studios that are supporting living, evolving games.

Read Fuller's and other producers' insights in this feature article.

Do you think it's possible to support a live game in a sustainable, effective way, without crunching?

Fuller: I think it's possible. I think that you have to plan for it in, and the main way you can plan for that is something companies bypass all the time, which is figuring out a set of values for the company in advance that are actually meaningful. And aren't just pretty words that go up on the website, but are actual guidelines that the company uses to make decisions.

So if you don't have that in place, then when you get into a scenario, which on the face of it sounds really attractive: Fortnite, overnight success. We've won the lottery. We put the thing out on Monday, on Tuesday it's raking in a million dollars a day. Oh my gosh, what do we do? Nobody has a page in the playbook for that. What if we make ten thousand times more than we thought we might, overnight? "Oh that's on page 7, let's just do what it says there." No one has that. So the only thing that you can really do to prepare yourself to act well is to know your values as a company in advance. 

Big companies seem to have a tendency to accommodate the needs of customers at the expense of employees' needs. What sorts of values should companies prioritize to combat that, and push back against the practice of crunch?

First of all, I hate to get hung up on specific words or semantics, but words do have meanings so we've got to start there. So I only use the word overwork to describe situations that we find all too common in game development. And that's for the simple reason that crunch means different things to different people.

For some people that means working half an hour past 5 PM, one day a year. Some people view that as crunch. Some people don't think much of 80 hours of work a week. But overwork is when you are pushing someone past their reasonable parameters of mental and physical wellbeing. Or demanding that they do so, either explicitly or through the veiled aspects of the workplace culture.

So given that, what are the things that you could be doing to prevent overwork in a scenario such as an incredibly successful live ops game? Well, one thing you would do up front is say "Okay folks, we're embarking on this endeavor, hopefully it's gonna do X. Maybe it'll be ten TIMES X, maybe it'll even be a MILLION times X, but regardless, we are NOT going to demand more than 10 percent additional hours from anybody, and not for more than two weeks at a time. And even if we do, we are going to be setting up comp time, you will be given 2-3 free days off at the end of such a period, because we value the mental and physical health of our people above all else, even above having an enormously happy, rabid fanbase around the world."

So that is an example of the sorts of values-based decision that a company should be making in advance. Just being super clear that yes, we will serve our fans, we will make them happy to whatever reasonable extent we can, but what is unreasonable is that we then exploit our people beyond the limits of their wellbeing.

Why do you think it's reasonable for a company to lay out a clear expectation of extra work at all?

So it is, by and large, a big-budget, deadline-driven industry. And as I had it put to me by my boss years and years and years ago, who had it put to him by HIS boss, if it's coming down to the wire, and it's end of day Friday, and we have to get a build to Apple, or our publisher, or our client, whatever. We have a deadline, and it's 5 PM. You're telling me that you will hold up a contractually-obligated delivery to our client or publisher for another three days, because you can't possibly stay an extra 45 minutes to do one more texture? Really? Is that what you're gonna tell me?

So that's just sort of the viewpoint, that we can always put six pounds of flour in a five-pound sack. Everyone knows you can do that.

Can you share some relevant examples, from places you've worked at or consulted with?

Well to be clear, there are no other examples you can point ot that are of a Fortnite caliber, right. I mean, the closest you could come over time, you're looking at only games int he past 5 years or so are even possible to put in that same bucket. And so what are your options in that space? You could possibly say World of Tanks maybe is in a similar boat or something like that, but there just aren't that many examples to draw from.

And honestly, I have not seen a company even lay claim to to promoting healthy practices that might conflict with delivering to the customer. I haven't even seen companies lay claim to that, much less actually execute on that. The closest I've come, I thought it was a fascinating juxtaposition of news items to look at the Fortnite bit that came out, and then what, 24 hours later, we see the folks at Respawn talking about Apex Legends. Going "well we could do that, but we don't think that benefits our people, so we're going to stick to a seasonal delivery schedule instead." That's the closest we've come to seeing anybody even make a statement like that in that space.

Now it seems as though they're making good on those words, that they're executing on that, they aren't putting out daily deliveries or whatever Fortnite's doing. But then also, the next thing that people do is, they put up the monthly active users, daily active users charts, for those games. And okay well, great, it's wonderful you're doing that for your team on Apex. Let's compare your active users vs. those of Fortnite. Oh, look. Yours are horrendously cyclical and trending downwards, while Fortnite is skyrocketing off the planet. From a business standpoint, which one should we be doing?

I had someone ask me a question, awhile back, in the wake of the Activision layoffs. Within 72 hours or whatever it was they lay off almost 800 people, then they have a quarterly earnings report where they say they're doing better than they were a year ago. And people say wait, how are those two things even possible? How can you say you have this much money, you just gave a $15 million signing bonus to a new CFO, how can you have the highest paid CEO in the industry, and you had to lay off 800 people?

And my response was, the problem with which we're faced is that Bobby Kotick is doing a good job. He's doing what he's supposed to do. He's pleasing the shareholders, he's keeping the stock price up, and the difficulty therefore is in the system he's serving. By virtue of the fact that capitalism is what it is, you can absolutely be put in a position where the best job you can do is exploit the people beneath you.

What arguments can devs make that treating workers well is good for the bottom line?

There are two axes on which I judge actions of a company. And one of them is the business value. So is there an actual return on investment? Does it impact the bottom line to pursue this particular activity, or commit to this action over here? Great. You use a scale of 1-10, how much business sense does this make. And then you can make the call. I think that's what's happening at Bobby Kotick's level, where he's saying yeah, from a business standpoint it makes sense to lay off these 800 people. Stock price stays good, shareholders are happy, okay great.

But that's one of the two axes; the other axis, the one I prefer to judge companies' actions on, is this: humanity. What is the impact on actual living human beings of the decisions you are making? So yeah, it's absolutely possible that you can get a young enough, emotionally invested enough, naive enough team of developers together. You can institute enough peer pressure, veiled threats of losing your job, you put all these ingredients together, and you can, for a period of time, maybe an unfortunately long period of time, generate phenomenal returns for the company. Long term, I'm going to say that's not worth it for a number of reasons. Short term, it's not worth it for one freaking minute because of the human cost.

And I've spoken to friends that I have within Epic and while I can't expose any confidential information here, they were impacted by this article that came out as much as anyone else. And there were folks in the highest levels of leadership that said "hey wait, is this true?" And they went in and investigated and found, "you know what, we have recorded people's overtime hours, and across the board it is not as bad as that article claims." Maybe they spoke to the twelve people who, for whatever reason, were treated the worst during Fortnite's development cycle. But as a company, as a team, as a project, this simply is not how we operate.

Okay, let's take that at face value. But were one of those people mentioned in the article impacted the way they claim? Was one of them telling the truth? Was one person fired because they wouldn't work a weekend? Was one person driven to the point of tears because of mental and physical exhaustion? Then you've failed. You've failed as a leader, you've failed as a company. Because you've set up an ecosystem that allows that to happen to one human being.

That's judging a company's actions on the human impact, and I'd say even if that's only 5 percent or a 1 percent outlier, what was described in the Fortnite article, that is still a horrible mistake that needs to be openly addressed. And needs to be changed.

What's a good example of how a company faced with such a dilemma might deal with it in a healthy, effective way?

So, values are wonderful. They're important words that hopefully drive the company's actions, but they're words. Culture is action. that's what you actually do. And if you have a discrepancy between your values and your culture, that's called a lack of integrity.

So what you need to do to have a healthy company is, everyone impacts the culture but leaders have disproportionate impact. So from the CEO, from the studio head on down, you need to be making abundantly clear: these are our values, as pertain to the health and wellbeing of our people. And these are some of the guidelines that we recommend to all levels of management to make sure our people stay healthy.

So we engage in regular and frequent one-on-one discussions with everyone we're responsible for. We explain to our leaders regularly, through company-wide communication, the expectations that we have documented for their role as a leader in the company to maintain the health and wellbeing of our people. So when you set forth that sort of culture, from those values, and every level of leadership on down to the lowest nodes of the organization are going to be acting on these principles, and we're going to talk about them all the time using shared language to describe them. Then you have a company in which everybody understands wow, they really do value our health here! They don't want us burning out. They don't want us feeling mentally, emotionally, or physically drained, and they take steps to make sure that doesn't happen. Great. That's how we set up a healthy company to begin with.

Now, when you encounter the "we won the lottery" scenario, the open discussion you need to have at that point is "listen, holy crap. We have 10 billion users now, which is great because it's more than the population of the whole planet. However, we are not going to let any sort of development schedule, any sort of player demands, any expectations of our customers, exceed the capacity for us to keep our people healthy. Given what I just said, now tell me how we're going to handle the fact that we just won the lottery." And that's when people would say okay, I guess we can outsource this, and increase recruiting, and so on and so forth, understanding that those are somewhat longer-term scenarios. You can't push a button and double your headcount overnight, wisely. But those are the sorts of discussions that should be had.

Now I totally understand how a team could get into a situation like the Fortnite team found themselves in; because it's very easy to just take, as a given, that "oh well of course we're gonna give the players what they want! Of course we're gonna do what makes them happy!" Nobody in their right mind is walking through the halls of the company at any point in time thinking "you know we really only please customers on Thursdays, so today, screw 'em!" Nobody does that!

So it was just sort of taken as understood, as given, as axiomatic that of course we're going to give the players whatever we reasonably can, and maybe some things we can't reasonably deliver. And because that just becomes, quickly, an unspoken guideline, and nobody questions it and everybody just takes it as a given, then 8-10 weeks later, 4 months later, a year later, that has spiraled out of control because nobody questioned it at the outset in light of their stated values. So it went from "well of course we make the players happy!" to "holy crap we have to have a feature update every two weeks and it has to have this, this and this, and we have to have bug fixes, and we have to have yadda yadda yadda." All built on the faulty premise that we will do whatever it takes to make our customers happy.

If that's your value, wonderful. God bless you. You've stated that's the most important thing for your company. That is not, to my mind, an acceptable value that prevails over the wellbeing of your people. But that's your prerogative if you want to create your company that way.

Any specific recommendations you'd make for teams looking to set up effective overwork-deterrent systems, and how to bulletproof them?

If you don't have a studio leader or CEO on board with this concept, there is nothing you can do. Because when push comes to shove, everybody reports to that person. And if that person says "we're gonna make the customers happy, no matter what. We're going to deliver that build to the publisher, no matter what. We're going to get the demo ready for E3, no matter what," then that's what's gonna happen.

Now if that person is in fact onboard with these values, okay then now we can have a discussion. What you need is a system in place that is going to ensure everyone knows wellbeing is a priority, and we are taking steps to ensure that everybody is in fact mentally and physically well. The sorts of things that happen then are, I'll just throw out a couple of examples, so a friend of mine, Tanya X. Short of Kitfox Games, she is awesome and she's adamant about supporting the values that they have, to the extent that, I don't remember if it's weekly or daily, but they'll have the whole team stand up and, every day, they'll go over one of their values. I don't know whether it's player design, or whatever the value of the day is, but they openly talk about them every week, at least. And you've got the head of the company right there, engaged in the conversation.

So that's something you can do at that level. When you're talking about larger organizations with large hierarchies, there needs to be explicit expectations for anyone in a leadership role. And if it's a list in three bullet points, fine; that's a start. But that's three bullets more than what most companies do. One of those bullets is, it is your job to promote and protect the health and well-being of your peopel. Full stop. That's it, that is what we expect of you. And, whatever else are your deliverables. But this is an expectation that is placed on you.

Then, we provide leadership training, which again, very few companies (especially in games) ever do, and we talk about this as an expectation that's on you. Here are the steps we take to make sure you're prepared to keep your people healthy. Maybe we send all our leaders to mental health first aid training. Maybe we make sure that you are trained to use specific language to ensure you're empathetic and supportive of your people. We ensure that we have regular and frequent one-on-onesl. Every person that you're responsible for on your team, you will have a one-on-one with them. And these are the sorts of things you'll discuss. And part of that is going to involve "hey, how are you? How are you doing? I care about your physical health, your mental health. Do you feel the workload is too much? Do you have enough autonomy? Do you feel your status is threatened in any way?" These sorts of things.

So there's a level of values discussion that needs to take place, it needs to be propagated downwards by wise leaders, and there needs to be a set of explicit expectations for all levels of leadership, and training to back that up.

Were you ever overworked while working in games?


I worked at a triple-A studio for 11 years. And the last game I participated in the development of, as a fingers-on-keyboard developer, was an installment of Call of Duty. So, yes. It's safe to say I was overworked.

And I also understand that a lot of people want to just lay that at the feet of management. "We missed a deadline and we're overworking, that's bad management."No, no. Most of the time it is, I'm not going to argue with that. But there are many self-inflicted injuries that game developers participate in, and unwisely propagate. So I willingly slept on the floor under my desk overnight, and worked 26 hours straight. I remember doing those sorts of things because everyone around me was doing it, and I thought this was what I had to do to make it in the game industry.

So getting rid of that badge of courage nonsense, just jack-a-ninny mentality, that's a step we can all be working on. And again it's going to come from propagating wise values down from the top levels of leadership. But it's absolutely an open discussion that we need to have, on social media, at events, at conferences. These are the things people need to hear.

Because the next generation of game developers, they need to know: this is not okay. If anyone asks you to do this, it's not okay. If you think you need to do it yourself, unasked? Also not okay. Because you're burning yourself out, and you're continuing to propagate negative connotations of the industry at large.

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