Beachside Burnout

The Team Bondi revelations shock few in the industry and that is a shameful thing.

Published as part of our sister-site GamesIndustry.biz's widely-read weekly newsletter, the GamesIndustry.biz Editorial, is a weekly dissection of an issue weighing on the minds of the people at the top of the games business. It appears on Eurogamer after it goes out to GI.biz newsletter subscribers.

It's not the celebration of the successful completion of a long and gruelling project for which management at Team Bondi might have hoped. Only weeks after L.A. Noire finally hit store shelves - picking up extremely positive reviews along the way - the studio is embroiled in a scandal over its working conditions, with present and former employees coming forward in droves to denounce the treatment of staff and the behaviour of senior management at the studio.

This isn't a new debate, of course, any more than it's a new problem. It doesn't take a very long memory to recall the "EA Spouse" controversy that erupted in late 2004 when Erin Hoffmann - whose fiancee was a developer at Electronic Arts - wrote a then-anonymous post heavily criticising the company's work practices, especially the unjustifiably lengthy periods of "crunch" which had become endemic at some development studios.

Work practices are absolutely going to have to change and improve for the simple reason that it defies all commercial logic to continue acting in this way.

As such, while actual apologists for Team Bondi are few and far between, plenty of the reaction from within the industry has been to shrug expansively and say, "yeah, it happens". After the EA Spouse affair shone a harsh light on this side of the industry, things did improve a little - but more than the Team Bondi affair itself, the "hey, that's life" response of the wider industry illustrates just how little we've really moved on.

It's important, of course, to be realistic. The games industry is a creative industry, and as such it's not always possible to place exact timelines on development tasks. Flexibility is often needed - more so on some types of games than on others, granted, but the point is that in order to meet deadlines and maintain quality, a certain degree of crunch is to be expected, and a certain willingness to view the project as a labour of love that deserves the odd evening of overtime is required of employees.

This is not, in any way, shape or form, a justification for managers deciding that crunch can be factored into their project management, or can last for months at a time. It's certainly not a justification for simply having no project management worth a damn at all, choosing instead to prop up the weaknesses of dreadful management by forcing employees to work unreasonable hours. Nor is it a justification for managers deciding that since the project is a labour of love, employees won't mind if that overtime becomes expected or even compulsory, rather than occasional and given willingly.

Yet this is exactly what happens at a truly depressing number of companies in the games industry - a proportion of them large enough, in fact, that firms who don't practice endless crunch as part of their development strategy find it worthwhile to promote this fact heavily in their job advertising. It says absolutely nothing good about the games industry at all that something which effectively translates as "we're not complete bastards to work for!" is considered to be a prime selling point when advertising for new staff.

The reason that apologists haven't exactly flocked to Team Bondi is that, even accepting that many ex-employees probably have an axe to grind and even present employees are liable to exaggeration, this still seems to have been an especially unpleasant and abusive situation. The work practices in question aren't uncommon, but rarely are they quite so harsh, so liberally used or so heavily enforced by a studio's management. Few really want to condemn the practices themselves, but even fewer want to be seen to defend a fairly indefensible situation.

Yet those same work practices are absolutely going to have to change and improve, not for the bleeding-heart sake of the poor oppressed employees, but for the simple reason that it defies all commercial logic to continue acting in this way. Squeezing your employees is profitable in the short term - few studios pay overtime, so you're basically getting enhanced productivity for the price of leaving the lights switched on a few hours longer, and possibly ordering in some free pizza. In the long term, however, it's a disastrous approach to doing business.

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