Think working in the games industry would be an exciting career move? The spotlight on poor working conditions in the games industry – kicked off last month by a spate of online testimonials from disgruntled developers – has an all too familiar ring to it for local games developers.

Bill Roper, former producer at Blizzard Entertainment (Warcraft, StarCraft and Diablo), delivered a keynote to the Australian Gaming Developers Conference on the subject of staff morale, inspired by recent public debate about working conditions such as high pressure project crunch times and unpaid overtime, which have become standard procedure in the $40 billion game software market.

Roper, now CEO of Flagship Studios, gave a speech at the conference titled -The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: Shootout at the OK Morale” to a local industry that, while healthy – earning export revenue of $100 million in 2002 – is characterised by many of the poor working conditions being debated overseas.

In Australia, developers report that unpaid overtime, working weeks of 50 hours – reaching up to 80 hours in crunch periods – and the sacrifice of weekends is typical.

According to the anonymous -ea_spouse” blog, Electronic Arts in the US expected employees to work 80 hour, 7 day weeks, even at non-peak times of the development cycle. Equivalent workloads were also found in Australia, particularly at crunch times, says Morgan Jaffit, former game and level designer at Australian developers Irrational Games and Relic Entertainment.

-Crunch is expected in the games industry – it’s now at the point where companies won’t even bother lying in interviews anymore,” says Jaffit. -When I started in the industry four years ago I asked flat-out if crunch time was likely and was told no. These days you ask and everyone just says ‘Yeah, fact of life. Deal with it or go into another industry.'”

-EA is a little different, as they make it compulsory – but peer pressure might as well make it compulsory everywhere else. Try keeping regular hours at most game companies and see how long you last, especially if you try pulling that sort of stuff during the end of a project cycle, or near a milestone, or near E3, or near a monthly deadline.”

Another developer, Perception employee David Carson, said in his year’s experience in the industry, the worst crunch he’d heard of was of developers working 7 day, 70 hour weeks at the end of a project cycle. -I’ve never heard of anyone demanding anything like that at non-peak times,” he says.

One junior developer, who declined to be identified, said -I still don’t have any released titles under my belt, so the ‘major crunch’ is something I haven’t experienced yet. But, on the other hand, I have worked several weeks where we stay until 12am every night, come in on weekends and generally get shafted as far as a social life goes.”

As the value of the games industry grows (PricewaterhouseCoopers figures put it on par with Hollywood’s box office takings, making over $40 billion in 2003), developers are becoming increasingly critical of their employers failure to pay overtime during crunch project times.

Jaffit, now working at Montreal’s A2M, has worked in games development companies in Australia and Canada, and says -to my knowledge, no developer job exists which offers overtime.”

-The usual justification for this being unpaid is that no game company could afford to pay overtime. That seems sloppy from my point of view – if you can’t afford to ask that from your employees, you shouldn’t ask it. This is business, not the buddy buddy happy hour.”

-The simple fact though, is that if you can exploit your workers, why wouldn’t you?”

But some companies do compensate staff for overtime, according to Perception employee Dale Pearce, a quality assurance tester with 2 Ã,½ years’ experience in the industry. As a casual working at Torus in Melbourne, he received extra pay for overtime, while fulltime staff accrued holidays. -Some staff could easily rack up months worth of holiday time,” he says.

-At Perception we have the option of more pay or holiday time.”

Another developer, who declined to be named, said it is -incredibly hard” to get paid overtime. -The general concensus seems to be that if you have to work late, you’re not doing enough work during the day.”

While the developers interviewed were of the view that crunch times were an inevitable part of the industry, even the standard hours during non-peak times were long, according to Jaffit. -It’s worth getting used to a 50 hour week as a bare minimum,” he says. -That spikes to 70-80 hour weeks for about three months of every year.

The Relic team working on Homeworld 2 were working 80 hour weeks in the last month of the project, Jaffit says.

Sometimes crunch times blew out due to poor management, said one anonymous developer.

-The largest problem with people pulling overtime is that the people highest up on the gaming foodchain as a general rule know very little about games. This is not uncommon for the creative/IT industry, but as a result you get completely unrealistic demands just because something ‘seems’ easy to the uninitiated. This unfortunately starts a vicious circle, where if you won’t stay late to pull off completely wild demands then they’ll find someone who will, which will solidify their idea that you’re just lazy instead of realistic.”

The notion that hoardes of keen young developers are clamouring for jobs in game development has allowed development houses to keep conditions poor, says Jaffit. According to several developers who wished to remain anonymous, questionable practices have been experienced at a number of Australian companies.

One company was claimed to have staff working for free on the understanding that they would get paid if a publishing deal came through. One former employee of another company claimed staff had promised rewards, such as a trip to Bali as compensation for long hours, which were never delivered. -They pulled stunts like making everyone work long hours in crunch times, even if they didn’t personally have lots of work to do, to ‘raise morale’, said one former employee.

-Almost everyone who has worked there would have something to say about the unpaid overtime, being promised stuff which never eventuates just so they’ll work harder and also being told that they should do it just because it’s what the industry is like.”

But experienced developers don’t have nearly such a great [salary] difference to other industries, said Carson, a new employee of Perception and the former co-founder and technical director of middleware start-up Hemicube.

But there is another side to the coin, according to Pearce.

-That thought is always in a number of people’s minds – that if we fire you today, there will be always someone just as good as you and more keen to join up tomorrow – but I’ve seen a few facts to disagree with that anology here at Perception and at Torus.”

-When a person does leave a programming/art/level design job, sometimes it’s extremely hard and time consuming to get a replacement who is just as qualified. There are a lot of keen people out there, but there aren’t too many people that are actually good at it, or they just wouldn’t suit the work environment so they won’t get in.”

The shortage of experienced developers may help maintain conditions as companies seek to recruit and keep experienced staff. Global games developer and publisher THQ will look overseas as it attempts to hire another 50 developers for its Australian operation over the next three years, says vice president of product development for Asia Pacific, Steve Dauterman.

But whether companies believe it’s also desirable to abandon practices such as unpaid overtime and -death march” crunch hours remains to be seen.

With groups such as the Game Developers Association of Australia lobbying the government to introduce tax breaks for game development similar to those offered to filmmakers, the Australian industry is hoping to maintain its appeal as a low cost location for game development work.

But as game development grows from being a cottage industry to a multi-billion dollar industry, Jaffit believes that its business practices aren’t keeping pace with its bulging bottom line.

-I think we’re currently turning into Hollywood, but without any union protection of the workers. We’re turning into massive billion dollar corporations but keeping the business model that we used when we were operating out of people’s basements.”

-The industry has to grow up, and the only way it’s going to happen is for someone to take the lead and show everyone that you can operate like a real business and still make great games.