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Independent game development studio strives to redefine work conditions

Most people want to be part of a work environment that they truly love. The entertainment industry (video gaming, movies, music etc.) seems to offer at least the idea of a dream job but even they are not immune from serious employee strife from time to time. From the various musicians strikes of the early forties to the more recent Writers Guild of America strike of 2007-2008...entertainment union organizations like the American Federation of Musicians (AFM), National Writers Union (NWU), and the Writers Guild of America (WGA) were founded with the intention to ensure fair wages and working conditions for their members.

As the games industry continues to grow a certain mind frame of what it means to work in the games industry has become more apparent and it's not all fun and "games". Overtime and long hours are commonplace within the industry, especially in the AAA studios, where this kind of work culture is expected.

But should it be? That is the question that owner of Nine Dots Studio Guillaume Boucher Vidal asked himself when he began to conceptualize the business structure of his own games studio. His goal? To create a studio and work model that both increased efficiency and ensured a better working environment for his game developers.

We wanted to hear from Vidal in order to gain some insight into the problems he sees with the working conditions of the video games industry, and to let him explain the changes he proposes.

Jesse Tannous: What are some of the biggest problems you see in the video game industry in relation to work conditions?

Guillaume Boucher Vidal: By far the worst is crunch time, which is the expectation of developers to work for a crazy high amount of hours per week over a long period. This is by far the most destructive and inefficient practice of the industry and it is fairly common.

Another very common problem is the lack of creative input from the developers on what they are working on. Usually they are treated like cogs in the machine, doing exactly what they are told and having their feedback and suggestions ignored most of the time in favor of the lead's initial idea. The problem with this lack of flexibility is that it affects how invested developers are into the project and thus they don't meet their full potential.

Another big problem in my opinion is the general idea of iterative design taking over the development practices of so many studios. I believe in good planning and strong pre-production phases. Once you hit production phase, you should know where you are going, why it's going to be fun, what are your priorities and what is the project's global vision. If you haven't nailed down all this, you're not ready to start working on the game. Do a few prototypes, sure, but there is so much waste in game development, it's crazy. I've seen developers proudly say they've redone the same level seven times until it was done right. That's not something to be proud of, that's a clear sign that there was a lack of direction to start with. Of course, some things will be started over and mistakes will be made, but it should be nowhere near what it looks like at the moment.

JT: What do you do differently in your organization?

GV: First off, in pre-production phase, we decide together what kind of game we want to make. It has to be a game we want to play as well. We discuss about what should be the pillars of the game's design and think of different feels and approach the game could have. We talk about what we want to express, what ideas should be pushed, etc. Once everyone's input has been taken into account and only then do I start making a One Pager proposition of the game's design. It will be discussed, modified and ultimately approved by the team before I start working on a 10 pager document that explains the core mechanics in detail. Once this is done, we have a good idea of what prototypes we should be making to verify our ability to make that game happen and I start making the GDD. Once the GDD is made, the prototypes are over and we all know, agree and love the direction in which we are going. There will be a lot of changes during the development of the game, but the pillars won't be challenged and changes will be on specific things, not general directions. Keep in mind however that involving everyone in the creative process doesn't mean saying yes to everybody. It means including in the discussions and explaining to them why some ideas were retained and why some other ideas might be better for a different game.

This whole process of getting everyone involved makes them more committed and they perform better. They take responsibility for the features that we agreed together. Passion makes a huge difference. Some people would argue that such a process is not feasible with gigantic teams of 200 people or more. I would argue that companies who can afford that many salaries can afford a better planning phase, and I would also argue that a team of 80 who went through that process could make a game that would normally take 300 persons to make.

Then, we make a list of each and every feature we want in the game and do an estimation of how long it will take to develop. We ask everyone to participate to this process and we always make our predictions as safe as possible. We stay honest with ourselves and usually double or triple the length of development time for anything we aren't sure about. In the end, we end up with a rather accurate timeline for development. Things will change once again, because some things will take longer and others will take shorter time, but it evens out. We respect the input of the developers here, we don't ask them "do you think you could do that in 8 hours?” we ask them "How many hours do you honestly think you'll need?". We plan accordingly to the hours given by the team members and in the case of a miscalculation, we never work more than 52 hours in a week. That is a hard cap that we enforce with no compromise. We usually swap features that need developing if something takes longer than anticipated, in the event that it would be impossible to complete within our current development sprint.

It is worth noting that this whole process is not possible if the development team doesn't have creative control over the project they work on. This is why we only work on our own intellectual properties.

I'm also very transparent with the team. I discuss the administrative, financial and marketing issues we encounter with everyone, whereas these subject matter are usually kept secret. Letting everyone know where we stand at and explaining to them *why* we go in one direction rather than another makes them more committed. Just like telling someone what to do is better than telling them how, telling them why we need to do something is better than telling them what. Why > What > How.

We also don't press on the "Panic button" when deadlines approach. Overtime makes you less effective overall. When you are tired, you make more mistakes, you lose focus, and you end up accomplishing less than if you had just kept working at 40 hours. Being actively conscious of this is hard. It just seems "logical" that you achieve more in 80 hours of work than you do in 40, but it simply isn't true for most human beings and it has been proven many times over. If someone on the team really feels like he can't accomplish his task in the given time, he just says so and we adjust our plans.

JT: Have the tactics you implemented to combat the problems you saw in the industries work conditions proven successful at this point?

GV: Most definitely. We almost never do overtime, everyone at Nine Dots is happy to work here, there is no tension within the team and we developed a game that would usually take a team of at least double our size to develop. I dare to pretend that we are more than twice as efficient as most game studios and this is strictly because of our practices and strong pre-production phase. A strong and clear game design is essential though.

JT: Are these strategies realistic for other larger studios to implement?

GV: Larger studios could accomplish more with less people, or have more projects running in parallel, if they used our methods. There is a diminishing return for adding developers to a team and I think it caps at about 200 developers. I've never seen a game, no matter how big, that couldn't be made with a team of that size. The harder part is definitely that most studios use less developers at the start of a project and ramp up during key production phases. It doesn't have to be this way. What needs to be done needs to be done, and having a more stable flow of productivity is good for the project. If you know where you need to go from the start, there is no need to alter the number of developers on a project, you just need to affect people to different things as time goes. No one will be looking for something to do when the project starts anyway, since there is always so much that needs to be done, as soon as the designers start working on the GDD.

JT: Do you believe video game industry work conditions have improved since your creation in 2011?

GV: I don't think they did, but it isn't worst either. We don't talk enough about it and big studios don't dare to mess with their production flow. I think that what we need to wake people up are success stories. Right now many developers just say it's par for the course and that if you don't want to do overtime you should have chosen another field. If we can show them it's far from necessary, they'll be more reluctant to do it and the real conversations will start.

JT: What could employees reasonably do to try and improve the quality of life at their place of work?

GV: Simple: they need to learn to say no. They also need to learn how to say no in an effective and convincing manner. They need to talk with their leads in private discussions and not put them on the spot in front of their team. It has to be a collaborative effort, not a confrontational one. They also need to be more honest with themselves when they are asked how long it would take to develop a feature or an asset. Also, sometimes answering "I don't know" to that question is the most valid response.

Like any young industry, change is on the horizon. The types of changes or how those changes affect the development of games will, as always, depend on the cutting edge and largely independent developers and artists who dare to challenge the status quo.