Following a less-than-successful release, team members behind Pid and Bionic Commando: Rearmed changed their strategy.
Anders Westin is the CEO of Might and Delight, the Swedish indie game studio behind the recently released nature-survival game Shelter. In Shelter, the player takes on the role of a mother badger, trying to guide her cubs through an autumnal Swedish forest untouched by man.
As Westin and his company are laying their final touches on the game, it seems like they are doing their best to break away from their history. Both of their earlier games — Bionic Commando: Rearmed, the game that brought the original team together, and Pid, their first game as a self-governed studio — were two-dimensional platformers flush with color and lively animation, beautified by sophisticated lighting engines. Shelter is three-dimensional and uses simple designs to bring the dim forest to life.
Shelter is also a much smaller game than Pid, partially because Might and Delight no longer cares to crunch.
"Had we been smarter — or just more willing to think financially — we would have made [Pid] in a completely different way. But that's just the way it is," Westin says, laughing jovially.
Westin believes Might and Delight’s new method of production makes for not only happier employees, but better games. And he's not the only one.
On January 12, 1914, Henry Ford stopped making his employees work more than eight hours in a day. Twelve years later he made Saturday a resting day, putting a workweek at 40 hours. Before long, his competitors followed suit. It turned out that a shorter workweek made machinists not only more efficient — to the point where they produced more cars than they had before — the workers also stayed with the factory for far longer, meaning less time had to be spent teaching new employees.
A few decades earlier, in Germany, industrialist Ernst Abbé shortened the hours from nine to eight at his optics factories in Jena, and noticed that they produced more microscopes. Thirteen years later, the German-American psychologist Hugo Münsterberg summarized the experiment: "Ernst Abbé, the head of one of the greatest German factories, wrote many years ago that the shortening from nine to eight hours, that is, a cutting-down of more than 10 percent, did not involve a reduction of the day's product, but an increase. [...] This conviction of Abbé still seems to hold true after millions of experiments over the whole globe."
Laborers and unions had already been fighting for an eight-hour workday since the early 1800s, but it's around the early 20th century that we can see some of the first capitalists and factory owners beginning to feel the same way. People like Münsterberg and Ford were no union-sympathizers; to them the 40-hour workweek was just a cynical fact of the human body, a min-max point of production efficiency — if it happened to improve the quality of life for the workers, that was just a side-benefit. These men made their employees work less as a way to increase their profits.
"There's a bottom-line reason why most industries gave up crunch mode over 75 years ago."
This is the point that some development experts use when they criticize the video game industry's use of crunch. Crunch means overtime — often a lot of it — at the end of a product's schedule to make sure that it is finished on time. In the games industry, crunch is more or less a certainty. In a study from 2009 by the International Game Developers Association, one in two developers said that they experienced crunch either often or very often, and to most of them crunch was a part of the regular work schedule — when it's close to release, it's time to crunch.
Evan Robinson wrote an article for the IDGA in 2005, pointing to the work of people like Ford and Münsterberg and heavily critiquing the use of crunch. "There's a bottom-line reason why most industries gave up crunch mode over 75 years ago," Robinson says. "It's the single most expensive way to get the work done."
Others focus on the human cost. "Crunch is totally damaging, but much more so to the individuals involved," Chris Kruger of Kruger Heavy Industries told Develop in 2010. "An almost failed marriage in my case."
It's often the developers that defend the practice. The same IDGA report that said that half of developers often experience crunch also asked whether respondents agreed that "crunch is a necessary part of development." Developers turned out to be separated — about one in three agreed or strongly agreed, almost half disagreed or strongly disagreed, and the remainder were unsure.
People like Brendan McNamara, the lead of Team Bondi during the production of L.A. Noire, have been loudly defending the position that this kind of overtime is necessary for game development. "If you want to do a nine-to-five job, you [should] be in another business," McNamara said in response to critique of the overtime policies at his company. Rod Fergusson — then a producer at Epic Games — made similar comments. "I am a believer that if you're going to make a great game, and there is that caveat, I believe that crunch is necessary," Fergusson said in a 2009 GDC session. "I believe it's important because it means your ambition is greater than what you scheduled out."
The video games industry seems to be in a slow-moving battle over this. On one side stands the IDGA, firm in its belief that everybody would benefit from an industry that has a more reasonable relationship to overtime. On the other stand managers like McNamara, saying that hours like this brings teams together, and that they fuel the passion necessary to make games.
Anders Westin's career in video games starts in 2006, when he was hired as an animator at Grin. Grin was a 36-person team in Stockholm, Sweden, that had just gotten its big break, developing the PC versions of Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and its sequel, and it was growing steadily.
Not long after Westin joined, Grin started simultaneous development of three high-profile games and opened offices in Gothenburg, Barcelona and Jakarta. The three games — Bionic Commando, a third-person shooter reboot of a 1987 classic, and two based on movie licenses, Wanted: Weapons of Fate and Terminator: Salvation — all failed to sell as well as they were planned to. In 2009, Grin declared bankruptcy with 250 people on payroll.
"Hard" crunch, the enforced overtime at the end of a development cycle, was not much of an issue at Grin — as it isn't in many Swedish studios. Overtime at Grin was of the other kind — the soft kind — never mandatory, always encouraged and never paid.
"They did get paid for that, but a lot of people spent a lot of unpaid hours at the company."
"It was very self-inflicted, but I think that if you wanted to get promoted at Grin you probably stuck around a lot, slept under your desk, that sort of stuff. The bosses liked that, so if you were seen in the office late and often, they noticed you," Westin says. "I think that motivated a lot of people."
Westin never took part in the overtime culture and even though he was one of the oldest employees, he was never promoted past ground-level. "And I wasn't 35 yet at that time, so it's not like I'm very old either. But no, I don't think I worked a minute of overtime for that company. There were others like me — people that came in, did their work and left." After some thought he revises an earlier statement. "Actually, I did work some early mornings, when it was quieter, often at the start of milestones so I wouldn't have work looming over me later."
Since Westin never got promoted, his perspective was always that of a line level worker, and he dutifully points out that he can't say how conscious the leadership was of the overtime culture. "It's really hard to say if there was a plan behind all this. I don't think there was. It was probably just a lot of people that thought it was cool to work long, late hours. It always seemed very counterproductive to me, working all night, that sort of stuff, but when people are young and ambitious and really love their work, what can you do to stop them?"
Westin can recall only one time when the leadership at Grin commanded that employees should work for a weekend, but he wasn't on that project. "They did get paid for that, but a lot of people spent a lot of unpaid hours at the company." Suddenly, Westin's voice starts to show signs of doubt. "But I don't know, people are young and very motivated — we have that kind of overtime here as well. It's hard to stop people with ambitions."
Hard and soft
In medicine, overtime is less of a "creative output" issue and more of a "life-or-death" kind of thing. When cash-strapped hospitals force their nurses to stay after hours to fill vacancies, the nurses quickly start to make mistakes — it's a well known issue, and it's one that governments have tried to deal with.
Now, a lot of nurse overtime is voluntary. According to a study by the National Institute of Health from 2011, many nurses still work more than normal hours even though nobody is making them, motivated by a combination of guilt, money and passion. According to the NIH study, there is very little that has changed from a safety point of view. Nurses that worked voluntary overtime were just as prone to mistakes as those that were forced. For every hour past the 40th the risks of needlestick errors and wrong medication increased, as well as the risk for the nurses to hurt themselves.
"Being on crunch time is an awful sensation. Your life becomes an endless cycle of work, sleep and take-away food."
Steve McConnell is a software development expert, and was an influential part of that industry when it came into maturity in the late '90s. He wrote the book Rapid Development, a guide for managers on how to deal with these kinds of subjects. "Even if no one is forcing developers to work too much overtime, they can force themselves," McConnell wrote. "It doesn't seem to matter whether the pressure to work massive overtime comes from within or without, excessive overtime leads to increased number of defects, increased incentive to take unwise risks, reduced creativity, increased burnout, increased turnover, reduced time for self-education and reduced productivity." Just like how Hugo Münsterberg talked to the factory owners of the 1910s, McConnell speaks to the managers of the 1990s. He is not making an ethical statement. Instead he is trying to convince his peers that voluntary overtime is inefficient — that more hours leads to less work, and work of a lower quality.
A video game developer going by the pseudonym "Auto" wrote an article for the Solidarity Federation in 2011, on the effects of crunch, both hard and soft. "Being on crunch time is an awful sensation. Your life becomes an endless cycle of work, sleep and take-away food. You may stop getting the chance to see your friends, family and loved ones," Auto wrote. "The crunching I do is technically voluntary. [...] Overtime may not be obligatory, but it is expected."
It doesn't seem to matter much whether the overtime is mandatory or voluntary, whether the crunch is hard or soft — working for too long can be damaging not only to the product, but also to the worker. "It's a systematic problem with any kind of overtime, voluntary or mandatory, that moderate overtime tends to drift into excessive," McConnell wrote.
Westin was a part of the team at Grin that developed Bionic Commando: Rearmed, a remake of the 1987 game meant in part as an advertisement for the high-profile reboot. Westin's voice brightens as soon as he mentions the game. "Oh, working on that project was amazing. Normally, I was bored to death by all of the violent, photorealistic stuff I did — not Grin's fault or anything, just personal taste — but I really clicked with Rearmed. The game was fun and the whole team was passionate and motivated to create something great." The game turned out to be the most successful product Grin produced, selling more copies in a week than the main retail franchise-reboot did in its first month.
After Grin collapsed in 2009 Westin started working on getting the team back together, and in January of 2010, he and about half of the team behind Rearmed reformed as a new studio. Under the name Might and Delight, they got to work on their first game, Pid.
Going into development for the first time, the team was full of ambition, desperately wanting to prove itself, to overachieve. Coming from a studio where people routinely slept under their desks, the staff knew the pitfalls to avoid. "We did our homework; we had clear ideas of both the game we wanted to make and how we were going to make it," Westin says, but filled with enthusiasm, the team started to overproduce content.
"Some people started to work a ton, and others jumped on the wagon. Those guys worked between 14 and 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for four months, until they broke."
Suddenly, the team sat on almost 10 hours of game instead of the three and a half it had planned, and team members were still obsessed with making it all look beautiful. The equation didn't work, but the team refused to cut content. Instead, some parts of the team chose to sacrifice themselves for the good of the game. It turned into a contest, and the small team was determined to just do it anyway.
"That's when it turned into this crazy thing," Westin says, "and that was the point when I became a dad, I got twins." With their CEO home to take care of his newborn children, the studio devolved into a spiral of overwork.
"Some people started to work a ton, and others jumped on the wagon. Those guys worked between 14 and 17 hours a day, seven days a week, for four months, until they broke. It was all voluntary, nobody made them do it, and there were others that worked normal hours throughout the whole thing. But that doesn't make it OK."
Westin reflects on the situation, and his role in allowing it.
"Ambition is dangerous," he says. "We shouldn't have let them do that."
The kind of overtime that Westin and his team have been through is typical of the places they've worked. The Swedish industry has less of a problem with hard crunches — when mandated overtime exists it comes in small chunks and is well paid. The soft crunch is everywhere, however.
According to Per Strömbäck, spokesperson at Swedish Games Industry, Swedish game developers work overtime because of ambition and loyalty. "Crunch is seen as a good thing among the developers," Strömbäck says. "A lot of our members claim that they more often try to send their employees home than make them work overtime.
Looking back, this was not always the case. "We have had this discussion for many years," Strömbäck says, "and I think it's safe to say that it has given results."
The Swedish games industry started in the mid '90s, which makes it about two decades younger than its American counterpart. Just like in America, stacks of money quickly turned passion projects into companies and basement coders into corporate managers, and it happened much too quickly for any reasonable business culture to develop. Stories from the early days of Swedish game development make it sound like the gentrification of the Wild West. There were battles, and the culture changed as a result of those battles.
In 2004, DICE, the developer that makes the Battlefield series and one of the oldest Swedish game studios, was caught trying to get rid of its local union club. The union members had started to complain over the systematic use of unpaid overtime, and three people were fired. One of them — the chairman of the club, Stefan Eriksson — told the story to Kollega, a union-related magazine. "As soon as our members wanted to get paid for their overtime, the hammer came down hard," Eriksson told Kollega in 2004. "According to the bosses, if you can't handle those hours, you don't belong in this industry. They don't seem to understand that this is a workplace — and workplaces have rules."
"There is still a lot of unpaid overtime going on, but overall I'd summarize the conditions at Swedish companies as 'pretty good.'"
After a union organization had leapt in and threaten legal action — DICE was forced to listen. The fired developers all got generous settlements, and DICE was forced from then on to contribute regular funds to its local union club. After the dust had settled a developer at DICE told Kollega that "the climate is much better now" and today EA DICE has signed a "collective bargaining agreement," a formal contract between union and employer that forms a strong protection for the developers.
It’s worth noting that there is no such thing as a "video game developers union" in Sweden. The union organisations that deal with the game industry are all wider in scope, and they deal with several industries. Very few developers are actually personally involved in any union. The largest numbers we heard were at Paradox, makers of Crusader Kings 2 and Europa Universalis IV, where, according to them, about 25-30% of employees are connected to a union.
In an article from July of this year two of the leads at Paradox told Polygon stories of the long crunches that they and their employees waded through in the early days of the studio. These days, Paradox has a reputation for being one of the friendliest companies in Sweden, and Johan Andersson, the current lead of Paradox Interactive, is a strong voice against the practice of crunch. "Overtime just isn't effective in the long run," Andersson says. "This is a creative business and you need to stay sharp to produce; if you work overtime you lose that sharpness. Crunch leaves you with burned out developers, instead of more productive and experienced colleagues."
Susana Meza, PR at Paradox, tells us that up until 2013, less than five people have left that company. Instead of the passion-filled and destructive place it was in 2004, Paradox now seems to be a gathering place for a lot of the most experienced Swedish developer talent.
The examples set by these companies — DICE listening and reacting to the union threats and Paradox reaping the long term benefits of good scheduling — is important. "These kinds of things have a ripple effect throughout the industry," says union ombudsman Hannes Lundholm.
Lundholm is a part of "Unionen," the biggest Swedish private sector union and the one that most often represents game developers. He is the one whom his colleagues point out as the video game development expert.
"There is still a lot of unpaid overtime going on, but overall I'd summarize the conditions at Swedish companies as 'pretty good,'" Lundholm says. "It's a lot like the dotcoms of the late '90s, companies built by enthusiasts that are generally uninterested in unions when they start up. Nowadays, the dotcoms have matured and they contain some of our largest member groups, and as both the developers and the audience are growing up, game culture is growing up as well."
Shelter and the Swedish Industry
"Our business plan was pretty simple," Westin says, talking about the idea behind the creation of Might and Delight. "We had already done a beautiful game that sold well, and we were going to make another game that was also going to be beautiful and also going to sell well. I'd say we succeeded to about 50% — in that we made a beautiful game." He laughs, showing a hint of anxiety.
Pid was not received as well as Westin had hoped. In particular, several outlets complained that the game was too long, and Westin and the team feel like at least in part their herculean effort was wasted. "When we made Rearmed, we also overproduced, and we felt like we got a lot of appreciation for that. We thought that we were going to get that kind of appreciation here as well, that we had given people a lot of game for the money."
"To be honest, I wish I didn't have to be the CEO."
Might and Delight's second project, the badger-mother simulator Shelter, went much smoother — according to Westin, he and his team managed to make the game without ever resorting to overtime, and the game has been much better received than it’s predecessor.
"The first thing we did was turn a three and a half hour game into a one and a half hour game — instead of taking a three and a half hour game and turn it into a 10 hour game," Westin says. "So I guess that's one way to solve the problem. There are probably others. I believe in putting up realistic goals instead of gigantic ones. This time we have been very good at planning the work-load, but it is very difficult."
These days his role is much closer to the dad image that he exudes. At Might and Delight, Westin is the CEO, the focal point of a small team of talented people — far from the man-on-the-floor at Grin that distanced himself from his work. "All of these people are here because they like the kind of projects we do," he says. "I'm pretty sure all of them could get a much bigger salary at any one of our competitors.
"To be honest, I wish I didn't have to be the CEO. But until we can get someone better, someone more economically minded, I guess I'll have to do."
Images: Might and Delight, Capcom, Electronic Arts
Editing: Russ Pitts, Matt Leone
Design / Layout: Warren Schultheis, Matthew Sullivan