Breaking The Wheel is about making games better.
Breaking the Wheel has a simple mission: eliminate crunch as an accepted, ubiquitous practice in video game development. Not by edict or through unionization, but by providing the tools for better decision making and greater efficiency. Through this blog, I shares theories, and concepts from management science, productivity experts, and popular psychology. Articles cover a range of topics from the micro (for instance, how to most effectively manage asset pipelines) to the macro (how to use the competitive landscape to minimize costs), from the short term (example: crisis management) to the long term (forecasting development over time). This blog was established on the belief that data beats anecdotes, hypothesis testing beats conjecture, doing something just for the sake of doing it is the worst reason to do anything, and doing something because it’s the way it’s always been done it is the worst reason to maintain the status quo.
Why Should You Care About Ending Crunch? It’s How Games Get Made, Right?
Putting aside my moral conviction that crunch is the wrong way to treat people – irrespective of how great some auteur’s vision might be – here are a few quick reasons why its in every studio’s interest to minimize or eliminate crunch:
- Burnout risks a brain drain of our most experienced developers. An IGDA survey found the average career length of respondents was 5.4 years. The survey was somewhat compromised by self-selection bias, but that data should still be a wake-up call to managers that the long-term retention prospects for employees are at risk.
- Turnover is expensive. The costs (in terms of recruiting, training, and lost productivity) of replacing a burnt out team member (before you even start paying that replacement a salary) are mind boggling*:
- Replacing junior team members ($30-$50k salary range) can cost as much as 20% of their annual salary
- Replacing highly skilled team members (lead, tech director, or anyone else making $100k or more) can cost as as much as 213% of their annual salary
- Millennials are making up an increasingly large portion of the workforce. Prototypically speaking, millenials are far more concerned with work/life balance and managing their own hours than previous generations. You will be a far more competitive recruiter for top talent if you have environments and practices that meet that talent’s needs.
- In a world of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Likewise, in an industry of crunch, the studio that maintains flexible operating practices will have an easier time attracting top talent without paying top dollar. That doesn’t mean you should lowball employees – you should always compensate people fairly. But if you can offer value beyond money (eg, human-friendly hours and/or flexible schedules), you won’t have to match every competing offer an candidate has in order to make a compelling pitch.
- If the video games industry is characterized by risk, then our focus should be on risk management. If we want better forecasts, we should place a premium not just on high output, but on a consistent and predictable level of output. And you can’t maintain consistent output if you are grinding your teams to a pulp.
Who am I and why should you care?
I started in the games industry as a humble production intern at Chicago’s own Wideload Games in 2007, and worked my way up to senior producer by 2012. And it was around that time I decided that there was something fundamentally wrong with how the industry was managing itself. Horror stories of crunch, death marches, ineffective managers, egomanically-driven, centralized decision making, and publishers holding up milestone payments to starve independent studios into submission were all frequent. And while I had the good fortune of working with some very talented studio heads and the crunches I experienced were mild compared to those my colleagues in the industry experienced, I fervently believed that there MUST be some better way of managing the uncertainty of game development. That desire to take better care of the workforce only intensified when I became a father myself. As much as I love video games, they aren’t worth missing your children grow up. This belief motivated me to apply to business school. I wanted to learn how to leverage the tools of modern business management to make the process of game development better for all involved: developers, publishers, and gamers.
One year into my MBA, I hit a snag: Disney, which had acquired Wideload in 2009, shuttered the studio in March of 2014. Other game production jobs in the Chicago area didn’t pan out, and for various reasons, my in-progress MBA among them, moving wasn’t a practicable option for my family. So I took a freelance consulting gig in the e-Commerce division of W.W. Grainger, Inc, one of Chicagoland’s legacy corporations. Almost exactly the same job responsibility, just not as exciting. At first, I viewed it as some sort of Karmic punishment. Then, I saw it as a prison sentence: something I had to outlast while I finished school. But, once I got over myself and became a little more self-reflective, I realized I was looking at something remarkable: a software development studio with reasonable, flexible hours that was able to deliver complex projects at scale and with a reasonably accurate forecasting system. I had, through the dumb luck that has characterized much of my life, stumbled into a business unit that was not that far removed from the pie-in-the-sky game studio I had built in my head. It just happened to make websites instead of games. It’s not that nobody ever had a late night or worked on a weekend, but a premium was placed workforce sustainability and output consistency rather than crunch-induced volatility.
Now, as a game developer, you may be inclined to think that a lowly website can’t be as complicated as game development, but I would disagree. Game developers typically don’t have to worry about managing billions of dollars of physical inventory, drop shipments from manufactures, tax codes, tracking orders, customized versions of the website for every major customer, personally identifiably information, and any number of other logistical or regulatory minutiae. I’m not saying it’s more complicated than game development, just that it’s no mean feat either.
I completed my MBA in June of 2016. And here I sit with a degree’s worth of management science rattling around in my skull and that same desire to make the game industry a better place for everyone involved, both as someone working to open his own studio and someone concerned about the well being of his fellow devs.
Maybe I’m naive and idealistic. Maybe I’m full of shit. So be it. By all means, be skeptical of what I say. But, to quote author Tim Ferris, “Be proactively skeptical, not defensively skepical.” Don’t dismiss what I’m saying simply because it contradicts your personal experience, because it causes a cognitive dissonance flare-up, or because I may have less experience than you. Having an MBA does not make me “right”. All it means is that I am in possession of knowledge that may benefit you in the short- and long-run. But only if you’re willing to read it.