Breaking The Wheel Is Committed to 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 (how to most effectively manage asset pipelines) to the macro (how to use the competitive landscape to minimize costs), from the short term (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 a terrible 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 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 and zennials make up an increasingly large portion of the workforce. Prototypically speaking, they 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’m an industry veteran, and currently the lead development director at EA’s studio Industrial Toys in Pasadena, CA. I’ve shipped projects for console, Steam, mobile, and web. I also hold an Master of Business Administration from Northwestern University. And I take game production very seriously.
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 of other colleagues in the industry, 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 making video games, it isn’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 had built a stable process and live service around a huge online business. 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.
I completed my MBA in June of 2016. After spending a couple of years trying to get my own studio up and running, I received an offer to be the Lead Development Director at Industrial Toys shortly after it was acquired by EA in July of 2018.
The next four years were a chance to put all of my skills and tools to the test: organizational tools, operational philosophies, strategy. You name it. We took a small indie studio and bulked it up to a AAA production working on one of EA’s biggest brands: a mobile version of Battlefield. We went from around small team at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and quadrupled in size while working remotely. We had to build the tools, the processes, the culture, the strategy. We had to, as I often told my team, “build the game, and the thing we use to build the game, and the team that uses the thing to to build the game,” all while being distributed across the world.
We got Battlefield Mobile to soft launch but, unfortunately as these things sometimes go, the project was canceled shortly thereafter. Nevertheless, I am still proud of what Industrial Toys achieved and all that we overcame together. And, I may have learned a thing or two along the way.
Maybe I’m naive or idealistic. By all means, be skeptical of what I say. But, to quote author Tim Ferriss, “Be proactively skeptical, not defensively skeptical.” My CV and degree don’t make me right. All they means is that I have some knowledge and experience that may benefit you.
But only if you’re willing to read it.
*Source: Center for American Progress