Indie developer Rami Ismail responds to critic of work-life balance in game industry

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I read this article today. I wrote an inline response. The bold parts are the article’s original text. My responses are the rest of it. Yes, this layout is copied from the amazing nodontdie.com because I couldn’t come up with another one this fast.

I read this article by Dean Takahashi the other day, and my jaw nearly hit the floor.

Mine too, I can’t believe structural crunch is still a problem in the games industry in 2016.

Many modern game developers have embraced a culture of victimology and a bad attitude toward their chosen vocations. They complain that the long hours and personal sacrifices great games require are a consequence of poor management.

And rightfully so, structural crunch is a horrible attitude and can really damage someone’s ability to function and enjoy their dream job.

They want to pretend that they can turn an inherently entrepreneurial endeavor like game development into a 9-to-5 job.

Wait, only entrepreneurs are entrepreneurial. People that are employed aren’t entrepreneurs. The whole definition of entrepreneur is that if you mess up, the risks are for you. The definition of employee is that you work the hours assigned to you for a wage.

Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world.

I’ll give you that game development is a remarkable job, and I’ll give you that it’s a generally privileged career, but ‘wage-slave?’ Isn’t that a tiny bit hyperbolic?

I’ve been working at technology startups since I was in my early 20s and later founding and running them. I’m fortunate for the career I’ve had, and I’ve always been grateful for the incredible opportunities that the technology industry has afforded me, especially when you consider that I grew up in a log cabin in Alaska with no electricity, plumbing, heating, or cable TV. I grew up largely home-schooled; I never did get that high school diploma. None of those educational shortcomings seems to matter in the high-tech world. Over the years, I’ve had the privilege of working with a lot of truly amazing and hyperaccomplished people, many with backgrounds just as unorthodox as my own. It was my job at Microsoft and later at WildTangent to develop relationships with every leading game developer on Earth.

It’s lovely that this industry accepts people of “unorthodox” backgrounds. Definitely something I’d like to see more of.

I know I’m going to offend a lot of people by saying this, but I do so with the hope that a few will wake up and shake off their mental shackles. I’ll grant that it’s been 23 years since I used an outhouse or had to hunt for dinner, but I’m still thrilled by the incredibly decadent luxury of porcelain toilets and fast food. I can’t begin to imagine how sheltered the lives of modern technology employees must be to think that any amount of hours they spend pushing a mouse around for a paycheck is really demanding strenuous work.

If your job is just pushing a mouse around, I can see how you got this attitude. However, game development is far more than that. Programmers are continuously working at their utmost mental capacity, solving and optimizing highly complex and intricate codebases. Modelers and artists are continuously creative, operating complex software to create high-quality art that needs to not just look nice but also animate, shade, and interact nicely. Musicians are continuously creative, exploring new ways to weave game and sonic qualities. Designers are continuously struggling with communicating ideas, creating interaction, player feedback, test feedback, at the forefront of our understanding of human-machine interaction.

[There are] dozens of more jobs that are all equally important to creating a great game, and none of them [end] with pushing the mouse around. The jobs involved in the actual creation of a game require high degrees of specialization, research, and care. All you do pushing your mouse around is move a cursor. That’s the easy part.

I’ve hired thousands of people over the years and can’t help but notice the increasing frequency with which I encounter people with a wage-slave attitude toward making video games. A wage-slave attitude exhibits itself in several tragic ways.

I’m just going to assume ‘wage-slave’ is how you spell ‘healthy.’

I’ve known a lot of stupid self-made millionaires — really, hundreds of them — and they’re usually young as well. I’m talking about kids who made some of the worst games you can imagine and got rich accidentally, working in their parent’s basement in the Florida Everglades. They make their first game, get rich, and they’re gone, never having attended a single networking event at the Game Developers Conference, done.

This has absolutely nothing to do with your point, but good for them.

Contrast the dozens and dozens of these kids with the many game industry veterans I know that have long storied resumes listing dozens of triple-A console titles they have “labored” on, who decry the long working hours they are expected to invest in the games they are employed to work on.

Aren’t these veterans probably better equipped to discuss structural issues in the games industry than the Florida Everglades kid that made one game and never attended an industry event and then left the industry?

These people are smarter, more experienced, more talented, better trained to produce amazing games, and they’re still working for paychecks and whining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer.

Your complaint here is literally that someone asked to be paid fairly.

Listening to them complain about it, you would they think that they are trapped in some disenfranchised third-world country forced to dig for blood diamonds to feed their families.

I don’t know where you got that from. To me, it sure looks like they’re just complaining about avoiding long crunch hours to finish big titles or about not being paid fairly by some big employer. The rest is your imagination.

I’ve never been able to mentally reconcile these conflicting experiences.

Conflicting experiences? You mean the conflicting experience of a Florida Everglades kid with an accidental hit and the 30-year industry veteran that has seen the structural shortcomings of the industry? You can’t mentally reconcile those? Or do you mean passion and health? You must either not be passionate or not healthy. They’re pretty easy to reconcile. You must lead a pretty sad life if you can’t seperate a passion for games and development from having a healthy and sustainable life.

Any time I hear this stuff, I tell these people, quit. Go make great games on your own. Pursue your passion. You’re better equipped to succeed than any of the dozens and dozens of amateur kids I’ve seen retire early while you were still “trapped” in a job you hated and trying to rationalize mailing in a 40-hour work week making video games.

What I’m reading is, “You don’t need to pay rent. Just do exactly as the Florida Everglades kid did. It’s a simple process. Step 1: Quit your job. Step 2: Move your family of four to your parents’ basement. Step 3: Make a multimillion dollar game. Step 4: done.”

To my great shock and disappointment, they never respond to this feedback with any sort of enlightenment or gratitude for my generous attempt at setting them free. Usually, I just get rage.

Being a victim of their employers has somehow managed to become a deeply cherished part of their core identities, and any suggestion that they are far better equipped to rekindle their sheer passion for making games, do a Kickstarter startup with their other talented friends and crank out an original hit game, than a bunch of amateur kids working in Flash, is greeted with a lot of anger.

You literally told them that their requests for ‘fair wage’ and ‘not horrible crunch’ is only to be valid if they go independent and risk their financials and families.

They rant about the value of “work-life balance….”

That’s a great and important thing to rant about.

How hit games can be delivered on a schedule with “proper management….”

Which is (mostly) true.

And how they can’t produce their best work when their creative energies are tapped after a long 40-hour work week….

Creatives can’t do creative work after doing too much creative work? You’d almost think this is common sense. Athletes can’t perform their best after their athletic energies are tapped after a long 40-hour work week either.

You keep forgetting the actual work part that the sitting at the desk thing enables.

Apparently, people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games….

Did you just say burnout in the industry isn’t real? I can’t figure out if that’s what you’re saying, but it sure seems like you’re saying that.

Having worked with many of the game industry’s most legendary game developers and also many of the game industry’s least known early retirees, I can’t help noticing a clear and distinct difference between the people who really make it huge in gaming and the people who just have long résumés.

Every legendary game developer I’ve ever known pursued gaming as a vocation out of sheer passion. Most could have made more money, had more security, lived more “balanced lives” in other tech jobs, but they wanted to make games, and they pursued it 110 percent all the time.

You act like this is exclusive to ‘legendary game developers,’ but this goes for pretty much most people in this industry. You work in the industry because you care.

Not a single person I have ever known who went on to greatness in the gaming industry has ever exhibited a shred of wage-slavishness.

That’s because those people tend to be the CEO or founder. They pay themselves, and they can choose when to go home. The only valid point you’re making here is that as an industry, we’re still not good at celebrating or communicating that great games are made by an amazing team instead of a single designer.

Making games is not a job. It’s an art.

What is it with this making two compatible things mutually exclusive? Passion and taking care of yourself aren’t mutually exclusive. Making art and a job isn’t mutually exclusive. Monet was a painter. That’s a job. His job produced art. Shakespeare was a writer. That’s a job. His job produced art. Marina Abramovic is a performance artist. That’s a job. Her work produced art.

You can’t “make fun” on a schedule, under budget, on time with a bunch of people who are all grumbling about what a miserable time they are having finishing a game together.

You can’t, which is why you make sure that your employees aren’t miserable finishing a game together because you did stay on schedule, under budget, and on time. This situation occurs when your schedule sucked and your budget sucked, and that’s the fault of the entrepreneurs — not the employees.

That’s not to say that there aren’t good organized ways to produce games….

Then why not use those so that the tragic complaints go away?

But it will always still come down to the same thing. Great games are exclusively made by giving them everything you’ve got and more and then hoping it’s enough.

Great games can be made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and great studios and developers are made by not burning the fuck out. Turns out great studios and developers make better games because they have more experience that they can apply because they did not burn the fuck out.

There’s no amount of money that anybody can pay people with a wage-slave attitude to let it go and put themselves completely into a great game.

Wage-slave attitude just means ‘employee’ here, and thank you very much, but those hundreds of ‘wage-slaves’ that work on each [triple-A] title deserve not just our utmost respect but also reasonable wages and working hours.

There’s nothing that can compensate people “fairly” for the sacrifices that great art requires.

I’m having a hard time ‘mentally reconciling’ you saying game development is ‘just sitting at a desk’ and ‘the sacrifices for great art.’ But, I agree. There’s no way to compensate fairly for those sacrifices. Especially not if your schedule is awful, and your budget is too low. So maybe don’t have an awful schedule and too low budgets.

ART IS NOT MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE WITH TAKING CARE OF YOURSELF. YOU DON’T HAVE TO CUT OFF YOUR EAR TO MAKE A GREAT PAINTING.

You need to get an actual job producing productivity software if you want to be paid “fairly” and go home at 5 p.m.

Last time I checked, ‘producing software’ is exactly the job description you have working at a large studio, and there is no shame in that. What guts to imply people demanding more sensible hours are lacking passion for the art games. Fuck that. They just care enough to wanna do it forever.

Anybody good enough to get hired to write games can get paid more to work on something else.

And yet they’re here. Because they care.

If working on a game for 80 hours a week for months at a time seems “strenuous” to you … practice more until you’re better at it.

How about the people doing scheduling and budgeting get better at it? The entrepreneurs take the risks, so they should pay for mistakes. If your crew has to work overtime, pay them for it. If you’re a [triple-A company], make sure they’ve got good health insurance, holidays. Make sure they’re mentally and physically healthy and capable of creating the best game ever.

If you’re doing it as your job, then yes it is.

Repetitive strain injury disagrees, and I’m still curious what job you do that pushing a mouse is your full job.

It’s the most amazing opportunity you can possibly get paid to pursue.…

I think everyone in this industry agrees with that one, but many of us also feel being paid ‘fairly’ and for all hours we work should be part of that deal.

Can I pay for this loaf of bread with my belief in how cool my job is? No?

And you’ll discover that you are even better at it.

Maybe if your job is pushing a mouse, believing will get you further. In this industry, you get better from making games, practicing, and experience. You only get to use that experience if you don’t burn out entirely and leave for a saner industry. Great art isn’t made by burning out making it. Great art is made through passion and experience and you won’t have either if you burn out.

Don’t be in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours [per] week of it….

Don’t listen to this person. Please be in the games industry if you want to make games and care. I don’t care if you want to make games for two hours every night after work or for 40 hours for a paycheck or for 80 hours as an entrepreneur. Just don’t make others pay with their health for your shitty scheduling.

You’re taking a job from somebody who would really value it.

Don’t worry, the way you see this industry, they’ll burn out really fast too.

Devs, this is an absurd article. I care so much about games. I’ve dedicated my life so far to making games, to enabling others around the world to make games, and to learn as much as possible [about] this medium — mobile, casual, [triple-A], indie, whatever. I tell you here and now: Structural crunch is bad, and burning out is real. Be passionate. Make games. But please take care of you, so we can have you and your games and your experience around for many more years to come. Whether it’s as a 9-to-5 employee, a legendary developer, an indie, or a part-time developer.

Rami Ismail is cofounder of developer Vlambeer. He has produced hits like Luftrausers, Ridiculous Fishing, Super Crate Box, and Nuclear Throne. He is also a significant figure in the indie-gaming scene. [Dean Takahashi’s note: Let’s hope Rami remembers to come as a speaker to our GamesBeat Summit 2016 event and talks more about this.]

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