Greedy Goblin

Monday, July 24, 2017

No, it's not the free market

One of the blogs I've found during the crawl, is pretty rarely posting, but has valuable content when does. This post is about his tribulations as a game dev:
Prepare to work 16 hours a day for perpetual crunch because of the incompetence of management and producers. Prepare never to see your loved ones. Get used to sleeping on the floor in your cube. Prepare to see your health decline as you eat bad food and stop exercising. If you don’t like any of that, just realize there’s a line-up of hundreds of naive fools standing right behind you that will gladly replace you and sell their souls to be part of the video game sausage factory.
He also quoted a long post of another disillusioned game dev:
  • The gaming industry is a meat grinder... The reality is, you will work for 80-100h hours a week during crunch periods.
  • You have no job security. Your game tanked? Oops we need to find a culprit, might be you. And boom you are fired. Studio failed to secure that contract? Hmmmm we need to downsize, you are out.
  • I doesn't pay; especially for programmers ... I can tell you will easily see a 60%+ raise just by switching domains. My current job is by no means boring, even though I don't make games anymore, and I make 70% more, and my overtime is paid when I have to do some.
  • lot of places are extremely toxic. With such low job security, backstabbing is constant.
  • In the later years, it has become extremely PC, especially smaller studios. I've seen HR telling me how great they were, because they had a 40% females studio.
  • The management is horrible ... co-worker get threatened by HR because one of their friends posted something negative about the studio on their facebook wall.
  • Don't rock the boat. You can't afford to make a statement ... you do it, even if you think they are garbage.
I do not question the validity of his experience, nor the quoted or the countless others. But then he gets to the conclusion: "the state of the video game industry is a symptom of our progressive culture and an example of the worst excesses of capitalism." I get to the liberal culture in a different post. But in the "excesses of capitalism" he is dead wrong. He now works in a different field without these problems. Is that a government agency? The highest paid programmers works for banks. Are they not the poster children of "excesses of capitalism"?!

The question isn't why the game companies offer these atrocious work conditions and pay. The question - always - lies on the other side: why are there lines of wannabe devs going through the same suffering? Why there are anyone who doesn't quit. Most importantly, why can't the banks get away with offering the same? Why would it be bizarre for a bank boss to tell the employees to work unpaid overtime?

The conditions he described aren't rare, but not in capitalism, but in crony-capitalism and semi-criminal capitalism. Like when the night club doesn't pay waitresses at all, and they work for free for the opportunity to catch rich and drunk customers for "escort". Or when border patrol agents made half of cops in several Eastern European countries and still the applications crushed the desks, because one could make a monthly salary from one night patrol by not searching the right cars. Or the plague of the Hungarian health care: doctors work for pennies, but still don't quit, because queues are long and patients pay into their pockets to skip it.

The reason why game devs are underpaid, overworked, abused and still line up is corruption. You can make much more than your salary by making a deal with RMT-ers. Even a lowly GM can make some extra for not banning certain people. Programmers can make much better money for exploitable bugs. Higher ranked devs who can actually design systems can make a fortune. Remember when someone gave CCP intellectual property to a "book publisher" with zero publishing experience?! Even if he was just offered 10% of the money, 10% of 150K is pretty nice for a month of shilling for the book on streams.

Show me someone who is not paid, abused and overworked and not quitting when there are much better opportunities for him and I show you someone who is on the take! Show me a dev who can't catch a literal 24/7 bot and I show you a botter. Show me a dev who can't fix "Ghost training" in 15 weeks and I show you someone running a ghost farm - or at least getting money from those who do.

The problem is the usual moral hazard in financial investing, which means that the shareholder has no clue of the company he buys and just buys a black box based on previous stock prices and dividends. In this case the actual company management is done by employee managers who are also selected for previous management experience. The problem is that the typical CEO-for-hire has no clue about video games. He might sold sugared water or television programming or hotels but not video games. He comes with the attitude "I don't care, production is production, doesn't matter if box of soda or box of video game".

The problem is that video games are fundamentally different from soda: the sold experience is directly linked to experiences of other players. If you sell something that lets Adam pwn Bob, you see a successful sale at Adam and a discontinuation of service at Bob, but the connection isn't obvious. Usually Bob gives the useless "I'm not having fun" explanation for quitting. However while video games are special, by no means unique: sports have or had the same problems. I'm pretty sure that a successful boxing promoter or horse race director would be a wonderful gaming studio CEO. So would be a casino manager who understands the damage that a single card-counter can do.

On the employee side, the problem would be more capitalism. You see the problem is self-inflicted: the employee sees himself miserable only because of a rule in his own mind: don't steal. This rule isn't existing in the current game development, I haven't heard a single case when a GM or dev was fired and charged with embezzlement after found to be in league with cheaters. I hear of the same in professional sports and gambling, every time when there is a cheating scandal. If he would do everything that is possible, he would be just as happy as his colleagues. Or, if this isn't the path he'd choose, he'd quit and work at a bank. I have no doubt that there are many honest devs who don't steal, just work for free until burned out "for the team". If only they'd all shrug as Atlas one-way-or-another, the gaming industry would burn overnight.

But fear not! Capitalism will fix this. At first, many managers reach CEO age who played games as young (or even still play) and understand how RMT and exploiting damages a game. As soon as they get to power, this problem will diminish. Please note that being completely heartless and game-hating CEO wouldn't change that, he would indeed squeeze every dollar out of the whales in the item shop, but would not leave a cent to third party exploiters. Also, it's only a matter of time before a privately owned studio makes something good that goes viral, via word-of-mouth advertising of satisfied customers.

Finally, the political climate is changing fast removing the final obstacle. But that's for a later post.


Smokeman said...

I love how you turned this into a diatribe about corruption. Sure, that crap goes on too, but it has little to do with the programmers.

Here's the skinny: Programmers and artists are desperate to work in the game industry. So much so that they'll put up with this retarded crap. This makes a giant pile of people ready to be used.

Then there's the fun part. There are 2 kinds of people attracted to the industry... people with useful skills, like programmers and artists, and stupid people without any. The stupid ones who happen to be friends with upper management get jobs as producers or lower managers. If you're stupid and want to be an artist or programmer... you'll just suck. It's hard to fake competence at a skilled endeavor when you actually suck at it. But if you can talk smoothly, you can fake being a "producer" or a "designer" for a long time.

Now, to be fair, there are competent producers. There are also a lot of complete maroons that are there only because they were friends of the guys who started / run the company. These morons are put in charge of development teams and literally run them into the ground.

Now, in your defense... this dynamic could easily give rise to corruption. So, it's possible the corruption is a twisted result of employing stupid people to manage smart people.

Your conclusion is that the devs are starting out with the intent to abuse a system open for abuse, like those border guards. But it's far more likely they started as naive but skilled workers and either kept at it due to believing they would never work in the industry again if they bitch, or wised up and quit.

But the more likely reality? It's those moron friends of upper management hired as producers / managers that are the corruptible ones.

You need a combination of stupid and access to be corrupted. The programmers and artists just aren't given the access. Idiots too stupid to do anything else but be some kind of "manager" for want of a better place to put them are the ones with the magic combination.

Anonymous said...

Your theory doesn't explain the issues with the studios focusing on single-player games. For example Rockstar is infamous for exploiting their employees.

Anonymous said...

"Show me someone who is not paid, abused and overworked and not quitting when there are much better opportunities for him and I show you someone who is on the take!"

Or someone who loves the job and the people they work with.

Many people stay in jobs where they are underpaid, overworked instead of going to greener pastures, simply because they enjoy the workplace and colleagues. (or, enjoy working on that particular game).

Carson 63000 said...

You seem very quick to assign rational reasons to why game developers would accept such horrible conditions, and overlook "social" reasons.

The actual explanation is much more simple. Working on games is "cool". Young game developers (and trust me, you don't see many OLD game developers) value that "cool" more than they value a decent salary, good working conditions, or sane hours.

Then they grow up, realize that actually being "cool" ISN'T that valuable, and they change industries. I did. Most of the other game developers I worked with did too.

And believe me, back when I was working in games (we're talking 12-15 years ago), we didn't have the opportunity to supplement our crappy salaries by dealing with RMTers, selling exploitable bugs, or being "on the take" in any other way! We just put up with it so we could feel superior to people working boring jobs.

Unknown said...

Will be interesting to see what makes you optimistic.

My personal experiences show more of kneejerk reaction to crony capitalism being adaptation of straight bolshevik authoritarism, skipping any sane options.

Also, Game industry is not monolithic, but it is usefull to note where bulk of it lies: freemium games and their ilk.

On the other hand, If you are looking for people with very specific skillset, like for example game engine programmers, you are usually out of luck, unless some big studio goes under and those people end up on market. (See for example recent problems at Crytek)

As with any other job, there is lots of strata, and experiences at the bottom of the pile would be quite different from those at the top. Thing is, as in anything, the base of the pile is the widest.

What is real problem is that many people think the solution is flattening the pile altogether, making life miserable for everybody in the process.

The real solution would be keeping advancement path for the willing and skilful open, as it was in Classical Capitalism, before "Crony entrenchment".

But of course that means quotas will never be met, and it seems that this is more of a concern than having actual functioning company.

Gevlon said...

@Smokeman: you assume that "you need a combination of stupid and access to be corrupted". This comes from the fact that crime usually meets its punishment, so criminals are usually remarkably stupid. Not many professors robbed liquor stores. What you miss here is video game corruption is:
- NOT a crime. There is no law against rigging video games or botting or cheating. It's merely a violating of ToS. It's like standing up in the theater and shouting political slogans. They will escort you out but won't charge you.
- No one ever was publicly fired and condemned for being corrupt.
- The companies make no effort to punish cheating players.

Ergo, running a video game corruption is like prostitution: while your mum probably won't be too happy, it's legal and good money.

@Anon: it's a spillover effect from the industry. Decent people don't go anywhere near it, so even decent managers can only hire indecent ones and do the best. Trying to run an "ethical video game studio" is like trying to run an "ethical red lamp house". Theoretically possible, but awful lot of work and likely fail, so why bother.

@Next anon: why would anyone love being abused. It's not a "save the World" NGO full of wide eyes volunteers, it's an entertainment company.

@Carson: maybe it was cool 15 years ago. But after gamergate, it's rather a shame.

@L Papay: market of lemons. Interesting, but much truth in it: studios expect the worst, so pay shit and then get the worst.

Anonymous said...

> If only they'd all shrug as Atlas one-way-or-another, the gaming industry would burn overnight.

Yeah, we have a mechanism for that. It's called "labor unions".

We recognized years ago that there's a basic asymmetry in labor relations. Employees lack information regarding the company's revenues and expenses, because most companies keep those numbers secret. An individual employeee who stubbornly demands better working conditions, puts himself at risk of termination followed by homelessness and starvation. Even when an employer commits serious crimes and puts the public at risk, the employee who discloses those facts can face harsh persecution and diminished prospects for future employment (nobody wants to hire a "traitor").

You wouldn't need a spontaneous Galtian mass-awakening bootstrap revolution if you'd just stop castrating unions.

Anonymous said...

I was at EA's SWTOR cantina at PAX South. A dev recounted how he was a non-game programmer in Australia and he quit and he moved to Austin without first getting a new job because he really wanted to be in game development. Commenting on a game forum to unpaid mod to community rep to SQA/testing to dev is a road to game dev; there is a large supply. Banks tend to want experience and education in their devs.

from the bestseller Freakanomics (which I think you would like)

Why do prostitutes earn more than architects?
As the supply-demand theory says when there are a lot of people willing and able to do a job, that job generally doesn’t pay well. Other factors that determine the wage are the specialized skills a job requires, the unpleasantness of a job, and the demand for services. The delicate balance between these factors can explain why the typical prostitute earns more than the typical architect although it may not seem as though she should.
The architect would appear more skilled and better educated (as the words are usually defined). But the girls don’t grow up dreaming of becoming prostitutes, making the supply of potential prostitutes relatively small. Their skills, while not necessarily “specialized,” are practices in a very specialized context. And their job is unpleasant and forbidding in at least two ways: the likelihood of violence and the lost opportunity of having a family life. And as for the demand, an architect is more likely to hire a prostitute than vice versa, let’s just say.

The world would be a very different place if most or even many had your beliefs/behaviors. Some people really want to be game devs, even if it is not in their financial best interest.

Tithian said...

It's more like exploitation of people that want to work on their 'hobby'. The same amateur dev coded games in his spare time for free, so now getting pennies to do it seems like a golden opportunity to break into the industry and work on his passion. It's only after a few years that the illusion drops off, the exploitation becomes apparent and he moves on to a proper IT job with actual prospects.

And in the process, video game quality is dropping all the time, because all the real talent has no reason to stay in the industry, unless they own the company. This is what we're seeing now: The old talent from the golden era of the 80s and 90s is retiring, with no one to take their place, forcing studios to milk decade old ideas because there is literally nothing better (i.e. release the 30th Call of Duty and Madden).

Anonymous said...

In April of last year, Alex St John's article on VentureBeat was "Game developers must avoid the ‘wage-slave’ attitude"

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. ...
Making games is not a job — it’s an art.
... There’s nothing that can compensate people “fairly” for the sacrifices that great art requires. It’s art. You need to get an actual job producing productivity software if you want to be paid “fairly” and go home at 5 p.m. Anybody good enough to get hired to write games can get paid more to work on something else. ...
Don’t be in the game industry if you can’t love all 80 hours/week of it — you’re taking a job from somebody who would really value it.

Gevlon said...

@Anon: what is this commie nonsense? An individual employee who demands better working conditions isn't "terminated", he quits on his own and gets a better job.

@Next anon: no doubt that many people want to be game devs and that's why the formal salaries are low and conditions are high. The question is why? What drives people who had the best job opportunities (programmers are grabbed from school for wages that other college educated people won't see until 40)?!

@Tithian, anon: that would explain a bunch of good indie games made as a work of love. I know a doctor who abandoned his plastic surgery practice and went with Doctors Without Borders to East-Asia and I can imagine a programmer doing the same for some awesome game. But we are seeing lockboxes, catchup mechanism and "accessible gaming". Do you claim that ANYONE does it as a hobby/art?

Antze said...

@Gevlon: >> and I can imagine a programmer doing the same for some awesome game

The answer is right here, "programmers are grabbed from school for wages that other college educated people won't see until 40". And the answer is lack of experience due to age.

A typical programmer who is fond of games might hear something that banks pay more for programmers, but right now they are happy to get the opportunity to work in THAT Blizzard (even if the money is not huge, it's still more than most of his 25 y.o. friends get at their jobs).

Now, being ordered to implement some "accessible gaming" mechanism might be not that crap. Wise game designers may see something than the programmer doesn't see. The game is still good (it still has good artwork and epic bosses). Maybe one day there's a chance for the programmer to go up in career and influence the game in the right way.

...thinks the programmer and continues working. There are plenty of ways of self-deceiving, and many see the line they crossed long after they did it.

Gevlon said...

@Antze: he plays the same game. His friends play. He surely hear them bitching at the game for being a monetized shit.

maxim said...

Funny how for every system that is not capitalism all the negative consequences of that system are treated as an indictment on that system, but for capitalism nothing ever is its fault.

The idea that the next generation of capitalists is going to fix corruption is a pipe dream. There have been a very brief period of time in which capitalism was able to fix corruption, and that's when protestantism was actually in the driving seat and capitalism was little more than its workhorse. Nowadays, however, capitalism that is left mostly to its own devices is no longer capable of fixing corruption. It is getting exceptionally good at institutionalising corruption, though.

So what i'm saying is - yeah, the current horrible state of video game hr practices is, indeed, indicative of general direction of development of capitalist society. And that you should expect to see more and more business studios incorporating RMT into their business practices (and no, that won't result in RMT being brought under control. The reverse will happen)

I don't want to be right on this, honestly.
But, sadly, i am.

maxim said...

Working in games was cool before GamerGate, will be cool long after it and will continue to be cool as long as people are making decent games

Anonymous said...

I find it hard to believe that poorly paid and overworked developer/artist sustain themselves on the vague hope that they can climb on the RMT money-train. Corruption is not the only explanation for someone making an apparently non-rational decision.
When the apparent market pay and conditions are visibly lower than equivalent roles there are two possible solutions.
1) People are acting rationally and the shortfall can be more than made up through grift and other perks of the job.
2) People act irrational and take jobs on a non-financial basis that fulfil non-financial needs.

The first requires a position of authority from which they can extort grift. The second requires the fulfilment of something more than just the basic of needs.
The second situation is a problem for capitalism because it assumes that people always act rationally. That distorts the market preventing effective allocation of resources. As a result some segments, such as gaming development, are able to abuse and burn-out highly-skilled workers as though they are an endless resource. It arises due to irrational actors and market inefficiencies, not RMT-inflicted corruption in game development.

Unknown said...

Maybe they just grew up as nerds playing WoW and always dreamed about making their own games?
Maybe they are risking for a high roll? If the game tanks they get the boot, but maybe, just maybe, they are part of the team creating the next Starcraft, Diablo, Counterstrike or Witcher?
Maybe they just aren't brave enough to quit and search for a better job?

A typical programmer has exactly zero contact with customers. If they tried to intentionally program exploits, how are they going to sell those? Who's going to pay them? most streamers aren't millionaires, after all, only a few of them make a lot of dough and only in the top games. Besides, why would a dev/programmer create an exploit when they can just access the game database and create an arbitrary amount of gold to RMT?

Sure, it is possible and maybe corruption happens, sometimes. however, never ascribe to malice what could be acsribed to stupidity (cowardice, laziness, etc.)

Tithian said...

that would explain a bunch of good indie games made as a work of love. I know a doctor who abandoned his plastic surgery practice and went with Doctors Without Borders to East-Asia and I can imagine a programmer doing the same for some awesome game. But we are seeing lockboxes, catchup mechanism and "accessible gaming". Do you claim that ANYONE does it as a hobby/art?

The young naive dev is literally orgasmic because he managed to land a job with Blizzard because he sees it as a major milestone for his CV (i.e. I know a lot of internships that are 8hr/day and are unpaid). And you can be sure that he will be indoctrinated (as is usual with large corporations) that he is doing something invalueable and that he is working on making his favorite games better. That's obviously a ruse to cover the fact that he will be exploited to hell and back, but at a young age it's easy to get caught up in the bullshit.

The point is that everyone starts young, naive and ideallistic, and either gets a real job in another sector or learns to exploit his peers and joins his senior game devs. What makes the exploitation possible in Game Development (and generally Entertainment, see Holywood) is the fact that tons of people are blinded by the superficial glamor of the industry and are lining themselves up like cows to the meat grinder.

Antze said...

@Gevlon: Strange but he doesn't necessarily play the same game. Personally I find it often psychologically difficult to play the game you are creating, it provides less enjoyment. I'm currently playing the small game (nothing worthy, just for recreational purposes) I previously made, but I couldn't really force myself to enjoy it before, because every time I started it, it was "testing", not "enjoying".

Might be different if the game is popular and any good. Probably Blizzard programmers play WoW.

>> surely hear them bitching at the game for being a monetized shit

True, but that's not enough. "What else did you want, my friends, I don't like it myself but everyone's trying to survive these days". An employee must be either truly honest, or amount of bitching must be extreme - for him to abandon his job, the one he dreamed about just a year ago.

As we can see from the comments, there's enough people who say "fk this" and quit, but so far the influx of young naive programmers is big enough to upkeep the current state of things.

Gevlon said...

@Antze: "What else did you want, my friends, I don't like it myself but everyone's trying to survive these days" is a valid EXCUSE. Something that a bank IT tech guy would tell when it's asked where he works. For 2x higher salary, for less hours, with a sterile, but non-abusive environment. My point is that working for a monetizing, accessible game is just another "job for salary" as any other instead of source of pride. I don't expect the game dev to quit because his friends bitch. He should quit because of the 2x salary part. Friends bitching just remove the "I work in the most awesome job" thing.

Anonymous said...

@Gevlon: "I don't expect the game dev to quit because his friends bitch. He should quit because of the 2x salary part."

And he does. Working for a tech company, I'm seeing a lot of young programmers with 2-4 years experience in game industry applying after realizing what is the reality of game industry. The game studios have a laughably easy time replacing those with more fresh meat for which being a game developer still sounds like a dream job.

Anonymous said...

There is an abundance of research showi ng that going from 100k to 200k a year will influence your happiness by pretty much 0 longterm. Even if this concept is too hard to grasp for a normie i sure hope that the 1-2 std deviations above normal, which you should have when going into that field, help here.

As far as brutal working conditions go, given the average multi year project time goes, you will probably only experience that 1-2 times and by that time the project becomes your baby and quitting is for wimps anyway

vv said...

Salary is relative thing. If you live in Russia for example (especially outside of Moscow) then salary in game development might be pretty decent by country standarts, at least for programmers. Banks sometimes pay more but not 2 times more for same qualification. And job security doesn't really exists outside of government sector.

@Slawomir Chmielewski
Only a few people usually have access to production databases. You can expect RMT from player support staff, not from programmers. Programmers work with copies or just blanks databases so they can screw it up without consequences.

Programmers usually like to solve interesting techincal challenges. And work in Blizzard for example is exactly what you need then. From technical standpoint their games are fantastic. And I've seen really good engineering solutions even in mobile f2p games.

Anonymous said...

in capitalism you go hire efficient:cheap labour, outsource as bulk everything you can. like IT educated India. As westerner median IT idiot you can't compete with them, because a western idiot will not push that hard for that little pay. same for other countries like china. newest risk management is to hire freelance and don't pay them until what ever the contract entails payout, and those freelance idiots do this to be competitive.

As the money system we have now. money is made out of thin air with interest, so it is a perpetual exponential debt curve. you will make the most fucking around with debt. There is where the power in this current system lies and from that everything else is build upon.

try mobile apps, same hours, same crunch. less backstabbing if you work alone but more thievery because others will steal or good luck wasting time and money on patents and lawyers.