Fortnite success has led to perma-crunch at Epic Games

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tds418

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#1  Edited By tds418

Hot on the heels of Kotaku's excellent reporting of the disarray at BioWare comes this good piece of reporting from Polygon on the culture of perma-crunch at Epic Games attributed to the success of Fortnite:

But for workers on Fortnite, the normal rhythm of working hours was changed by the game’s success. “There was a gym in the office,” said one source. “It was available for technically any employee to use when they had free time, but free time wasn’t something that I was allowed at all. We’re always in crunch. Crunch never ends in a live service game like that. You’re always building more content and more stuff.”

“I was working at least 12-hour days, seven days a week, for at least four or five months,” said one source. “A lot of that was having to stay at work till 3 or 4 in the morning.”

Many of our sources said that refusing to work late hours represented a serious impediment to career advancement. Bosses expected workers to stay late, and to not complain.

“It wasn’t much of a conversation,” said one source. “It really was just a ‘I hope you didn’t have plans this weekend because this is what needs to be done.’ And if you did have something going on, it had to be serious, otherwise it was going to be a negative experience for that person.”

I can't say I'm surprised, but I would have hoped that the massive success of Fortnite would have allowed Epic to go on a hiring spree to help make the workload manageable. I'm legitimately curious, do you think stories like this dissuade people who would otherwise be interested in game development from joining the industry?

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ripelivejam

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I'm weird I guess in that I would just be happy having a desk job that pays well and isn't subjecting me to back breaking labor for minimum wages.

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Vortextk

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Now if they’re getting bonuses, pay raises and tons of over time pay? Hey, it’s not good, but with enough incentive you might want to burn yourself out after 6-12 months and make a fat stack of cash. Since enough perks to do that probably isn’t happening all at once, once again it doesn’t seem worth it to kill yourself so some rich people can become more rich

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jrodrz

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Back breaking jobs with high wages are not ideal either. Sure, you might end up with the cash in your bank account, but it usually comes at a high cost: lack of proper sleep/rest, lack of time to spend with loved ones, stress, illnesses and what not. It's all a question of balance.

When choosing a career, I think you should always choose something you're passionate about, but be aware that something as complex as video game design demands a high degree of capability of working under pressure and tight schedules.

This example raises an interesting question for managers: How to administer the work load so that it doesn't become "too much" that it demotivates your employees and starts hindering their performance?

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tds418

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#5  Edited By tds418

Yeah I don't think this practice is really defensible on the grounds that "it could be worse, you could be doing manual labor for minimum wage!" It's a different kind of bad, for sure, but working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week at a desk is terrible for your health in different ways.

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Gundato

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#6  Edited By Gundato

@vortextk: That is kind of what silicon valley and a lot of "start up cultures" are based on. And it is horrible and predatory

Best case scenario? You do save a crapton and you can retire in your late 30s/early 40s. Great, right? Except you've "wasted" your life until then and are likely socially isolated from anyone other than the people you spend the past 10-20 years in perpetual crunch with. If you managed to make lasting bonds with people who are similarly migrating out of perpetual crunch then good. If not? That is not a good recipe for mental health.

But these kinds of cultures tend to involve living in very expensive areas. I don't know cost of living in Cary, NC, but perpetual crunch tends to require a large pool of potential employees which tends to lead to high cost of living areas. Which puts a dent in that savings.

Similarly, this is not good for your physical health. The implications of that should be obvious

The "I am going to bust my ass for a decade and retire early" is one of the dirtiest "dreams" that have been sold to people in recent decades. Some people can make it work. Most people just burn themselves out during their prime and, best case scenario, end up alone with no idea of how to "live" outside of going to work every day.

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FrodoBaggins

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#7  Edited By FrodoBaggins

Good God I can just imagine my response to somebody that said I had to work until 4am and do 7 12 hour shifts a week !

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ripelivejam

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@jrodrz: Most people don't have that luxury. I'll take mind numbing desk work for longer hours as ling as the pay's good. maybe I'll get kucky and find something better, but it isn't terrible either.

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Vortextk

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#9  Edited By Vortextk

@gundato: I’m not saying it’s good or to want that, I’m saying if the job turns into that randomly because you went from a regular game dev/software engineer studio into one of the hottest game devs on the planet, getting the fuck out with a huge payday is a better case scenario than either what is probably actually happening or quitting when it originally got bad with no great bonuses and starting the job hunt over.

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Casepb

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@frodobaggins: I would tell them to go fuck themselves, I'm going home. Then I would never work in the game industry again.

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@tds418 said:

I'm legitimately curious, do you think stories like this dissuade people who would otherwise be interested in game development from joining the industry?

I've been a software developer for 20 years and I can tell you it absolutely did. I've been interested in games and programming since I was a kid, but when I found out how much the rank and file game programmers were making and the hours they had to keep I said no thanks.

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BigSocrates

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I don't understand why they can't just hire more people. They're making billions. If you need to generate more art assets or program more events or whatever...hire more people. Yes there's a point where coordination becomes a problem, but Ubisoft makes it work coordinating loads of different studios.

Also, as someone who is just transitioning out of a different high pay high work industry...there's no excuse for this shit and beyond the human cost (which is very high) people just can't be very productive for that many hours a day. Especially at a creative job. If your business is successful and you need to produce more, hiring more people is not just the moral thing to do but it's the business efficient thing to do. One of the problems of the games industry is that a lot of the executives just aren't very good managers for various reasons.

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nutter

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#13  Edited By nutter

@bigsocrates: Employment is a seller’s market, at the moment. The economy is doing great and finding good help for skilled labor is exceedingly difficult.

Also, I’m not sure how virtualized Epic’s offices are. I was under the impression it was basically just in North Carolina, not staffed globally like Ubisoft.

I’m honestly kind of surprised they haven’t outsourced their helpdesks and QA departments. Maybe the quality isn’t there for outsourced helpdesk work (I’d believe it). As far as QA and limited development work, I wonder if the insane speed to market for a game like Fortnite makes it difficult to find overseas help capable of hitting the quality and velocity Epic expects...

In any event, it sounds like they got too big too fast and are working people to death while they try to ramp up. I know Epic wasn’t nothing before Fortnite (Unreal, Unreal Engine, Gears, Jazz, etc.), but Epic in 2018/2019 is a different beast entirely.

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#14 chaser324  Moderator

@bigsocrates: The issue with a lot of big software projects like this is that adding extra staff typically won't lead to an immediate increase in productivity and in fact often decreases productivity for some period of time.

It's the so called "mythical man-month" conundrum. In theory, if one programmer can complete X amount of work, then two programmers should be able to do 2X, three could do 3X, and so on. However, pretty much anyone that's worked on a project of any kind can see that's impossible.

Adding more programmers to a project that's behind schedule will often just delay it even more. There's time required to on-board and get the new employees up to speed with your big complex piece of software, and there is now some additional communication overhead because someone else needs to be in the loop on every conversation.

It's much easier for these companies to get a quick short-term boost to their productivity by just forcing their current employees to work insane hours. In the long term though, once that rubber band snaps back in the other direction, the detrimental impact to the mental and physical health of the employees as well as plummeting office morale will start to kill the project. A lot of people will leave for another job and the people that stay will be broken.

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tds418

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@chaser324 It seems like an issue then is that since Fortnite is in a constant state of development it will never be a good time in the eyes of Epic management to on-board people and take the productivity hit to train them...but if they never actually take the productivity hit to do that they're going to be stuck in the current recipe for employee burnout.

This also puts one of the criticisms of Apex, that the updates are coming too slow, in a new light. Maybe Apex just has a more sustainable workflow.

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Sweep

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I'm weird I guess in that I would just be happy having a desk job that pays well and isn't subjecting me to back breaking labor for minimum wages.

Before I start, I should say that this comment cracked me up because it's pretty much the exact opposite of Office Space :P

Anyway; I see this sentiment echoed whenever this thread comes up. Someone says "These people should be grateful to have any job at all" and it's usually followed by someone else saying "If they don't like their job they should quit" - which I think shows a remarkable lack of empathy and a very shortsighted view of how employment actually works, and what crunch actually involves.

I've worked in VFX (computer graphics for films) for almost 10 years and we share a lot in common with the games industry when it comes to studio workflow and ethics, and as someone who has also done the "12 hours a day, 7 days a week" crunch for months on end, I feel pretty comfortable voicing my opinions on it here. To say it sucks is an understatement. It's a severe psychological mindfuck; It makes people manically stressed, depressed, borderline suicidal. People can't quit because these jobs often don't pay a lot, they don't have enough savings to be unemployed, and like me they're often working abroad (because work is so limited back home) which means to quit is to pack up their lives and move somewhere else, assuming they found another job which matches their incredibly specialist skillset. That's OK if you're a young 20-something with no responsibility, but what about people with families, kids, mortgages, responsibilities? Sometimes it's easier to stay in a shitty stressful job rather than uproot your entire life and subject your family to the uncertainty; these people are effectively trapped and their employers know that and take advantage of it; "If you don't work all this unpaid overtime then your short contract may not be extended" and "there's no promotion for you unless you're working harder than everyone else" - and despite that, all it takes is one delay, one budget cut, one poor client review, and suddenly there's a mass layoff and everyone is gone regardless of how hard they worked. That's incredibly stressful, and we haven't even got started on the actual work conditions! Most of the artists are working in dark rooms (with colour-corrected monitors), and when you work 12 hours a day in the winter months you get out so late that it's already dark, so you can go weeks without seeing the sun (pretty depressing regardless of everything else!). When you get home you're too tired to do anything other than eat and fall asleep - you don't even have the energy to watch tv and playing videogames reminds you so much of your job that the idea disgusts you. Your eyes burn from constantly staring at a monitor in a dark room, people develop back problems from being stuck at a desk for such long periods of time. And after a few weeks of crunch people are so tired they start losing their professional composure. Even the friendliest people snap at one another. People shout during everyday conversations, lock themselves in the bathroom to cry, and are generally emotionally exhausted. The office turns into a horrible place that you dread walking into, the staff are zombies. And when you escape, when your friends and family ask what you've been up to lately you can only say "nothing" because you've done literally nothing but work 12 hours a day for weeks - so you start feeling shut off from other people. You feel dull. And you can't do anything about it, because the project still isn't finished and you're still working this weekend.

Last time I got out of crunch I was considering resigning. It took me two weeks to decompress before I stopped feeling irritable and inexplicably angry and fed up with the entire shitty system. I decided to stay, but not everyone does. Some people do exactly this:

@casepb said:

@frodobaggins: I would tell them to go fuck themselves, I'm going home. Then I would never work in the game industry again.

And that's completely understandable, but the result is that the industry is bleeding talent. People get burned out and they leave, and they take their experience with them. And high-quality game design isn't like working at a fast food restaurant, you can't just hire some kid straight out of college to fill the gap.

@bigsocrates: The issue with a lot of big software projects like this is that adding extra staff typically won't lead to an immediate increase in productivity and in fact often decreases productivity for some period of time.

It's the so called "mythical man-month" conundrum. In theory, if one programmer can complete X amount of work, then two programmers should be able to do 2X, three could do 3X, and so on. However, pretty much anyone that's worked on a project of any kind can see that's impossible.

Adding more programmers to a project that's behind schedule will often just delay it even more. There's time required to on-board and get the new employees up to speed with your big complex piece of software, and there is now some additional communication overhead because someone else needs to be in the loop on every conversation.

It's much easier for these companies to get a quick short-term boost to their productivity by just forcing their current employees to work insane hours. In the long term though, once that rubber band snaps back in the other direction, the detrimental impact to the mental and physical health of the employees as well as plummeting office morale will start to kill the project. A lot of people will leave for another job and the people that stay will be broken.

^^^ This is definitely true. Unfortunately it doesn't hold up in the Epic example because they're in perma-crunch, which means it's constant and not about hitting a single deadline. So this is literally just Epic treating their employees like shit to save money. As though they're short of it.

I've worked at a bunch of studios around the world and I've been involved in meetings with producers where people have been talking about crunch before the project has even been started - they plan for this and build it into their schedules. It's not a last resort, it's a tool to utilize at a fundamental level. These companies plan to knowingly subject their employees to everything I've talked about above. And that's why the game development industry is fucked, and that's why we should be fucking outraged that this is still happening.

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FacelessVixen

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So I guess it'll take Epic employees crying in broom closets to realize that going into crush mode is a bad idea.

Jim Sterling may be full of shit at times, but if he were to compare the 'tipple aye' gaming industry to a stubborn child that only learns the hard way though various forms of self sabotage, I'd agree.

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#18  Edited By Onemanarmyy

I don't understand the neglect for employee's happiness & wellbeing as if all these employees are burgerflippers that can be replaced at a fingersnap. Well apart from the shortsighted idea of 'we need more content fast, let's work hard with what we got, instead of staffing more employees'. You see other tech companies create these playground-esque places with all kinds of benefits to try to attract the best talent. In the meantime, you see all those AAA gamestudios, which are somewhat competing with other businesses in the tech-sphere, burn through their employees at a rapid rate. I like videogames, but knowing that this job could ruin my health & my love for my hobby, i would look somewhere else instead.

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One of these dev studios is going to have to make a stand. If the studio's entire rank and file walked out what is management going to do, fire everyone? With a live service game hanging in the balance? I doubt it.

Once one studio did it I'd imagine more will follow suit. Better yet, organize it so that multiple studios do it at the same time.

I know it's easy for me to say and something else entirely to actually do, but the only way things will change is if these people take the matter into their own hands.

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Justin258

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So... what the hell are they doing with 12 hour days? The game is done, as far as I know they're not making new maps? I would have guessed they were only doing backend work (stability, netcode) and making new character skins for people to spend money on. And I guess localizing for new territories. None of that sounds pressing enough to put an entire developer in permanent crunch.

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@justin258: As someone working in QA right now (my situation is different than most QA folks though as I'm not a contractor and work at a lovely studio) I can say even seemingly small things like adding skins or localization can break things in unexpected ways. Every time a new build is pushed it has to be tested and more often than not something is gonna need fixing/tweaking, even features that have been stable for weeks can break. With so many users the amount of bugs they need to track down and log from the wild is probably enormous, and it can be frustrating trying to repro issues from people within the team, let alone users who don't know how the systems are built or effective ways to report bugs. And this is just the QA side of things. Epic seems like they're running a real nightmare factory.

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h0lgr

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So... what the hell are they doing with 12 hour days? The game is done, as far as I know they're not making new maps? I would have guessed they were only doing backend work (stability, netcode) and making new character skins for people to spend money on. And I guess localizing for new territories. None of that sounds pressing enough to put an entire developer in permanent crunch.

There's pleeeeenty to work on, every single day in a game studio. Much of it is things an end user won't even see.
But honestly they are working on content. As recent as April 17 they released two new limited time modes (Air Royale and Food Fight), a new rifle and tons of changes. Naively thinking the developers aren't doing anything doesn't line up with reality. If you look at the changelog, you can see that they routinely release pretty major updates every week or so.

Sources:
https://www.epicgames.com/fortnite/en-US/patch-notes/v8-40
https://www.epicgames.com/fortnite/en-US/news/category/patch%20notes

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@justin258: Fortnite is the most updated game possibly ever. There's always new stuff coming out or a change in landscape for that map.

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I dislike this games-as-service trend. They're the new MMO's, and nobody comes away from participating in them, feeling "good".

Its sad that the creators have to work in these unrealistic working conditions.

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This story reminded me of the old Gamespot Story Jeff told where they would push you to your limits to make as much a content as possible. With management knowing there 50 other kids lining up to get the "videogame" job.

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@tds418 said:

I'm legitimately curious, do you think stories like this dissuade people who would otherwise be interested in game development from joining the industry?

I've been a software developer for 20 years and I can tell you it absolutely did. I've been interested in games and programming since I was a kid, but when I found out how much the rank and file game programmers were making and the hours they had to keep I said no thanks.

Same here. I've been a software developer for around 10 years now and when I was in college I had big eyed dreams of one day making games, until I started reading into it and noticing that a lot of studios seem to be working very long hours, sleeping at desks and oh look their game wasn't the second coming of christ and now they're all after getting laid off.

So I went into a software job that lets me do my 9-5, pays well and doesn't demand I sleep at my desk or lay me off because the company had one bad quarter.

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SethMode

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#28  Edited By SethMode

@jesus_phish: And honestly, isn't that what makes the field in it's current situation untenable in the long term? They will drive everyone away eventually, right?

I'm genuinely asking, because I don't know anything about software engineering, it is just starting to feel like common sense though from an outsider perspective.

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Ares42

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@sethmode: It is, but the people up top don't care. Videogames is basically a gold rush industry at the moment. The people funding it are just squeezing out all the profit they can while the boom lasts and don't give a shit about the health of the industry. Once the bubble pops for real (and not just a small burst like last year) they will move on to greener pastures.