Holiday season in the video game industry is the equivalent of television's sweeps week, which perhaps is why new reports painting game designers as 21st century-style Dickensian factory laborers are proving especially noteworthy.
The bottom line? It's not all fun and games for the game makers, according to historian Randall Stross of Silicon Valley. Stross wrote in a commentary published in the New York Times yesterday that "you can't look at a place like Electronic Arts, the world's largest developer of entertainment software, and not think back to the early industrial age when a youthful work force was kept fully occupied during all waking hours to enrich a few elders. Games for video consoles and PC's have become a $7 billion-a-year business. Based in Redwood City, Calif., Electronic Arts is the home of the game franchises for N.F.L. football, James Bond and 'Lord of the Rings,' among many others. For avid players with professional ambitions to develop games, E.A. must appear to be the best place in the world. Writing cool games and getting paid to boot: what more could one ask? Yet there is unhappiness among those who are living that dream. Based on what can be glimpsed through cracks in E.A.'s front facade, its high-tech work force is toiling like galley slaves chained to their benches."
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Stross wrote that overtime pay is nil and time off is limited even after workers churn out new products. He noted an "anonymous writer who signed herself as 'E.A. Spouse' posted on the Web a detailed account of hellish employer-mandated hours reaching beyond 80 hours a week for months. No less remarkable were the thousands of comments that swiftly followed in online discussion forums for gamers and other techies, providing volumes of similar stories at E.A. and at other game developers."
EA spokesman Jeff Brown told Stross that "'the hard work' entailed in writing games 'isn't unique to E.A.' He is correct; smaller studios demand it, too. The International Game Developers Association conducted an industrywide 'quality of life' survey this year documenting that "crunch time is omnipresent.'"
The New York Times: When A Video Game Stops Being Fun (Registration required)
As for the missive from E.A. Spouse, nearly 3,000 comments have been posted in reply so far, including this one: "Well, I know this doesn't help you any, but you're certainly not alone, and EA certainly isn't the only publisher pulling this ... I've been wanting to leave my job for quite some time, but it looks like all of the major publishers are following the same plans, and the small ones can't take a chance hiring someone that doesn't have at least 10 titles published... We really do need some sort of union in this industry. When those in charge are getting christmas bonuses larger than my annual pay (and working less than half the hours), something is seriously wrong. My christmas 'bonus' last year was $40. (This was also the bonus they promised me to keep me from walking out.)"
Some are already working to form a union for gaming developers -- a sign that the industry is trying to grow up. But like any other business, cost-cutting and profits are "Mission No. 1," an indicator that the gaming industry might not be so hot on organized labor.
Just as worker angst proliferates, the video game industry is having to deal with problems reminiscent of the very industry it is taking cues from: Hollywood. The Washington Post's Mike Musgrove wrote about the trend in the paper last Tuesday. "If the video game industry is beginning to rake in revenue that rivals the movie industry, it's also beginning to accumulate Hollywood-like headaches. Both industries have to worry about attracting star talent, containing rising production costs and stopping hackers who freely trade their products online. And, of course, there are the lawsuits. For a game designer these days, coming up with the flashy technology that will impress jaded fans is only part of the job," Musgrove reported.
"Take Half-Life 2, a hotly anticipated computer game that arrives in stores today. The title features the latest adventures of a character named Gordon Freeman, a scientist who's going to save the world from aliens with the help of a stack of cool weapons and a couple of friends. With a list price of $54.99, Half-Life 2 is widely expected to sell millions of copies (the original Half-Life sold 8 million since its 1998 release). But getting the fearless Freeman on retail shelves has been a bit of a slog. Hackers at one point stole the source code to the game by breaking into a computer at Valve Corp., the game's developer, forcing delays. Development was further slowed by a fitful creative process as game designers tried to come up with a worthy sequel. And all the while, Valve and its publisher have been entrenched in an ongoing legal battle, squabbling over issues such as late payments and which party has the right to sell Half-Life to Internet cafes."
The Washington Post: Half Life 2's Real Battle (Registration required)
In other legal news, the Los Angeles Times last week reported that Oscar-winning "Pulp Fiction" co-writer Roger Avary on Monday last week "sued Microsoft Corp., accusing the world's largest software company of stealing his idea for a genre-bending video game for Microsoft's Xbox console." More from the piece: "'Yourself! Fitness,' a well-reviewed exercise game aimed at women, copies large chunks of the papers Avary submitted to Microsoft during a series of meetings in 2003, he alleged in the suit filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court." Microsoft had no comment for the paper.
Speaking of Xbox, Microsoft is playing its own game of hard ball with rogue Xboxers, now that its hotly anticipated Halo 2 sequel is out. The company is cracking down on people that make unauthorized changes to their Xbox devices, the AP reported. "Gamers who modify Xboxes usually do so either to be able to cheat on games or use pirated copies, although some also have made changes so they can use the Xbox for other functions, from running Linux to playing music. Cameron Ferroni, general manager of the Xbox software platform, says Microsoft is not interested in suing individual users. But the company does want to banish scofflaws from its online service, Xbox Live."
Los Angeles Times: Microsoft vs. Hollywood In A Clash Over Creativity (Registration required)
The Associated Press via the San Jose Mercury News: Microsoft Cracks Down On Xbox Modifications (Registration required)