Over ten percent of all the traffic that has ever gone through this blog went through in the past week in response to my previous post about Chaos Theory.
Needless to say, that was totally unexpected. I realized sometime in the evening last Saturday that it was Chaos Theory's 10 year Anniversary and decided to quickly throw together a blog post. In fact, I had originally started writing with the intent of telling three little tales about the development of the game, but, as I am sure you are aware, I can be a bit wordy, and it was getting late, so I only shipped one of them.
I guess it just happened that the particular story I chose struck a chord. Obviously, quality of life issues in the game industry remain a big issue, and what happened to me (and many others) continues to happen today. It was decidedly not my intent last week to drop a bomb and then drop the mic. What to me is 'some crazy shit that happened to me a decade ago' is a big deal to a lot of people, it turns out. So perhaps I should speak that.
I think the most important thing that I feel about it, is that the problem of quality of life in the game industry is not a simple problem, and that having a simplistic stance on the issue is not helpful to the people who are suffering.
Many people seemed to be blaming the evil bosses of the evil corporations for the imposition of eighty hour weeks. While this happens, and it is shameful, I assure you, no one has ever imposed an eighty hour week on me, and I have never ordered a crunch on any one of my teams, ever. My eighty hour weeks were something I did to myself. They were not mandated by Ubisoft.
Other people pinned the long weeks to shitty production practices and bad planning. It's true that some of our planning was shoddy, but at the same time, I can say with certainty that even if we had had better practices and planning I would definitely not have gone home after 40 hours a week. I wanted to be there. It was the only thing I wanted.
Many pointed out that the science shows that prolonged crunch demonstrably leads to bad results. Sure - data shows that. But that does not mean there are not exceptions. Certainly there were bad results for me and my health (and for others as well). But there were no bad results for the game. I'm pretty sure that the game was not a 100 metacritic and all our crunching left us with a lousy 94. Those hours and all that stress mattered. To say that it did not, or that it was deleterious to the final game is simply false in this case.
Others seemed to want to rush forward and empathize and say 'hey, that sounds awful, but you should know it was worth it'. While I appreciate the sentiment and the empathy, what you mean by that is that you believe it was worth it because what you gained was valuable. That's great, I am flattered. But you actually don't, and can't know the cost. It's as if I bought a cookie from you for five dollars and ate it, and you are telling me it was worth it because you're happy with your five dollars. But you don't know what the cookie tasted like. The taste of the cookie is my experience. Not yours. So while I appreciate the empathy (I sincerely do), I still feel it's important not to jump to a simplified perspective on a complicated issue that has such potential to damage people. What we really need to do is try to understand these quality of life issues, and empower people to come up with ways that allow them to solve the problems that are specific to their own lives in the contexts in which they are dealing with them.
Probably every quality of life issue is different. Everyone gets sucked into different traps. Long hours can be the thing that causes the problem. They can be the thing that compounds it. They can be the thing that people use to conceal the problem. Believe it or not, they can also be the thing that helps. There is no single problem, and there is no magic bullet.
As I said, in my case on Chaos Theory, I was not being told to work three jobs and put in eighty hours a week. I chose to do it. I did it because in a very real way, doing it made me happy. I felt empowered, fulfilled, and appreciated. I did it because I believed it was possible to make a better game than the original Splinter Cell, and that the easiest path to get there was through a lot of hard work. The positive feedback I was getting in the short term sucked me into a destructive spiral over the long term. I was exhausted and stressed, but the best way to deal with that problem was to get a few important things done on the game and get the high from having moved the game forward.
Back in 2001, just before I left Vancouver to go to Ubisoft and start my career in games a friend of mine gave me a bit of advice. He told me (I'm paraphrasing), "If you want to be successful in a big company, the way to do that is to make yourself irreplaceable." That's what I did almost from the minute my feet hit the ground in Montreal. I just started working like a machine. I stuck my nose in everything and I tried to pick up every loose task I could. By the time the original Splinter Cell had shipped I had gone from being a rookie level designer who had never worked on a game before to being a level designer, game designer and scriptwriter on a 92 Metacritic blockbuster that sold over five million copies (that was a lot in 2002). My level had been the one to represent the game at E3. My other level was the one on the demo disk in Official XBox Magazine. My other level was the first one in the game. I was irreplaceable.
When the core Splinter Team left Ubi to go found EA Montreal, it was obvious that I would take the Lead Level Design job and write the script. Who else would you ask to do that? I became the Creative Director not long after that, and yeah - no question I was irreplaceable again.
You know the rest of the story from the previous post. But here's the part I didn't talk about:
After Chaos Theory, I was pretty seriously burned out. I said at the time that I never wanted to make another Splinter Cell again - because frankly, I'm pretty sure I can't do it better, so what would be the point? So I decided to go and work on Far Cry 2. And at the same time as I made that decision, I also considered that advice my friend had given me about making myself irreplaceable. I realized that while it had technically 'worked', it was totally unsustainable and would not end well. I decided I needed a new strategy, and what seemed a straightfoward alternate strategy at the time was to just 'do the opposite'.
I decided to go into Far Cry 2 with the explicit goal of 'replacing myself'. What that meant, concretely, was finding a better Lead Level Designer than me, and finding a better writer than me so that I would only have one job, and then - perhaps even more important - working to build as many of the creative leaders as I could so that maybe one day, I could have no jobs. Presumably this would lead to me being at the top of some kind of pyramid scheme where I got to sit on a beach and drink mojitos and play videogames for the rest of my life - but I didn't really think it through that far.
Anyway - that's exactly what I set out to do. I brought in a Lead Level Designer who unquestionably was better at it than I was. I evolved the role of 'writing' into the role of Narrative Design, and brought in a Narrative Designer who was better than I was, and then I spent the next three years having them tell me how stupid I was and it was great.
Far Cry 2 was hard as hell. In a lot of ways, it was harder than Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. There are things that that game changed in me that will never go back to the way they were before. Maybe I'll write about those when Far Cry 2 turns ten. But all that said, for the most part, I worked 40-50 hour weeks for almost the entire development of Far Cry 2. I didn't suffer real damage in the way I did on Chaos Theory. Yes, there were people who worked a lot longer and harder hours that. On several occasions I tried to order people to leave the building, and I remember asking the Producer how we could force people to go home. Some of the reasons those people were working so hard had to do with bad planning and management. Some of it had to do with scope creep. Some of it was because they were super engaged. I'm sure their reasons are as complex as mine were, and I won't try to diminish them through simplificiation. It's complicated. It's hard.
Today, the Lead Level Designer, the Narrative Designer and the Art Director from Far Cry 2 are all Creative Directors on different projects. Far Cry 2, in my opinion, is a better and more important game that Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory. I won't try to take too much credit for that, but I do suspect that if I had continued to position myself as irreplacable, I would not have made it through at all. The project would have crashed and burned, the game would have been taken over by another creative lead and likely rebooteed. Likely many of the people who developed themselves through the course of that production would have been derailed and might not be doing as well professionally as they are today.
So there you have it - those are my thoughts on the complexities of quality of life in the game industry and that's my one and only strategy for not getting snuffed out: replace yourself. It's not a magic bullet, but that's all I've got.
(It just so happens I feel the same approach applies to designer authorship - but that's another topic.)