November 12, 2004

Long Hours in the Video Game Industry

I just finished reading ea_spouse's blog entry about extremely long overtime hours at Electronic Arts. I thought I'd share my own examples of how things worked at Microsoft Game Studios.

One note here: At Microsoft, you have to be salaried for one year in order to be eligible for a bonus.

I started at Access Software back in 1998. When I started there, I was making $8.00 an hour, and was hourly. I averaged about 50 hours a week through the end of Links Extreme, and the worst bit of crunch was a single 78-hour straight push (Friday morning to Monday afternoon) for RTM. However, I was hourly, so I was being compensated.

Microsoft acquired us in April 1999, and I stayed at $8.00 an hour until August, when I went to ~$16 an hour and was salaried. Given the massive increase in wages, I didn't mind it at the time. However, I was placed at level 56, which is just above an entry level tester in Microsoft. We had several testers who were leveled "off the grid," i.e. one or two levels below entry level Microsoft. Most test leads are at least level 58.

Right after I finished work on "Microsoft Golf 2001 Edition," I was told that all level 56's who were salaried were being moved to hourly. I got my bonus, and a raise to $18.

The next year, because of my work on creating a source analysis tool for Xbox titles, I was raised to a level 57, and made salaried again. This time, I was up to $21 an hour. I remained at level 57 for the rest of my stay at Microsoft.

The next year, I went up to ~$23.50 an hour salaried. Usually during crunch, I'd work five 10-hour days and the occasional Saturday. We had a few dedicated testers who were still hourly who put in massive hours, but most of us worked in the 50-60 hour range during crunch.

My final adjustment occured when they said that all level 57's were now going to be hourly. This happened just before "Amped 2." I was moved to ~$24.50 an hour. I worked a few all-nighters, but I averaged 65 hours a week for the rest of my time at Microsoft. There were a few weeks that I worked 80 hours plus. A large part of the reason for my overtime was that I knew I was leaving, so I wanted a nice nest egg to help offset the massive cut in earnings I was about to undertake.

Now, at MGS, we didn't get comp time. We just got our regular vacation time, which we usually took when the product was over. However, our managers were usually pretty nice for at least a month after RTM. They'd let us work partial shifts, let us slack off at work, etc., for a few weeks after it was over.

While EA's public motto is "Challenge Everything," the feel I got when I spoke to EA representatives at E3 every year was "Win At Any Cost." Their disposable staffing solution (work 'em until they quit) can actually work in this industry. We have a wealth of programmers available for work as a result of the dot-com bubble crashing. Working on video games is a dream come true for my generation. EA can hire them, chew them up and spit them out and find a dozen more coders and artists begging for the chance for it to happen to them.

Don't get me wrong. I love the video game industry. Heck, I'm even considering going back someday. I know that extended hours are part of this industry, and accept that. However, I am a firm believer that one works to live, not that one lives to work. We must always remember that our employees have lives outside of their cubicles, and do everything in our power to ensure balance in both their personal and professional lives. Only then can we have employees at their peaks.

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