30 April 2006
My first computer was a Commodore VIC-20. I received it as a Christmas present while I was in junior high. Officially it was for me and my brother but my brother wasn't nearly as interested in it as I was. Within a couple days I had written my first computer program. It didn't do much, all it did is count backwards from 10 like a rocket ship blasting off. It was enough though, ever since then I knew I wanted to be a computer programmer. Specifically, a computer game programmer.
Several of my college friends changed majors once or twice. Not me, I knew exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, I had my first game programming job lined up several months before I graduated. I hadn't even considered the possibility of doing something other than game development. I remember having an interview with Microsoft scheduled. This was before Windows so nobody but computer nerds knew who Microsoft was. I thought to myself "Self, do you want a job programming a stodgy old operating system, or a job MAKING COMPUTER GAMES!!!" At the time, the choice was obvious. In hindsight, maybe I should have chosen differently.
Anyways, I spent the next decade as a game programmer. The early years were a lot of fun. I worked my way up from entry level through lead programmer, shipping many different titles in the process. It's thrilling to go to the store and see something you made on the shelves. People were envious of my job on more than one occasion. As an experienced software engineer, I was in big demand. If my bosses ever pestered me I used to tell them I'd quit and find a better job on the way home. This was in the late 90's and back then there was a severe shortage of qualified programmers.
When I started, a game development team was anywhere from four to a dozen people. Every single person on the team made a big difference in the look and feel of the game. Nowadays, a development team can be 200 people or more. Even a senior programmer has very little say on a project that large. The entire process has become less creative and more industrial.
The hardest part about game development is the long hours. Any time a deadline approaches the team will enter crunch mode. During crunch mode it's normal to spend 12-16 hours a day, 7 days a week working at a frantic pace. The company will usually bring in dinner so that nobody has to leave. I've slept on the floor in my office on more than one occasion. In the early years crunch mode would be maybe the last two or three weeks before a project shipped. It eventually involved into two or three months at the end of a project plus several weeks at every milestone along the way.
There are a couple reasons for the grueling work environment. First, the games industry is extremely competitive. There are lots of bad games out there and not so many good ones. If a game doesn't look like it will be a top seller it will often get cancelled before it ever hits the shelves. A really good game can make piles of money while all the others lose money.
Another reason is that most game developers don't mind the long hours. Gaming is their life. Many people in the industry are savants at gaming and not interested in anything else. They'll do whatever it takes to work in the games industry. Unfortunately, the games industry has evolved to take advantage of this young, eager, hard working labor pool.
As time moved on I became less and less tolerant of the long hours and endless deadlines. The sexiness of game development had lost it's luster for me. Even working on a Lord of the Rings title didn't do it for me any more. I was near the top of my field but was unhappier than I had ever been. So I quit. I had tried to talk to management, to maybe fix things, but they weren't interested. From their perspective there was a vast pool of eager replacements. So I came into work one day, wrote "I quit" on a post-it note and left. I had no idea what I was going to do next but I knew I didn't want to make games any more. I was burned out.
Looking back at my college days, nobody ever would have expected that coffee farming was in my future. In hindsight, I should have made the transition much sooner. I've always loved the outdoors. I remember looking out my office window at EA and watching some construction workers pour concrete. I actually envied them. Sure they were working hard, sweating and getting dirty but at least they knew when their job would be done. They'd quit around 4pm, go home and have a beer while my day wasn't even half over.
Just recently, CNN and Money magazine published this article: Best Job in America
Basically, they rated several different jobs and decided that software engineer was number one. Among software engineering they decided that game programming was number one. Among game programmers the person they interviewed worked upstairs from me at Electronic Arts. Our jobs were very similar. I didn't work with him directly but I saw him around the office plenty and I was friends with people that worked with him. Let's just say that the journalist could maybe have found someone a little more competent to interview. To top it off, the guy is more of a manager than a programmer. Someone in his position can earn a decent salary but certainly nothing spectacular compared to a doctor, lawyer or Alaskan crab fisherman.
This isn't the first time I've been amazed at how wrong the press gets a story. Articles like this often mean nothing except that the company has a well funded PR department. I'd say that is definitely the case here. When choosing the best job in America, Money Magazine didn't bother to mention that the company in question had several class action lawsuits brought against it by it's employees concerning the bad work conditions and huge quantities of unpaid overtime.
I wasn't the only one to quit the company when I did. It was common for the company to give new employees a signing bonus if they agreed to stay for at least a year. It was also common for employees to stay one year and not a day longer. The starry-eyed newbies would quickly learn that their dream job wasn't really all that dreamy. In fact, it really sucked.
Shortly after I quit I heard rumblings about the beginning of the lawsuit. I chose to not get involved. Primarily because I hate all lawsuits and prefer to avoid them if at all possible. Also because I was salaried and according to my understanding of California law I was considered exempt from overtime pay.
EA is a public company (ERTS) so bad press can hurt the stock price. I've heard that the company has made some changes since I left. They now pay overtime to entry-level programmers, in exchange they took away their stock grants and bonuses. All other programmers are still exempt from overtime pay so this change wouldn't have affected me. I've heard that the teams need manager approval before they can work on weekends. Since it was management demanding the overtime in the first place, I don't see how this will change anything. They also moved major deadlines from Mondays to Fridays. They used to love Monday deadlines because it implied working all weekend.
Even if the games industry really has turned into a 40 hour per week job I'm still much happier as a Kona coffee farmer. Sure, the pay's not as good and I have an overwhelming amount of hard manual labor that needs to be done every day and when done with the day's work I have a long list of paperwork and website work to do at night, but I actually get to see my wife and kids now. If I get a strong urge to go jump in the ocean in the middle of the afternoon all I have to do is clear it with the boss: me! Seeing a game I made on the shelves was thrilling but hearing people rave about coffee I grew is even more thrilling. Just yesterday I was having some of our coffee milled and the miller, who sees lots and lots of coffee, kept telling me how good our beans are. That's a much better compliment than I ever got from company management.
I still have plenty of friends that make a good living as software engineers. Most of them are happy with their jobs. Deciding to quit "The Best Job in America" wasn't an easy decision. Being a computer programmer definitely has it's good points. But being a Kona coffee farmer in Hawaii ain't so bad either. I'm happy with my decision.
|Here is an interesting set of Wikipedia articles on the video game industry:|