Hearing about the harsh realities of a gaming studio’s work environment, most notably their crunch culture, doesn’t come as much of a surprise anymore. A few years back, Rockstar, the game developer behind GTA, had its alleged abusive work practices—such as having employees work overtime—outed by its employees, and this wasn’t the first time the company had come under fire.
It doesn’t only happen in US gaming studios, though, as Japanese and European employees have also reported about the crunch culture they experience in Vice.
Local gaming studios aren’t exempt it seems. Recently, Lemon Sky Studios was accused of forcing employees to work overtime without pay, The Star reported. The art outsourcing studio later released a statement denying it.
For a better insight into the realities of what employees of Malaysian gaming studios experience, we spoke to people who are active in the industry. Here are the aliases to protect their identities, and the nature of their job scopes:
- Kazuko, who translates 2D visuals and concept art into 3D platforms with 5 years of experience;
- Lily, a 3D artist, involved in the post-production end as a coordinator and later project coordinator with more than 7 years of experience;
- Kiki, an animator for 3 years;
- RoyalKnight, a 3D environment artist for more than 3 years;
- Jack, a generalist game programmer for almost 2 years;
- Billy, a 3D animator for more than 7 years.
Among the interviewed, Kazuko, Lily, and Kiki come from outsourcing companies, whereas RoyalKnight and Jack come from in-house production ones. Billy is currently freelancing but has worked in both outsourcing and in-house studios before.
The crunch culture is real
From their reports, it seems that outsourcing companies are more likely to experience the harsher parts of crunch culture compared to in-house jobs. “I have done my fair share of overworking myself till I burnt out completely. I personally think it’s because there is a mentality where it’s because it’s tough and unforgiving, we overwork ourselves to avoid it,” Kiki shared.
For Kazuko, she said that many factors went into how unforgiving the working environment could become, like the type of project your company does or takes, the project’s difficulty, your manager, the team, and your skills and experience with the type of project you’re assigned to.
While RoyalKnight is no stranger to overtime at his in-house studio either, he admitted that it was more of his decision to do so than it being imposed by his company. Drawing from his past experiences, Billy testified to the above realities. Because in-house companies have more control over their projects and usually work on a smaller scale in Malaysia, it’s a less stressful environment.
There are also other issues
Now, even though crunch culture plays a big role in creating unhealthy work environments, there are other external factors that come into play. “I experienced working late hours but I personally think one of the factors that contributed to it is because of underpowered computing specs being provided,” Lily said.
Because of this, their machines could lag or crash the minute they start running more software simultaneously, which takes a toll on efficiency especially when project deadlines are tight as the artists had to take turns using the software.
Moreover, Lily didn’t like the way her company’s operations team was managing things. The higher-ups would make decisions without consulting the lower tier, which she was in, as well as lure clients in with a cheaper project cost or overpromising that they could deliver the desired quality of work within a shorter period of time.
She’d even experienced having her artists being taken away from her project and replaced with newer people unfamiliar with it, all while tight deadlines didn’t change. This brought bad results to the end product, and clients themselves could also see the sudden difference in quality.
“Even when a client has booked and paid the rate of that certain level or artists to be in the project, our higher-ups would secretly switch out the better artists to handle projects which held bigger titles. I was left to pretend to my client they’re still working with the artists they had ‘booked,’” said Lily.
She also added that when the junior artists were underperforming, senior artists would have to step in and take over their workload, resulting in them becoming overworked and project coordinators like her being blamed for “poor management.”
In-house production isn’t all fun either
“Games in general take a long time to make. It might take months, or even years to see the result of your labor. The worst-case scenario, the game can simply be cancelled, and no one outside the development team would even know,” Jack said.
He added that while planning ahead for production, they needed to be prepared for game-breaking bugs before the submission deadline, fixing assets that weren’t working out as expected in-engine, making design changes because of some playtesting result, and more.
“Most people think developing a game or animation movie should be very easy and it wouldn’t cost too much. Actually, a lot of artists are required to work on a project on top of equipment like a strong PC, headphones, drawing tablets, rental, etc. This takes at least 1 or 2 years of development, depending on the numbers of employees you have,” said RoyalKnight.
For him, working in in-house production also requires a lot of thinking and upskilling on their end. “Sometimes when I go home, I need to think and research more ideas, solutions and new methods to achieve the results we want for a game,” he said. “It is really exhausting sometimes and I’d rather work like a machine than using my brain to think every moment.”
While work for outsourcing studios usually means deadlines are more limited and strict, most of the time, what they need to do work on is at least already decided on, according to Jack. For the most part, the interviewees find it rewarding to be able to see their name at the end of the credits and have their work appreciated despite the harsh realities of their working environment.
“I also know I have always wanted to work on games, and living my dream job is very fulfilling. I find it fun to work on games, and seeing the game slowly come together, piece by piece, milestone to milestone, is an accomplishment in itself,” said Jack.
Furthermore, he finds the community reception after the launch of their games much more rewarding than even seeing his name on AAA games. “The amount of positive comments, tweets, and fan arts makes all the hard work worth it,” he said.
“Not everyone in the industry is bad. Many of my leads and supervisors are nice people and they are willing to guide you. When you are under a good lead in a project, things are a bit easier as you overcome challenges together and keep each other in check. Being part of a famous game is great, but being in a good team is better,” Kiki shared.
Some parting advise
While it’s exhilarating to be able to see yourself credited especially in an AAA game, Billy advised that it’s also important to be wary of the industry and not be a pushover when you negotiate your contract. On top of that, showing you’ve done the research on assets you’ll work on, understanding workflows, being organized, and being able to meet deadlines makes you more sellable, he added.
“If people really have a passion to join this industry, in my opinion, you must at least like to create, think, do storytelling and draw. That’s the lowest requirement you must have,” RoyalKnight said.
Kiki added that it’s also important to know what roles you’re best at in the industry: “Not everyone is an animator, modeler or concept artist. Some people are better as a project manager or a technical director. There are many positions in the industry, it’s good to research how you want to contribute to it.”
“In a big gaming company, you’ll most likely end up specializing in one particular department, while working in a smaller gaming company allows you to explore the whole pipeline and wear many hats. It is up to you how you want to grow, but as the creative industry expands, artists are expected to be well-versed in various skills to stand out from the competition,” said Lily.
This article was originally published by Vulcan Post.