Noted Joe Rogan fan and exceptionally bad Twitter user Elon Musk recently said “there are way easier places to work, but nobody ever changed the world on 40 hours a week,” a response to ongoing criticism of the exploitative labor conditions at Musk’s companies, especially the vehicle-focused Tesla. Musk’s comment garnered all manner of response, including one from Nick Popovich, the game director behind 2017’s Slime Rancher, a wildly successful game about collecting, raising, and breeding enormously cute slimes creatures.
“We made Slime Rancher working 40 hrs a week,” said Popovich at the time. “It has been played by over 5 million people, created an amazing company of talented people, and currently has a 98% positive score on Steam. There is always another way.”
“There is always another way.” Such a suggestion is a relatively recent phenomenon in an industry that’s happily and religiously exploited workers, hiding behind terms like “passion,” as it grinds through another generation of 20-somethings who inevitably leave games behind. The awful labor conditions in video games are both inhuman and a talent drain.
One of Waypoint’s missions over the last several years has been to go beyond evaluating how a game plays and to make the way they’re made central the way we think about them. Games are made by people, and no game, no matter now good, is worth destroying lives in the process. In 2019, rather than exclusively focusing on where things have gone wrong, we’ll be investigating and profiling places where things are changing, studios and individuals making labor conditions a priority.
“The more players think games are worth devs being miserable in order to deliver them on time, the more we’re dehumanized,” said Popovich in a recent interview with me.
As part of reporting this story, I spoke with several employees who do (or did) work under Popovich. Everyone was given an opportunity to speak off the record about their experiences, but all vouched for his claims about what it’s been like to make Slime Rancher, describing a studio where crunch was exceedingly rare and people are told to go home.
“Nick is definitely genuine about what he believes in,” said former artist Victoria Joh. “You can take his word as sincerely honest, this is coming from an employee who actually just recently left Monomi Park. Casually-official work hours was about 10a~7p. The conditions were on general far better than most game companies are stereotyped for—crunch was a rarity.”
“Can confirm that he has told me to go home and to stop working and to relax on numerous occasions,” said communications manager Kara Holmes. “It’s hard to break bad habits.”
The 40-hour workweek is not written in stone (or in contract) at Monomi Park, the 12-person studio behind Slime Rancher, but part of a larger philosophy Popovich has on development.
“The more players think games are worth devs being miserable in order to deliver them on time, the more we’re dehumanized."
“There are plenty of people out there with good intentions,” he said. “You see this all the time in the Bay Area. I think plenty of studios start with that as a goal, but they say ‘But, of course, in order to get started, to get our foot in the door, we're all going to have to crunch, we're all going to have to extend overextend ourselves.’”
Slime Rancher started development in Popovich’s apartment. He was an artist and designer that didn’t know how to program, so he was downloading other people’s code, fucking with it, and cobbling a prototype for Slime Rancher. (For a while, the slimes were using someone else’s scripting for a homing missile, causing them to fly around in the air.) He eventually brought in technical director Mike Thomas, who actually knew what he was doing, to help.
Every weekday for roughly a year and a half, Thomas would head to Popovich’s apartment at around 10:00 am. They’d drink coffee, work on the game, and Thomas left at 6:00 pm. (Popovich admits Thomas was ready to leave for a job at Google at any sign Slime Rancher wasn’t going to work out, likely a contributor to his strict hours.) Popovich’s wife would come home maybe an hour later. The two would have dinner. Tick tock. This is how things went.
Popovich credits a limited scope for what the game would be for their ability to stay on track and keep a schedule that, even in the early days, didn’t push into endless, numbing crunch.
His wife was a big help, too.
“She would come in,” he said, “and just ask me occasionally ‘Is this the fun stuff or the hard stuff?’ I would say it's the fun stuff, and she'd go ‘OK.’ Whenever it was the hard stuff, she was like ‘Dial it back.’ I got it. I understood. Mike will be here tomorrow. We'll figure it out then.”
Popovich claimed these “fun stuff” moments never went into the wee hours of the morning, but still, the entire notion is a huge grey area. Just because there’s a beer in your hand doesn’t mean you aren’t still working. No job, even one making labor a priority, is going to be perfect, and there will be occasions where you put in extra time, asked to or unprompted. The slippery slope is when there aren’t clear lines in the sand, and you don’t have people constantly assessing whether “fun stuff” slowly became “all stuff” because it’s convenient.
Popovich told me the game’s principal artist, Ian McConville, is an insomniac who will sometimes find themselves up in the middle of the night, desperate for a way to fill the time. McConville has sometimes used those waking hours to work on “fun stuff” for the game.
“It's always bonus stuff,” he said, “it's the fun stuff.”
We’ve even had these problems at Waypoint. In Waypoint’s first year, we also had a startup mentality, and people were putting in long, unchecked hours day after day, week after week. I was lucky enough to avoid this because my life is dominated more by my child’s schedule than anything else, but Waypoint hadn’t made it a priority to call out people overworking themselves. At a team meeting a little more than a year this whole experiment, we had long conversations about Waypoint’s own hypocrisy. How can we call out bad labor practices if we aren’t able to abide them ourselves? Since then, we’ve made strides in making sure people are routinely justifying any extended hours, taking time off when they do happen, and making sure we’re keeping one another accountable and calling out when it’s appropriate.
It’s not perfect, but avoiding the normalizing of bad habits is important.
Popovich, an artist-turned-designer who originally went to college pre-med before his parents started wondering why he kept coming home with detailed anatomy drawings, worked at two studios prior to working on Slime Rancher. First, there was Castaway Entertainment, one of the many spin-offs after Diablo developer Blizzard North shut down in 2005. Later, Three Rings Design, best known for the early free-to-play hit Puzzle Pirates.
He described his experiences at both as formative when it came to the 40-hour workweek and other responsibilities. When a major publisher pulled funding from Castaway, the studio seemed done. Despite the bleak outlook, Popovich continued to get paid for a full year. (He did admit “not everyone was happy there” but claimed it had more to do with mismanaged projects than long work hours. Still, experiences can widely vary for each person on a team, as evidenced by Jason Schreier’s reporting on the creation of Red Dead Redemption 2.)
He was lucky; that’s not often how this goes down. At Telltale Games last year, when the money dried up, everyone was unanimously laid off from the company. No more paychecks, no more health insurance.Because game developers are not unionized, they have no rights. They are at the mercy and morals of the people in power, with access to the bank accounts. Popovich said Monomi Park has a “war chest” that would give the company a long runway to come up with a new project—or at the least, pay people—if Slime Rancher finally peaked.
During Popovich’s time at Castaway, EA Spouse happened.
At Three Rings Design, he was asked to work hard, but the studio respected his free time.
Based on my years of reporting, Popovich’s experience is rare. It’s not often that you meet a developer without a horror story about the process of making games—he’s basically a unicorn. It’s so ingrained as to be expected, which is a huge part of the problem.
“Even in college,” he said. “I was aware of the brutal working conditions in the industry. When you're in college, it was called The Cave Lab, where you're making digital art in the dark with a bunch of other people who want to get into video games. You're spending all night working on things because you want to be the best and have the portfolio and everything. It's almost grooming you for that lifestyle.”
But, again, intentions are one thing. It can be difficult to hold onto those principles in the face of shipping a game, a genuinely daunting task that often draw the worst habits from anyone, especially if the waters get choppy. That’s arguably one of the reasons Monomi Park has been able to keep a healthy balance; the game was a financial success almost immediately, and has continued to sell well. For example, it sold more in December 2018 than December 2017.
Popovich bristled at that notion, though. During our conversation, my line of questions must have suggested I attributed some of Monomi’s ability to avoid perpetual crunch was money.
“I really don’t want to give everyone the impression that the only reason Monomi Park provides a healthy environment for its staff is because we got lucky with a big hit,” he said. “I feel strongly that we have a big hit because we have a healthy work/life balance. To be honest, if the article ends up reading as it was just a matter of luck and we’re an exception, I’d rather not publish it at all because it’s sending the wrong message to the industry and not pushing this industry towards healthier practices.”
Popovich tried to drive that home by explaining how the studio grapples with—and embraces—delays. Slime Rancher itself was meant to enter Early Access in a year, but it took six months longer. (Part of the reason they could do that early was because Popovich had saved a lot of money.) Monomi Park pushes back updates to Slime Rancher all the time, with its most recent summer update shifting dates three times. If the only difference between releasing one week and releasing another week is the sheer act of having to announce a delay, Monomi Park errs on the side of a delay. If it’s the difference between hitting a Steam sale and not hitting a Steam sale, the calculation might be different, but that’s a rare case.
“I really don’t want to give everyone the impression that the only reason Monomi Park provides a healthy environment for its staff is because we got lucky with a big hit. I feel strongly that we have a big hit because we have a healthy work/life balance."
“Also, I re-read my Elon response humble brag tweet as I didn’t recall exactly what he said on the call,” added Popovich, “and I definitely strongly disagree with his assessment that no one ever changed the world on 40 hrs a week. That’s the same kind of bullshit our industry perpetuates amongst students: gearing them up to be overworked to serve a publisher. Elon is no different here. I’d love to know how much overtime he pays.”
(Telsa does pay overtime, but has been sued over its practices.)
One of the barometers for quality of life Popovich uses at Monomi Park is what a union might ask for. He supports the unionization of game developers, even if he doesn’t expect it to come anytime soon, but if unionization happened—and it should!—he’d be disappointed if the benefits offered didn’t immediately stack up to what people already had at the studio.
“I'm not trying to get away with as much as we can before those pesky unions show up!” he said. “I would just hopefully have a company that, at the time that any of that was to come online, it would be equal to what we have going on here, if that makes sense.”
There are far worse ways to judge how people should be treated at your company.
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