File picture: Pexels
File picture: Pexels

Game developers reflect on burnout, mental health and avoiding crunch

By The Washington Post Time of article published Apr 18, 2021

Share this article:

By Shannon Liao

Respawn game director Chad Grenier was staring down a common pandemic problem. Some of his employees working on the new "Apex Legends" season were truly exhausted. They just weren't telling him.

"We've got a team of 'the person that's afraid to let everyone else down.' So what you end up with is a bunch of closet crunchers," Grenier said. "Everyone wants to pull their weight and be seen to their peers that they're doing this amazing work. And in one sense, that's really good but it's really unhealthy to have that competitiveness during this work from home pandemic where it can't really be controlled."

The team had transitioned to working from home in March of 2020, and they were being held to the same goals they had been striving to meet back in the office. But with daycares closed, children at home and general pandemic stress, employees weren't as productive as they had been before. Grenier asked his team how the new season was coming along, and members would reply that everything was all good. But that didn't match the fatigue he was seeing.

"I just see people exhausted, and I see the motivation and the excitement just trickling out," Grenier said.

Eventually, team members started speaking up for each other that their coworkers were working long hours at night to hit deadlines.

"That was a bit eye-opening," Grenier said. "So at that point, I just made a decision that okay, we're delaying the season. ... And as soon as I announced the delay of the season, I got all the relief. I could sense the relief in everybody and I go, okay, so we were actually not in a good place [before]."

Like Grenier, other developers speaking to The Washington Post shared that working in the pandemic was challenging from a mental health, personal workload and collaboration standpoint. As offices closed worldwide, developers shifted to working from their living rooms and kitchen tables. Meanwhile, gaming took off as people stayed home, increasing the demand for content and the appetite for multiplayer games and hardware. In 2020, 79% of United States consumers, or about 261 million people, played a video game, up from 73% of consumers, or 241 million, in 2019, according to market research firm NPD Group.

In a jam-packed year, everything from work-life balance, staycations, marketing to gamers and finding new hires had to be reevaluated. Here's what developers learned from working hard on titles like "Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War," "Minecraft," "League of Legends" and more.

- - -

While working remotely to support online games, many of these companies faced technological challenges. They had to deal with fighting off security breaches and hacks. Electronic Arts shared in a statement that it was defending against attempts to compromise customer accounts and "working closely with the security community to assess and fix vulnerabilities found in our products."

Companies also moved desktop computers and drawing tablets to employees' homes when needed and provided stipends for improving work conditions.

"It was hard to imagine how we could ship a game like this, but it's amazing how adaptable we all can be together when necessary," said Dan Vondrak, senior creative director of Raven Software. Vondrak and his team have been working on "Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War" from home alongside a team at Treyarch Studios. Raven Software's team was able to join video calls with Treyarch to collaborate on "Cold War" more easily, according to Natalie Pohorski, narrative producer at Raven Software.

Many studios were managing game releases in 2020 but the year carried particular importance for Riot Games, which planned to publish multiple major releases.

In 2019, Riot Games announced it would expand its portfolio from just one title, "League of Legends," on PC, to an upcoming shooter "Valorant" and a card game "Legends of Runeterra," and that it would bring some of these titles, including autochess title "Teamfight Tactics," to mobile.

"It was an incredibly frenetic time period. We didn't know what the work from home experience would feel like. ... so we were very clear with the team that we would be willing to move the launch date," said Jeff Jew, executive producer of "Legends of Runeterra," which launched in April of 2020. "However the team was excited to ship our game to players. We were able to pretty seamlessly transition to 100% remote work and launch the game on time, without a crazy crunch period."

The "Valorant" team was also hard at work, managing a game beta that started in April and an official launch in June. Anna Donlon, "Valorant's" executive producer, said that travel bans and shipping delays hurt the game's infrastructure plans, and they had to work around it.

"Internet consumption increased dramatically and Internet service providers were constantly having to juggle who got routed [to which server]," she said. "We were actively troubleshooting the impact that might have on games of 'Valorant.' "

- - -

One franchise that gamers gravitated toward during post-work bonding sessions was Jackbox, a series of party games designed for multiple players. Jackbox saw 260 million players in the past year, up 142% compared to the same period from 2019 to 2020.

Jackbox CEO Mike Bilder recalled how people went from playing Jackbox games in person across a TV to gathering players for a session over Zoom."Even as we go back to some normalcy, and people being able to socially interact together in the same physical space, I do think that kind of Zoom connectivity or video conference connectivity will still live on and will be a fairly normal part of our lives," Bilder said.

The studio releases a new party pack each year. "Jackbox Party Pack 8" has been developed entirely remotely through the pandemic, and is slated for an autumn release.

"I think there is a longing in the studio for when it's safe and we can reopen. Because there's nothing like hearing laughter erupt from the conference room," Bilder said. "When you're working in the afternoon and you hear that happen, you know we're onto something really good. We've got some great games."

For team bonding, Jackbox employees will get together to try multiplayer games like first-person shooters and popular titles like "Fall Guys" and "Among Us" in their downtime. Jackbox games usually aren't in the rotation.

"A lot of times, we're stuck playing the game that we're in development with. And so if we're looking to get together and play games, a lot of times it's games other than our games," Bilder said.

Another game that benefitted from people staying home was "Minecraft," which has sold more than 238 million units in lifetime sales, securing its position as best-selling game of all time, according to Mojang Studios, which is owned by Microsoft."Minecraft" saw 139 million players in February 2021, up more than 30% from the same month the year before. Alongside the extra player activity, Mojang developers had to figure out their work-life balance at home.

"It has been a lot of both working with [Human Resources] and across our leadership team to think about how we can support teams when they're worried about missing deadlines," said Lydia Winters, chief storyteller at Mojang Studios. "[We're] also making sure we really prioritize wellness and being careful that people aren't overworking. Because, obviously, when you're at home, it's just easy to continue working."

Similar to other studios, Mojang in Sweden has implemented extra days off. It's also made discussing mental health a priority, said Winters.

"[We're] talking a bit more about mental health than maybe we've ever talked before as a company," Winters said. "Personally as someone who has, you know, struggled with mental health things, I think it's really nice at a company-level to be able to talk about it more ... that can go a really long way in making a difference."

Mojang developers announced on Wednesday that they would split a new update to "Minecraft" into two parts, one coming in the summer and the other half delayed to the holiday season.

"We've come to realize that to ship all the features in the summer, we would've had to work very long hours; and even then, there would've been no guarantee that everything would be finished on time," Mojang wrote in a blog post. "Working from home as we cope with the pandemic is still challenging - not just in terms of morale but also by hindering teamwork. Because our workflow is so complex and collaborative, not having the option to walk up to someone and ask for help makes everything take longer."

Similar to the Respawn team, some Riot developers were reluctant to use the studio's unlimited paid time off policy "since they felt they were letting their teammates down," said Kjartan Arsaelsson, "League of Legends" operations director.

"We found that people were feeling tired, stressed and burnt out. And not necessarily because of workload, but also because of the state of the world," Arsaelsson said.

The "League of Legends" and "Teamfight Tactics" developer teams began to take one Friday off a month in addition to the regular paid time off people had planned, to normalize being able to take vacations.

"I would encourage any leader to think about how you can create spaces for your teams to recharge like that," Arsaelsson said.

Some of the changes companies have made during the pandemic may have lasting impact. Following the pandemic, Riot Games is planning to operate with three days at the office and two flexible days where people can choose to work from home, which will be a change from the company's previous in-person office culture.

Prior to the pandemic, Electronic Arts had remote workers but "that was more exception rather than rule," said Marija Radulovic-Nastic, EA's senior vice president of development technology and services. The pandemic proved that "remote work is possible," she said.

"We can find talent where the talent is and find out how to make remote work possible," Radulovic-Nastic said, adding that that could lead to more geographically diverse hires. "There will be times when in-person definitely has value and is better, but on the other hand, we delivered and operated a very successful slate of games completely remotely this year. So it's possible."

Grenier, the game director at Respawn, said the team has hired more people than will fit into the campuses at California or Vancouver, Canada anymore, so there are a lot of unanswered questions about what will happen when people return to work.

Respawn also introduced new policies in the pandemic to ease people's stress levels. To give people more free time, the team cut the number of meetings and stopped requiring people work a certain number of hours. Some people would work two or three hours a day while others would work full days and the amount of time did not affect performance evaluations, he said. The people who worked fewer hours were judged based on the work produced.

Grenier delayed "Apex Legends" season five for a week close to launch, and the team slowed down its development schedule from new game content roughly every four weeks to new updates every six weeks instead. The team was also given a paid week off at the end of August, and almost four weeks off in the winter.

The decisions have not hindered the game's success. "Apex Legends" has more than 100 million unique players worldwide, the company announced on Wednesday, double the amount it had in its launch month in 2019. With the increased player base comes the pressure of keeping the game entertaining and fresh.

"It's always a struggle because the community will eat up as much content as you'll give them," Grenier said. "I'm always telling the team it's a marathon not a sprint because this is a live service game we're gonna be building content for years to come. We can't burn ourselves out on one particular season to get that extra couple things in."

The Washington Post

Share this article: