I’ve been working in the industry professionally for 15 years across a variety of companies and on multiple continents. The work environment all comes down to being in a position to choose the right company and/or right project. Some are good, some are bad. There are always signs which can inform which a company/project is likely to be before you go to work there. Unfortunately, knowing which companies/projects are being run well requires a degree of skill and insight you can often only get by working in the industry and working for a bad, or at least poor, company.
While you do see news about bad situations get a lot of publicity, if you start doing the math on the number of companies/projects receiving publicity vs. the total number of development companies, perceptions about the number of good vs. bad companies/projects changes.
If anyone wants to check out some empirical data, look up the IGDA quality of life SIG and whitepaper. Here’s a link to get you started: http://www.igda.org/quality-life
Additionally, here are a number of questions I ask companies when trying to decide whether their development environment and methodology might be a good fit. Under each I’ve listed reasons for asking the questions and/or answers which might increase my concerns. Of course this is highly subjective and a negative answer to one question shouldn’t be an immediate deal breaker or a sign that a company/project would be a bad place to work.
If others have good interview questions which can inform people about the quality of life potential feel free to edit and add them or post them in the comments.
At what stage of development is the project?
This is generic feeler question which helps interpret answers to all of the other questions. One reason I like to ask it as it allows me to layer my own definitions of terms like prototype, production, vertical slice, alpha, beta, etc. onto the company’s. This helps me see whether my definitions match the company’s, and potentially see if they are overly optimistic about the state of a game.
What is the estimated release date?
If you have a chance to see the game demoed, you can frequently get a good idea about the amount of work required to complete it. If a company tells you a game needs to ship in 6 months, and it looks like it has a tremendous amount of work left to complete, the chances are much higher than you are looking at a crunch situation to get it out the door.
How was the release date determined? Is it based on publisher/company requirements to ship a game within a certain timeframe? Is it based on the projected time to complete a list of required features?
This question helps give an idea about how firm a game’s ship date is. Suppose a game is a licensed IP tied to a movie and the game’s release needs to be concurrent with the movie’s launch. It is unlikely the game’s release date will be pushed back. If the game seems like it needs a lot of work to get it out the door, the chances are high that a lot of crunch will be required to meet the launch deadline.
Alternatively, if a game is being developed to a certain number of features or a certain quality bar, and a company is particularly well funded, the risks of crunch go down (as long as the money keeps flowing).
What is the company’s/project’s current headcount, how has it grown in the past and how do you expect it to grow in the future?
I like this question as it can provide a lot of information about how much work is required to finish a game. If you look at some recent MMORPGs, they have hired a tremendous number of contract developers late in the project. The contractors were required to produce a prodigious volume of content in a relatively short amount of time. If a project has added a tremendous number of people, and needs to add a lot more, it increases the likelihood that the team will be working long hours to complete all of the work required.
The inverse can also hold true. If a project has a small team, an epic scope and only minimal hires planned, it can be a sign that they are trying to do a lot more with a lot less.
Of course, rapid hiring is not a firm indication a team will need to crunch long hours. Rapid hiring can be due to a company’s success and the hires are needed to fuel to companies increased growth.
What are your personal thoughts on crunch?
This is pretty much self-explanatory.
Have you had any situations where key milestone features were slipping and milestone deadlines were likely to be missed? How did you handle it?
This is a useful question as it asks for a situation where crunch could have occurred, yet does not specifically ask ‘do you crunch’. How they answer will give you a good idea about how similar issues will be resolved going forward.
What process is used to determine which features are going to be added to the game and how does a potential feature become a candidate for inclusion?
I personally like this question as it can give an idea about how prone a company/project is to feature creep. Rampant feature creep is a risk factor, especially when coupled with fixed deadlines as it increases the potential for crunch and/or buggy/unfinished games.
How much experience does the company/team/leadership have in making games?
This question can often be answered through a bit of research and doesn’t need to be asked directly. The more experience a team’s key leaders/ staff have with a particular genre, the more confidence you can have that they know the work required to release their game and, theoretically, will have planned features/headcounts/timelines appropriately.
Does the project have milestones? If so, how long are the milestones and how are milestone features and goals determined? How often are all the milestone goals met?
Milestones, and the ability for a project to hit them, are a great indicator of how well development is tracking. If a company tells you they consistently miss milestone deadlines, or need to drop features from the milestone deliverables, that can be a cause for concern. If that project has a fixed release date it is an especially high risk factor as the team will need to drop features from the release list or crunch to have all features in the shipping game.
Do you schedule specific bug fixing times?
Personally I have always felt that regularly scheduled bug fixing periods are very important to a project. Formal bug fixing periods help ensure that issues are fixed as opposed to sweeping all of the bugs under a rug and ignoring them until the last minute.