Double Eleven’s Mark South On Combating Crunch And Building The Right Game Developer Studio Culture
If you are like us who’s been following the inner workings of the game development industry for a while, walking into a Texas Chicken store will make you wince a bit. Thanks to their tagline: “It’s crunch time!”
It’s nice on its own, who doesn’t like some good crunchy chicken? But that’s not the tagline you want to hear in a game development studio.
Crunch, in this context, means overtime work. While overtime is commonplace in most workplaces, in the games industry it’s worse, based on various documented reports. 100-hour works weeks. Unpaid overtime. Reports of developers being mentally unwell after long overtime shifts, leading to burnout. A controversy where spouses of developers unite to force publisher better treatment of their other half crunching too much. Such are examples of how crunch has been associated with workplace malpractice.
Crunch still plays a part in the game development industry. But thankfully, there are now more efforts than ever by developers to tackle the issue head-on to reduce, if not completely remove, crunch.
Double Eleven, the UK-based developer and publisher known for porting games to consoles, is opening shop here in Malaysia. We caught up with Mark South, COO at Double Eleven, who was at the Asia Pacific Institute of Information Technology (APIIT) recently, to talk about the company, their work culture, and how they are combatting crunch.
Double Eleven Origins
The phrase Double Eleven may be more associated with Singles Day sales in this part of the world these days. But there’s a short, simple reason why the studio picked that name. “It gets its name from Lee (Hutchinson, the founder) having the idea to start the company at 11:11 on the clock,” South explained.
In the early days, the company used to have a clock as its logo (with cartoon characters on their name cards). Today, Double Eleven is symbolised by their version of the Eye Of Horus. “It’s a protection symbol,” South explained, “I think it’s an analogy to the fact that our studio is like a family. We like to look after our people.”
“Family” and “looking after our people” are the core themes South talked with us during the interview. It’s the core of Double Eleven itself, as that’s the very reason they are founded.
“We’ve always been people first. Lee started this company because he wanted more time with his family,” South said. “When I started working with Lee, we wanted to make something everyone enjoyed working for. They also have time with their families. That was a big deal.”
The Rise of AAA Games And Co-Development
Games have been increasing in production values, not only with more realistic graphics but also in terms of scale. Open-worlds being a big buzzword this generation, for example. Some of us at Gamer Matters are worried if the developers can continue to keep with the rising expectations of gamers worldwide on the big-budget AAA games. Is it even sustainable at this rate? Is this why developers have to go to crunch so often, trying to make the best games out there, but requiring more effort than their schedules allowed to?
South is rather optimistic in this regard, seeing the higher demand as opportunities for more people to get into making games. And it helps that the talent level of prospective developers is much, much higher.
“I believe that we have such a higher base of talent at the starting point now than we had before coming in,” he said. “If you think about how you can study games degrees.
“When we started to make games, even before Double Eleven, before I started my career, there’s only a handful of universities that even taught about anything to do about computer games or graphics programming. It was a hobbyist thing. You had to find places to study (games development skills).
“But now, that base skill level is so much higher.”
With access to game engines like Unreal Engine 4 and Unity easily attainable, game development has certainly gone quicker, and the tools to learn the trade more accessible than ever.
And with more talent pool across the globe, it has also given wave to a new trend in the industry: co-development. While it used to refer to as “outsourcing”, now more and more developers genuinely collaborate with others to create these bigger games, sharing expertise across studios. Rather than building a whole new team, why not collaborate with another existing team from another company with complementary expertise?
“So these co-developments are really good projects where we’re particularly good at one thing, whether it’s console development, whether it’s technical work and we can work with creative teams or we’ll use our own creative teams to work together to create a project,” South explained.
Double Eleven themselves are participating in one right now, as they are partnering with Mojang on the action RPG take of Minecraft- Minecraft Dungeons. And most of Malaysia’s big game dev studios present here have experience working as co-developers, which includes Streamline Studios, Lemon Sky Studios, and Passion Republic.
It’s Crunch Time
Game development sounds fun and all… until the dread call to crunch arrives. South explains why game studios, even Double Eleven, have to go into this period where developers are required to work overtime.
“What happens is as you get towards the end, the publishing schedule starts to kick in.
“And then you have dates, you have betas, you have commitments, trade shows, you may have something that’s tied to something in the world or it’s a film, or something. So those dates get more rigid so there’s less flexibility there.”
There’s a reason where this issue is sometimes referred to as crunch culture. It’s normalised in the culture of such companies. Folks not putting the hours are treated lesser and looked down at, for example.
Though it’s not exclusively a workplace culture issue. It can be a systematic one due to the nature of the industry, like when the datelines cannot be budged and the only way to get the game done is to squeeze in the hours.
But at least for Double Eleven, South said they only do so irregularly, and as he explained, only happens near the end of development. While they may have to do so, their stance on crunch is clear: It’s not normal.
“The thing that’s important, I think, in any company whether you have money or you don’t have money, whether you are two people in a room or you (have) lots more, you have to recognise that if I’m asking someone to work extra hours: it’s not good,” he said.
“It’s not normal. Definitely not normal, and definitely cannot become normal, it’s not good.
“And I think when the company and the employees understand it’s not good but we have to solve it, we’re both on the same page.”
Double Eleven’s outlook on crunch is an interesting one. For one, they pay for overtime, something unfortunately not as common in the games development industry.
“What we do is we pay overtime. we pay overtime to compensate with that,” South said. “We’ll pay you overtime because we recognize that there is an expense now to the business. This is not something that we want. Let’s get it done, let’s get it done on track.”
So with paid overtime, the company incurs costs for going into crunch, hence discourages management to make employees go into crunch often- it costs them money. While being paid for overtime is already a good step, but rather than just see it as a solution, Double Eleven sees it only as a stopgap. It’s to ensure they can get the work done in time, while efforts to make sure they avoid crunch in the future still continue.
“We also realise that even if we do pay someone overtime, it doesn’t mean that it fixes all the problems,” he continued. “Maybe (the employees) had plans, maybe (they were) gonna do something. It doesn’t change that. It doesn’t make any difference, it just compensates you for coming in.”
They Have A Plan
What South believes to be the key to combatting crunch, and giving the game industry a better work-life balance- is one word: planning. Producers and managers plan and scope out a scale of given tasks, with time estimates, to ensure game development is on track. And mastering this area of expertise- by allocating enough time and resources to the various part of production, is one way to avoid the need to crunch.
“The process of planning is not to be underestimated,” he said. “There’s a lot you can do to mitigate a lot of things.”
South explained how planning in game development is important:
“You know how to make a level, you know how to put a person into it. You know how to run around and fight. But what you don’t know is how to get them in an underwater cave and fight sharks. Because the dynamics are very different when you’re underwater. That’s an unknown.
“But maybe there’s someone who knows a bit more about that. Maybe it takes twice as long, and maybe you give yourself some estimates.
“You can plan for these things. To a degree.”
South admits that you can’t plan for everything. “You can spec all that out, and you can have a good idea of it,” he said. “But sometimes you don’t know how long it’s gonna take.”
Like a certain cowboy named Dutch Van Der Linde learned this hard lesson, any good plan can still go awry. In games development, it may be a feature that didn’t work as expected. Or the time to implement a feature takes more than initially allotted. Or worse, a gameplay mechanic that’s totally up not fun at all, and you only notice it late in development. And then there’s also the unmovable deadlines, especially for developers working with publishers.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t trust the system, as South firmly believes that with experience, the planning phase can only get better that helps companies avoid crunch time.
“If you get the planning, if you try your best in planning it will always improve,” he assured. “It won’t fix 100%, but it will always give a better chance of having a better work-life balance.”
South also believes it’s better that we stick to best practices in the industry, rather than go out and have legislations determining how a games company should be run. At least not now when Malaysia’s game development industry is still at its infancy.
The past Minister of Communications and Multimedia share the same view, as they are aware of such issues, but to have leaders of the industry set examples of work-life balance for the time being.
It’s All About Family
From the company’s beginnings to the manifestation of its current logo, Double Eleven has a strong familial culture it builds among its 100 or so employees in the UK.
The company accommodates the two different kinds of people coming to work. One is the one already settled down with a family. For them, there are flexible hours, flexible lunch and being able to go home early to pick up the kids from school. The 9-5 working hours are still very-much applicable to Double Eleven for these folks.
Then there are the younger, hungrier workers, who wouldn’t mind working through the weekends. While they will still be asked to go home, these folks can still put in extra time of their own willing and will get their dues during the year-end reviews.
Yes, there is such a thing as a work-life balance at Double Eleven, and the management strives to ensure that exist.
Something South is working hard on is to ensure everyone employed continues to be happy, and again, demonstrating they do as they say at putting people’s first. He explains, as an example, an ongoing conversation that the HR team always has: “If the people we’re hiring are good to work anywhere in the world, then why would they wanna work for us?
“And it’s not a one time question it’s a question we always ask ourselves. To make sure the company is working with them correctly. And the company appreciates the relationship.
“This person is talented. We want to keep them we want they need to enjoy where they are. what should we be doing about that?”
In the last four years, only one full-time developer departed Double Eleven. It’s something they are proud of, having able to retain their employees for long stints. In 2018, Double Eleven was listed in the Gamesindustry.biz’s Best Place To Work Award, a highlight of good places to work in games in the UK.
What To Expect At Double Eleven Malaysia?
As for how big Double Eleven Malaysia will be, in terms of staffing, it is still unknown. What’s confirmed right now is that the office, located in Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur, will be a full-on development studio with job opportunities across the board. Quality assurance (testers), programming, animation, as well as various senior positions all available.
Currently, some of the higher-ups of Double Eleven are touring around various campuses in KL, conducting interviews on prospective new graduates. We even saw South doing one right after our interview session. Which is also done in a chill manner.
Double Eleven was searching for a place to expand, in particular at the +8 GMT timezone, so that work can continue right after the UK offices closes. “We like the idea of continuous development and the question was ‘what country?'” South said.
“A couple of years ago, we met the guys from MDEC. They’re a great group of people. Very passionate about promoting the digital economy here.”
Shoutout to MDEC, the team that overlooks the game development side of the digital economy has done massive work to bring in new studios from abroad (like Larian Studios and SIE) to Malaysia as well as supporting locally grown ones (like Metronomik and Magnus Game Studios).
Double Eleven will continue to bring its three core values to the Malaysian office: hard work, integrity, and solidarity. Hard work as in, the company appreciates the work you put, which sometimes can be tough. Integrity as in being honest- providing constructive feedback, letting management know what you truly feel, and honest with other business partners. Solidarity as in the team look after themselves – “we’re all in this together, let’s help each other out”.
Just like how they nurture the UK office, and created its own work culture over time, so will the Malaysia branch.
“We’re Making Video Games”
Double Eleven may not be hitting the headlines with their latest games. Currently, they are the caretakers of Prison Architect working with publisher Paradox Interactive, co-developing Minecraft Dungeons with Mojang, and bringing the survival game Rust, by Facepunch Studios, to PS4 and Xbox One by this year.
But it’s a game developer that’s financially stable, and putting its 100 employees (and their families) first.
In these terms, they are definitely a new breed of games company. Not the gung-ho developer attempting to go big or go home, by any costs. But staying true to what a games company should be all about: fun.
And it’s that very mantra is why South, and the rest of the management team at Double Eleven are treating their employees right:
“We’re making video games. It’s meant to be exciting, it’s meant to be engaging. And those kinds of things come from people who enjoy what they do, who are passionate about what they do.
“So it’s important to look after the team’s well-being.”
Double Eleven is currently still hiring for its Malaysian office in Bangsar South, Kuala Lumpur. Available positions can be found here.