Back in March, Osama Dorias was part of an industry panel on burnout at the Game Developers’ Conference, sharing his own personal story of burning out in the industry and the toll it took on his mental health.
Now a lead gameplay designer with Brass Lion Entertainment, Dorias has more to say on the subject, and is a featured speaker at tomorrow’s TIGS (The International Games Summit on Mental Health) 2023. But in anticipation of his appearance there, GamesIndustry.biz speaks with Dorias at last week’s MIGS (Montreal International Game Summit) to get a bigger picture overview on the progress the industry is making when it comes to dealing with burnout.
“It’s night and day,” Dorias says. “Just night and day. I’m not saying it’s good now; that’s uneven across companies. But what I’m finding is that companies that have to remain competitive because they are in locations where they could lose people more easily are shifting faster to better work-life balance and better support systems for people so they don’t burn out because they have more to lose; there’s a business incentive for doing that.
“Companies that… are in locations where they could lose people more easily are shifting faster to better work-life balance”
“‘The only show in town’-type situations are moving much slower, but Covid sped that up because now all of a sudden a lot of jobs are remote and people are able to move around… now that there’s a shift toward working from the office, I’m seeing varying degrees of people saying it’s getting back to old habits, depending on where you are. But the trend overall is night and day.”
Any reversion to old habits may also be tied to the parade of layoffs and closures across the industry that we’ve seen this year.
“What I’m hearing is a lot of companies are using that as an excuse to say, ‘Hey, there’s uncertainty. You have to do your part and do extra hours because everybody’s scared,'” Dorias says.
That message can be intentionally manipulative or the well-meaning sentiment of someone legitimately concerned about everyone’s jobs, but Dorias says it ultimately doesn’t matter where they’re coming from; the result is the same.
“It’s a problem either way, because that’s not how you fix things,” he says. “You don’t fix it by burning out your people. Whether the intentions are noble and they’re really trying to keep the lights on or not, the big companies in general? That’s not what makes the decision whether to lay people off or not anyway. It’s not going to move the needle.”
“You don’t fix [precarious employment] by burning out your people.”
Developers are also getting better about not valorizing crunch, Dorias says. While he still hears about internal communications of studios that use words like “sacrifice” and “passion” to talk their way around crunch, it’s more common for the developers themselves to push back against the practice.
Dorias mentions a friend who recently took a job that promised a good work-life balance. So when their manager invited them to a Saturday evening team meeting even though there wasn’t any looming deadline or the like, the employee declined. There was no reprimand or public statement about it, but Dorias says his friend was removed from all important meetings and any position of influence on the project going forward. They soon left for another job.
It’s difficult for developers to tell when employers will stay true to their word about work-life balance or support them in the ways they claim to. Dorias tells a story about one of the three times he’s burned out in the industry, saying his employer at the time had an employee benefit that would cover about $750 annually for therapy.
Dorias found a therapist and scheduled a few sessions that were helpful, but $750 doesn’t go very far. Once he was through his benefit money, he paid for a few more sessions out of pocket before stopping because he couldn’t afford it.
He wound up burning out and once he had hit that point the studio said it would pay for additional therapy – but with a therapist assigned by the studio’s insurance company.
“What I noticed is, when I was paying for the therapist, a lot of what the therapist was telling me was, ‘You gotta get out of this situation,'” Dorias says. “But when they hired the therapist, every other thing was comparable except there was never a recommendation for me to leave. And when I hinted at it, they were like, ‘No, you can make it work. That’s just one solution but it’s not the best one, you’ll find the same problems elsewhere.'”
While there may be some backsliding going on at some companies, Dorias is encouraged by how much of the progress has been preserved to this point. For example, he notes that Eidos Montreal continues to run with a four-day work week. That’s not to say the advances companies have made could not be unmade in the future though.
“All of it is at risk, that’s for sure,” Dorias says. “It can go away in every category of all the things we’ve gained since then. Will it go back to the degree it was before? It would have to get much worse. I think these things are cyclical, things are going to bounce back.”
“The onus [for avoiding burnout] is not on the person. The person can do their best within whatever power they have, but the solution has to come systemically from companies”
And even if companies are laying off rank-and-file developers, Dorias notes that senior and experienced people are still in demand, and still have the least problem finding open roles.
“The honest heartbreaking truth is if you’re a junior in the industry, you have way less leverage than if you’re in a more senior position, for the most part,” Dorias says. “Sometimes you don’t have other options, so what do you do?
“That’s why the onus [for avoiding burnout] is not on the person. The person can do their best within whatever power they have, but the solution has to come systemically from companies. The companies have to study this; there’s a strong business case to not burnout your best talent. Or any talent, but I know they see numbers and unfortunately whatever they consider the top talent is going to move the needle more on this. And everyone else is going to benefit from it regardless, so make the business case to the companies that you want to keep [employees] healthy and happy.
“You’ll get more out of them. Not more hours, but better work.”