SAN FRANCISCO — Last June, in the runup to the release of its most recent video game, Montreal-based indie developer Kitfox Games decided to experiment. Instead of working excessive overtime, an industrywide practice in game development known as crunch, Kitfox would give employees Fridays off.
It was a trial run of a four-day workweek, implemented by creative director and co-founder Tanya X. Short to address employee burnout and mental health. It was to last six weeks, with a twice-as-long trial afterward. Now, roughly nine months later, Kitfox has switched to a permanent 32-hour week.
“It was almost impossible to go back to five days. We briefly discussed it, but nobody wanted to even try,” Short said on Monday at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. “We’re four days at the very least until the pandemic is actually over, but probably forever.” Short spoke over videoconference with three other game studio leaders who also transitioned their businesses to four-day workweeks.
The game industry, like the tech industry and many other adjacent fields, has had to radically rethink its approach to work since the start of the pandemic. Game studios have been adjusting to hybrid or fully remote approaches to development, while also figuring out better ways to address long-term workplace issues like fostering healthier cultures, retention and employee burnout.
Now, as the industry reckons with entrenched labor practices like crunch and rampant sexism and harassment, scores of smaller game-makers have started asking if there are better ways to develop video games that place a higher priority on the human beings who make them. One clear and obvious solution that’s starting to catch fire in gaming, tech and beyond: the four-day workweek.
“The humans making the games matter as much as the business that’s profiting from the game,” Short said. “We had been enduring the pandemic that long. I really needed people to not burn out and to stay on after launch and come with 100% of their health. It seemed like the best, or at least a temporary solution. And we thought, ‘Well, why not continue?’”
Short was joined on the GDC panel by KO_OP studio director Saleem Dabbous, Armor Games CEO John Cooney and ManaVoid Entertainment CEO Chris Chancey. In addition to these studios, indie developers like Crows Crows Crows, Young Horses and Die Gute Fabrik have all transitioned to four-day workweeks. And at least one larger game developer has joined the group: Square Enix’s Eidos-Montréal, which developed last year’s Guardians of the Galaxy, and its subsidiary Eidos-Sherbrooke, both of which are located in Quebec.
Like Eidos, all four studios on the GDC panel are based in Montreal. Chancey specifically cited the competitive game development market in the Canadian city as one motivation for his company adopting a four-day workweek a full year before the pandemic started, making ManaVoid a rare example.
“It was one of the core values of the studio to have a no-crunch culture. We’ve never gone back to the five-day,” Chancey said. “Also, being in Montreal, it is a competitive landscape to find staff, senior talent. The reception immediately was pretty crazy, so we decided to keep it.” Chancey decided to begin trialing the four-day workweek in 2019 because of a study out of Europe that showed the benefits of reducing working hours to increase productivity.
One hurdle the group discussed was how to measure team productivity after switching to four-day workweeks. Though many game companies do adhere to project management approaches you find in tech startups and other programming enterprises, game development is a much more collaborative and creative affair than other technical industries that may more closely measure employees’ working hours and output. That makes objectively measuring productivity changes difficult, Short said.
“Our expectations were that productivity would slightly dip. We expected to lose 5[%] to 10% just because I think most people [on] most weeks check out Friday afternoon. That was my baseline expectation,” Short said. Instead, the studio leaders all said the effects became obvious through employee feedback and team morale. “I don’t think a single person ever complained,” Short added.
“We conducted a bunch of interviews, anonymous feedback, one-on-ones. This sounds obvious, but it was really positive across the board,” Dabbous said. As a studio leader, Dabbous said he himself started to immediately feel the effect of having extra personal time. “I was really stressed out. I needed more time. Just for me, on a personal level, I could see the benefit to myself.”
“Across the board, morale was up. There was a lot less absentee-ism during the week,” Chancey said. “Organically, people felt like they could be refreshed with a three-day weekend.”
“I have two young children who are 2 and 4 years old,” said Cooney, whose studio Armor Games is the largest of the group, with roughly 35 employees. “Every Friday morning I volunteer at my older daughter's preschool, and that has been one of the best things of the four-day workweek. It feels like it’s my time I’m getting back.”
It wasn't an entirely smooth transition. All four panelists admitted that holidays posed a challenge to their companies, and that it was a constant back-and-forth to determine whether it made sense to take a three-day week or work on a holiday instead. There was also the rare case of employees who wanted to work more; Chancey said he had to create room for team members to work on Fridays in ways that didn’t incentivize others to do the same.
But universally, the speakers said they see the four-day workweek as a rising trend in the game industry that will become a more vital tool for attracting talent, retaining employees and creating more healthy work environments.
“I think the pandemic has put a lot of different perspectives on what it means to work, and what it means to be happy at home and feel safe and secure and healthy,” Chancey said. “I think it's going to get more normalized, and we'll see more studios doing it. I think it is another beast for a AAA studio to tackle the four-day week than it is an indie studio. Just the sheer scale and coordination of the labor force … I don't know how that would work. But I think for indies.”
“That is one of the main things that small studios can offer. I can't imagine that this won't become the norm in the future,” Cooney said. “And I think it should become the norm, I don't see any reason for it not to be. And part of that is retaining and attracting talent. Because we don't compete with the big studios in terms of salary or benefits or whatever. So we have to find other ways to engage people in meaningful ways and make our work environments attractive for them.”
As for how to achieve a four-day workweek if you work in the game industry, Dabbous said labor organizing can be an important first step. “If your team is considering a four-day workweek, the most important thing I wouldn't suggest to you is to consider unionizing,” Dabbous said. KO_OP is in fact a cooperative, meaning its employees share in the ownership of the company and are more directly incentivized by the success of its products. “If you're a group of team members, you should build collective power, because you can't trust people like us who are giving this talk right now as business owners. You know, we might be nice bosses; we might be good people. But there's nothing stopping us from reverting that.”
Dabbous said the four-day workweek is a great starting point for labor organizing in games because of how universally popular it can be among employees. “It’s a really easy place to unify a lot of things where you can be like, ‘Yeah, I would love that. And my team would love that.’ And that's a place where you find common ground to build solidarity.”
He said employees who may be considering unionization should reach out to organizations like Game Workers Unite, a growing labor-organizing initiative that has helped employees at studios like Activision Blizzard begin to lobby for change by connecting them with pro-union activists and labor unions like the Communications Workers of America.
“Then you can take some of that power into the team's head and enforce and ensure proper boundaries and good work-life balance,” Dabbous said, “in a way that you can't by just trusting the owners of the studio.”