Game developers say a four-day workweek saved their studios

At GDC 2022, indie game studios are heralding the future of four-day workweeks.

Game developers at Ubisoft

The game industry has had to radically rethink its approach to work since the start of the pandemic.

Photo: Ubisoft Montreal

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.”


Judge Zia Faruqui is trying to teach you crypto, one ‘SNL’ reference at a time

His decisions on major cryptocurrency cases have quoted "The Big Lebowski," "SNL," and "Dr. Strangelove." That’s because he wants you — yes, you — to read them.

The ways Zia Faruqui (right) has weighed on cases that have come before him can give lawyers clues as to what legal frameworks will pass muster.

Photo: Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post via Getty Images

“Cryptocurrency and related software analytics tools are ‘The wave of the future, Dude. One hundred percent electronic.’”

That’s not a quote from "The Big Lebowski" — at least, not directly. It’s a quote from a Washington, D.C., district court memorandum opinion on the role cryptocurrency analytics tools can play in government investigations. The author is Magistrate Judge Zia Faruqui.

Keep Reading Show less
Veronica Irwin

Veronica Irwin (@vronirwin) is a San Francisco-based reporter at Protocol covering fintech. Previously she was at the San Francisco Examiner, covering tech from a hyper-local angle. Before that, her byline was featured in SF Weekly, The Nation, Techworker, Ms. Magazine and The Frisc.

The financial technology transformation is driving competition, creating consumer choice, and shaping the future of finance. Hear from seven fintech leaders who are reshaping the future of finance, and join the inaugural Financial Technology Association Fintech Summit to learn more .

Keep Reading Show less
The Financial Technology Association (FTA) represents industry leaders shaping the future of finance. We champion the power of technology-centered financial services and advocate for the modernization of financial regulation to support inclusion and responsible innovation.

AWS CEO: The cloud isn’t just about technology

As AWS preps for its annual re:Invent conference, Adam Selipsky talks product strategy, support for hybrid environments, and the value of the cloud in uncertain economic times.

Photo: Noah Berger/Getty Images for Amazon Web Services

AWS is gearing up for re:Invent, its annual cloud computing conference where announcements this year are expected to focus on its end-to-end data strategy and delivering new industry-specific services.

It will be the second re:Invent with CEO Adam Selipsky as leader of the industry’s largest cloud provider after his return last year to AWS from data visualization company Tableau Software.

Keep Reading Show less
Donna Goodison

Donna Goodison ( @dgoodison ) is Protocol's senior reporter focusing on enterprise infrastructure technology, from the 'Big 3' cloud computing providers to data centers. She previously covered the public cloud at CRN after 15 years as a business reporter for the Boston Herald. Based in Massachusetts, she also has worked as a Boston Globe freelancer, business reporter at the Boston Business Journal and real estate reporter at Banker & Tradesman after toiling at weekly newspapers.

Image: Protocol

We launched Protocol in February 2020 to cover the evolving power center of tech. It is with deep sadness that just under three years later, we are winding down the publication.

As of today, we will not publish any more stories. All of our newsletters, apart from our flagship, Source Code, will no longer be sent. Source Code will be published and sent for the next few weeks, but it will also close down in December.

Keep Reading Show less
Bennett Richardson

Bennett Richardson ( @bennettrich ) is the president of Protocol. Prior to joining Protocol in 2019, Bennett was executive director of global strategic partnerships at POLITICO, where he led strategic growth efforts including POLITICO's European expansion in Brussels and POLITICO's creative agency POLITICO Focus during his six years with the company. Prior to POLITICO, Bennett was co-founder and CMO of Hinge, the mobile dating company recently acquired by Match Group. Bennett began his career in digital and social brand marketing working with major brands across tech, energy, and health care at leading marketing and communications agencies including Edelman and GMMB. Bennett is originally from Portland, Maine, and received his bachelor's degree from Colgate University.


Why large enterprises struggle to find suitable platforms for MLops

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, and as larger enterprises go from deploying hundreds of models to thousands and even millions of models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

As companies expand their use of AI beyond running just a few machine learning models, ML practitioners say that they have yet to find what they need from prepackaged MLops systems.

Photo: artpartner-images via Getty Images

On any given day, Lily AI runs hundreds of machine learning models using computer vision and natural language processing that are customized for its retail and ecommerce clients to make website product recommendations, forecast demand, and plan merchandising. But this spring when the company was in the market for a machine learning operations platform to manage its expanding model roster, it wasn’t easy to find a suitable off-the-shelf system that could handle such a large number of models in deployment while also meeting other criteria.

Some MLops platforms are not well-suited for maintaining even more than 10 machine learning models when it comes to keeping track of data, navigating their user interfaces, or reporting capabilities, Matthew Nokleby, machine learning manager for Lily AI’s product intelligence team, told Protocol earlier this year. “The duct tape starts to show,” he said.

Keep Reading Show less
Kate Kaye

Kate Kaye is an award-winning multimedia reporter digging deep and telling print, digital and audio stories. She covers AI and data for Protocol. Her reporting on AI and tech ethics issues has been published in OneZero, Fast Company, MIT Technology Review, CityLab, Ad Age and Digiday and heard on NPR. Kate is the creator of RedTailMedia.org and is the author of "Campaign '08: A Turning Point for Digital Media," a book about how the 2008 presidential campaigns used digital media and data.

Latest Stories