What can a publisher really do to foster well being and, in particular, mental well being for developers?
That’s one of the questions that Fernando and myself have asked ourselves from the very first day we embarked on this adventure together. Through the years, both of us have experienced times of extreme mental pressure and worked in unhealthy conditions, even if we might not have realised it at the time.
“But you work in the games industry”, you may ask, “it sounds great, how can there be unhealthy conditions?” It’s a creative industry, sure - most offices are swanky, offer free drinks, free fruit and many have a foosball table. These things are great to have, but they’re actually only minor contributions to the mental well being of a person.
What we really want, what we need is an environment where we feel secure, where we are challenged but not unduly pressured, where we can act out of our own volition and - above all - we need an environment where we matter as human beings.
And casting my mind back over my career in the industry, using those measuring points above, it is quite clear why at various points I had mental health issues, why I was deeply unhappy and why a lot of this unhappiness leaked into my personal life, causing damage and pain not just to me, but to those around me as well.
In my 20 year career I was made redundant 3 times and fired once. To this day, our Industry often doesn’t seem very secure career path. Most - but not all - companies still don’t understand that people are their biggest capital and often shed staff when the numbers don’t look good. Boom and Bust.
The security - or lack thereof - issue often was combined with way too much pressure. I mostly worked in AAA, but the pressure is not unique to the AAA sector of the games industry: Indies tend to work towards milestones, and sometimes publishers threaten to withhold payment if a milestone isn’t hit. This is what often leads to the legendary ‘crunch’. When the financial aspect is the only thing that matters, and money is used to pressure developers, what are they supposed to do? That’s right - work more. Work longer hours. Just keep working.
But it’s not the big bad publisher all the time either. My worst memory of the industry was being told by my lead at the time “It’s fine if you have 2 days off to attend the funeral of your grandmother, but I just want to let you know, you are letting the team down.” This was a game independently created and internally published. 6 months later I quit the industry, at the time thinking it was for good - I had had enough.
So a large part really is how we treat each other as human beings. Whether this is internally at a studio, or in a publisher/developer relationship. We need to understand how our actions and our behaviour impact others, we need to have empathy and we need to keep mental well being in mind.
The one thing I learned at my last job before I joined this Modern Wolf adventure was from my mentors, Paul and Richard: employee happiness goes above everything else. If the people who work for you are happy, if they are mentally healthy (as much as you can affect in the workplace), they will perform well. Focus on money only, and things will go down the drain. Focus on people and you will be successful.
So this is why I joined Fernando in forming Modern Wolf, because I see those same principles in his vision for the company. It is our duty as publishers for indie games to ensure they do not feel the same stresses that I have faced in my career. We intend to provide security, remove pressures, ensure they have autonomy and make sure they understand how much they matter to us. We have empathy with them, because we have been there, and we aim to build a human relationship with them.
If follow these guidelines and make sure we put people first, we take the “employee happiness” to the next level: we help to create happy studios. And success will be inevitable. For everyone involved - even the gamers, who will be safe in the knowledge that a happy and healthy team made the game they're playing.