July 27, 2009

Stop Trying to be Productive

I'd be willing to bet every game developer in the industry has worked or will work a 12 or 16 hour day at some point in their career. This happens because there's too much work to do and a big deadline coming up, and people find themselves desperately in need of ways to increase productivity. The game industry is rife with horror stories of mandatory 12 hour days and seven day weeks, aka crunch time.

It's also common for a team approaching a big deadline to suddenly become a black hole that starts sucking in developers from other teams, or absorbing other teams entirely. While I was working at EA, the Godfather team pulled in extra people from all over the company until it became monstrously huge. There are people who worked together on that game who never even met each other.

There's a reason things like this happen. Working more hours or throwing more people at a project does increase productivity, at first. The problem is, returns from such brute force methods diminish rapidly. Once diminishing returns kick in, efficiency takes a nosedive, ultimately hurting productivity. This might not happen for a few weeks or even a couple of months, but it will happen. Brute force productivity is simply not sustainable.

Don't forget, productivity = efficiency x effort. People who work 12 hour days are trying to increase productivity by increasing effort, but that increased effort can lower efficiency and cancel itself out. It's easy to get stuck in a negative feedback loop: focusing too much on productivity ultimately hurts efficiency and therefore productivity. In the long run this leads to people working under miserable conditions and not even getting any extra productivity out of the deal.

The path to true, lasting productivity is through efficiency, not effort. If you can manage to become more efficient (spoiler: you can), productivity will take care of itself. Focusing on improved efficiency allows people to either be more productive in the same amount of time, or to work less and get the same amount done. Even if people choose to work less, they'll become happier and more energetic, ultimately increasing efficiency even further.

Focusing on efficiency is a positive feedback loop, and the benefits can be huge. One investment of a week working on a usable development tool or a well-written design doc can pay off over months or even years of development.

Beware people who treasure productivity

Ironically, it always seems to be the people who pride themselves on their productivity that waste the most effort. People who focus too much on productivity will spend 12 hour days fighting against bad tools instead of spending 2 hours fixing the tools, or they'll reimplement the same feature 4 times because they didn't take the time to discuss all the details or write a design doc.

These people never want to "waste time" on things like meetings, documentation, or tools. They complain that these things take time away from doing "real work," and rightly so. Spending time on that sort of thing does hurt productivity in the short term, which is exactly why productivity is the wrong goal to have.

Don't get me wrong, some people have good reason to be wary of meetings and documentation: they've worked on a team where so much time was spent on process and meaningless meetings and overdocumentation that efficiency and productivity went right out the window. Improving efficiency has a point of diminishing returns to watch out for just like anything else, but in my opinion it's the lesser of two evils by a long shot.

Make the switch to efficiency

I learned the hard way what a red herring brute force productivity can be. I pulled allnighters left and right in college, and I brought those habits over into my work life once I left school. It actually took me a few years to realize how much effort I was wasting and to wean myself off of 12 hour days.

The funny thing is, getting more done in less time feels like cheating at first. Staying at work all hours and living like a zombie feels much more like Good Old Fashioned Hard Work, and it's hard to accept that you can go home while the sun is still up and still be productive.

Something that really helped me was to find a good compromise: I started working 10 hour days, but made sure that all my time after 8 hours was spent on something that would help my efficiency. I spent that time doing things like programming tools to help me get my work done faster, updating documentation, and mercilessly pruning my email inbox. Gradually I became efficient enough that I felt comfortable bringing my work day down to 9 hours, then 8.

The hardest thing for me to learn has been to push back on deadlines that would require work to be rushed out the door without being properly thought out. Redesigning and reimplementing work is one of the biggest wastes of time I've seen in the game industry. Take the time to get things right the first time, even if that means you've got to push your schedule out a few days. Iterate on whiteboards, on paper, and in meetings, when it's still free. The time you save in the long run will absolutely be worth it.


Eolirin said...

This is such a great post, not least because it applies to SO MANY things, not just game design.

Words of wisdom. :)

Mike Darga said...

Thank you kind sir. More and more I find myself learning life lessons in the process of writing this blog.

Tesh said...

I can't overstress the importance of a solid design document. The biggest wastes of time I've dealt with are those that are rooted in insufficient or constantly mutating documentation and standards. Sometimes iteration and changes are inevitable, but a LOT of things really should be thought out beforehand, long before anyone commits code or creates art assets.

Great article, Mike!

Mike Darga said...

Yep, you've still got to be sure you're actually writing a GOOD doc, but anything's better than nothing.

Anonymous said...

I agree but efficiancy is a hard sell in today's corporate world.

I'm in a different field, but several years ago me and five co-workers voluntarily went on to afternoon shift. We worked at an around the clock business, but our organization was a dayshift organization.

We managed our own work and were incredibly efficient compared to day shift who had a staff of near twenty but did little more than half the work we did.

After a year they ended it for these reasons.

Upper management saw us "sitting around" with out any understanding that our efficiancy came from coordinating our work, which meant that some times we put out long sustained periods of effort knowing that later we could relax.

We were simply focused on the task, not managing management perceptions.

So irrespective of our work output there was the impression we weren't working hard, or hard enough.

The final nail was several phone calls from managers of other groups looking for "someone in charge" and getting workers. There never was supposed to be a boss on afternoon shift, we were essentially a day shift outfit trying to be flexible and get some more work done.

So the impression hung out there that six guys were goofing off on afternoon shift, and "nobody" was there watching us.

So due to managers mis-perceptions we cut off our nose to spite our face, six guys returned to days and shuffled through the day "looking" productive, but not BEING productive, or at least efficient.

There you have, IMO corporate America does not want efficiency or productivity if somehow that efficiency or productivity behooves the workers.

~Foo Fighter~

Mike Darga said...

That's a good example, thanks Foo.

Yeah, this is incredibly hard to pull off. You have to have people running the company that get it, and who are calm enough to let it happen even when they are scared and tempted to panic.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike. It was strange, no one ever spoke to us about their mis-informed concerns...we were just taken off of the shift.

The real sad realization was that the people who I thought were older, wiser, and had more power in the company made important decisions through rumurs and hearsay.

~Foo Fighter~

Anonymous said...

Thanks Mike. It was strange, no one ever spoke to us about their mis-informed concerns...we were just taken off of the shift.

The real sad realization was that the people who I thought were older, wiser, and had more power in the company made important decisions through rumurs and hearsay.

~Foo Fighter~

Danielle said...

For sure mike! I've noticed that the best designers are the ones that can plan ahead and keep to the plan. Sometimes things just don't work and you do need last minute changes but too much tinkering leaves things a mess. Especially after art assets were already created and have to be changed. As for working less but more efficiently I whole heatedly agree. Let's see how long Rock Star can keep working people on that schedule before a revolt. And how much money they'll lose in the long run because of it.

Mike Darga said...

I feel your pain Danielle. It's ok to change things, but if designers change their minds about how something should work before they even played it the first way, then that means they should have just given it more thought before an army of artists and engineers started implementing it =)