Industry veteran John Carmack, who founded Doom and Wolfenstein studio id Software, has spoken up to share his thoughts on the video game industry’s long-standing practice of long working hours.
Appearing on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast, Carmack started off by saying the video game industry is unlike other big technology businesses where employees are taken care of “incredibly well” with good wages and lots of benefits. The video game industry offers a generally worse employment package, and not only that, but the hours are longer, Carmack said.
“You look at the game industry; it doesn’t pay as well, there is less job security, and they work you a lot harder,” he said. “There is the problem of the fact that when you have an industry–and this has been the way for artists forever–where if you’ve got something that people are passionate about and want to be involved in, supply and demand works its way and you wind up in a situation where they don’t have to be paid as much.”
On the subject of long working hours in game development, Carmack said this level of passion and enthusiasm–while controversial–can lead to phenomenal results.
“The other side of that is it allows products that otherwise couldn’t exist to exist by people working at that level in a way that maybe couldn’t be sustained in other industries,” he said. “Probably many of the greatest things that were ever made in gaming were only possible by people throwing themselves at that level at it.”
“You look at the game industry; it doesn’t pay as well, there is less job security, and they work you a lot harder” — John Carmack
Carmack went on to acknowledge the debate and discussion surrounding over-working. For years now, there have been calls for game developers to unionize, but largely it has never happened. For his part, Carmack said he doesn’t agree with those who want to see laws enacted to prevent people from working “that hard.” Carmack acknowledged that his perspective is privileged and different because he co-founded a company, id Software, that would go on to make incredibly popular, seminal games. Still, he said he maintains that he believes it’s a good thing when people commit to a project and work more than what other people might think is reasonable.
“There is some serious debate about it. Some people despise that about the industry, that nobody should work that hard. There are people that think there literally should be laws that should prevent people from working that hard,” Carmack said. “I always have to argue against that. There is a power to obsession where being able to absolutely obsess over something … Instead of work/life balance, it’s your life’s work. Everybody will point back [to me] and say, ‘Well that worked great for you; you’re the founder of a company; you were in a position where you got to make your own decisions.’ But is that OK to say for the 19-year-old out of a game dev program that’s being overworked? I have to always be aware that my view into the industry is obviously very colored by my experiences. I never actually worked inside of one of the big EA or Activision studios.”
He continued: “It’s possible they have some valid criticisms, but I still still come down on–I think it’s great when people throw themselves at [their work] beyond what other people think is reasonable. They have free will; they’ve chosen to do that. If that’s what they think is going to help them get close to their goals, I’m not going to try to make that impossible for them.”
If people want to work long hours, that’s their decision, Carmack said. The common response to this is that even if an employer doesn’t require hours beyond what’s normal, there is an expectation to. Carmack doesn’t buy into this, however; he said people who work long hours–at least at the companies he’s been involved in–are largely choosing to do so on their own volition.
“I think it’s great when people throw themselves at [their work] beyond what other people think is reasonable” — John Carmack
“I’m not involved in the HR departments of all of these companies, but the ones that I have been familiar with or that I’ve known people doing that, largely they come back and say, ‘These people are choosing to do this.’ The rejoinder is, ‘Oh it’s a toxic culture that makes people want to choose to do that,’ but I definitely don’t buy into that sort of social engineering level of things. If they’re doing it, they’ve agreed that they’ll wave the flag and say I’m doing this because I care so much about this. I don’t think that’s a problem.”
Looking back in time, Carmack said he remembers that id Software programmer Michael Abrash–who had a family–would work “reasonable” hours when he was there in the ’90s working on Quake. Carmack and other higher-ups at id Software worked longer hours, often past midnight, but no one gave Abrash grief because they were aware of his contribution and value to the team and project. He said he sees the same being true today at game companies. If employees demonstrate their value during work hours, then there is no reason they should feel compelled to stay longer, Carmack said.
Carmack said he still works around 13 hours per day in his role at CTO of Oculus, which is owned by Facebook. He said he sees diminishing returns when he works longer than this, and he added that he needs eight hours of sleep per night to function at his best.