How to Find an MMO Job That Doesn’t Suck

Someone asked me the other day if they should even bother applying for an MMO job. I make the career sound so crappy in other blog posts… maybe it’s best not to even try?

Well, it’s true that most MMO jobs are not worth it. But if you see a job that sounds interesting to you, I’d definitely encourage you to apply. There are amazingly fun, non-health-damaging MMO jobs out there. They are exceedingly rare, but if you don’t look, you’ll never find them.

There are two big dangers you have to watch for: “Am I going to be able to survive this job?” and “Is this team going to successfully make a game?” You need positive answers for both of these things before you agree to uproot your life and change careers.

Is This Job Going To Kill Me?

Pretty much every MMO job requires 110% of your time and creative energy — it tends to quickly become both your “day job” and your hobby… it takes everything you’ve got. That’s not bad in and of itself, and it can actually be really cool to be a part of something so focused… if things are going well. But “giving 110%” isn’t the same as “effectively living at the office.”

Since we’re being realistic here, I must tell you that you will experience the practice known as “crunch time”. This is apparently unavoidable: I’ve never heard of an MMO project that didn’t have any. (Even the IGDA, supposedly a pro-developer organization, thinks it’s a fact of life.) Crunch time is when you work 60-70 hours a week and get paid for 40. Sometimes the management will bring in food so you can work while eating. Sometimes they provide cots so you can sleep right there and get all the way up to 80-hour work weeks. Crunch will happen, and when it does, it will ruin any semblance of an outside life you had.

The question is this: are you working one crunch week a month, or are you going to be crunching every damned week for a year (as the Gods and Heroes team did, before their game went tits-up)? You need to know this. Even if you can survive 70 hour weeks for a year (and I promise you that it will leave you a soulless, worthless zombie), remember to factor the unpaid hours into your effective salary. If you’re working 60 hours and getting paid for 40, that’s a 33% effective pay cut. This will often make your hourly compensation laughably low.

So how do you know if you’re going to crunch forever? Well it can creep up on any team — you may never crunch until one day you’re told you will need to crunch for the next three months. Zing! That sort of thing is hard to predict during a job interview. But you can at least find out what the company and culture are like right now. Here’s some helpful things to watch for when you interview:

  • First, obviously enough, ask about crunch time. It’s easy for them to say the right thing here, which is: “We don’t like crunch time but we expect to do a little of it before milestones.” That could be a lie, but at least it’s the right thing to hear. But you’d be surprised how many people will tell you something else:
    • “We’re in the middle of an extended crunch right now, but when this ends…”
    • “We don’t ever crunch. But we do expect you to work weekends.”
    • “We have a hard-working culture.” [In other words, if you can't work overtime without being asked, you're going to be ostracized.]
    • “We crunch all the time. Seriously, this job will kill you. But it’s gonna be worth it when we overtake WoW!”
  • Get a read on the employees’ morale. In the extreme cases, this is easy: when I walked into the Gods and Heroes office building after 6 months of crunching, I could feel the waves of misery rising off the cubicle farm like steam. If you’re in an on-site interview room all day, get a read on how downtrodden and miserable your interviewers are.
  • Ask how many people work all-nighters, just as an off-hand comment. This question can sometimes get interesting results.
  • Watch for cots. Cots are a bad sign. Sometimes one cot can be written off as eccentric. (MMO developers are very eccentric.) Two cots is right out.

Does This Game Have a Chance?

The biggest down side of the MMO biz is the success rate, which frankly isn’t that high. Everybody thinks they’ve got the secret to success, but most MMO’s fail to launch, or launch to such low expectations and fanfare that nobody ever hears of them. That’s a sad fate if you’ve spent three years making the game happen. (And even though they tell you it will launch in 18 months, it will take three years.) How do you spot a likely flop early?

First off, you need to know if they have any money. I mean funding, in the bank, right now. If not, the odds they’ll actually find funding soon are not so good. They may have to lay you off in a few months. It’s normal for MMO teams to hire up without any real money to back the jobs… because if they can’t find a publisher, the company’s going to evaporate anyway so they might as well lay every resource on the line. (It’s normal, but it’s also terrible, since it often leaves you in an unfamiliar city without a job.)

If you’re satisfied that they have funding for a year or more, find out about their tech. This is a tricky one if you don’t know much about tech yourself. And it depends on where they are in the development process:

  • Just Starting: If they’re brand new, then you’ve got nothing to judge — except the engineers they’ve hired (see below). 
  • Pre-Production: If they’ve been in pre-production for six months, they should have some sort of engine demos or prototypes, and they should be able to show them to you and talk about what they mean. If they say “Oh, the demo’s having some trouble this week,” beware. In the best case this means their prototype is so unimportant that they don’t even keep it running from week to week. This is a sign that pre-production is not going well, or has stalled severely.
  • Production: If they are in production already, they should have an engine that supports at least 50 users at once. If they don’t have that, then it’s a tell-tale sign they were rushed out of pre-production too soon, and are not technologically sound. (This is very typical… but then again, so is MMO failure.) 50 users is not a lot. If they can’t even manage this, they haven’t got anything under the hood.

Meeting the Engineers:

Making a complex MMO requires millions (sometimes tens of millions) of lines of code. It is an order of magnitude more complex than coding a simple FPS or other genre of game. Developers don’t believe this until it’s too late, and that is one big reason why they fail. Crafting a full-featured traditional MMO from scratch is akin to writing the software for a space shuttle launch. It’s seriously complex and has thousands of moving parts.

If the team doesn’t think making an MMO is very hard, and they have no people on hand who’ve actually launched an MMO before, odds are they are making a toy rocket, not a space shuttle. They just won’t be able to tell the difference until 18 months from now. 

Remember, confidence is meaningless: All engineers are 100% confident they will succeed at all times. Don’t be convinced by confidence. What you’re looking for when you meet the engineers is a sense that they really know what they’re getting into, and a sense that they are pretty smart people that have done this before.

  • Ask about their networking guy and their graphics guy. At most successful MMO companies, there’s a “guru” for one or both of these spots. Having a pair of gurus definitely improves your chances. You’ll be able to tell who’s a guru by how others talk about them in low, appreciative tones. And no, I’m not kidding. :)  It’s sad that the industry still relies heavily on engineering gurus to make things happen, but they do.
  • Talk to engineers about their plans. The things you want to hear from the engineers are:
    • “We’re keeping it simple.”
    • “We’re using such-and-such code for networking and such-and-such for graphics.”
    • “Bob, the lead developer, helped launch such-and-such-MMO-you’ve-heard-of.”
  • The things you DON’T want to hear are:
    • “Tim worked for a simulation company and compared to that, MMOs are a piece of cake. So we’re writing a new engine from scratch.”
    • “We have a really innovative engine idea. We’re going to patent/license/resell it when we’re done!”
    • “We’re outsourcing our engine to [Russia/China/Iran]. We have some great contacts who we’re sure can get the job done.”

Admittedly, all of this is fluffy stuff. Unless you can talk the talk, you aren’t going to get a real solid idea of their engineering chances. So you’re going to have to gamble a bit. But at least use whatever people skills you have to try to get a read on their experience level.

Remember: don’t assume confidence means competence. Engineers are always confident. They will be truly surprised when the engine proves unworkable, or takes too long to complete. However, that is nevertheless the most common outcome. What you need to see is lots of experience, explicit and prudent plans, and working demonstrations that prove they’ve got what it takes.

You can also get clues by talking to the other departments. Is everybody on board with the notion that they’re making a simple game? (Or that they’re making a sequel based on a proven engine?) If a startup company has crazy innovative ideas about how the tech is going to work, they’re probably doomed. An MMO company’s first game should not focus on technology. Instead, it should use simple tech to great effect.

Oh, and if they won’t let you see the engineers? There’s trouble a-brewin’. Ideally, they will have you interview with someone from every major department without you having to ask. But if they don’t let you talk to engineers, ask. You should be allowed to talk to at least one engineer for a half hour. I’ve been in situations where the interviewers didn’t want to let me talk to other departments because it cost them political capital to do so. Guess what? It turns out that’s another tell-tale sign of doom: too much departmental friction means they’re not really a cohesive team.

Be Careful About Exuberance

Lastly, watch for over-enthusiastic pitch men. I find it’s easy to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the interviewers. Especially early on in the project, it’s hard for anybody to realize that they’re building a car without an engine. I guess the best advice I can give is to have a healthy dose of skepticism when you talk to people, especially if they’ve never made an MMO before and have grandiose plans. (The interviewers’ reaction to healthy skepticism can also be very telling.)

There are good MMO jobs out there. But they are rare. Expect four out of five MMO positions to be untenable wastes of time. Don’t go in expecting perfection — go in expecting to find signs of failure. Then you can be pleasantly surprised when you’re wrong.

I hope this helps somebody find a dream MMO job! When MMO development is going well, there’s nothing quite like it.

Next time, Sandra will address the same topic, so you can get another point of view.

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8 Responses to How to Find an MMO Job That Doesn’t Suck

  1. I worked at just about all the same MMO companies Eric worked at and I loved every minute of it, even the dark times when failure was imminent. Of course, I have to agree with most everything Eric said none the less. My advice would be never get an MMO job because you need a job, only consider an MMO job if you have a high personal passion for MMO development. If making MMOs is not your life’s dream, don’t do it. I wouldn’t be quiet so afraid of failure as Eric not because I think he’s exaggerating the failure rate of MMO companies but just because trying and failing at chasing your dreams is way better than not trying at all. Just go into the job with realistic expectations.

  2. Excellent article! I’m really glad I found this website. I don’t work in the MMO industry but I’m a web programmer and I’ve had a few ‘crunch times’ myself, fortunately only ever for short periods of time but even then it almost killed me.

  3. I’ve been in the game business for 25 years, then got sidetracked to virtual worlds for the last three or so, which is very similar to the game business in many respects. I can’t disagree with anything Eric says. I find his posts both entertaining and enlightening.

    I believe the combination off less-than-stellar management practices intersecting with dreamers who never get practical is the root of many “crunch until you die” situations. Unfortunately game companies continue to hire managers for silly reasons such as they once worked at Blizzard, are friends with someone on the current management team, or because they’re a shameless self-promoting credits-quester (yep, I’ve known a few). Since management cultures aren’t turning around soon, the only way to combat “endless crunch” is by getting practical.

    Getting practical means cutting back on the scope and features of the product until you CAN do it with the resources available. Resources available the current staff, working 40 hrs per week to the latest deadline. Creative directors and producers MUST sacrifice some of their sacred cows. Refusal to slaughter and eat the sacred cows is the foremost reason for both endless crunch, game project cancellation and company bankruptcy. If you de-scope the product at least you’ll get SOMETHING launched. If you keep pursuing the hopeless dream there is very real chance the whole thing will collapse before anything is launched.

    Ask the management you talk with at a game company about the project scope they’ve reduced and the features they’ve cut to get past games out the door, or have already made on the current project. What they say in response will be very enlightening.

  4. Pingback: Work Life Balance - We Fly Spitfires - MMORPG Blog

  5. Babs says:

    I prefer management that is insanely creative about managing and isn’t as much interested in contributing to the game as contributing to the excellence of the game-building team. Sadly, game companies don’t tend to have this and don’t invest in training and mentoring potential promotees. They end up with a company that trudges through existence under hyper-linear thinking and lacks the tools to truly succeed. It makes a manager like me, looking at things with decades of experience, weep. So while I totally agree with what Eric is saying, I also need to add that no matter how attractive the gaming industry may be, it’s not for everyone by any stretch of the imagination. Like politics or show business, you’re either born to this kind of grind or you’re not. And you need to assess that critically and independently of your desire to work on a console or MMO title.

  6. Wolfshead says:

    Superb article! Without a burning desire to make MMOs/virtual worlds you’ll never survive and endure crunch time and the long hours that are the reality of the video game business.

  7. Jessica Mulligan says:

    One question you can ask an MMO producer and/or executive producer during an interview: What is your management style?

    If he/she answers anything except: “Get the right people in the right positions; then, get out of their way and just manage the risk factors,” then you probably want to think about looking elsewhere.

    In other words: trust your people to do what they say they will and create an open atmosphere where they will TELL you if they can’t do it. If you do that, if you treat them like adults, they will move heaven and earth to make their own schedule and commitments. With the right people in place, you don’t have to worry about an official crunch policy; they will do what they say they are going to do and, barring unforeseen calamities, you don’t have to worry about it. They will set a schedule that will get it done.

    We did crunch time ONCE for a monthly update for the AC franchise when I was with the project. We actually got less done than the team did on their own schedules, so that ‘management tool’ got dumped.

    In fact, the joke after that was that we needed to do a crunch every quarter, just so Eric – who would normally put in a 12 hour day anyway – could get some rest, :-).

  8. Greg Mulka says:

    I’m willing to bet there is a lot less code writing involved with the launch of the shuttle.