Read the gaming rags, or listen to those who toil in the industry, and the complaints soon arise: The "crunch" workweeks of 60 to 80 hours, the culture that looks askance at someone daring to go home after putting in 40 hours, the sacrificing of family life and mental health on the altar of being a "hardcore" developer and employee.
It's enough to make you wonder what life is like in the casual gaming industry, where development times are months, not years, and budgets are in the thousands, not the millions. Do the casual developers know something we don't, or is the grueling crunch the only way it can be done, as is commonly heard among those Stockholm Syndromed into thinking 100-hour work weeks are normal, even desirable? Casual developer PopCap Games was kind enough to allow a pair of employees to offer some insight into their development process. John Vechey is one of the company's founders, able to discuss the high-level corporate approach to employee relations, and Stephanie Jessel is one of PopCap's staffing specialists, able to walk us through the employment process and talk about PopCap's culture from the HR trenches.
Hardcore Refugee: John Vechey, Co-Founder of PopCap Games
John Vechey helped found PopCap in 2000 with Brian Fiete and Jason Kapalka, and he currently runs the company website . The company is growing, he says, and growing quickly. "When I first took over on the website a year and a half ago, we only had three people working on it. Now we have 16 people! It's actually representative of the phenomenal growth the whole company has been experiencing in the last couple of years," he says. With the growth of the team, he's been able to step back. "The focus of my job is leading the team, communicating to different departments and working to align the overall strategies of the different departments to make sure we're all going after the same goals. I'm also lucky enough to serve on the board and get to be one of the 'faces' of the company."
Culturally, PopCap is pretty different from the usual developer, partly because of the nature of the business. "Working for a company whose most expensive game cost $700,000 is actually great," Vechey says. "Though we tend to work on titles for much longer than the typical casual game company, the teams are smaller, and everyone who works on a game is really required to contribute to the game design and game vision." That's one of the challenges, he says, in that "we can't just hire an engineer because he or she is good at programming, we really need to make sure they get games and are capable of making solid game design choices."
When it comes to putting together a game, Vechey describes PopCap as "spoiled," saying, "We've never asked ourselves, 'How much can we afford to spend on a game?' We just keep working until the game is great, or until it gets cancelled. And we never cancel titles because of time or budget; we cancel titles because no one working on them is passionate about that particular game or game concept anymore." Big developers, he says, don't have the luxury of walking away from a game, largely because of the money they pour into development. "We have no green-lighting process. A lot of people ask us that, and it always brings out a giggle. We have games that people are passionate about, or we have games that are cancelled."