Rare replays and hard labours


August 4 saw the release of Rare Replay for the Xbox One — a collection of 30 games from Rare, the storied British video game developer. While not a comprehensive collection — due to licensing issues there is no Donkey Kong Country, Diddy Kong Racing, or Goldeneye 007 — it does a fairly good job of covering the studio’s history from its origins as a developer of games for the 8-bit ZX Spectrum computer, to the games it made for the NES, SNES, and N64 while a second-party developer for Nintendo such as Battletoads, Killer Instinct Gold, Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day; and into the Microsoft era with Perfect Dark Zero and Viva Pinata. For gamers who grew up in the ’80s or ’90s, the mere mention of Rare is enough to send them into combined fits of nostalgia and reverence. The games that Rare developed for Nintendo’s early consoles are held in the highest esteem, and before they became part of Microsoft, the Rare name was synonymous with quality entertainment and excellent game design. However, what’s seldom discussed is the work culture that produced their best games.

What is little known — but not exactly a secret — is that the classic games Rare produced in the ’80s and the ’90s were the result of a punishing work ethic: a constant crunch mode that ground down the studio’s game developers as much as it ground out hit games. Typically, such facts are buried within articles that breathlessly tout the studio’s successes but downplay the significance of how Rare was run as a game studio. IGN’s 2008 retrospective “IGN Presents The History Of Rare” is a good example. Discussing Chris and Tim Stamper, the brothers who founded and managed Rare during its heyday, the article says:

“They were renowned for working eighteen hour days, seven days a week, only knocking off between the hours of 2:00-8:00 a.m. Their philosophy was that a part-time employee resulted in a part-time game. By contrast, they committed totally and required their team to do the same as well… the first true crunch mentality in the industry. Nobody was held to that philosophy more stringently than the Stampers themselves. In the three years they slaved to Ultimate [Rare’s predecessor], they only ever took two days off. Both were Christmas mornings.”

“Crunch” is game industry jargon describing the extra time and effort required to put out big budget games. Everyone is expected to crunch, especially when it comes to meeting big release deadlines. The result is 60 to 80 hour work weeks and eventual burnout. As the IGN article goes on to reveal, Rare began experiencing problems with high employee turnover in the late ’90s:

Publicly, Rare was on a roll. Behind the scenes, employee turnover bordered on disastrous.

In the few interviews they granted, Tim and Chris Stamper came across as quiet, unassuming Englishmen, but the pace they maintained and the demands they set could grate at closer range. Their longtime partners at Zippo Games, the Pickfords, left shortly after the Stampers bought them out in the 80’s and deep-sixed a favored wrestling game. By the N64 years, their tiny company had grown from the low teens to several hundred, but the Stampers kept their hands firmly in every project, and that management style didn’t sit well with everyone. The first public defection happened in 1997, when a group of employees marched out en masse to form Eighth Wonder, a studio dedicated to developing for Sony. Well into the three-year production cycle for a successor to GoldenEye 007, [Martin]Hollis and [David] Doak decided they’d had their fill as well, taking much of their production teams with them.”

Hollis and Doak were both responsible for the development of Goldeneye 007, one of Rare’s most praised and commercially successful titles for the N64. By the time Rare was bought by Microsoft for $377 million, their output began to dwindle, and their games were less successful, receiving less positive critical notices. When writers and critics look at the decline of Rare, the onus is often placed on Microsoft for supposed interference and mismanagement of their games for the Xbox 360.

Who Killed Rare?” an article by Simon Parkin speculates about Microsoft’s connection to the reduced quality of Rare’s output. In interviewing ex-Rare employees, including Martin Hollis, there’s a suggestion that Microsoft shifted Rare’s culture leading to worse games. However, there was clearly something wrong Rare’s previous work culture, especially if there were resignations and defections before Microsoft’s acquisition in 2002. To me this means that there is a correlation between the loss of some of Rare’s most talented developers, and the eventual decline in what Rare’s output. The management style of the Stampers seemed to encourage an insane work ethic that most likely caused many to quit in frustration. When Martin Hollis left Rare, his only public statement was that “both of us were asking for more than the other could give.”

Crunch  has never been unique to Rare and has become a widespread problem as video games have become a multi-billion dollar a year industry. Back in 2006, EA settled a lawsuit for $14.9 million with its programmers and engineers, who argued they were owed unpaid overtime. An infamous blog post by the spouse of Leander Hasty, the engineer who brought the lawsuit, circulated on the web, detailing the 9am to 10pm work days and dreadful working conditions. In 2008, former Epic Games president Mike Capps was heavily criticized when he said that 60 hour work weeks are expected of all Epic employees and that someone looking to work 40 hours a week would not fit in with the game studio’s work culture.

In her book, Rise of the Video Game Zinesters, game designer anna anthropy details her brief time at the Guildhall program at Southern Methodist University in Plano Texas, which is deliberately structured to get you used to working in crunch time. She writes:

“You’re at school from nine to five. You stay after and do your work with the teams they’ve assigned you to. Late at night you drag yourself home and do your actual homework. Maybe you get a few hours of sleep. The idea behind that school is that you’re always in what the Big Games Industry calls: ‘crunch time’: unpaid overtime.Your masters want the game done by Christmas, so you don’t leave the office until it’s done. This is why people in the industry aren’t healthy; this is why they burn out and quit games within a few years.”

It’s frightening that crunch time is an expectation rather than exception for meeting tight deadlines for big-budget games; that this is the price that programmers, designers, and artists are forced to pay for doing what they love. This quote from Tom Bissell’s review of The Last Of Us seems more relevant than ever:

“From the little I know about game development, I can all but guarantee that the amount of work required to make The Last of Us is basically unimaginable to anyone outside game development. Games with this amount of detail and polish are possible only when dozens of men and women voluntarily elect to damage themselves and their lives for the entertainment benefit of strangers. To work on something — even a video game — for 12 to 15 hours a day for a year is not enjoyable or fulfilling. I have no doubt that to make this game, hair was grayed, health was ravaged, friendships were tested, and marriages were strained. Before The Last of Us, the same could be said of the Tomb Raider reboot or BioShock Infinite or L.A. Noire or Red Dead Redemption or any number of other ambitious titles. What I’m saying is that these glorious games are, in real and measurable ways, born of human misery. “

I’m happy that Rare Replay exists, even just as an archival project that gives a players a window into the evolution of the studio’s design philosophy and their place in games history, but I think it’s also important to highlight the kind of labour that goes into making the games we love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s