Game firms reform work settings

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Game firms reform work settings

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Korea is a major player in the global gaming industry, with companies such as NCsoft making nearly one trillion won ($872 million) a year in profit. Behind the scenes, however, the industry is notorious for its unfavorable working conditions of its employees, as evident by some of unfortunate events that took place recently.

Last year, a graphic designer and a game developer from Netmarble died unexpectedly and a developer from NCsoft committed suicide by jumping off a building, leaving colleagues in shock. Analysts say that excessive amount of work led to the tragedies. To remedy the work stress, major game companies are overhauling their working environments with measures including flexible working hours and better compensation.

A 31-year-old game developer surnamed Seo, who is in his fourth year in the industry, rarely gets to go home before 2 in the morning these days as a new game that he is helping develop is scheduled to be launched in just two months. Just last week, after working until 4 a.m., Seo asked his manager if he can come to work a little before lunchtime, instead of his scheduled 9 a.m reporting time.

He’s worked overtime but gets no extra pay other than a taxi fare. He began having regular migraines six months ago but he doesn’t have time to visit the hospital. He likes what he does but often has wondered if this is all worth it.

Seo’s story is just a tip of the iceberg of the type of work environment that employees of game industry are exposed to in Korea. Visiting Seongnam, Gyeonggi, or Guro District, western Seoul, late at night where there are many game companies, it was easy to see which buildings were occupied by game companies as they were the only ones in the area with their lights on past midnight.

The working conditions are poor because of the short development period, in which developers and graphic designers work day and night to meet deadlines. Just a few years ago, the average development period of a game was about three to five years.

But now, with the spread of smartphones, the amount of time given to each company to develop a new game has been shortened to just a few months. The pressure is especially heavy in the final stage of development, just a month or so before the launch date. During that period, developers work late at night and even during the weekends, as if such practice is a norm.

Another cold reality is the poor employee compensation in comparison to their working hours. Other than large companies such as Nexon and NCsoft, the starting salary for smaller developers is about or less than 20 million won a year. In many cases, even if the employees work overtime, they are not compensated for those hours. “Under the excuse of “passion,” it’s basically a custom to force developers to work overtime in this industry,” said an analyst.

But now, with the recent tragic events exposing the brutal reality, the wheels of change have been set in motion.

Netmarble, which is known for games such as Sudden Attack - a Korean version of Counter Strike - said Wednesday it plans to change its working culture, prohibiting employees from working late at night or on the weekend. If it is inevitable that an employee works on the weekend, he or will be compensated with extra leave. Also, the company will institute a flexible working hour system where employees can come and go at the hours of their choice. Their managers are banned from sending them work-related messages after they have left the office. The plan will take effect Monday.

Nexon and NCsoft, who already adopted flexible working hour systems, will try to increase the level of welfare for their employees. For the employees who are in their third, sixth or ninth year at the company, Nexon will give them a special leave and bonus. NCsoft has built an in-house fitness center and medical center to help employees check their health regularly.

Still, some civic groups say such measures are nothing but show and will not get to the bottom of the issue. “With the amount of work and number of employees staying the same as before, how can they expect to unburden workers of work load?” said Park Jun, an official from civic group Workerfuture. “The companies have to extend the development period or hire more workers as well as standardize jobs to streamline cooperation among employees.”

Kim Hwan-min, secretary-general at the Game Developer Guild of Korea, said, “the sales of game companies in Korea have been on a steady rise since 2012 but the number for developers has shrunk. This industry needs a drastic transformation, such as keeping the working hours set by the law and compensate properly when employees work overtime.”


BY KIM KYUNG-MI [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]

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