A B.C. company behind an upcoming game in the popular Minecraft series is hoping its process spurs others in the industry to consider working fewer days and having more time to play.
The Vancouver-based game studio Blackbird Interactive is currently putting finishing touches on Minecraft Legends — one of the biggest games ever to be developed using a four-day work week.
The latter half of the Legends project, set for release on April 18, was made under a four-day work-week environment.
It’s a workflow the company, along with one gaming researcher, say they hope would be replicated across the industry and province, especially one grappling with increasing unaffordability.
Five years of craft, four days of work
The 2009 game has been played by generations of gamers, and was originally developed by Mojang Games, now a subsidiary of Microsoft.
“It was pretty exciting and such a privilege to to take on this game and to work with Mojang on Minecraft Legends,” said Lee McKinnon-Pederson, Minecraft executive producer.
McKinnon-Pederson says the game was brought to Blackbird Interactive by Mojang in 2018.
At its peak, 125 Blackbird employees worked on Minecraft Legends — with Microsoft and Mojang helping with publishing support.
While the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 necessitated widespread working from home, developer Blackbird Interactive continued to allow its employees to work remotely as pandemic restrictions eased.
Then, in the first months of 2022, the developer transitioned to a four-day work week.
Employees are paid the same as they were for five days of work, and are not incentivized to work overtime during their four days.
“I haven’t seen any productivity decreases, at least from not what I could tell,” Dennis Ries, executive producer at Mojang, said of the change.
“I personally would be an advocate of it.”
A ‘meaningful’ change
Researchers have found that previous four-day work week pilot programs have resulted in productivity increases, with the results attributed to a healthier work-life balance for employees and less stress.
Dr. Christopher Patterson, associate professor at the University of British Columbia who studies games, says Minecraft Legends‘ development is meaningful in the context of the wider game industry practice of “crunch,” where teams cram in overtime work before a game’s release.
Employees who have experienced crunch have described weeks of 12-hour days, which have led them to miss time with family. Research shows it leads to physical and mental problems for employees, as well as burnout.
“What’s been changing more so in the last decade or so is there was a lot of newer, smaller, independent game studios,” Patterson said. “They just started to realize … we can try and gather more talents by offering more realistic deadlines, better workloads for people who have families.
“A lot of these indie game studios started to really hire some of the best of the best through that method.”
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McKinnon-Pederson called Blackbird’s implementation of the concept “very meaningful,” but credited developers on the studio’s previous game — Hardspace: Shipbreaker — for being the first to implement shorter work hours.
Ries added the work cycles for Minecraft Legends “were pretty predictable.”
“We certainly had some long hours at times, which I think naturally happens within any software development. But I would say that we are really cognitive about the part about trying to make sure we didn’t go through some extended crunch.”
Patterson praised Blackbird’s embracing of hybrid work and the four-day work week, saying it especially helps those who need to travel long distances for work, and that the extra day off helps parents with child care.
“It is something, I think, very much worth celebrating and hoping to transfer it [the four-day week] to other game studios and to other lines of work.”