Scheduled Bonuses vs. Other Morale Boosters

I’m subscribed to a producers’ mail list that recently hosted a discussion about the pros and cons of milestone-related monetary bonuses for employees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there were a broad variety of opinions. I thought it might be interesting to share some quotes (plus my own thoughts, of course!)

There appeared to be consensus on the long-term ineffectivness of this type of bonus. A number of well-known research studies [example] have had similar conclusions. All the more interesting, then, that this form of compensation remains widely in-use (not just in the video game industry, but many others as well.) Comments from the list:

In my experience money tends to become an ‘expected’ thing, and loses it’s morale boosting capabilities…

Several psychological studies have confirmed this phenomenon, though debate lingers on. And speaking of psychological studies:

There have been animal studies (also applicable to humans) that show that a regular schedule of reward actually is LESS effective than a random schedule. Basically if you develop a 1:1 system of behavior to reward, then you end up having to pay for it each time or the behavior will extinguish. Strangely enough, if you reward only intermittently for the same behavior, the hope that “maybe this time I’ll get rewarded” will drive the repetition far more. Kind of how the lottery works really.

There was indeed a famous study involving rats and food that was regularly (or irregularly) dispensed when a certain task was performed. When the reward was halted, rats that were conditioned to expect a regular reward quickly gave up the task. Rats conditioned to expect a reward at random intervals persisted for far longer. I’m profoundly uncomfortable comparing rats to humans, and we should always remember than humans — unlike rats stuck in a lab — have the option to quit their jobs and work elsewhere! That said, I felt this was worth sharing.

I suspect anyone doing the math on this is more than likely going to be insulted. For example, a 50K junior staffer who has put in an average of 60 hours a week for a year, (not at all unusual), isn’t likely to feel very rewarded with a $1000 completion bonus when they consider that if they were being paid overtime like they should be, they would have earned an additional $36,000. (This figure is based on the dubious assumption that they took a 2 week vacation.) That said, I think completion bonuses are potentially a good way to motivate people to hit their deadlines.

Ironically, this person went on to say that completion bonuses might still be a good thing, since they could offset royalty-related disappointment. Fixing a poor solution with a poor solution?

The team deliberately starts cutting corners in order to reach the bonus, if the bonus is perceived to be more valuable to the individual than a great game created by the collective team. This is especially true if there’s no royalty or profit-sharing structure in place. “Why do I care of the game gets an 85 or a 75 — if I finish my stuff on date X, I get five grand.” The second is the possible backlash to morale when a bonus is technically missed, and the team perceives (correctly or incorrectly) that the missed milestone was the result of something not of their control, or the result of an arbitrary decision.

I’d take this one step further and say that failure and success can almost never be traced purely to a given person or team, which effectively guarantees that employees will always have something to resent in the case of failure! If the team failed, did management do a poor job running the show? For that matter, did it do a poor job building the team? Were the time and/or resources allocated simply insufficient? Were the milestones simply unreasonable, given logistical or technological issues? Did support functions (i.e. the central tools group, the legal department, etc) fail in some critical way? Odds are, something bigger than any individual (or any team) went wrong, and even if not, cognitive dissonance simply has too many phantom allies…

Discussion on the mail list also turned to non-monetary, scheduled and unscheduled morale boosters:

Holiday / annual parties are always a must – as well as once and awhile trips to a nearby pub with team members and just buying them all a drink. Anytime you can encourage interaction outside the office that is fun or stress-relieving is a great thing for morale in my opinion.

…and as a side-benefit, you’re encouraging relationship development between employees, which can have profound benefits as teams grow larger and more fractured. It’s easier to get the information and support you need (and harder to refuse giving it) when you’ve hung out with your colleagues.

The best morale booster we’ve ever received is one that we’re still talking about 11 years later! Back in 95 we were working on a Microsoft game, and the main people from Microsoft on the project came downunder to see us. They then got everyone to head into the underground carpark and pulled out a couple of huge bags. Inside there were the most amazing Nerf guns we’d ever seen (still, to this day) – called the Ultimator. There is a Microsoft sticker on each one that reads: “95 Windows Broken DirectContact Innovative fast localise packet based messaging system guaranteed to create and impact and provoke and immediate and informative response. Where would you like to bomb today?” Everyone I know from the project still has their gun, and we still talk about the day we received them.

I just loved this quote, and not because I work for Microsoft. Most managers are at least vaguely aware of the power of gestures like this one, but fail to prioritize the actual making of them. Buying Nerf guns for the team must seem so trivial in the face of pressing business matters and horrific deadlines… but it isn’t.

In conclusion (yes, I have one…)

I’ve yet to meet an employee of a game company who wants to make games that suck and/or don’t sell well. You know it. I know it. So why do people persist in thinking that scheduled bonuses will increase the odds of a game being developed on time or at a high level of quality? If the team is underperforming, there are almost certainly systemic issues at the root of the problem. Producers should focus on addressing those issues, rather than trying to improve poor morale and/or performance with financial rewards that don’t relate to the core problem.

The day I hear of a scheduled financial reward system that adequately recognizes the contributions of every party involved in a game (from marketing to design to central tools) and encourages cooperation between those groups, I may be tempted to try it out. Till then, I’ll focus on reasonable salaries, options, unscheduled rewards (monetary and otherwise), and of course, good old fashioned “treating employees like fellow human beings.”

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