The Small Room
One of the most important things about any game development company is the bathroom. Seriously. Laugh all you want, but a good bathroom can help create a comfortable, professional environment while a bad bathroom can waste precious hours of productivity as employees search for alternate solutions to nature's callings! There are some key elements to a good bathroom: a fan (what I call suppressing fire), good ventilation (to prevent unfortunate hot box situations), good lighting, plentiful hand soap, a well-fitting door, a predictable lock system, and a proper separation of work place and water closet! Bonus points are awarded for clothes hooks, magazine racks, single occupancy facilities, showers, and some space to stretch your legs. Let me run through some of the companies I've worked at to help put some of these issues into perspective...
- BlueSky Software Mark One: thinking back on the bathroom at BlueSky Software reminds me of the Chinese restaurant episode of Seinfeld where George Costanza is describing his problems with a girlfriend's apartment: "Well, it's this little place with this little bathroom. It's like right there, you know, it's not even down a little hall or off in an alcove. You understand? There's no... buffer zone." One of the disadvantages of any small development house can be a sheer lack of space and the bathroom at BlueSky was probably never intended to accommodate a company of more than a dozen or so employees. Twice that many artists and programmers shared a single occupancy room located between a programmer's cube and a small kitchen area with a microwave and refrigerator. The relationship of the bathroom to the surrounding cubes and a place where people prepare food was similar to restaurants where customers have to pass through the kitchen to use the facilities. The problem of location was further compounded by lack of a fan and 2 inch gap below the door which failed to contain any unfortunate odors or sound artifacts. Luckily, I was only working part time as a tester, so I was able to go home before any problems arose.
- BlueSky Software Mark Two: the move to a larger, nicer office complex included a modern two stall, two urinal bathroom with a shower! This would definitely be a hard act to follow....
- Activision: there were two bathrooms immediately available on the second floor for production to use. The executive bathroom was located over by the producers and managers while the more commonly used bathroom was basically part of the Zork: Grand Inquisitor team. Much like the original BlueSky bathroom, it lacked any sort of fan or ventilation and anybody using the facilities after eating an especially potent carne asada burrito would effectively carpet bomb the Zork artists' cubes a few feet away. The executive bathroom was a little nicer and nowhere near anybody's cubes, but some of the managers who visited the facilities had some strange habits. One producer in particular would stand several feet away from the urinal and arc his stream at the target!
- Namco: there was nothing particularly notable (good or bad) about the Namco bathroom. It was sufficiently separated from the development team with a double stall, double urinal, a decent fan, and plenty of room. However, it was kind of weird when a very short, older Japanese man stood next to me at the urinal one day and asked me if I was new and how I liked working at Namco. I'm not much of a bathroom talker (especially when both parties are handling their genitals) so I didn't say anything and just nodded my head. Later, as we were washing up, he introduced himself as the president of Namco Hometek!
- Accolade: since there were basically no women on our floor of the building, both bathrooms were designated as unisex. Most of the time, this wasn't a problem, but incidents of mixed gender occupancy were always a looming danger for employees who were squeamish about sharing personal moments with the opposite sex. On one occasion, I was stuck in one of the stalls with stomach problems while two girls stood at the sinks and gossiped about their weekend for a half hour.
- VBlank: AltDevBlogADay founder Mike Acton, myself, and our partner David Kunkler started a small development company back in 2000 and moved into a cool, old office building above some night clubs and restaurants in San Diego's Gaslamp Quarter. Even though the location was fantastic, the shared facilities were very old fashioned and consistently being assailed by a rogues' gallery of drunk partiers, cell phone chatting businessmen, homeless people, and, quite possibly, a California brown bear that would leave bits of twigs, berries, and partially digested picnic baskets around the stalls.
- Visionscape Interactive: the VSI building was most likely occupied by some sort of biotech company prior to VSI moving in. The bathroom was a very large, single occupancy room with storage closets, benches, an industrial strength fan, and a pretty decent chemical shower setup.
- Crystal Dynamics Mark One: according to legend, the original Crystal Dynamics building used to be a church. It was a large, eclectic, two story building with a set of bathrooms on each floor. While the bottom floor enjoyed a decent fan, the upper floor was dead quiet, so the IT department put a radio in the bathroom for noise suppression and kept a steady flow of incense burning to cover up any off putting smells. All the urinals in the building were auto-flushing Zurn units with Cylon-like red eyes that would detect movement to clear the bowl. In late 2005, the Zurn units became self-aware and went into a never-ending flush mode that ended up flooding half of the first floor before we were able to load a virus into the mainframe and take them down.
- Crystal Dynamics Mark Two: we bid a sad farewell to the old building and moved into a high tech business park built alongside some salt flats in Redwood City. With the new building came new bathroom facilities: nice double occupancy rooms with a shower on the first floor. Unfortunately. some element of possibly disgruntled employees began to pee on the floor under and around the urinals in what became fondly known as Lake Urine. Additionally, masses of ancient Game Developer and other industry magazines started to overtake the stalls effectively turning them into something you'd find in a public park. Luckily for some of us, we discovered that the unoccupied bathroom on the floor above us had pristine facilities that we could sneak into through an unlocked stairwell as long as we avoided the occasional security guard or real estate agent. We formed an exclusive club with simple rules: don't get caught, keep the bathroom clean, don't leave any signs of occupancy, turn the light off when you're done, and, most importantly, don't tell anybody else about the secret bathrooms!
- Planet Moon: when I started at Planet Moon, there were two teams on two separate floors. However, the publisher for one of the projects unceremoniously canceled the game and caused a large percentage of the company to be laid off. This created a situation similar to Crystal Dynamics where there was a set of bathrooms not being used. The upstairs bathroom on my team was not terrible, but it was tight quarters with very little space between the urinal and the stall. Many employees using the stall would spend an inordinate amount of time spelling out obscene stories with magnetic tiles on the wall. This effectively locked up the space for anybody else who needed to use it.
We're all used to our bathrooms at home; our little sanctuaries where we have scented candles and reading materials in nice wooden baskets and we don't pee on the seat or forget to leave the fan on when we have a problem. Work seems to be a different situation altogether even though some of us spend more time in the office than we do at home! A bad bathroom isn't necessarily a direct reflection of the company or the corporate culture. Like software, tools, and schedules, you somehow manage to do your job with what you have. BUT, a bad bathroom is something that can always be improved through a combination of personal behavior modification (treating the bathroom at work like your bathroom at home) and making an attempt to address issues with the facilities themselves (refer to Crystal Dynamics Mark One). Why should anybody have to struggle with the simple decisions in life when the difficult ones (like trying to be creative for 8+ hours a day even when you're not inspired) are the ones that can be the most rewarding?