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Business / Gaming

Crunch: The Reality of Working Conditions in Game Development

The game industry often requires developers to work sixteen-hour days to meet pre-release deadlines. But reasonable hours are the key to productivity.

In November 2004, a blogger behind the username ea_spouse, published an opinion piece describing the working-conditions of her husband at EA Games, one of the biggest game development companies in the world. She mentioned the long working hours, the lack of overtime pay, and the brutal work environment that was expected by employers to be normal:

I remember that they asked him in one of the interviews: “how do you feel about working long hours?” It’s just a part of the game industry — few studios can avoid a crunch as deadlines loom, so we thought nothing of it. When asked for specifics about what “working long hours” meant, the interviewers coughed and glossed on to the next question; now we know why.

For many of us, this might look surprising or seem like an individual case. Unfortunately, in 2014 in an IGDA survey, 81% of the respondents said that they have been subject to “crunch,” a term used in the industry describing the intense hours put into the release of a game, at least once at their workplace. Suddenly, the glossy veneer of playing games on the job, testing new mechanics, developing exciting new maps and landscapes that will make it into the books of gaming history, begins to fade. By reading the story of ea_spouse, we become aware of a different reality, one in which people have to sacrifice their regular healthy lives in order to keep producing games in a crunch. Ea_spouse’s story is not an isolated one, but is rather widespread.

In a 2019 interview for CBC, an ex-employee of the company Bioware came forward describing what he called the death march crunch that he and his employees endured in the months preceding a game release. The crunch consisted of 12- to 16-hour days, seven days a week. Because of the fatigue from work, his romantic relationship with video games was on the verge of collapse, as well as from the lack of time to spend with loved ones. In a 2019 GameIndustry.biz report, an employee from NetherRealm (the company behind Mortal Kombat, Injustice) stated: “I was doing 90-hour work weeks for about four months straight without a day off… This included working on Saturday and Sunday. I think the most hours I ever worked in a week was 115.” Accounts like this are far from uncommon; they reinforce the reality that the video gaming industry needs a culture change. 

Since 2004 and ea_spouse, there has been a movement by game developers, their spouses and allies in the field, trying to raise awareness about the working conditions. It inspired other people to come forward, such as the wives of Rockstar developers in 2008, or Bioware employees in 2018, or CD Projekt Red employees over the years. They were all describing very similar patterns of work: the mandatory overtime that crunch culture demands, the poor compensation for extra work, and the lack of workers’ representation came up again and again. 

The phenomenon of crunch might look for many of us impossible to avoid, but there are details to the industry that complicate this. In an interview for Left Porch, Declan Peach, Vice Secretary of IWGB Game Workers, stresses the importance of creativity in game development and how difficult it is to schedule in the creative moments required to make video games. Game development is not the typical white-collar job in which one could follow the mechanical steps of inserting data in a spreadsheet, clock out, and repeat. The job requires a certain degree of creativity in designing levels, adapting, understanding the market, reacting to sudden changes, etc. Declan argues that there could be better management put in place to avoid crunch, while also supporting the uniquely creative work of game developers.

On the other side of the spectrum, there are people like Rod Fergusson, the producer of Gears 2 who says,  “I am a believer that if you’re going to make a great game […] crunch is necessary. I believe it’s important because it means your ambition is greater than what you scheduled out.” On the same lines, Alex St. John, the co-founder of DirectX, a gaming technology company which was acquired by Microsoft, writes in an GamesBeat article from 2016 entitled Game Developers Must Avoid the ‘Wage-Slave’ Attitude:

Many modern game developers have embraced a culture of victimology and a bad attitude toward their chosen vocations. They complain that the long hours and personal sacrifices great games require are a consequence of poor management. They want to pretend that they can turn an inherently entrepreneurial endeavor like game development into a 9-to-5 job. Somehow, these people have managed to adopt a wage-slave attitude toward one of the most remarkable and privileged careers in the world.

Both St. John and Fergusson mention the necessity of crunch as being a driving force for innovation and creativity. It is no longer enough to just put in 40 hours a week because it is seen as simply succumbing to the rules of the system, which hinders greatness being achieved. St. John mentions the idea of poor management, yet completely dismisses it by claiming that video game production is an entrepreneurial endeavor—something you are required to give yourself, your health, and your sanity to without question. His failure to address the potential for poor management, low-pay, and abuse in the industry amidst the onslaught of anecdotal evidence from ex-game producers stating the contrary, makes his argument feel a bit out of touch. 

While people like St. John are emphatically not committed to improving developers’ working conditions, there are certain entities out there that are trying to push against the crunch. Tanya X. Short, the co-founder of KitFox, said in an interview for GameIndustry.biz, that “the soul of what we’re trying to do is to make a good place to work where people can be their best. And I don’t think they can do that if people are being disrespectful and the culture becomes toxic. So that is our number one priority.” For Tanya, removing the toxic culture and reforming management is a huge part of solving the problem. Additionally, Vince Zampella, CEO of Respawn Entertainment (publishing APEX Legends) told in an interview with Gameindustry.biz that his company would not roll out more content than they were doing at that time, despite the increased demand for his game, in an attempt to be more conscientious of developers’ sanity and mental health.

What those two stories have in common is a prioritisation of the worker’s health over the production of the game. While a certain video game might look like something people would sacrifice for, due to their passion and devotion to the field and to their craft, it must be remembered that they are people at the end of the day that deserve mental health, respite, and social lives.  

A key part of this story is what the research actually has to say about the necessity of crunch time, which may surprise many. Crunch in the video gaming industry began attracting attention in 2004 and is still a phenomenon we encounter today. In 2005, just a couple of months after ea_spouse’s article, the International Game Developer Association put forward a study entitled “Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work: Six Lessons 2005.” The key lessons are as follows:

Lesson One:

Productivity varies over the course of the workday, with the greatest productivity occurring in the first four to six hours. After enough hours, productivity approaches zero; eventually it becomes negative.

Lesson Two:

Productivity is hard to quantify for knowledge workers.

Lesson Three:

Five-day weeks of eight-hour days maximize long-term output in every industry that has been studied over the past century. What makes us think that our industry is somehow exempt from this rule?

Lesson Four:

At 60 hours per week, the loss of productivity caused by working longer hours overwhelms the extra hours worked within a couple of months.

Lesson Five:

Continuous work reduces cognitive function 25% for every 24 hours. Multiple consecutive overnighters have a severe cumulative effect.

Lesson Six:

Error rates climb with hours worked and especially with loss of sleep. Eventually the odds catch up with you, and catastrophe occurs. When schedules are tight and budgets are big, is this a risk you can really afford to take?

These lessons reveal that the demands of crunch don’t necessarily lead to great products. Take, for example, the job of a student of writing an essay: it might come easily in the first four-to-five hours of work, but after ten, twelve, fourteen hours straight, it becomes heavy and unbearable. The student is rendered impatient, and might rush to get it done as soon as possible, making more errors as their creativity and drive depletes. If this is the case with crunch in the gaming industry, why does it still prevail? As displayed by the diminishing returns to productivity that the research shows, working more does not necessarily make the finished product much better, it only serves to make some developers’ lives more miserable.

The culture surrounding the video game industry is still very powerful and contains its flaws. The dynamics of the industry promote working harder than your peers, giving up your free time to your job, and being willing to sacrifice everything for the game. Working in the video game industry is often a passion job that requires one to not only have highly adept coding skills, but also be engaged actively in playing, discussing, and debating video games. Thus, working in the industry is still a dream job for many, which allows them to ignore, or put aside, some of the wrongdoings. But what happens when crunch becomes too much or when people want to change it? Some end up in therapy, others move jobs, and some simply quit the industry as a whole. But for some, the crisis of overtime allowed them to come together, to realise the structural exploitation of the workers, and use their collective power to fight against it.