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Why We Can’t Shake Crunch and How We Can Do Better

In 2004, a letter titled “EA: the human story” appeared online. In this letter, the anonymous author (“ea-spouse”) spoke of how their significant other, who worked for Electronic Arts (EA) at the time, suffered through months and months of brutal work hours. What began as a “mild” overtime requirement of 48 hours a week eventually ballooned into 85; people’s health began to fail and team morale plummeted. To add insult to injury, employees received no compensation for their extra time.

… over half of game developers face crunch at least once a year, during which time they put in over 50% more time than a regular 40 hour work week.

This letter acted as a wake-up call to the game industry; practically overnight, game development overtime—or the more popular term “crunch”—became one of the most widely discussed ethical topics in the field. Numerous developers from across the industry came forward to relay their own workplace horror stories, and EA paid out over $14 million to settle a related lawsuit. With all of that mounting pressure to improve work conditions, one might be forgiven for thinking that the problem would be solved in good time.

Fast-forward over a decade later, and crunch remains a common problem within the industry. Just a few weeks prior to Red Dead Redemption 2’s launch, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser, openly admitted that some on his team were working 100 hour weeks in the final year of the game’s development. This led both to Rockstar releasing data on the average work week of its employees as well as many employees speaking out anonymously (due to fear of losing their jobs) about their personal experience with crunch at the studio. According to a 2017 survey by the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), over half of game developers face crunch at least once a year, during which time they put in over 50% more time than a regular 40 hour work week. Among those who crunch, 37% receive no additional compensation; for those who are compensated for overtime, most receive it in the form of meals or future time off, rather than extra pay.

Why does crunch happen?

Crunch can happen at any stage of development, and any number of things can trigger it, from hastily implementing new features at a publisher’s request, to preparing a demo for a public conference, to wrapping up details for final release. Whatever the circumstance, this rush leads to long hours and working weekends. In some cases, crunch is mandatory: management insists that employees arrive earlier and stay later in order to get the game ready. Other times, crunch occurs due to peer pressure: some employees choose to stay late of their own volition, and their co-workers feel they have to stay and help as well, out of a sense of solidarity. After all, no one wants to be seen as the guy who left work on time when everyone else is giving over 100%. And since game development is a highly competitive field, employees are more susceptible to pressure from their both their peers and their bosses. It’s not difficult to see how easy it would be for employers to remind their employees that it’s a privilege to work in the games industry and if they don’t want to put in the extra work, there are many people who will.

When we neglect the rest we need, we ignore a critical element of who we are

In any case, it’s much safer for a studio to crunch than it is to ask a publisher for more time or resources to finish a project. If a publisher doesn’t like the progress being made on a game, they can cancel the whole thing, which inevitably costs developers their jobs. Working excessive overtime seems preferable to unemployment, at least at first.

The Human Cost of Crunch

Many believe that crunch can provide short-term benefits; the extra hours spent squashing bugs and working out the fine details in a game leads to a more polished and satisfying experience in the end. But the long-term consequences aren’t worth it. In articles for The New York Times and Kotaku, game journalist Jason Schreier relays some of the stories he’s heard from developers of failing health, broken relationships, and a desire to leave the game industry altogether:

In late 2011, as he was finishing up production on the role-playing game The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, the programmer Jean Simonet started feeling severe stomach pains…on his third emergency room visit, he revealed that he’d been regularly staying at the office late and coming in on weekends to fix bugs and add features that would take Skyrim from good to great, no matter how much sleep he lost along the way.

He took his doctor’s advice and took the next few weeks off work, trying to relax and acclimate to a normal sleep schedule. With this hiatus from crunch, “eventually the pain just disappeared,” he said.

Shane neville

Shane Neville

Long-time game developer Shane Neville shared his story with Kotaku as well; in his career, crunch began during his time working for EA in the 1990s, where he would put in 100 hour work weeks with little-to-no days off for months on end. After that experience, he swore off the practice, vowing to never allow himself to be put through that again. But the mentality of crunch reared its ugly head again years later, when he was building his own game as an indie developer:

Expectations are so vague, and it’s really hard to know when enough is enough,” he said. “You get into this loop of just putting things in the game, and you don’t know anymore whether it’s something the audience expects, whether it’s adding value to the game at all, if it’s going to make the game better. You just build this huge list of things that need to go into the game.

Even though Neville has recently tried hard to revamp his lifestyle and approach game development in a healthier way, he’s still coping with injuries that emerged while he was crunching on Bunker Punks, sitting and staring at the screen for countless uninterrupted hours.

Shane Neville’s Bunker Punks

Crunch at Rockstar

As mentioned above, Rockstar games has come under scrutiny as word has spread of brutal work conditions at the studio. Kotaku released a detailed report of their discussions with Rockstar developers:

Personal experiences may differ, but anecdotes from current and former employees paint a consistent picture: Rockstar Games is a complicated and sometimes difficult company, one where working ‘hard’ is equated to working for as many hours as possible. Many told Kotaku they felt pressured to stay at the office at night and even come in on weekends if they wanted to succeed…in conversations, several used the phrase ‘culture of fear,’ with some saying that they were worried about lawsuits or other retaliation for speaking up.

Eurogamer spoke with developers at Rockstar’s studio in Lincoln, England, where many of the game’s QA (Quality Assurance) team are stationed. They were in crunch mode on Red Dead Redemption 2 for a full year, going back to October 2017, and the 50-60 hour work weeks were mandatory. One employee described the way this environment affected his relationships:

I don’t remember the last time I went on a date with my girlfriend. My family live 30 minutes away and I don’t remember the last time I saw them in person. There are friends I used to see on a weekly basis that I am now lucky to see every few months. There are friends that I used to see every few months that I haven’t seen for years. When there is a requirement to work six days a week, and longer hours within the week, you have to ‘sacrifice’ a day off to actually live your life. It becomes a choice of missing out on rest and being tired for the week, or being selfish and taking a day for yourself, which is a horrible choice to make.

A Christian Response

Everyone can see the cost of crunch to people’s health and relationships, but the problem goes even deeper than this for me. As a Christian, I believe that God designed people not only to work, but to rest as well. God himself set an example of rest from the very beginning:

God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good … and on the seventh day day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. – Genesis 1:31, 2:2

As those who bear God’s image (Genesis 1:27), people should take time to rest and enjoy the benefit of their labors. When we neglect the rest we need, we ignore a critical element of who we are; when employers make unreasonable demands of their employees’ time and energy, they undermine human dignity and disrespect the one who created both work and rest.

… a good game created without crunch is certainly worthy of recognition and extra word-of-mouth promotion.

Fighting Crunch

In light of all this, how can the industry deal with the issue? Is crunch really a fait accompli, or can developers and publishers successfully create a world without crunch?

The good news is that avoiding crunch is possible, and the necessary steps are common sense. Bosses need to learn better time management skills, and need to be able to tell their employees to go home rather than staying late at the office. Studio heads need the guts to demand more time or resources from publishers when it’s necessary to complete a game; publishers, likewise, need to recognize the importance of keeping a developer healthy, setting reasonable expectations and providing flexibility where possible. All parties involved, from the biggest corporations to the lowliest developers, must recognize that a person’s health and well-being is of paramount importance, and that the short-term gains of crunch aren’t worth the long-term consequences, both for individuals and for the industry as a whole.

Setting New Standards

Shaun Rutland, a developer at London-based Hutch Games, recently spoke with Gamesindustry.biz about how his studio avoids crunch. He specifically emphasized the improved quality of games made by happy and healthy developers, and the need to take a stand in the face of the constant pressure that comes with game development:

Teams who are having fun make better games and making games should be fun—otherwise, what’s the point? We have a responsibility to our staff to ensure our development culture and processes foster a productive, creative and motivating environment. There’s always enough work and urgency from our players that we could easily ask them to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week. There’s just no let up in our opportunities so we simply never allow it to happen, its zero tolerance attitude towards crunch.

Hutch Games CEO Shaun Rutland

I reached out to Brent Batas, an indie developer who helps design Legion TD 2, about his experience with crunch and time management. He listed a variety of good tips for self-employed developers: recognizing his limits, setting rewards for himself when he works overtime, keeping to routines, and getting help whenever possible:

I have a tendency to want to do everything myself, so I have to repeatedly practice delegating things to others, even if I would ultimately be less happy with their way of doing things. I think what has helped me through this is realizing that any gifts I have and any work I do is ultimately God-given, and so who am I to insist that everything has to be done my way? As time goes on, I’ve learned to appreciate the different ways other people have of doing things, and it’s been liberating every time I am able to delegate something.

What Can Gamers do?

But what about for those of us who are just consumers? Is there anything we can do to combat this problem within the industry?

Perhaps the idea that jumps most quickly to mind is boycotting games from studios that undergo crunch. It’s a tempting notion; on paper, it’s a way to punish bad business practices and show that bad work conditions don’t yield commercially successful games. But in practice, this idea meets a number of issues. Crunch doesn’t appear on the bullet points of any games, and considering how widespread the issue is across the industry, it’s safest to assume that a studio crunches unless it specifically states otherwise. That leaves precious few games safe from a boycott, which in turn stunts a person’s ability to understand and speak redemptively about gaming.

Offering encouragement and advocating for developers shows them that they are not alone, and that we care about them and … their work.

More importantly, though, a boycott adds more trouble to developers who are already stressed and suffering from crunch. If a game doesn’t sell, people lose jobs and have to look for new work. Furthermore, what little monetary compensation many salaried employees might get is often tied to game sales. Refusing to buy games from studios who crunch might actually further harm developers. Depending on where you live, finding a new job in the games industry may not be possible without relocating to another city adding further strain to people who are already overworked and under-compensated.

Better Routes Than Boycotts

The better answer for consumers is to promote games from studios that avoid crunch. Lift people up for good business practices and management skill, rather than tearing down others for working too hard. This is not to say that one should only ever buy such games, or that every one of these games will be to your liking; nevertheless, a good game created without crunch is certainly worthy of recognition and extra word-of-mouth promotion. It may take a little digging to find a studio that avoids crunch, but they exist; Klei Entertainment, for example, make a point of maintaining reasonable work conditions, and have released several well-received games recently, including Invisible Inc. and Don’t Starve.

Klei Entertainment’s Don’t Starve

This is also a wonderful opportunity to love our neighbors in the gaming community. Offering encouragement and advocating for developers shows them that they are not alone, and that we care about them and about their life’s work. In an industry known for its competition and toxicity, this act of love and service will stand out.

It’s unlikely that crunch will go away anytime soon; after all, this is a problem that has dogged gaming for many years, and progress has been inconsistent at best. But by shining a light on studios that create great games without crunch, the culture will change bit by bit. Hopefully, in time, the industry will see not only that gaming can exist without crunch, but that it will be better off without it.

Michael Mendis is a freelance writer who loves to discuss gaming, Christian faith, and how the two interact. In addition to his main hobby of playing video games, he also enjoys watching movies, anime, and baseball.

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