I think I’ve said as much before, but it’s worth pointing out again, especially for this subject, but my brother is currently working in the games industry. He went to one of the best game design schools in the country, and went pretty much straight from school to work for a European studio. And since I made most of my friends through him, and he made so many friends through work and school, that basically means almost everyone in my social circle is involved with video games in some capacity or another. So while I’m not working in studios myself, I have heard many, many stories, most of which I couldn’t actually repeat out of respect for privacy.
And I point this out because it definitely shapes my opinion on this particular subject, a subject I know intimately about yet it doesn’t affect me personally. And while I’ve said many times in the past that I think that the amount of mandatory overtime – or “crunch” – in the industry is ridiculous, I think I’m overdue to actually qualify that statement and explain why I feel that way because – and sometimes in spite of – what I’ve been told by my many associates who actually wrestle with it on a yearly basis.
But let’s back up a bit first. What is “crunch”, exactly?
Well, as I said above, it’s mandatory overtime, but there’s obviously more to it than just that. “Crunch” is typically a ‘phase’ of the game development process, a period of marathon development usually in the final month or two before a game goes gold and work shifts to post-launch DLC or new projects. While typically game developers work a standard 40-hour week, during crunch, it’s not atypical for that number to jump to 60 or even 80 hours. 100, which Rockstar was “bragging” about earlier, is atypical even by the game industry standard.
Crunch, from my understanding, is typically caused by one of two things. It’s sometimes caused by passionate developers who want to make sure the game is perfect before it launches, or add one final cool feature or level before they wrap things up. But more often than not, crunch is caused by poor management or overambitious release dates. Although a mini-crunch period might occur before a big trade show, if your game is set to be demo.
Obviously, however, the concept isn’t nearly so clear cut. Some studios are in perpetual “crunch” (like Telltale Studio and Team Bondi – both studios that crashed, unsurprisingly) while in Japan, work culture means that “crunch” period is a lot harder to define. There are also, of course, workaholics who happily donate their time to year-long crunch sessions, and they take great pleasure in it. A few notable examples being Alex St. John, Mike Capps, Ken Levine, and of course, Masahiro Sakurai, although how much he “enjoys” it is certainly up for debate.
But by and large, the above definition of Crunch stands: a brief period before launch when developers, artists, and other employees are expected to spend extra hours in the office to add the finishing touches to a game and cram some last features in.
Now, before I go any further, I want to add a little disclaimer: I have friends who very much like crunch time. Without naming names or games, I had a pair of pals who were thrilled at all the overtime they received a month before their game launched, because they used all the extra money they earned to fund a very expensive vacation. And I certainly know a few who did care enough about the game they were working on that they were more than happy to put the extra time and energy into making their game the best it could possibly be. That’s an admirable attitude, and one that should obviously be encouraged.
I also want to point out that my main “in” in the games industry, my dear brother, never had to deal with much crunch in his professional career so far. But he has been “trained” for it thanks to that school I told you about, which apparently simulated “crunch” year-round to prepare their students for the rigors of the game design life. Which nicely underline just how ubiquitous and problematic this little issue is in the industry: you have to be trained with the mental and physical fortitude to deal with it.
And that ubiquity is really the source of the problem, and the start of my critique. Because it’s all well and good that sometimes developers can get a boatload of extra money to pay for vacations, but all too often, they can’t opt into or out of the crunch that engulfs a studio – it’s mandatory. And by that same token, it was actually not a given that they would get overtime pay for the extra hours they put in: it just so happened that their studio was good enough to actually offer it. But for many studios – terrible, awful studios – the ubiquity of crunch allows them a license to both demand it and pay no extra for it, simply because they know that they can get away with it.
But a work “culture” doesn’t form in a vacuum. It’s not like microtransactions where there was always pushback against it but publishers just ignored the critique until people forgot about it. Rather, game publishers and studio heads were able to sort of… artificially “trick” crunch into becoming a standard and acceptable part of game development.
It’s no secret that game development is a highly sought after job. Heck, any job that has a presence in pop culture is, which is why you have more people trying to become actors and directors than plumbers and morticians. And like any job where there’s a lot of people trying to vie for a limited number of positions, studios are able to hold the sword of Damocles over the heads of their employees with the old “If you don’t like it I have a folder of 12 people who want your position” shtick. That also allows them to fairly confidently game the system with another standard and scummy industry practice of laying off employees right after a game launches so they don’t have to pay them extra benefits.
So combine a fear of losing your job at the launch of a game with the fact that you’re ultimately a replaceable cog in the machine, as well as the genuine passion many developers have for making video games, it wasn’t hard for studios to ask people to work long hours and expect them to agree. Do this enough times, across the entire industry, and you’ve turned worker manipulation into a part of the culture. Congratulation.
This could of course be combated with a union, but whenever I bring up the idea of a union to my brother he laughs it off. All the reasons “crunch” was able to even develop in the first place are the same reasons why unions won’t ever get off the ground. Studios have options, and if they can pick between a union developer and a hungry freelancer they can exploit then kick to the side of the road, they’ll pick the hungry freelancer every time. Now with enough support, a union could possibly get off the ground… but the first developers to join it would be signing a death sentence on their careers in the process. They would sacrifice themselves maybe to get the ball rolling, so of course no one is going to take the plunge. They’d rather work in the game industry for a few years, get that experience, than do what 9/10ths of my brother’s friends do, and move on to a higher-paying, less stressful job at Google or Amazon.
But here’s the funny bit: things are getting better.
But for the wrong reason.
Here’s the thing: as more and more games shift their model from single-player, completed games to “games as a service” or multiplayer-focused games, or games with loads upon loads of post-release content, the old system of “laying off a bunch of people after launch” isn’t quite as tenable anymore. If games have a longer lifespan within the studio than just their launch window, they want experienced developers who are familiar with their game to continue to work on and develop it. That kind of experience gives more value, and thus more power, to the developer, which they can, and likely will, use to avoid mandatory crunch and get some much-needed job security. And while that’s kind of a raw deal for us players, for developers, it’s a step in the right direction.
It would be great if we could find some compromise that wouldn’t screw over everyone, but I can’t really trust the game studios of the world to be that clever. In the end, nothing beats greed like bigger greed, so unless we can find a system that makes everyone happy (especially the studios and their wallets) it’s unlikely we’ll find a real fix for this in the future. But if it means people like my brother get to keep their jobs and eat? I guess I’ll suck it up and deal with loot boxes.
For a time.