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Epic Games really needs to properly address Fortnite crunch

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It’s been two months since Polygon reported on the brutal working conditions at Epic Games, the studio behind the worldwide sensation Fortnite, where developers routinely put in 70-plus hour work weeks to keep up with rigorous update schedules. And Epic has yet to formally address the claims.

Given that Fortnite updates still arrive at a weekly clip, it’s hard to imagine the working conditions have markedly changed. Even during a studio-wide closure lasting until July 8, Fortnite updates are still arriving as usual. This begs the question: When will Epic Games actually address its issue with crunch?

With major studios such as Bungie and Respawn publicly discussing working conditions for its developers, it’s time for Epic to do the same. The company has set the bar for live service games by updating Fortnite every week — sometimes even twice — but when it comes at the expense of employees, that’s not a cause for celebration.

On June 20, Epic Games announced that it would be closed for two weeks from June 24 to July 8. One would think this means no Fortnite updates during that time — but that’s not the case. The first of those updates, which contained a substantial “14 Days of Summer” event and a slew of minor changes, went live June 25, the day after Epic’s office closed. A second update will arrive next week, making this closure “business as usual” from a consumer perspective. Epic told Polygon that it has “measures in place to ensure we can react to major issues (should they arise).”

Business as usual

From the outside looking in, this sure doesn’t sound like a studio closure. It’s possible that all full-time employees were given two weeks off to enjoy the beginning of summer with family and friends, while contractors were left to handle whatever work crops up while the studio is “closed.”

Another possibility is that Fortnite developers crunched even more than usual to prepare for the closure. Neither possibility is ideal. Not to mention patch notes still need to be written, and updates need to be pushed. It’s unlikely that next week’s update is already set in stone, especially when it comes to fixes.

Four weeks off each year plus vacation time isn’t generous if the rest of the year is spent putting in obscene hours.

Epic is still working on Fortnite even while the studio is technically closed. It doesn’t matter if the hours are being put in over the two-week closure or if they’ve already been crunched. Either way, the work has been done to keep Fortnite on its regularly scheduled programming.

Epic Games lead animator Jay Hosfelt offered further perspective about the closure on Twitter.

Epic shuts the studio down for 2 weeks in the summer and two in the winter. We also get vacation on top of it. I don’t say this to brag, but to vocally applaud a company that sincerely cares for its employees.

— Jay Hosfelt ???? (@HosFross) June 21, 2019

The two-week winter break during the holidays was already in effect; the summer break is new. Admittedly, the policy sounds generous at face value, as it also includes separate vacation time. But if this is Epic’s response to Polygon’s report, it rings hollow considering the update schedule remains unchanged. On top of that, Epic didn’t mention crunch or the work-life balance of its employees in announcing the two-week closure. It’s great the developers get to step away from Fortnite for two weeks to enjoy the sun, but it’s not enough.

I cannot pretend to personally know what it’s like to work at Epic, but based on what’s been reported, I wouldn’t describe it as “a company that sincerely cares for its employees.” Mr. Hosfelt obviously has had a more positive experience at Epic than others who shared details about working conditions with Polygon.

Four weeks off each year plus vacation time isn’t generous if the rest of the year is spent putting in obscene hours.

In my recent re-review of Fortnite, I grappled with Epic’s content schedule. On the one hand, regular updates have undoubtedly helped retain an interest in the premier battle royale game. On the other hand, it feels amoral to applaud a studio that sacrifices its developers’ well-being to remain the most popular game around for as long as possible. Don’t get me wrong. It’s impressive that Fortnite developers can consistently shake-up the gameplay. We’ve never seen anything like this before. They are obviously extremely talented and deserve all of the success in the world. But it’s hard to celebrate Fortnite as a whole.

Change the narrative

Epic Games needs to address crunch publicly and remedy it from within. Not just for the sake of its own employees, but for other game studios across the world whose executives look at Fortnite as a model of success to emulate. Being king comes with responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is setting a good example. If the studio responsible for the biggest game on the planet makes an effort to stop crunching, that could make a huge impact — even just symbolically.

New horror stories about crunch culture are reported regularly nowadays. Name any recent AAA blockbuster and chances are the developers behind it crunched in months (or years) leading up to release. Red Dead Redemption 2, Anthem, virtually every game released by the now-defunct Telltale Games — crunch, crunch, crunch. But Fortnite is unique in that the crunch hasn’t eased after release. If anything, it’s only gotten worse as the game skyrocketed in popularity. And as a live service game, it’s seemingly never-ending.

The ball is in Epic’s court now, though. With crunch becoming common knowledge amongst journalists and gamers, studios are starting to discuss work-life balance publicly. Bungie just delayed a weapon fix patch for Destiny 2 to avoid crunch. Massive Entertainment, the studio behind The Division 2, said it consciously avoids letting its employees work overtime in an interview with GameSpot. Respawn Entertainment has refrained from releasing frequent Apex Legends updates to avoid crunch. Nintendo of America President Doug Boswer told IGN that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was delayed until 2020 specifically to steer clear of crunch.

Despite these encouraging statements, it’d be foolish to think that crunch will magically disappear. Game developer unionization is the ideal long term solution to address this major problem plaguing the industry. In the short term, however, it’d help if Epic Games took steps to change the narrative. If Epic insists on releasing a Fortnite update every week, that’s fine. But the studio should hire enough employees to handle the updates without requiring overtime.

Live service games could be the future of gaming, but Fortnite‘s content model paints a very bleak picture of the future for game developers.

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