The video game industry has grown exponentially over the past few decades, turning into the largest form of entertainment media in the world. Unlike legacy media such as television and film, however, video game developers are not unionized and often struggle with inhumane working conditions.
“Crunch” or the working of extremely long hours, is a tactic many developers and publishers use in the lead-up to a game’s launch to assure it meets quality standards. It’s also a growing problem in the video game industry. Developers have reported working more than 100 hours in a week just to get a game close to completion, usually citing poor project management or an unreasonable delivery schedule — sometimes even both — as the reason. This practice often leads to burnout, a condition where workers are unable to work due to poor mental and physical health.
Stories of crunch, often made by anonymous workers fearing for their jobs, have grown increasingly more prevalent over the last year. As we hear more and more about these problems, developers, media, and consumers have begun to push for better worker protections. We’ve also seen the formation of organizations such as Game Workers Unite.
Unfortunately, the companies being outed and accused of such practices, all haven’t had the greatest responses to these reports. Below, we’ve listed studios and companies accused of crunch, as well as the steps they’ve taken since then.
In the aftermath of the article, a Kotaku report based on interviews with more than 75 current and former Rockstar employees painted a dreary picture of the studio. Workers reported working an average of between 55 and 60 hours per week, six days per week, and being pressured to work for as long as possible via overtime. This isn’t a culture that began with Red Dead Redemption 2, as reports of crunch have existed as far back as the previous game in 2010.
Workers reported a “culture of fear” at the studio, either of under-performing or being outright let go, and several said the experience exacerbated depression and anxiety symptoms. The stresses were brought on, at least in part, by Rockstar’s habit of changing major elements of its games at the last minute, and in this case, a different aspect ratio that required reframing several cutscenes.
Rockstar’s statement after the fallout from the initial article did not appear to match the experiences of its employees. Executive and writer Dan Houser said that it was only himself and a small group of writers that were working such an intense schedule, and that Rockstar does not expect “anyone else to work this way.”
Parent company Take-Two’s CEO Strauss Zelnick likely didn’t help matters during an interview at E3 2019. Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz, he said he didn’t see the need for unionization, though he said the company would still be willing to engage in collective bargaining.
Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda developer BioWare was accused of crunch culture in early 2019, much of which appears to be the result of poor planning and management during the development of the former titles. Though in pre-production for years, the game reportedly came together in just 18 months before it was released to critical derision and underwhelming commercial numbers. Story details and even the title weren’t nailed down until very late in the development process, and working with the unwieldy Frostbite engine made the experience more difficult.
In order to meet its launch goal, which shifted from late 2018 to 2019, workers reported working late nights and weekends, all as the game’s creative direction continued to shift. Some employees took months off, citing mental health issues as the reason for their temporary leaves.
Just moments after the initial report of crunch culture at BioWare emerged, the studio posted a response on its blog. In the post, BioWare said it felt the report had unfairly targeted particular team members, and that it didn’t “see the value in tearing down one another or one another’s work.
The response was heavily criticized, and BioWare general manager Casey Hudson sent an internal message to his employees, acknowledging that the problems outlined were real and that the studio had to continue working on improving its culture.
One of the latest studios to be accused of crunch culture, Activision’s Treyarch reportedly underwent significant crunch as it struggled to create Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. The game saw several major creative changes, including the augmentation and ultimate removal of a campaign mode, and the addition of a battle royale mode in its place.
In a Kotaku report, quality assurance testers said they had been affected the most, working 70 hours per week over the last year while being excluded from company meals, and even being told not to talk to the development team. With some only making about $13 per hour, the time-and-a-half or double-time they received during overtime periods was necessary to make a livable wage.
Thus far, Treyarch and parent company Activision have not issued a complete response to the report. However, Activision did issue a statement that said the company “constantly [strives] to provide a rewarding and fun development environment for everyone,” and that it’s important that everyone working on their games is “treated with respect.”
Fortnite became a larger success than anyone at Epic Games could have possibly imagined, raking in hundreds of millions of dollars and a substantial share of viewers on platforms like YouTube and Twitch. Unfortunately, the constant pressure to retain its crown has reportedly resulted in crunch for its employees. An April 2019 report from Polygon said that employees had worked weeks of between 70 and 100 hours, with the need to constantly patch the game being at least partially responsible.
Though developers said they technically have “unlimited” time off, this is seen as unrealistic, with no one employee wanting to shift their workload to a team member. In the case of contractors who did not want to work irregularly long hours, they would often not have their contracts renewed.
To its credit, Epic Games has implanted two-week company-wide vacations during the winter and summer months. Speaking to Polygon, a representative said the company is “aggressively growing the team, improving [its] planning process, and experimenting with approaches.”
One of these changes has been a move to a two-week schedule for releasing patches, though thus far employees have seen little substantive difference in their work processes.
Telltale Games shut down in late 2018, resulting in several canceled projects. The company was also reportedly in a state of “perpetual” crunch according to a Variety interview with former Telltale creative communications lead Job Stauffer. Stauffer revealed the studio was constantly responding to player feedback on episodic projects while planning for what would come next. This resulted in developers unable to slow down their processes year round.
The development tools the studio used, which lacked basic features such as a physics system, were partially to blame for the poor company culture. Another reported source of frustration was former CEO Kevin Bruner, who resisted giving creative employees credit for their visions.
Bruner disputed the allegations of a negative company culture, but he didn’t deny that crunch took place. Instead, he defended the practice. Following Telltale’s closure, Bruner explained that because Telltale could not simply push release dates like other studios and lacked the budget to do so, crunch was necessary. He wanted employees to continue to work on content to make it as high-quality as possible prior to launch.
“We tried to create an environment where you really had to do that to survive at Telltale, because we didn’t have these three-year-long production cycles,” Bruner told Game Informer.
Mortal Kombat 11 received positive reviews at launch and is being played competitively at major fighting game events, but developer NetherRealm has been accused of crunch culture by several former employees and contractors. The allegations go as far back as the Mortal Kombat reboot, released back in 2011, and continue through Injustice 2.
One former employee said crunch began for Mortal Kombat at the beginning of the new year in 2011, and continued for months. During this time, he worked at least 14-hour days, very rarely taking time off. The employee also said the executives at the company did not work the same hours.
Others corroborated these allegations of crunch, and also added that contractors would routinely be treated poorly. Despite the long hours, former workers say the process wasn’t efficient, with people often waiting for another department to finish something before they could work on it.
NetherRealm Studios didn’t directly respond to allegations of crunch during its games’ productions, but did issue a statement that it would be looking into allegations of toxic behavior or bullying. It also said there were “confidential ways” for employees to point out issues, suggesting it was unhappy with the information going public.
Internally, NetherRealm workers were reportedly given a survey asking questions about their work experience, which would then be sent to Warner Bros.
CD Projekt Red
CD Projekt Red’s crunch issues have been brought to light largely through reviews on the job-search website Glassdoor. In these reviews, several anonymous employees cite long crunch times as one of the negative points of the studio.
The studio’s co-founder Marcin Iwiński has admitted that the company uses crunch during its game development, but stressed that this was “non-mandatory.” He had earlier said that the approach the studio uses to develop its games is “not for everyone.”
Iwiński elaborated on the studio’s approach for the future in an interview with Kotaku, saying that by making it publicly known that CD Projekt Red views crunch as non-mandatory, he hopes employees will be more willing to take advantage of it. Iwiński also said that though crunch would be likely during the development of its current project, Cyberpunk 2077, the studio wants it to be “more human” and that it won’t be frowned upon to take time off.
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