While for many players, developing video games is an exciting and exciting adventure, in the games industry, like in any other, there are problems that can knock out all the romance from the development process and turn people away from the world of games forever. One such problem is «crunch».
It is generally accepted that development has gone into crunch mode if workers are forced to spend more than 40 hours a week in the office. At some point, the management of this or that studio realizes that they do not meet the deadline, and the most obvious solution is to increase the number of working hours to 60-80 per week. In some cases, this number goes up to 100.
In addition to the fact that long periods of «crunch» negatively affect the health of employees, they ultimately hit the company’s wallet. The productivity of employees decreases, and therefore the quality of games, which often receive low ratings, which leads to less profit.
In 2015, the International Game Developers Association conducted a survey that showed that 62% of developers have crunch in their work, about half of those surveyed worked more than 60 hours a week, and 17% worked more than 70 hours a week.
In 2004, crunch was brought to the attention of the public by an article authored by a person under the nickname «EA spouse», who later turned out to be developer Erin Hoffman. As the wife of an EA employee, she complained on her blog about unfair working conditions at the company. In particular, 85-hour unpaid workweeks were mentioned and the fact that the crunch was not caused by any force majeure situation, but was a whim of the management.
The story ended with some former EA employees suing their former employer, resulting in $14.9 million from the company in 2007 for unpaid overtime.
A similar incident occurred in 2010, when an open letter was published on behalf of the wives of Rockstar San Diego (Red Dead Redemption, Midnight Club) employees. The authors talked about how studio workers are forced to work 12-hour days, six days a week, under pain of disciplinary action. According to them, since 2009 the situation has gradually changed for the worse, which has led to health problems for workers. The company’s managers lied to employees about deadlines and cut bonuses, despite the huge profits that titles like Grand Theft Auto bring.
Several people at Rockstar San Diego who worked for the company between 2011 and 2016 confirmed that overtime was a mandatory part of the workflow.
“The whole studio was required to work 80 hours a week. If you had nothing to help develop GTA 5 or Red Dead 2, you went and tested one of the games for eight hours. Concept artists turned into testers at one point.”
For Rockstar Games, 2010 was no exception.
“To be honest, I don’t remember the details of my life during the development of Max Payne 3,” said one of the employees of Rockstar New England. “Most often I came to the office at 9-10 am, and left at 10-11 pm.”
Many Rockstar employees remember the development of the third part of Max Payne as a period of life filled with stress. At the same time, according to them, they did not receive monetary compensation for overtime, because in a company like Rockstar Games, development participants are paid bonuses after the release of the game, which, due to the low sales of Max Payne 3, turned out to be less than expected.
To create GTA V, Rockstar Games connected several of its divisions to work at the same time, but the workload situation remained the same. Judging by the reviews, the company’s management noted every person who worked less than 60 hours a week. According to many of them, Rockstar Games is becoming a lifestyle for every employee.
Most recently, ahead of the release of the acclaimed Red Dead Redemption 2, company VP Dan Houser revealed that the company spent several 100-hour weeks in 2018 to make sure that RDR 2’s quality would exceed all expectations. The public backlash was not long in coming.
Houser later clarified that such a crunch only affects a limited number of people from the company’s management, and the motivation is solely their own passion for the project. Not everyone believed him, although some employees confirmed the words of Hauser.
“Typically, I worked 40-45 hours a week, sometimes a couple of weeks of 60, when the deadline was knocking on the door. Needless to say, I am a perfectionist. In any case, the crunch in the development of RDR 2 was not the same as in GTA 5, when sometimes you had to work for more than 70 hours, albeit of your own free will, ”said Phil Beveridge.
While Rockstar Games is saying that the company is slowly moving away from the crunch culture, there are still many examples of this in the industry. The recent failure of Overkill’s The Walking Dead is one of them.
“Management’s response to any technical problem was to get extra work hours,” said one Overkill Software employee. “People who stayed in the office until 2 am could be asked to return by 9 am.”
In response to all complaints, workers were directed to a psychologist’s office, to which every ward of Starbreeze Publishing had access.
Mass Effect Andromeda was in development for five years, but most of the work was completed between late 2015 and March 2017. Of course, such a tight deadline meant serious crunch.
Former head of public relations at Telltale Games, Job Staffer, said the company was in a sense crunching all year round. Each of their interactive series was created in real time, taking into account statistics and player feedback. The hard work never stopped.
The creative director of the upcoming Dying Light 2, Adrian Chiszewski, believes that the gaming industry cannot avoid «crunch» at all. In his view, crunch mostly comes not from poor project planning, but from people’s desire to do their job better. At least that’s the case at Techland.
“Of course, this does not apply to those crazy situations that we hear about when the “crunch” is stretched out for three to four months,” says Chiszewski.
Ron Gilbert, the author of the Monkey Island quest series, agrees with Chiszewski, who is sure that the “crunch” helps the process, but in no case should it be delayed:
“For me, crunch is the sprint to the finish line. There is a month left before the release, we understand what exactly we need to finish in time, and then we work hard to meet the deadline.”
Situation in the past
If we talk about the earlier stages of the development of the gaming industry, then, according to Mike Wilson, one of the founders of the publishing company Devolver Digital, who began his career in the marketing department of id Software, before intensive development was based on «heroic nerds», and people did not stay in the industry if they could not, if necessary, work 18 hours a day.
“Remember, in the old days, small ambitious teams were led by hardcore programmers like John Carmack at id Software,” Wilson explains.
“In retrospect, people always exaggerate a little. I have never worked 18 hours — I don’t function properly if I don’t sleep 8 hours a night. There was a period when I worked 13 hours a day, but in general now I am striving for 60-hour work weeks, ”said Carmack himself.
Another id Software founder John Romero:
“id Software is one of the exceptions to the rule. We were a team of people who fell in love with games and programming more than anything else. We believed that we had the ability to create something unique, and this thought allowed us to work non-stop. Our teams are now bigger, games have been in development for longer, and we’re trying to strike a healthy balance between work and life.»
Work on mistakes
Many industry veterans who have experienced crunch time and again try to learn from their mistakes and try new approaches to work. For example, indie developer Motion Twin, best known for his recent bagel Dead Cells, pays each of eight employees the same salary.
“From the very beginning, we wanted to work 8 hours a day, no more, no less,” says Sebastian Bernard, co-founder of the studio. — If you had to work on Saturday, you can choose one day off in the middle of the next working week. Everything has to be fair.»
Such a fair approach to business was inspired by the experience of the founders of Motion Twin in the French company Kalisto Entertainment, where «crunch» became such a serious problem that a psychologist was assigned to each development team.
According to former Nintendo of America president Reggie, the company didn’t have much of a problem with the crunch, because they just temporarily hired freelancers when needed.
“This is our way of solving the problem. We do not ask employees to forget about sleep for a few days. We do not ask them to forget about family, friends and personal life,” says Fis-Aime.
Charles Cecil of Revolution Software, best known for its Broken Sword quest series, said that after a terrible crunch in the early 2000s, the company is no longer going to step on the same rake.
Revolution minimizes the amount of overtime at the end of each project, limiting dependence on publishers and allowing employees to work out of the office when needed.
Julian Gerayty praises not only his studio Massive Entertainment, where he acted as creative director during the development of The Division 2, but also the whole of Sweden for a favorable climate for game developers:
“We work hard, but nothing extraordinary. Our overtime is paid. I personally work from 9 to 6, because it is very important that the developers do not think only about the game around the clock. In Sweden, the industry has a very bright future. Here, attention is paid to creating a healthy balance, which is extremely important. No wonder there are more and more talented teams in Sweden.”
In situations where companies refuse to voluntarily get rid of crunch, unions can come to the rescue of workers. In fact, the IWGB (Independent Workers’ Union of Great Britain) has long been talking about numerous instances of unfair working conditions in the gaming world. However, it was only last year that things really got off the ground. It all started with the Game Developer Conference 2018, where the Game Workers Unite gave a presentation on the pros and cons of unions in the gaming industry.
Talk of forming a union came in very handy with recent stories of crunch during the development of Red Dead Redemption 2 and the unexpected layoff of 70 employees from the then-functioning Telltale Games.
As a result of all discussions, the first official GWU branch in England opened in November 2018, and many consider this news a significant step towards a healthy situation for industry workers.
“By the end of 2019, you will see more campaigns in action in the US and Canada,” said Emma Kinema, co-founder of GWU. “You may have to go through a lot of difficulties, but it’s worth it.”
As director Raoul Barbet (Life is Strange, Heavy Rain, Remember Me) explains, the problem with crunch is that for every opening at a reputable studio, there are always a hundred passionate newcomers willing to work for next to nothing. At the same time, the fact that developers must have enough time for family, friends and hobbies to be creatively charged, fades into the background.
One thing Barbet and many other industry veterans are 100% sure of:
“Great games can be developed without any crunch.”