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Crunch and the video game industry

Updated: Mar 14, 2021

Credit: Reporter

‘Crunch’ is the practice of companies making their developers work extremely long hours, including weekends in some cases, for little or no compensation.

This practice normally goes hand in hand with a toxic work environment that helps to foster a fear of being shunned within the company just for not working ridiculous hours.

Crunch is commonplace in the video game industry but should it be?

Back in September, reports began to surface that CD Projekt Red – the developer behind the critically acclaimed Witcher series and the upcoming Cyberpunk 2077 – was enacting mandatory six-day work weeks in order to complete the previously mentioned open-world sci-fi RPG in time for its original November release.

A report published by Bloomberg and written by journalist Jason Schrier states that studio head Adam Badowski sent an email around to the staff explaining the decision to engage in crunch:

“Starting today, the entire (development) studio is in overdrive,” Badowski wrote, elaborating that this meant “your typical amount of work and one day of the weekend”. The extra work would be paid, as required by Polish labour laws. (Many other video game studios don’t pay for overtime).

“I take it upon myself to receive the full backlash for the decision,” the studio head also wrote. “I know this is in direct opposition to what we’ve said about crunch. It’s also in direct opposition to what I personally grew to believe a while back -- that crunch should never be the answer. But we’ve extended all other possible means of navigating the situation.”

Never mind that you could always delay the game to a later date so your workers don’t have to work ridiculous hours.

Never mind that doing this shows your word means nothing… but at least we know that the game is going to be released on time. It’s not like they’d delay it again while also keeping the crunch going.

As mentioned in the quote by Badowski, CD Projekt Red originally promised there would be no crunch when developing Cyberpunk. They were so committed to this that the co-chief executive officer of the company, Marcin Iwinski, told Kotaku that the company would be avoiding mandatory crunch and allowing employees to work without overtime.

Of course, even as he was making these claims, Iwinski snuck in a loophole for the company stating:

We can never be 200% sure that there won’t be some pressure, but it’s actually our management’s work to make sure people are OK with that, and I think I’d like people to tell other people within the company that that’s OK, because that’s when we are successful when introducing it. But so far so good.”

Iwinski also stated that CD Projekt Red wants to be known as a studio that is humane to its developers and discussed its “non-obligatory crunch policy”. You shouldn’t need to point out that you’re humane to your workers - that should just be a given.

Badowski eventually replied to the Bloomberg report via Twitter stating that developers would be “well compensated” for every extra hour they put in. In the same statement, Badowski also announced that 10% of the annual profits the company generates in 2020 will be split between the team members directly.

While this is better than nothing, I’m sure most of the workers that go through crunch would prefer having a decent work-life balance and not having to work all-nighters for weeks or months at a time.

In October, Schrier asked employees of CD Projekt Red whether they wanted crunch to be implemented in order to avoid further delays. The responses made it clear that these discussions between the company and employees never happened.

A former developer from the company responded to Schrier on Reddit (Schrier has verified that the employee did indeed work for the company).

The former dev claimed that this situation with crunch is just one in a long list of toxic behaviour from upper management. Allegedly, the developers have been crunching non-stop since May 2019 with management claiming that there would be no plan B if the set deadline couldn’t be met.

According to the former developer, delays were communicated to the developers through the official social media accounts with Badowski sending internal notices after the announcements were made and any concerns raised by developers were and are brushed off by upper management.

Note: None of these allegations seem to be verified or corroborated with any evidence and CD Projekt Red has not responded to the allegations at the time of writing.

In light of these allegations and the crunch backflip, the line that Iwinski and Badowski have been trotting out that about wanting to be humane to their developers and that crunch is never the answer seems like nothing more than company nonsense to create a public mask to hide their true actions.

It should be noted that CD Projekt Red isn’t the only company in the industry that is guilty of these types of problems. The Canadian developer BioWare is another prime example.

In early 2020 after the infamously terrible launch of BioWare’s live service game Anthem, Schrier once again started digging into the development cycle of the game and presented his findings in the Kotaku article How BioWare’s Anthem Went Wrong”.

In the article, it’s revealed that BioWare has a term for certain staff leave – ‘Stress Casualties’. This term is used for people that – in the words of a former BioWare developer – had such a bad mental breakdown while working from the stress that they just leave for months. Some of them return while others never come back.

Another former developer stated that she would frequently “find a private room in the office, shut the door and just cry.” The article goes into a much deeper dive that I highly recommend you read as it really highlights how terrible working in the game industry can be for developers.

On a specific note, if you’re working at a place that has a term for people that leave due to mental breakdowns and stress or where employees find a room to cry, that’s not a healthy workplace and you should leave.

BioWare’s response to Schrier’s report? They dismissed the majority of the allegations in the report and sidestepped accountability by tossing out the tired line that “there is always room for improvement” regarding crunch hours. To add insult to injury for their workers, they also stated their development cycle involved “BioWare Magic”.

BioWare Magic is a belief within the upper management of the company that no matter how rough a game development process might be, it will always come together in the final months. This is pushed onto the developers as the company tries to convince them what they’re doing isn’t crunch.

This entire response from BioWare shows the giggling contempt they have for their own workers they push till they leave while they gladly line their pockets with the profits. Here are some more notable examples.

Rockstar Games was put under fire after an interview from Vulture highlighted the fact their workers were clocking in 100 hour work weeks while working on their western-themed open-world game Red Dead Redemption 2.

A Kotaku report published after the interview shed light on the culture at Rockstar as one of fear with workers pulling 50 to 60 hours a week and were pressured into working as long as possible through overtime.

Workers were constantly terrified of underperforming or being outright let go with several workers reporting the experience exacerbated depression and anxiety conditions.

The executive & writer at Rockstar, Dan Houser, responded to the report saying that only he and “a small group of writers” were working such an intense schedule and that the company “doesn’t expect anyone else to work this way”.

This statement flies directly in the face of the Kotaku report that featured over 75 current and former employees, so someone’s got to be lying, and personally, I’m more inclined to go with the employees that worked in the trenches rather than one guy at the top of the ladder.

The Activision developer Treyarch was accused of crunch culture during the development of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4. Again, Kotaku was there to dish up the dirt, reporting that testers and quality assurance sectors of the company were working 70 hours a week while being excluded from company meals and even told not to talk to the development team for pittance (some were only paid $13/hour).

Treyarch’s response is probably the most half-assed textbook PR response I’ve seen in a long time.

“The company constantly [strives] to provide a rewarding and fun development environment for everyone,” … “it’s important that everyone working on their games is treated with respect.”

They didn’t even care enough to issue a complete statement to the report, they don’t respect their workers enough to even pretend to care.

The now-defunct game studio Telltale Games has been accused of being in a state of “perpetual” crunch by former creative communications lead Job Stauffer during a Variety interview after the studios closed its doors in 2018.

Alongside the crunch, there were accusations of poor company culture due partially to the outdated development tools provided. The studio was also responding to player feedback episode by episode while planning out the next episode so the developers could never slow down throughout the year.

The former CEO Kevin Bruner refusing to give credit to employees for their visions also led to frustration among the workers.

In response, Bruner denied allegations of the company culture but defended the use of crunch stating it was “necessary”.

The main running theme in these responses from companies is just to deny and dismiss the accusations of crunch and claim it’s necessary even though this overworking of your workers is never necessary.

Grinding your employees day after day until they hate their job and break down in tears is never necessary. You shouldn’t be able to work in any industry if you need to destroy your workers to function.

Take care of your workers or get out of the gaming industry.

What are your thoughts on 'crunch'? Should developers delay their games to avoid crunch? Let me know down in the comments below.


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