Despite Resistance, Crunch Continues to Define the Video Game Industry

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Today, in the video games industry, the concept of excessive “crunch” – mandatory overtime, usually couched as part of a final push to finish a game – is decried in almost all corners, from industry whitepapers to convention panels. Yet, as article after article rolls off the presses exposing the draconian conditions that massive games are produced under, it’s clear that the practice continues to persist all across the globe.

Take This wrote that white paper in order to call out the persistence of the culture of crunch years after it had first been highlighted, since it has so many deleterious effects on workers’ mental health,” says Eve Crevoshay, the executive director of Take This, the non-profit that conducted the whitepaper. “These negative effects can be both short- and long-term, and often coincide with declines in physical health, non-work social connections, productivity, turnover, and job satisfaction. There is, therefore, a moral imperative to removing long-term crunch from work environments.” 

In recent weeks, several high-profile news stories have revealed a stark divide in the culture of game-making, with anti-crunch activists on one side and several luminaries of the industry on the other, however unwittingly. When co-founder and vice president of Rockstar Games Dan Houser seemingly bragged that staff were pulling 100-hour weeks to get the much-anticipated “Red Dead Redemption 2” ready for its launch later this October, the backlash on social media was swift and immediate. Though Houser later clarified that he was referring to just a handful of employees and that the studio behind “Grand Theft Auto,” one of the most profitable entertainment products of all time, doesn’t expect its thousands of employees to pull those same hours, the damage was already done.

Many figures in the industry speaking out against crunch work for the the tiny studios a fraction of Rockstar’s size, who struggle to set themselves apart from the “Grand Theft Autos” and “Assassin’s Creeds” of the world. In the process, they’ve devised many different strategies to avoid the lure of crunch, from radical revenue-sharing to strict schedule-keeping. While individual studios might find some success at resisting the practice, some advocates say that such half-measures simply treat the symptom, not the underlying disease. For them, the only sure way to avoid crunch is for the industry to organize against it.

To hear industry veterans like Mike Wilson tell it, it wasn’t always this way. “It started with the nerds,” he says. Now a founding partner of publisher Devolver Digital, Wilson got his start as an executive at the acclaimed shooter factory id Software back in 1996, a company best-known for defining the first-generation of first-person shooters with classic games like “Doom” and “Quake.” He now works with charities like TakeThis to promote mental health in the gaming workplace. As Wilson remembers it, in those heady days, crunching was seen as a badge of pride, a sort of “nerd bravado” – and those who didn’t want to work 18 hours a day didn’t last very long.

“In those early days, even though they were a small team and making all the money in the world, you have to remember that games in those days were always led by a hardcore programmer,” Wilson says. “At id, that was John Carmack, and he was a dynamo. But he was also a very one-dimensional programmer’s programmer, so even when they started making millions, he was buying Ferraris, but driving them to work. He got a very humble house a quarter of a mile from the office, and he drove at 110 MPH for a quarter of a mile, and then worked for 18 hours, and did the same thing going home.”

This sense of crunch-as-cred is echoed by Charles Cecil, the co-founder and managing director of Revolution, a UK-based adventure game studio. “When I started in the early ‘80s,  it was very much a boys’ club,” he says. “I worked at the publisher US Gold, and I would spend two or three days with a developer making sure that the game would be finished, making cups of tea. There was this false sense of camaraderie, a sense of working really hard and getting it done. Of course, when programmers get tired, they make mistakes, which ends up being very expensive. It was utterly counterproductive.”

To Wilson’s mind, several of the game designers were less keen to work these brutal hours, including John Romero. While this ultimately led in part to the very public dissolution of the original creative team after the release of “Quake,” Wilson says that the breakdown would’ve happened much earlier if the creatives at the studio had felt they had any other option than to follow Carmack’s anxiety-inducing example. “He was the tech, so he was the only one who could take his ball and go home,” says Wilson. “Everybody was screwed if he left, so he really set the tone there for everybody feeling this immense pressure to work all the time. That’s ultimately what broke id, and it’s the same thing we’re having to fight today.”

Romero disputes that characterization. “John [Carmack] worked tons of hours but he didn’t expect everyone to do the same – he was fair about hours, and he knew he was a special case…No one on the dev team worked late hating it because they were afraid of being fired.”

His comments on crunch are more pointed: “… id Software was a very special case. A convergence of people in love with games and code more than anything else. We believed we had an opportunity to make something great, one of a kind, and that fueled us more than coffee and Mountain Dew. Nowadays, games take longer, teams are bigger, and what we hope for our teams and our lives is a healthy balance.”

Carmack himself also recalls things differently. “Things always grow a bit in retrospect. I never worked 18 hour days – I don’t function well without 8 good hours of sleep. The most I ever work for an extended stretch is 13 hours a day, but 60 hours a week is still my target today.”

War stories like these can sometime make crunch feel like the troubled legacy of a bygone era. But, as developers tell it, it’s still very much a contemporary issue. Take Job Stauffer, the former head of creative communications at Telltale Games, a much-lauded developer known for their cinematic style that triggered a flood of news stories when it shuttered unexpectedly in late September. Stauffer has since moved onto his own venture, Orpheus Self-Care Entertainment.

“It was a high-wire act of perpetual crunch all of the time. No exaggeration, people were working on content live all year-round. Each series was created in real-time as the team responded to the audience feedback and cumulative player decision statistics along the way. It never slowed down, and it was always moving. At times, we felt pride in all we could accomplish, but other times, many started to ask if this was genuinely healthy for anyone. I know that I was certainly one of those people.

“We once had an exec who came in for a short period of time say this before resigning: ‘This place isn’t normal. This isn’t a healthy way to produce anything. It’s like that scene in “Wallace and Gromit and the Wrong Trousers” where the train is out of control and they’re just laying down the tracks on the ground as the train speeds along to keep from crashing. It’s madness.’  That pretty much always summed it up for me, and in the end, that person was right.”

Since its very inception in the laboratories and garages of America and elsewhere, the video games industry has been defined by volatility, a legacy of tiny companies like id rising to the throne, only to be summarily overthrown a year or two later by the Next Big Thing. In such an uncertain field, the expectations of executives and marketing staff can often come unaligned with the mundane realities of game development, malformed by the heat and light emitted by sudden success. In extreme cases, it can lead to the burnout and subsequent departure of certain key staff, a lesson that Revolution – best known for classic adventure games like “Beneath a Steel Sky” and the “Broken Sword” series – learned the hard way. As Cecil tells it, back in 2000, the company cranked so hard on spy thriller “In Cold Blood” that their head of technology decided to leave the company at the end of the project after working too many evenings and weekends, a loss that Cecil describes as “devastating.”

“That was the first time I got a sense of the human cost,” he says. “We were lucky to have him, but it was our fault he left. We were looking to the end of this particular project, not the long-term health of the company. He was very loyal, and by the end, we had burnt all his loyalty out.” Today, Cecil says that Revolution tries its best to minimize the amount of extra hours that its fifteen-or-so employees have to put in at the end of projects, usually just an hour or two a week at most. By unmooring the company from an external publisher and allowing his employees to work remotely – especially if they have children to look after – Cecil says that the company is much more attuned to his workers’ needs.

In the US, salaried workers like game developers are often legally exempted from additional compensation for these dozens of extra hours worked. While more labor-conscious European countries typically avoid this, the extra money doesn’t necessarily blunt the sting of the constant drudgery. Croatian developer and chief marketing officer of Croteam Damjan Mravunac is an indicative example; when told of the US’s lack of guaranteed compensation for overtime, he was aghast. “It’s unpaid? Oh my God. You tell me that Americans don’t pay for extra overtime. Come on guys, move to Croatia. We’ll pay for you. That’s insane…Remind me never apply for a green card.” Or, as French developer Sébastien Bérnard puts it: “You get paid, but it doesn’t actually pay. If you work on weekends, you don’t have any kind of life. It’s not worth it.”

Bérnard is a longtime employee of Motion Twin, the studio behind the recent indie breakout “Dead Cells.” The studio goes to great lengths to ensure that its eight-person staff all feel equally-valued, going so far as to pay every employee the exact same salary – a unique approach, at least in the games industry.  Bérnard says that Motion Twin was formed out of the specter of a larger company – two of its founders emerged from the wreckage of Kalisto Entertainment, one of France’s original game developers, which declared bankruptcy in 2002. As Bérnard tells it, Kalisto’s crunch culture was so endemic that each small team had their own psychologist to ensure that everyone on the team would keep working diligently. This experience informed the heterodox approach that Motion Twin’s founders took, as they wanted to form “a different kind of gaming company.” “We wanted to do eight hours a day, no less, no more,” says Bérnard. “If we work a Saturday, you don’t have to come into the office on a day of your choice the next week. It has to even out at the end of the year.”

Bérnard says that while Motion Twin’s focus on equality has allowed them to flourish as a studio, it comes with complications. For one thing, it makes the recruitment process for new team members much weightier, thanks to the increased cost. Prior to “Dead Cells,” the studio’s output consisted of lightweight browser games, and the team thought they wanted to grow much bigger for their next project. As Bérnard recalls, the teams were split in two: one to work on their next project, and another to localize and maintain their previous output. Because the two directives had different levels of risk and reward, the studio collectively decided to break their equal salary rule to give the two teams different levels of compensation. “It was the worst decision we ever made,” says Bérnard, laughing. “Everyone was equal on the core unit, everyone was equal on the localization unit. But even then it didn’t work, because it made people – well, not exactly jealous, but it made discussions a bit tense. Equal but different doesn’t work.”

Croteam’s Mravunac says that his experience of crunch time mirrors the typical path of a game developer over the course of their career. He cherishes the memories of Croteam crunching to get their first game out the door, “Serious Sam: The First Encounter,” a cult shooter that made a splash on the international stage. “We were all in the same office, watching movies, eating popcorn,” he says. “Nobody asked us to stay. It was a bonding experience.” But now, with a wife and two children to go home to, he and the senior staff of Croteam go to great effort to avoid putting in extra hours. In his mind, the studio managed to release their acclaimed first-person puzzler “The Talos Principle” without crunching at all, save an extra hour or two a week. “Trust me, if we could make a game with five hours of work per day, we’d do it,” he says, laughing. “But there’s a lot of work that goes into our games. Maybe someday, we’ll be able to work six hours a day and produce the same great results we have now.”

While some studios have managed to avoid the evils of crunch through clever strategizing, Wilson says, for the problem to be solved, collective action is needed. “Several of the indie developers we work with have been hospitalized over the course of development,” he says. “These are one to three-person teams that impose all this pressure on themselves and live in very-isolated environments, working from home … Whether it’s through unions or simply wising up for how hard people need to work every day to reach maximum creativity, the answer is definitely not more hours. We don’t do our best work when we’re malnourished, or exhausted, or depressed. I think these conversations are necessary, but at some point, I want some action. We have to remove the asbestos from the factory we’re working in to make these games. We have to fix it.”

This sentiment is shared by Emma Kinema, one of the organizers behind Game Workers Unite, an organization that promotes unionization in the industry. While crunch remains the most public flashpoint for labor issues in gaming, she says that the benefits of organizing go far beyond preventing its most dangerous byproduct. “[Crunch] is certainly one of the most public and tangible issues around which workers are calling for unionization and labor organizing in the industry,” she said. “There are so many more issues to organize around and we have to raise awareness around those as well, such as mass temp contract employment, employee miscategorization, unsustainable hiring practices, lack of severance, no crediting standards, unstable job-based health insurance, and more.”

After such a long career in the industry, Wilson says it’s hard not to take these experiences to heart – and it even affects the way he raises his family. “I have a ten-year-old son who loves video games. But I wouldn’t want him to do this for a living. I remember when Terry Bradshaw spoke up and said he wouldn’t let his son play football, because of the concussions and the culture of it. As far as I’m concerned, it’s that serious a matter.”