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Crunch is a Parasite on Gaming

Crunch ruins games, and it ruins lives

It’s 1pm on Saturday. You sit in a full office. You see dark circles under eyes illuminated by computer screens. The office smells of catered meals eaten at desks. Some people type away, frantically fixing bugs. Others spend time not doing what they were hired for, like creating artwork or models, but instead playing the game and logging bugs. One man stands up, and heads for the door. Most of the room turns to glare at him, as he leaves work “early” on a weekend to see his wife for the first time in a week. The rest continue working, clocking their 73rd hour of the week. All this day’s work and the next will be worked for free, as the studio does not pay overtime. Call it crunch, call it a death march. Call it whatever you like: this is game development.

How did we get here? How did it become the industry standard to work long hours day after day for months on end? Some other industries deal with crunch. Films and TV practically required it. But why is crunch with unpaid overtime so prevalent in software? The law.

The USA designates software developers as “skilled workers”, who don’t have to be paid overtime. This classification started on the state level and moved to be nation law. This means that game studios can work their workers well over 40 hours a week and well over 8 hours a day without paying anything extra.

Project management has a concept known as the iron triangle. Every software project deals with Scope, Budget, and Schedule. These are considered “iron” because you can’t change one without impacting the others. Unless you don’t have to pay overtime. In game development, solving issues by increasing the amount of hours scheduled does not result in an increase in cost. If studios had to pay overtime, they would be forced to delay the game (and get their additional scheduled hours that way), increase budget and hire more, or reduce scope aggressively (removing features from the game). Right now, it is much easier to force your team to work for more hours.

The bonus system reinforces crunch culture. Game developers are not particularly well paid, but they are promised large bonuses if the game sells well. The catch? This is a bonus, so it can be held back for a lack of performance or effort. Developers have no equity and do not collect royalties from game sales, so if they do not comply with crunch, they might miss the real payoff. In addition, if they leave the project early or get fired, they don’t get their names in the credits. A good credit could secure your career in games, but you will miss out if you get fired or leave, even if you spent years working on a game.

After these months (or years) of crunch, many companies lay off most of their staff. You have a culture that squeezes developers, forcing them to give up on the rest of their lives and pushed to work 60, 80, 100-hour work weeks. But, when the project ends, they could be laid off, and must find other work. They build no lasting equity or future in the company, and yet they are expected to put aside their families, health, and mental wellbeing.

Here are a few cases of crunch that you might be familiar with.

Well-known cases of crunch

Cyberpunk 2077

Cyberpunk 2077’s failed launch sent shockwaves through the industry. CD Projekt Red developed the game for almost five years, including eight months of delays. With that much time, how did the game come out with so many bugs and so much under expectations? Crunch. Some developers reported working overtime for over a year. The death march on Cyberpunk lasted months and led to a pile of bugs. The public slammed the team behind Cyberpunk for the mess the game was in. It didn’t fail due to lazy employees, or a lack of passion. The studio crunched to put out the game too early and it led to an unfinished game that took a long time to improve. In the end, Cyberpunk has recovered, and the game has positive reception now. It is doing better than it ever has. The team also isn’t deep in crunch anymore. The initial crunch only hurt the game and the company’s reputation.

Red Dead Redemption 2

Leading up to Read Dead Redemption 2’s launch, some Rockstar employees crunched for over a year. Even though Rockstar allowed employees to discuss their stories of crunch, most people were afraid to say anything. Multiple sources behind the scenes said there was a “culture of fear” in Rockstar. People were so afraid of being fired, missing a bonus, or not being credited that they put up with horrible crunch. The notable difference between this launch and Cyberpunks is that Red Dead Redemption 2 was a massive success. Stories of crunch quickly fizzled out after players got their hands on the game. Even if the game succeeds, crunch is not worth it.

Anthem

Anthem came from a prestigious company: Bioware, creators of Mass Effect and Dragon Age. They planned to make an ambitious game that was different than what they had made in the past. This meant a lot of experimentation, and it also meant that they didn’t have much to show on the game for a long time. Anthem’s development is fraught with issues, talent drain being high on the list, but it featured months of hard crunch before release. All the while, leadership touted “Bioware Magic,” the studio’s ability to bring everything together at the last minute through hard crunch. Well, they tried it, pushing hard towards the end of development, unwilling to delay the game any further. In the end, Anthem failed, and it didn’t get a comeback like Cyberpunk. No amount of Bioware Magic or overwork made it a success.

Effects of Crunch

Crunch leads to burnout, and burnout ruins lives.

Photo by Christian Erfurt on Unsplash

Burnout leads to apathy and reduced productivity in people, and overwork paired with burnout destroys relationships. Developers are asked to spend most of their waking hours at work, and then they are worked to the point of not caring anymore. Their spouses, family, friends, anyone else in their lives are neglected. Even the time developers spend outside of work is tainted. 

One point that is understated is that crunch has negative effects on work. Overwork in software leads to worse development. Overworked developers leave companies sooner, and as time spent working increases, the number of bugs generated increases. Developers regularly mention that crunch leads to them feeling like the need to be in the office more than work. You are forcing some to work themselves to apathy, while other work inefficiently just to appear more productive. Crunch incentivizes hours over productivity, and it can lead to worst games. Anthem and Cyberpunk both failed after months of hard crunch.

Crunch in Hollywood

Some argue that crunch is necessary. To get out high-quality games, they must work long hours leading up to launch. However, most creative industries have similar launch constraints, and other creative industries have fought against overwork. Hollywood is a good example.

Film shoots run long, and they run under strict time constraints. With that in mind, how do you deal with having staff from lighting techs, to camera operators, to assistants and more working long hours? You pay them well for overtime.

In California, film workers are paid 1.5x their hourly rate for:

  • Hours worked over eight in a workday
  • First 12 hours on your 6th day
  • First 8 hours of work on your 7th day

and they’re paid 2x the hourly rate for:

  • Hours worked over 12 in a workday
  • Over 8 hours on your 7th day

These provisions would limit overtime in games. If studios wanted to speed up development, they would need to start spending a ton. Crunch only happens now because it is cost-effective. That changes with paid overtime. So, where do we go from here?

Developer leverage

All of this sounds great, but it exists in the world of theory. How do we achieve it? First, engineers need to realize their leverage. The number of skilled game developers is not high. The whole industry hangs on the work of engineers. Engineers are creatives. The work they do to realize the visions of game designers requires creative work, and they cannot be easily replaced, especially late in a development cycle.

There are two options for engineers to avoid the death marches. First, they could band together and form a union. The games industry has been resisting unions for years. However, some QA testers just managed to unionize. This is possible, but not achievable by any one developer.

The other option is for developers to use the leverage that they have. They can risk it, betting that they cannot be replaced late in a dev cycle. They have too much institutional knowledge and proprietary skill. There is immense pressure on engineers to just push for launch, but they do not hold responsibility for a game launching on time. The leadership, who sets the deadlines, is responsible for making launch on time. Engineers can leverage their position to not work extra hours. This is not letting the team down. Pressure from coworkers perpetuates crunch.

However, engineers have a reason to be fearful. If you hope to continue working after launch, you must keep leadership happy. If you want to benefit from a successful launch, you must keep leadership happy so you can get a nice bonus. If you don’t want to be blacklisted, you must keep leadership happy. And if you want your name to be in the credits so that you can take a job that you really want, you must keep leadership happy. 

Leadership and management must act to end crunch. The managers who directly manage engineers are going to have to step up and refuse to work unpaid overtime. Engineers need to have someone above them who cares for their wellbeing. Leadership holds the authority to change timelines, but management directly oversees the work. Both of them work together to perpetuate crunch. Without change, Game Dev will continue to burn out and ruin the lives of the people who make them. We can’t keep taking leadership’s word that they will end crunch right after this project.

Cover Photo by Fotis Fotopoulos on Unsplash

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