The Culture of Development Crunch
Mental health and game creation
The gaming industry is increasingly influential. It’s not hard to see why. Even during a pandemic, 2020 global revenue is expected to increase by 20% to $179.7 billion. Where other entertainment industries are struggling, the gaming industry is thriving.
This points to increasing relevancy over the coming years. And with that relevancy comes industry scrutiny. We are questioning common practices to improve. In the case of crunch culture, that’s not a bad thing.
Crunch, the practice of overtime work over long periods to finish a product, is not unique to gaming. The tech industry universally uses it, and thus something most might consider normal. Expected.
As gamers, we’ve grown to expect news of crunch and may dismiss it as a necessary part of the job. Especially when the game is an absolute success. But as consumers, it benefits us to understand it. Crunch impacts everything from developer mental health to product quality.
The practice of crunch is far from benign.
Inside a game studio. Source: Auroch Digital.
On paper, it’s not a bad concept.
A common assumption is game studios only crunch during the weeks before release. That what crunch equates is a few more hours of paid overtime. What’s the big deal with that? In both cases, these assumptions are largely untrue.
The issue is unregulated, permanent, and often unpaid crunch. A work environment that discourages opposition. The fact is that crunch, while presented as voluntary, is a demand. If you want to work in the gaming industry, you adhere to crunch.
As a blog post by Auroch Digital, the studio behind Achtung! Cthulhu Tactics notes that crunch adds problems, not eases them.
“And these additional problems include damage to mental and physical health, demotivation for projects, dissatisfaction with place of employment and, for companies, losing skilled employees through them seeking employment at other studios or even other fields outside of games.”
Big studios aren’t the only ones who practice crunch. It’s a widespread industry standard, one which smaller studios try to avoid. Sometimes though, it can be unavoidable. It comes down to tech.
The Other Side of Crunch
You plan all you want but there will always be unforeseen needs that push right up against deadlines. As some, even those who criticize the practice will say, some crunch is unavoidable.
A 2019 post by Shamus Young says as much. Shamus notes crunch is common during the lead up to a project’s release. It’s like the holiday season for retail workers. Tech problems, release issues, and resource scarcity make that push difficult. During this period, like at other jobs, work/life balance leans to long work hours. The issue for Shamus, and for others, is the recurring or permanent nature of crunch.
That’s how it becomes a culture. It ferments as an employee push when leadership demands it. It produces a toxic culture of peer pressure and one-ups-manship. It’s a cost of human life balance for shareholder stability. It’s self-sacrifice. Your career disappears if you oppose it.
For many game developers, their dream job is treated more like a sweatshop. That’s why the conversation about mental health is so important.
Mental Health and Development Crunch
At the best of times, mental health is not taken seriously. It gets in the way of business.
In 2019, Take This, a not-for-profit focusing on mental health in the gaming industry, released a remarkable white paper. It details problems and potential solutions for the gaming industry. In the report, long-term crunch is a symptom of “a toxic organizational culture.” It stems from “power imbalance” where executives build false narratives of passion equaling long hours. It doesn’t, it leads to burnout.
Anthem’s development was unacceptable. Source: EA Games
Take This observes these game industry practices are “exploitative, unhealthy, and [violate] labor standards in other industries.”
Despite its massive influence, game developers work in a very unstable environment. Studios often fire developers only to rehire those same positions a few months later. Developers are constantly between jobs, without health insurance, taking unemployment checks. New jobs often mean constant moving. While they raise families.
Once again, crunch culture is the best example of this imbalance. Jason Schreier’s 2015 article put it like this:
“From multimillion-dollar blockbusters like Call of Duty to niche RPGs like [Legend of Heroes: Trails in the Sky], just about every video game in history is the net result of countless overtime hours, extra weekends, and free time sacrificed for the almighty deadline…And because most game developers work on salaries, it’s almost always unpaid.”
No wonder Take This notes longevity is a concern for developers. Many either burnout from crunch or can’t raise families on their unstable salaries. They end up seeking employment in other industries.
This struggle of crunch and job instability creates a cloud of hopelessness, depression, and exhaustion. It begs the question why aren’t things improving? Why don’t studio leadership do something about this?
Red Dead Redemption 2 had development crunch. Credit: Gamespot.
The way crunch is recorded is illustrative. Many developers find themselves unable to record the amount of overtime they work. A survey shows 53% of developers report mandatory crunch with less than 18% reporting overtime compensation.
Beyond salary, this presents an issue of management. How can a studio plan game development when they don’t have actual numbers for similar projects? It becomes impossible to make realistic decisions.
So why do something that essentially cripples the planning stage of a game?
My guess: revenue.
A Vicious Cycle
If you want publishers and shareholders to back your game, you must present some high numbers. Which is one reason why studios fire developers before a project begins. They need to show higher profits to get a project greenlit.
This is perplexing because they hire for those same positions anyway. It means more time and money spent training new developers into studio culture. It’s doesn’t seem sustainable, nor does it seem wise financial planning.
Also, to get more interest from publishers, studios often resort to overpromising features. I’m not referring to creative additions and developer ambition. I mean overpromising for the sake of getting money to make a game. Which bleeds into marketing. Which grabs consumer’s attention and results in preorders. Which results in undercooked games, which makes gamers angry at the studio.
It’s a vicious cycle. One that hurts developer health.
Cyberpunk 2077. Oh, the potential. Source: Cyberpunk.net.
Reality of Crunch
I’m not saying every iteration of game release is like this, but it’s becoming too frequent. At the core of this is poor leadership decisions. Poor because of unrealistic plans and deadlines. And that’s why crunch exists.
Yet, research shows the quality of games decreases with the addition of crunch.
For every Red Dead Redemption 2, you get twelve like Anthem. Shareholders fare okay until Cyberpunk 2077 plummets CD Projekt Red’s market value. No matter who you are, crunch hurts you. So, apart from getting more games out, crunch isn’t effective. Yet, it keeps happening, with little change on the horizon.
No wonder so many talented developers leave the industry; they aren’t being taken care of.
Considering these issues, it’s no wonder developers to unionize. It’s now almost impossible for developers to oppose leadership. They fear losing their jobs and insurance. There’s no accountability for quality treatment.
Having a way to protect developers is the most powerful way to make these changes. Game Workers Unite, an international organization of autonomous chapters, is trying to make that happen.
Unionizing seems to be the next step forward, but it’ll take time.
Source: Game Workers Unite.
Save Your Wallet
From a consumer perspective, crunch and industry practice is a non-issue. A behind-the-scenes thing that doesn’t impact us. But it does. When we accept and pay full price for Anthem, Cyberpunk 2077, and Fallout 76 we say it is okay to give us these games as is. We say it’s okay for the industry to treat developers as expendable for the bottom line.
That alone should make us want industry change.
We owe it to game developers to not attack them when games get delayed. We should understand the difficulties of creating a game and the instability of tech. That issue of anxiety and hopelessness expands because of these attacks. It shouldn’t be a monumental thing to ask, but it is. Online discourse is where we can make a personal difference.
Let’s not pretend playing a video game is a do or die scenario. Give the developers time to make the game as best as can. They have enough to worry about.
Freelance editor and writer. A top writer for gaming here on Medium. Writer for Superjump, The Startup, and The Ascent. For inquiries, contact at http://nathanielansari.com/