Game Development: The Crunch Culture Saga

Game development could be a lucrative career path. The opportunity to create something artistic, beautiful, logical, and exponentially expressionistic takes skill, imagination, and a generous amount of crunch.

The emphasis on ‘grind’ is to be noted, as game development is an industry that faces one of the worst crunch cultures.

It all starts with Passion for gaming. But the developer crunch eventually creeps in and affects many developers in the video game industry.

Was it always like this?

It’s common to wonder if the crunch culture has always plagued the video game industry or is it a relatively new phenomenon due to the recent boom in the gaming scene.

But it has been a norm since the 1980s. It wasn’t as talked about back then as it is today. There was a common put-up or shut-up culture. Since then, the focus on mental health issues has gained traction, and the workplace culture has undergone a significant transition through the decades.

The earliest viral crunch outburst happened in 2004 when an EA employee’s spouse posted the ordeal in the company where unpaid overtime, 10 hours, 7-day work culture was commonplace. This ordeal also exposes how the crunch was a routine occurrence irrespective of the game development cycle. Game under development? Crunch. Testing? Crunch. Game released? Still crunch.

The recent examples from titans like Rockstar, Naughty Dog, and CD Projekt Red paint a clear picture. The crunch culture is a real issue; that has evolved substantially in the game development process.

Why the crunch?

Getting to the crux of the matter — why? It’s simple. Game development is a long messy complex process. Studios must put in astronomical efforts and budgets and despite that, there are no guarantees of a game’s success.

The video game market is a goldmine. Publishers are looking to rake in that moolah by pumping out video games. Skilled developers get hired for the job, and the development process begins.

Simple, right?

On the surface, there’s nothing wrong here. In the USA, there are exemptions to overtime rules for software professionals of a certain pay bracket. The organizations don’t have to pay overtime to these professionals if a need for extra work arises.

On the other hand, developers get paid quite handsomely. With the rising interest in games and the gaming industry in general, the pay scale will only skyrocket with an impressive developer resume.

Publishers/Corporate culture to be blamed?

As mentioned earlier, video game organizations work well within the boundaries. They wouldn’t risk getting sued for millions. So, a narrative is woven. You always hear how talented and special you must be to be a part of game development or how much of a niche skill-set is required to create games.

The sense of achieving this and being part of the development team is an attractive prospect.

The developers understand what’s at stake. The Job description implies a lot of things. Some things are unsaid but understood by default.

The money aspect is one angle for crunch. Organizational structure is also a hinderance when it comes to execution and keeping up with deadlines.

One other mistake the publishers make — overpromising. The lucrative prospects of the gaming industry have instilled a cut-throat competitive culture amongst peer publishers.

Gameplay, oodles of features, open-world are the meaty keywords.

Last-minute feature additions create clutter in the development process and add to the delays. But if a game lacks the features and gameplay prospect compared to the competition, then it stands to fail in the market. So, it’s not entirely the publisher/studio’s fault either.

It’s no wonder we’ve recently seen many AAA and open-world publishers on the wrong end of the stick when it comes to crunch culture to meet deadlines.

Rockstar with Red Dead Redemption 2, Naughty Dog with The Last of Us 2, and CD Projekt Red with Cyberpunk 2077. These are just examples and cases that got the media’s attention.

CD Projekt Red not only saw success with Witcher 3, but it was also an organization that was raved by the gaming community (so was Naughty Dog). Hence, Cyberpunk’s release debacle and the crunch culture stories have now shown many people a common trend.

AAA open-world games take supreme efforts to develop, test, perfect and become release-ready. The development cycle is excruciating as it is. On top of this, adding new features at the last moment to one-up a competitor’s game. It translates to a 10–12 hour/day, 6–7 days a week work culture for the average developer and additional cost for the studios. In the end, due to the crunch, the execution isn’t always perfect, so end users get a buggy product. There are no winners with the crunch culture.

Does that mean the Indie studios don’t have this crunch culture?

Indie studios, how do they fare?

Indie studios have made noises for all the right reasons recently. Indie games like Hollow Knight, Minecraft, and many others were sleeper hits and went on to show that next-gen graphics, features, and skins aren’t the only things that sell.

But that isn’t to say Indie game developers don’t face crunch culture. The crunch culture exists here as well, albeit the contributing factors are a bit different.

Unlike AAA studios, indie developers have a limited budget, a small team, and a lot at stake. Many indie studios have the pressure of proving their might with their debut game.

All these automatically translate to crunch. Limited resources mean one developer has to do the work of 3 or 4. Want to take your sweet time to develop the game? No way can indie studios sustain that long without making revenue.

Full throttle and crunch ahead.

The Monetization Game

The 2020 Covid pandemic surprisingly brought an all-time spike, and the general public, non-gamer crowd showed massive interest in gaming.

The video game industry boasted a revenue of $ 146 Billion in 2021. It’s a gold mine, and publishers want to extract everything they can.

Gigantic publishers like EA pump out early franchise titles to make the bank and then some more. At the end of the day, this is a business. So, it is not right to entirely place the blame on the studios or publishers for this culture. But they must take conscious measures to provide developers with a humane work process and culture.

The decision-making, for the most part, is revenue-driven. Even Fortnite, a battle royale game with no story or single-player mode, was the subject of controversy for its alleged crunch culture.

On release, Fortnite met with a lukewarm response. The battle royale mode that followed the next year skyrocketed the game into popularity, and it remains so today.

But with great responsibility comes a not-so-great crunch.

For Instance, an employee explains the crunch culture behind the massive success of the game.

This isn’t a case of churning out multiple yearly titles. But Fortnite is still a hot IP, which makes Epic a fortune. So, season passes, new skins, and new content mean year-round development. The saga continues.

So, let’s be clear. Crunch isn’t limited to AAA open-world developers, indie studios, or GaaS models (Games As A Service). It’s a shady industrywide practice that’s frowned upon but not illegal.

Studios sinking, developers strive to survive

Visceral Games, Telltale, Neversoft are a few examples of game studios that are now defunct.

Studios are also at the receiving end here. It’s a messy business — the bigger they are, the harder they fall.

All these studios made exceptional games at some point, which means the developers poured their heart and soul and crunched to meet deadlines.

A Telltale employee’s tale lays out the complications and intricacies of crunch, ill-advised executive decisions, and interference in the development process. Getting Laid off after pouring hundreds and thousands of hours into developing a game isn’t exactly a happy ending.

Sure, they can find greener pastures, but this brings up an important aspect, an effect of the crunch culture — mental health issues.

Developer mental health is a serious concern

The famous EA Spouse’s crunch piece showed an issue of grave concern. The long 90–100 hours a week takes a toll on the mental health of developers.

Passion for gaming aside, developers have limitations like every other human being. Sleep-deprived, staring away at a computer screen for hours together catches up pretty fast and brings a load of health issues.

According to this report, 53% of game developers reported crunch as an expected factor in their job.

Game development aside, current developers have social media accounts and interact with fans. This opens the door for toxic interactions, and toxicity in the videogame community is a well-known phenomenon.

Imagine the plight of a developer interacting with a bully after a grueling 11-hour shift. The mental health of developers is not a light issue, and awareness doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface.

What’s the endgame here?

There’s no one size fits all solution to the game industry’s crunch culture. Change is controversial but imminent. Organizations make fat promises but keeping it is another story altogether.

For starters, the overpromising trend has to stop. It creates unnecessary hype and expectations amongst games. It creates unrealistic goals and inhumane work culture for the developers.

Mental health awareness is just the beginning. A healthy work culture can work wonders for the mental health of the developers, and it’s not too much to ask from an organization. It’s the bare minimum. Set clear realistic goals, don’t create too much hype, and go overboard with the marketing.

Worker rights is another equation that will tip the scales. Unionization may bring its own set of problems, but the crunch culture cannot continue. A labor rights group called Game Workers Unite was founded in 2018 amidst the push for unionization of the video game industry. It had less than 10 members initially but now going strong with more than 600 members. Gaming is not a niche anymore; it has beaten the ‘mainstream’ Hollywood and the music industry combined.

Gaming has attained a demigod status, with the tech advancement, graphics, and corporations raking revenue, but the developer crunch is an ancient barbarian trend that badly needs to be defunct.

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