In Scott Benson's Game Developers Conference postmortem about Night in the Woods, he talked about nearly killing himself to finish the game. When he and co-writer Bethany Hockenberry are asked about that comment in an interview with GamesIndustry.biz the next day, Benson just laughs heartily.
"I find it funny now," he explains. "It's been a year."
Hockenberry adds, "The only thing you can do is laugh."
Laugh, and try to avoid doing the same thing in the future. As anyone who's played Night in the Woods may be able to guess, Hockenberry and Benson are pro-union. And while unions may keep employers from working developers to death, what's to stop developers from doing that to themselves?
Benson's mood abruptly changes at the question, shifting from protective amusement to more serious introspection.
"I'm passionate about a lot of things and I don't kill myself over them. The reason we're killing ourselves is money and deadlines"
"The reason we're killing ourselves isn't because we love what we're doing," Benson says. "That's the thing we tell ourselves and tell people: 'We're just so passionate about it.'
"But I'm passionate about a lot of things and I don't kill myself over them. The reason we're killing ourselves is money and deadlines. It's these material constraints. That's a lot of what it is. If we had arts funding and it wasn't going to be the end of the world if we push this six months, it's fine. We can live without going into massive debt. But that's not the reality for most of us."
Some of that pressure came from the fact that the game was Kickstarted. By going through the crowdfunding process, Benson says the team was accountable to backers. When the campaign was launched, Night in the Woods had an estimated release date of January 2015. The game eventually debuted in February 2017.
"Particularly in games, when you announce a release date, if you go back on that, people treat it as a mortal sin," Benson says. "'Delayed again! You've lied to the gamers!' And the press will all cover that. If you've delayed a thing, you've insulted and hurt us on some level.
"So some of it is that. But a lot of it is that we had to hit our deadline, and didn't have a lot of money to throw at it. We were just going into debt, and that's terrifying. So most of crunch stuff is that someone's done very poor planning, which is in part on us because we hadn't done this before. But beyond that, it's a cultural thing. 'We work hard, that's who we are. We're hard workers.' And working hard is fine, but it's this notion of proving ourselves and our worth and our seriousness by killing ourselves."
He points to a recent ad for freelance services website Fiverr that drew backlash for the slogan, "You eat a coffee for lunch. You follow through on your follow through. Sleep deprivation is your drug of choice. You might be a doer."
"That kills you," Benson says. "That literally kills you. That's not a thing to aspire to. We tell each other to aspire to these things on a cultural level because of things like capitalism, where we define ourselves by how much value we're outputting, how much work we can do, how much we can hustle. We've internalized this trauma that we get from having to do this to pay rent, and we start defining ourselves by it. 'I'm the best rent-payer ever! I can hustle the most! I'm like a shark; I never stop swimming!' And there are some folks who legitimately like that, but a lot of us feel pressured to do that because we're terrified that if we stop, the reality is we won't be able to afford medicine. And it becomes a part of our culture."
Hockenberry points out that all gets a positive spin on it when people label it as "passion" rather than desperation.
"We really want to try next time to not do that to ourselves or anything we work with," she says, "and to let people know, 'Don't do this.'"
Benson agrees, "It's a cultural thing we have to fight against. One of the reasons I talk about the experience is because I want to say that was not heroic. That was not cool. That was bad. And it came out of some material conditions, but also because I was not valuing myself enough to stop, I don't think.
"We all do a lot of stuff to get by, and I understand that. But with people who are employed and are told to do this, and find their jobs hanging on it, that's bad. That's exploitation. That's abuse. That needs to stop, and that's going to stop by labor and laws, unions and organization. That's the only way. No executive's going to say, 'Man I just hate making money. I hate this. Maybe I can just give it back to the people I work for and maybe the game can come out next year some time.' No one's going to do that. There is no opposing force to that that isn't someone producing that value they're using to buy a yacht. There's no other place this could come from."
"There are going to be a lot of people who don't want you to unionize, the same way people don't want you to talk about how much money you make"
Benson says he's been talking with others about ways independent developers could take care of each other in a more organized way, but it sounds like any such efforts are in their infancy.
However, other people may already be doing this without realizing it. Benson used to do motion graphics and design illustration work, and says he saw people adopting effective labor tactics without actually organizing unions or using any of the associated rhetoric. Illustrators simply realized they were all hurt by the same bad faith practices from clients, so they started sharing contract templates with each other as well as freelancers, agreed to turn down spec work, and encouraged students coming out of school to do the same.
On the other hand, sometimes there's an explicit push for unions in a field, but circumstances prevent it from gaining traction.
"I used to do home healthcare, and that was another [industry] where there would be talk about unions," Hockenberry says. "The way it was set up, with people working all over, it was hard to get people together. I feel like it's going to be easier for [games], and I hope it happens. I'm hopeful. I think it has a chance.
"It's just going to be a lot of work and there are going to be a lot of people where it's going to be bad for them. And it's just about helping support people to get through that. Because there are going to be a lot of people who don't want you to unionize, the same way people don't want you to talk about how much money you make."
Whatever happens with unions in games, Benson just wants to see things improve for people.
"I think new models of this have to be made, because people are going to die," Benson says. "People die from overwork. Marriages get ruined. People never see their children. That's all bad, but we consider it good, like 'Yeah, you sacrificed!' Why? Fucking why?"