United devs stand, divided they crunch | Opinion

Management doesn't need to mandate excessive overtime when it has developers policing each other

When talking to developers about their experiences with crunch, it often gets depressing. You hear a lot of stories about horrible bosses, hostile workplaces, and how the games people love to play are so often the result of tremendous suffering.

But the saddest part of these stories for me has been hearing these developers describe the love they have for their co-workers, and how their employers manipulated that love to make them hurt one another. Here are a few general statements I'm confident in making after reading entirely too many exposés and speaking with dozens of developers at a variety of studios about their experiences:

Everybody wants to make a great game.

Nobody wants to let their co-workers down.

These are nearly ubiquitous in the industry, and they also happen to be some of the fundamental building blocks of crunch culture. When people are passionate -- there's that word again -- about their jobs, they're going to push themselves to make something great. When like-minded people spend years of their lives working toward a common goal, they're going to develop bonds with some of them. They won't want to let the team down.

"They loved to be ambiguous and not actually give a set number of hours to start, as well; just leaving it up to people to do themselves"

A former Rockstar developer

That's all well and good so far, but you can probably see how these traits can be easily leveraged by employers to create a culture of crunch, one where employees apply the pressure to crunch on themselves and each other, where management can effectively drive its workforce into the ground while maintaining plausible deniability because it was never explicitly mandated.

As one former Rockstar employee told us: "Even if they didn't flat out say the words 'required' and 'mandatory', they would say things like 'we need to start working more hours' and 'we're going to have to start ramping things up'... They loved to be ambiguous and not actually give a set number of hours to start, as well; just leaving it up to people to do themselves."

Or look at Epic Games, which doesn't have mandatory overtime and offers its employees unlimited time off. Those employees know how much work there is to do, and may even take less time off than they would in a more defined vacation plan rather than let that work fall to their colleagues. Or maybe they're afraid that taking the time off will have a negative impact on their career progression, or even their continued employment. In any case, Epic gets to have its crunch and deny it, too.

Or NetherRealm, where one former worker explained: "Your coworkers would make fun of you or look down on you if you didn't put in the hours." Another said that leaving at a reasonable hour was seen as evidence that you didn't care about the game.

Co-workers aren't the only ones pushing developers to crunch; players and the press are doing their part as well. In the games-as-a-service world, it's not enough to simply launch a hit game. Now it needs to be updated constantly, and then emergency patched to fix anything the update breaks. In between updates, we demand near-constant communication. (It's not necessarily AAA, but Kickstarter tells game developers they should be updating their backers every other day throughout development. For non-gaming projects, the rule of thumb is once a week. Gamers have been trained to expect this.)

Developers intolerant of crunch culture do not stay in crunching studios, which leads to a uniform acceptance of the practice among those who remain

In many ways, these external and internal pressures help ensure crunch culture is systemic and self-sustaining. When developers enter that sort of environment, many fall in line. Obviously, some do not. But those who don't accept such treatment don't last in these companies. They either burn out and are discarded, or they walk away in search of a better employer.

Typically, they are replaced by a steady stream of eager young talent that is either ignorant of what they are getting into, or decides the crunch is worth it for a position at a big AAA studio in the games industry. Those new recruits will be regaled with "war stories" of the crunch of previous years as if they were a badge of courage, as if they are being challenged to show they have the mettle for the task at hand. As with their predecessors, those recruits either buy into the culture or are eventually ejected from it, to be replaced by yet another generation of developers eager to get into games.

This creates a sort of survivorship bias, as the studio filters out anyone who sees the culture as unacceptable, as well as anyone unwilling or unable to make the sacrifices involved. The people who thrive in that environment will be the ones most compatible with the culture. They will be promoted and, in all likelihood, reinforce the same values on the developers now under them. (I have also heard plenty of stories of supervisors using what influence they have to shield their employees from harm, which is laudable but does little to fix systemic issues.)

And of course, the most senior people, the ones likely to comprise a management group and have the most influence over studio decision-making, will be the ones most comfortable with crunch. When they make decisions about, say, whether or not it's reasonable to have a NetherRealm team already months behind schedule take a few weeks to make a playable build for a marketing event while sticking to the original development plan, they are less likely to be concerned about the impact that decision will have on their staff.

Years ago, companies used to be a little more upfront about this sort of thing. Epic used to be fairly open about crunching its employees, with then-president Mike Capps saying in 2009 that anyone who wanted to work 40-hour weeks probably wasn't a good fit for the company. That was right after Gears of War 2 producer Rod Fergusson used his presentation at the Game Developers Conference to say that crunch is necessary, and something he enforced on the entire development team, even groups who were already on schedule.

Appropriately enough, the word 'unrelenting' is doing a lot of work in this shot of Epic's careers page

Appropriately enough, the word 'unrelenting' is doing a lot of work in this shot of Epic's careers page

These days there's more resistance to crunch and greater awareness of the toll it takes on developers, so companies are a little quieter about it. They don't want to reform their development practices and they still want to select for the people most compatible with crunch conditions, so they rely on dog-whistles. Epic's careers page talks about the company's "unrelenting" focus on innovation, quality and community. Rockstar's said that working at the studio "is about passion and commitment, to the projects and to each other," suggesting that the intense peer pressure to keep working mentioned above is a feature and not a bug.

This all may feel like it's just stating the obvious, but clearly plenty of people don't see it as such. There's no shortage of developers who have bought into crunch culture, who are actively participating in and perpetuating it, who are contributing to the harm their colleagues are suffering, intentionally or not.

When developers are the ones cracking the whip on each other, companies with horrible work cultures can frame their situation as driven developers pushing themselves rather than cruel employers burning their people to a husk. There's a plausible deniability that the company can use as a shield, and the developers can buy into as well.

"It took me years to get over the mentality that crunch is just a thing you do because that's how games are made," a former NetherRealm developer told me. "It wasn't until the higher ups at my current job sat me down and told me that my life is important that I ever changed the way I looked at things."

That crunch mentality is by no means rare at NetherRealm. As one current staffer said after criticisms of the conditions at the studio first surfaced: "Everyone in the studio is downplaying it... I'm against how everything's happened so far. But if I say anything, everyone's immediately going to look at me like I'm a fucking alien. The conversation isn't being had, and it's probably not going to."

There's little reason to think companies like NetherRealm will work to fix these problems when they won't even acknowledge they even have them. Maybe the steady drumbeat of horror stories and studio exposés -- does anyone doubt there are more on the way? -- will change their minds. And if they aren't willing to make changes from the top down, then it stands to reason that any improvements will need to come from the bottom up.

That might eventually mean unionization, but for that to happen, developers first need to understand the systemic pressures contributing to their crunch cultures, and to realize they deserve better.

More stories

IDG: Other publishers are considering raising game prices for PS5 and Xbox Series X

Cost of development has increased between 200% and 300% while game prices have remained flat

By Christopher Dring

Paradox acquires Playrion

Mobile-focused developer behind Airlines Manager becomes publisher's eighth internal studio

By Brendan Sinclair

Latest comments (4)

Sean Slavik Chief Executive Officer, Chance6 Studios, LLCA year ago
Unionization would likely make the problem worse. Much worse. Unions usually mean higher cost of employment, which means fewer jobs, meaning fewer people to get the job done working longer hours. And that’s assuming their entire department doesn’t get shipped overseas!

Since we’re dealing with the development of hedonic pursuits, time to market is of the essence, and increased player demands for better everything mean increased pressure to perform on the companies. This is magnified in publicly held or even privately traded companies with investors demanding more results.

Frankly, a shift to staggered development milestones might actually alleviate these problems — the game getting to market early in a more minimal product, and maintained/upgraded as a service could have the effect of decreasing the demands on the development team into more manageable chunks, get the game to players sooner in a form that they both get to see improve and get to enjoy, and then, maybe, they’ll feel more inclined to support to see it improve. Adopting this methodology seems more feasible than admonishing those who opt to work in crunch-heavy environments to stop doing it, which takes no account for the other personal pressures those individuals might be feeling to support those practices.
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
H. Jameson Producer & Game Designer, Blume IndustriesA year ago
"Unionization would likely make the problem worse. Much worse." What else would you expect to hear a CEO say? It's all doom and gloom, and a recitation of the same fearmongering that has prevented developers from organizing.

The game industry already outsources a LOT of functions "overseas", that threat is moot. You will not find the same level of talent where you think you might - trust me on this. Core game design and creative talent remains a pretty precious resource, and while it is improving globally, it's not universal.

How about this? Maybe C-level people should wake up and realize it's time to treat their talent with respect, like real human beings? Maybe if schedules were made realistic and people treated fairly, they wouldn't see a need for unions. But so long as C-level people take on this defensive attitude and don't see the real problem (look in the mirror), unionization is inevitable.
10Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Antoine Baker Artist/Designer/QA Tester A year ago
@H. Jameson:
There are many problems in the gaming industry with no easy answers. However they ALL need to be addressed. I agree scheduling is one; but it is a symptom to a much bigger problem; media hype and gamer expectation. Everyone is a slave to this and it makes things like short dev cycles, low employee morale and predatory consumer practices inevitable. Today's media hypes up the gamer bombarding them with "Our top 10 wish-lists of what we want in game Y" and "leaks of concept art of potential returning character B".

With the over-saturation of information, the gamers start setting unrealistic expectations on the company and everyone involved. Gamers have the expectation that their favorite game will forever be good and that the next game will be better. The companies and to an extent the employees have to go into this dance with the media and the audience until the games eventual release.

Unions don't actually guarantee the employee a better environment. Also the unions have prerequisites to being able to be joined. Unions only help out those who are part of that union itself and it does not help those who sit outside of membership. @Sean Slavic is correct that it does make the price of employment go up. I've actually worked union jobs before and really, if you don't have some sort of seniority within that union you're right back at square one; except it is now costing you money.

Understand what a union does and how it effects you and everyone around you positively and negatively before you start campaigning for one. Understand the cause rather than just blindly ask for change. Unions require cash to operate. If a business goes belly up, most of the time the unions collapse with it. I've actually have had that happen to me and it's not a good feeling.

There are other problems that need to be addressed, but I think I've stood on my soapbox long enough for now. I'll possibly add those to a rebuttal.
3Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply
Show all comments (4)
James Barnard Founder / Developer, SpringloadedA year ago
When I was a musician, the "musicians union" meant I was supposed to not play certain places if I wasn't being paid enough. As an individual I felt the union closed more doors than it opened...the music Industry couldn't be changed, because there simply wasn't enough money floating around....the venues that gave me a free pint couldn't afford to pay bands a few hundred quid. If that was a requirement then they would just stop having live music at all....which they eventually did anyway.

AAA to indie is a very different landscape, Indies struggle already, but putting us all on the same bed of expectations would just make it even harder to get started and keep running. We can negotiate very differently to a big company, we don't have money but we have other things we can offer.

If a small game is being made for passion not profit, having a bunch of things in place that increase the development cost, or slow down the ability to break even means those games might never get made
2Sign inorRegisterto rate and reply

Sign in to contribute

Need an account? Register now.