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"Crunch is a relic of the 20th Century" | 10 Years Ago This Month

Predictions that live service games would solve the industry's problem with overwork were perhaps too optimistic

The games industry moves pretty fast, and there's a tendency for all involved to look constantly to what's next without so much worrying about what came before. That said, even an industry so entrenched in the now can learn from its past. So to refresh our collective memory and perhaps offer some perspective on our field's history, GamesIndustry.biz runs this monthly feature highlighting happenings in gaming from exactly a decade ago.

Crunch is Dead, Long Live Crunch

Crunch was a popular discussion topic in the games industry a decade ago. An exposé on LA Noire developer Team Bondi in June had made the topic front of mind for developers and, as we've seen plenty of times in recent years, inspired others to come forward with their own stories.

Stories like this one about Gameloft Auckland, developer of Silent Ops. A former head studio programmer bravely went public about his previous employer's crunch practices under his own name.

He talked about working up to 120 hours a week (which would work out to 17-hour days every day of the week), and even then being called back into work during off-hours to handle things.

"It was after I worked four consecutive weeks of fourteen-hour days -- including weekends -- that I realised I needed to resign."

You might think this is an abject failure of management and morals on the part of Gameloft and that it couldn't really get any worse, but you would be mistaken because you have not yet read how the company reacted to his resignation.

"Gameloft asked me to 'apologise' for leaving the studio and shouldering others with the burden of my work," he said.

Yes, how selfish for this person to quit rather than have his health and humanity thrown into the firebox to power the runaway locomotive that was [reads Pocket Gamer's Silent Ops review] a mediocre clone of the Splinter Cell Conviction game Gameloft had already made. Clearly, he is the one to blame for the death march his co-workers and friends will be subjected to, and not the management who was been crunching them so much already that people are going to the press under their real names to talk about how horrible it all is.

People were ruined, but at least we got Silent Ops out of it

People were ruined, but at least we got Silent Ops out of it

Fortunately, there was a light at the end of the tunnel, as attendees at the Develop Conference in Brighton were learning. In a panel discussion at the show, former Sony Worldwide Studios boss Phil Harrison was spreading the good news: Crunch's days were numbered thanks to the games-as-a-service model.

"Services have their own updates and crunch therefore should disappear in the future"

Phil Harrison

"Crunch is a relic of the 20th Century," Harrison said. "Products have crunch, services have a constant hum.

"If you're building products for Blu-ray or DVD or a particular release date, we always talk about 'finishing' them with a crescendo of energy and activity. But a service is when you launch, it's when you start. Services have their own updates and crunch therefore should disappear in the future."

That certainly sounds nice, and there's evidence the industry is improving when it comes to crunch. When the International Game Developers Association polled members for its 2009 Quality of Life survey, 94% of them said they crunched at least sometimes, with 55% crunching often. In the group's 2019 Developer Satisfaction Survey, only 41% said their job involved crunch.

The discussion around crunch has likewise changed in the last decade. Fewer studios are openly tolerant of it now, and we haven't seen headlines like this in a number of years.

Companies like Bungie have acknowledged the harm of their crunch-friendly studio culture and sought to change it. Others like Respawn, Nintendo, and most recently Tango Gameworks are citing employee health as a motivation for delaying games or updating less frequently, and fans have been largely supportive of these efforts. (It wasn't so long ago companies like NeoCore Games were pledging to crunch throughout a delay in order to stave off angry players.)

But even if companies are at least doing a better job of paying lip service to the problem, there are significant concerns that some developers are simply outsourcing their crunch, as covered by YouTube channel People Make Games.

So yes, overall the industry has shown signs of improving on crunch, but how much of that can be attributed to the games-as-a-service approach?

It's certainly possible to run a live service game in a responsible way without intense crunch, just as it's possible to ship a game-as-a-product without intense crunch. But if you're taking developers from a culture historically accustomed to crunch and you put them on a live service game, you're just taking people used to crunching to hit a deadline and giving them deadlines every week instead of every milestone.

Take Epic Games, for example. After building a reputation for years as a company with a culture of crunch, Epic pivoted to games-as-a-service in 2017, just months before launching Fortnite.

But as Polygon reported in 2019, Epic's games-as-a-service pivot and the ensuing success of Fortnite basically led not to "a constant hum" but to constant crunch.

"It's killing people," one person told Polygon. "Something has to change. I can't see how we can go on like this for another year. At first, it was fine, because Fortnite was a big success and that felt good. We were solving problems that were new for Epic: how to run a big, global game as an online service. But now the workload is just endless."

As one source told the outlet, "Everything has to be done immediately. We're not allowed to spend time on anything. If something breaks -- a weapon, say -- then we can't just turn it off and fix it with the next patch. It has to be fixed immediately, and all the while, we're still working on next week's patch. It's brutal."

Games-as-a-service doesn't eliminate crunch because it doesn't eliminate the reasons for crunch

Clearly games-as-a-service is still compatible with crunch. That's not to say it hasn't played a part in improving crunch culture at various studios -- it's probably easier for management and employees alike to justify crunch to themselves when it's for the launch of a AAA game with a four-year dev cycle than for a never-ending procession of events and seasonal updates -- but it doesn't address the heart of the issue.

Games-as-a-service doesn't eliminate crunch because it doesn't eliminate the reasons for crunch. There are still deadlines. There are still exploitative employers and incompetent management. There are still creative dead ends, unrealized ambitions, unrealistic expectations, untenable schedules, unhealthy studio cultures, shortening runways, and all the other factors that dog the industry's attempts to avoid crunch.

Games-as-a-service doesn't prevent the people who benefit the most from crunch telling themselves it's okay because the burned-out developers might get a few extra bucks for the effort. It doesn't stop peer pressure and studio social structures from encouraging long hours. It doesn't stop young developers from accepting unreasonable conditions in order to get a foothold in the industry they've always dreamed of joining. It doesn't stop companies from treating those developers as disposable.

Games-as-a-service does nothing to eliminate the kind of studio that would drive an employee into the ground and then demand he apologize to his co-workers for having the self-respect to walk away, or the kind of people who would find some way to rationalize that to themselves, like, "We're crunching because if we don't the studio goes under and everyone loses their [abusive, terrible] jobs."

(For the record, Gameloft shut down its Auckland studio in 2016 as part of "an ambitious cost reduction program.")

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

I don't see it talked about very often, but Valve has pulled off a fairly rare trick for a market leader in games.

After attaining a dominant position in the PC digital distribution space, Valve did not sit on that success until a competitor came along and offered a better alternative. Instead, it completely upended the way it ran its business to stay ahead of the curve, and wound up being every bit as dominant as before. Perhaps moreso, when one considers that 10 years ago, EA thought it could do without Steam to rely on its own Origin storefront, but returned with its tail between its legs in 2019.

This interview with Frozen Synapse developer Paul Taylor had a couple interesting observations about Steam that underscore just how much (and how little) has changed in the past decade.

"It is astonishing just how important [Valve and Steam] are in terms of the PC, especially as an indie game," Taylor said. "You see a lot of GamesIndustry.biz interviews with people like [Introversion co-founder] Mark Morris who said something very similar, but Steam is really essential for indie games at the moment."

That's essentially a given to be the same these days, but Taylor then points to a key reason for Steam's success in 2011 which is very much not the same in 2021.

"People really use it as a mark of quality, I think," Taylor said. "I think there's a good reason for that, because not everything gets on there."

That started to change in 2012 with Steam Greenlight, and the floodgates really opened in 2017 when Valve rolled out Steam Direct, allowing developers to publish virtually anything on the platform for a $100 per game fee.

This lowering of barriers -- one that has been replicated to varying degrees across the console industry as well -- naturally aggravates discoverability issues, something that developers had already clearly identified in 2011.

Take Hello Games' Sean Murray, who a decade ago was telling us about how getting a game onto Steam, Xbox Live Arcade or PlayStation Network was critical to indie success because it would just be lost in the shuffle on mobile.

"With someone like Apple you are 100% reliant on them promoting your game," Murray said. "Without that, the service is nothing. It's the same for Steam, it's the same for XBLA, PSN -- being on their services is only worth the amount of promotion that you're going to be blessed with."

Developers on Microsoft's Xbox Live Indie Games storefront-within-a-storefront were already getting a taste of that, as Cthulhu Saves The World developer Robert Boyd was explaining to Next-gen.biz.

"The greatest strength and greatest weakness of the service is that it's the most open platform we've ever seen on any home console," Boyd said. "Just about anyone can release an XBLIG title, and just about anyone does. As a result, the service has got a reputation for being full of garbage."

Console storefronts don't quite carry that same reputation today, but it's unquestionably easier than ever for smaller games to get lost in them. Just last month, a wave of indie developers vented their frustrations with Sony, saying the company has done a poor job of helping indies market their games with restrictions on sales promotions, no analytics support, and delayed responses to inquiries. Jay Tholen of the high-profile, award-winning game Hypnospace Outlaw even said he thinks niche indie storefront Itch.io has been more lucrative for the game than PlayStation Network.

Getting onto a storefront is crucial and may be half the battle for indies, but a lot of what determines how well a game sells happens in that second half.

Good Call, Bad Call

BAD CALL: Epic Games' Mike Capps says $0.99 apps on mobile were more of a threat to $60 AAA console games than to premium-priced iOS releases like the company's own Infinity Blade.

"I think there will always be room for a premium SKU on a mobile platform. And I think as more buyers [enter the mobile market], there will be more people who are willing to spend a bit more for quality," Rein said. "But I do worry about what it means for the next generation of console games. Are people really going to want to spend $60 on a game?... It's not a sustainable business model. I'm not sure how it all ends up."

To Rein's credit, there is still a market for a premium SKU on mobile, so long as that SKU is Minecraft. And $60 console games maybe weren't sustainable, given the PS5 and Xbox Series X|S have pushed the price for some games up to $70.

Still feels like a Bad Call though.

GOOD CALL: Along those same lines, EA Sports executive (and future EA CEO) Andrew Wilson told us, "There will come a time where the consumer is simply not prepared to pay $60 up-front for a game anymore, the same way they have said that for movies and music and television."

He didn't put a time frame on it, so technically, this one's going to be right at some point before the heat death of the universe.

It may even be right sooner than Wilson would like; EA makes a lot of money from tweaking its sports franchises and selling them at full price every year, but that model was already threatened once in the mid-2000s when Take-Two offered all its sports titles for $20 new. The strategy worked great initially -- 2K's games sold well and EA dropped the price of titles like Madden to $30 almost immediately -- but it triggered a distinctly anti-consumer push for exclusivity. EA grabbed the NFL license, while 2K fired back with MLB exclusivity. Prices for new sports games then settled back to $50, the standard of the time.

However, with apologies to NBA Live, we can say it appears that competition may be starting to return to the sports market. 2K will start making NFL games again (but not Madden-style sims), and the two publishers are also working on new PGA golf titles.

There's some chance increased competition in the sports market could have a similar effect these days, but with modern monetization the natural alternative strategy is a free-to-play model, such as the one Konami will embrace with its eFootball series, as announced earlier today.

BAD CALL: As a rule of thumb, if it's Nintendo talking about online, you can probably slot it in as a Bad Call. The company has long had an... um... unorthodox approach to online gaming, going back to Satoru Iwata's 2004 proclamation that consumers didn't want online games and enthusiasm for them was cooling among game companies.

So it was of course going to be met with skepticism in 2011 when more than a year away from launch, Nintendo of America president Reggie Fils-Aime was hyping up the Wii U by saying, "We've said that the Wii U will have an extremely robust online experience."

That's perhaps fodder for this section right there, but I'll say the real bad call was what came next.

"There will be other publishers talking about that as well, and from our perspective, we think it's much more compelling for that information to come from the publishers than to come from us," Fils-Aime said.

So instead of leading by example and showing the industry how Nintendo has its act together this time and knows what it's doing, the company is relying on third-party publishers to back up that claim. Yes, the same third-party publishers who just spent an entire console generation struggling because Nintendo's unorthodox approach to everything made supporting the massively successful Wii a hassle rather than a no-brainer. Good luck with that.

GOOD CALL: Nintendo made a much more significant Good Call later in the month, slashing the price of the 3DS by roughly 30% to 40%, depending on the region. The 3DS had launched worldwide in March, so it was shocking to see a cut so drastic just four months after release.

But the handheld had struggled out of the gate with one of the weakest launch lineups of first-party titles for any of the company's systems -- Pilotwings Resort, Steel Diver, and Nintendogs + Cats -- and drastic action was needed. With the price cut and the holiday launches of Super Mario 3D Land and Mario Kart 7 that year, Nintendo successfully course-corrected.

The 3DS went on to sell 75.9 million systems and carried the company through a difficult home console generation where the Wii U only managed 13.6 million sales. Had both the 3DS and the Wii U flopped at the same time investors were pressuring Nintendo heavily to branch out into mobile, the industry might look considerably different today.

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