Following the success of Elden Ring, a series of negative reviews of From Software surfaced on Twitter, claiming that staff at the studio often faced excessive overtime and a chronic dissatisfaction with pay.
The reviews were originally published on the Glassdoor-like jobs board Career Connection between 2012 and 2019. With its increasing prominence in the West, many latched onto the mention of crunch in the reviews of From Software. It prompted Twitter users to fall into tired stereotypes of Japan as a country of overwhelming overtime and exploitative work practices.
GamesIndustry.biz spoke to a number of From Software employees, past and present, to gain a better understanding of how the issues raised affect those working at the Elden Ring developer. The studio does not permit employees to give interviews, whether they still work at From Software or not. As such, all sources wished to remain anonymous.
GamesIndustry.biz approached From Software for comment multiple times, but received no response.
"During critical periods of game releases, I often had to work early mornings and overtime for two to three months"Former From Software employee
One source was quick to refute the stereotypes of Japanese companies overworking their staff: "The general industry in Japan is not that crazy compared to my experience in other fields. Japan has a lot of holidays [and] there is a rule that [From Software] staff shouldn't stay later than 10pm, and 90% of the time, staff won't stay later than 9pm."
This may not resemble the nine-to-five most companies use as a baseline, but From Software – in line with reforms to Japan's Labour Act – advertises its workday as lasting eight hours, citing "flexible work hours" with core time between 11am and 5pm.
Multiple sources concede, however, that there is "some level of crunching" at From Software.
It appears to be variable by department, with one source telling us, "There hasn't been much overtime work for me." Another from a separate department said, "During critical periods of game releases, I often had to work early mornings and overtime for two to three months."
This time period was echoed by another source who noted that while "it's not as if [crunch] happens on a daily basis," it's more common "during the ROM check for the publisher or two to three months before release."
How is this overtime compensated? According to one source, overtime is "generally included in the salary." After midnight, however, "we were paid late-night overtime but that was half of our usual hourly rate."
This is unusual in Japanese companies, where "hourly wages are often increased" after midnight.
This tallies with a generally below average rate of pay at From Software. One source was keen to stress, to offset criticisms of crunch and pay, that From Software is "not a big organisation." Which is true – despite a AAA billing, as of May 2022, From Software has 349 employees.
"[From Software's] salary is not adequate"From Software employee
Those employees can expect, according to data on Career Connection, an average yearly salary of ¥3.41 million (equivalent to just shy of $25,000) – significantly less than the ¥5.2 million ($38,000) employees at the comparably sized Atlus take home. (It's worth noting that conversions throughout this article have been made using current exchange rates, though the Japanese yen has fallen significantly against the dollar in the past two years.)
Compared to the cost of living in Tokyo, one source said From Software's "salary is not adequate." They went on to say that others close to them at the studio "did not appear satisfied with their salaries either."
Salary Explorer reports the monthly average salary in Japanese game development ranges from ¥231,000 ($1,675) to ¥735,000 ($5,328). By comparison, recent roles advertised at From Software all start "from ¥220,000 ($1,595)" per month.
It's worth taking into context that monthly rent in Tokyo averages around ¥203,730 ($1,477) for a single bed apartment while the cost of living hovers around ¥138,984 ($1,008). These no doubt factor in to staff dissatisfaction with salaries.
With the immediate success of Elden Ring, publisher Bandai Namco announced in February that it would be raising salaries "by an average of ¥50,000 ($362) per month for all employees." Moreover, base monthly salaries would increase "from the previous ¥232,000 ($1,681) to ¥290,000 ($2,101)."
With all its current roles advertised at the same ¥220,000 base rate, there is no sign that From Software intends to do the same.
However, although there is talk of crunch and low salaries, there also appears to be a lot of employee satisfaction at From Software. Multiple sources gave positive accounts of their experience at From Software, despite their own criticisms.
One suggested the long hours are a bit like playing Dark Souls. "It's kind of tense in a way," they say. "There's a lot of struggle to get things right, but if you get over the hump it is very satisfying. It's just like you defeated a boss in Dark Souls."
Others were more pointed in their praise. "It's been a great experience," one said. "Not only because you can work on an AAA title, but also because you can work with co-workers that are so talented and passionate about creating a video game."