It’s “Crunch” Time:

Daniel O'Sullivan
May 20, 2019 · 4 min read

The Poor Workplace Practice Plaguing the Video Game Industry

Imagine you have a group project due in 2 months’ time, whether it be for work, university or even high school. You and your team have already been working as hard as you can around the clock for months. Now imagine that in order to submit the bare minimum, you have to spend all day and night in your library or office working and only catching glimpses of sleep from time to time. What effect would this have on you mentally or physically? What about your family or partners? This is the reality that video game developers the world over face in the lead up to the release of a brand-new game.

“Crunch” is the term given to the period of time before a video games release when employees burn the midnight oil all week long in order for the game to be finished on time. This is common for companies worldwide and is the outcome of having too much to do in too little time. However, while it’s a no-brainer that working upwards of 70 hours per week in order to satisfy a publisher’s deadline is poor practice, nobody seems to bat an eye if the game is successful. The crunch is a fascinating and deeply troubling double-standard in this industry. If it were to go unchecked, it could not only harm the mental and physical state of the employees, but irreparably damage the industry forever.

In the lead up to Rockstar Games’ highly anticipated Red Dead Redemption 2 release in October 2018, the news was flooded with reports of intense crunch. This included rumoured 100-hour working weeks, employees sleeping at the office, and some having mental breakdowns resulting in them walking out the doors, never to be seen or heard from by the company again. But why was this an issue in the first place? Publishers deadlines. In order to maximise profits, Rockstar Games pushed to have the game finished by the tried-and-trusted Christmas holiday release period.

On on side of the coin, there is an award winning, narrative-driven western…

A week after these reports surfaced, Rockstar Games executives responded by encouraging employees to speak out about their experiences at the company. While many were quite vocal about their love for their work and their pride in the outcomes, they couldn’t deny that it took an immense amount of time and effort to reach these goals. Yet weeks later, the game was released to critical and commercial acclaim, winning all sorts of awards ranging from Best Narrative to Best Performance by its star and all talk of poor labor practices vanished as quickly as they appeared. So why did this happen? The game’s success.

In more recent months, the issue of Crunch has appeared again in relation to EA’s predictably bad game Anthem. The infamous looter-shooter, the term given to games based on repetition in order to collect better gear, launched in February of 2019 to mixed reception from both gamers and critics alike. Almost immediately after its launch (and the less than stellar reviews that followed) news surfaced of the troubled production that plagued the game.

Stories of poor communication and unfocussed work were everywhere online and people even alluded to the fact that when the first gameplay was shown at E3 2018, the developers had no clue as to what the Anthem in the Anthem game would even be. So how did this project even come together when it was rife with so many issues? You guessed it. Crunch.

On the other, there’s Anthem…

From the lack of direction by Bioware and EA, the developers and publishers respectively, to the outdated and just plain difficult software that was used to create it, there were a multitude of reasons that forced employees to pull insane crunch in the lead up to the game’s release. Employees spoke out to news platforms anonymously and depicted the dreadful working conditions they faced as a result of being understaffed and unclear on their objective. As per the usual crunch, hours were increased tenfold, relationships were tested and morale was nowhere to be seen. Some even had to take doctor-mandated leave, with some never returning when the job was done for the sake of their mental and physical health. So what became of this?

Well, in recent weeks, thanks to the continuing discussion around Crunch in the workplace, there has been increased scrutiny placed on monitoring employees’ workloads not just in the lead up to a new games release, but overall. Furthermore, surveys and research projects have been conducted in hopes of identifying what the main causes for Crunch are and how to prevent them, and talks of unionising have taken place in an effort to take a stand.

While it is disappointing that it took the failure of a large-scale game to draw people’s attention to this issue, the employees can rest somewhat easy knowing that Anthem wasn’t completely useless. It is disheartening that so many people can turn a blind eye to the unfair, unreasonable and downright unhealthy workplace practices plaguing the video game industry purely for their own entertainment, as is the case for Red Dead Redemption 2. However, hopefully the more these employees speak out against their employers, the more changes are made to ensure the health and well-being of those who create some of the best stories and experiences in entertainment history.

The Public Ear