Crunch culture and it's impact on the game industry
The gaming industry is one of the fastest-growing sectors in the business world, employing tens of thousands of people to create quality products enjoyed by millions worldwide, while also generating billions of pounds in revenue every year. Yet as the industry grows so do the pressures and stresses that any large-scale industry has to cope with. In the gaming industry, this pressure has manifested as crunch culture.
What is Crunch Culture?
Put simply, crunch culture is the practice of pushing studio employees to work around the clock to improve the game at the cost of their personal and home lives, potentially damaging their mental and physical health. This is expected by their employers and studio heads, who often argue that this practice is needed to deliver the best product possible. Yet even those studios who don't force their employees to work long hours, it is silently expected of them to sacrifice their weekends in order to earn their bonuses.
This is one of the most fiercely debated issues in gaming ethics, first appearing in the public domain in 2004 with the publishing of the 'EA (Electronic Arts) Spouse' letter. This letter detailed the long working hours and horrible side effects that came from working at a major game development studio, kick starting the discussion on gaming crunch culture. EA ended up paying tens-of-millions in lawsuit settlements to former employees for the personal damages incurred working through periods of crunch time. Yet there have been reports that even it's latest game, Anthem, has seen a considerable increase in crunch time, leaving many wondering if anything at EA has changed.
Yet almost 15 years later very little has changed in the game industry in general in regards to crunch culture, with gaming media rife with reports of crunch culture in several major gaming studios. Even recently Naughty Dog, publishers known for the Uncharted and latest release, The Last of Us 2, have come under fire for maintaining a culture of perfectionism where games have to be perfect, no matter the human cost. Some employees even argued that the studio could either be the best place to work, or the worst, depending on if they were in crunch or not.
Crunch Culture and major studios
Crunch culture is perhaps worse in big AAA studios who create extremely long games with very specific details. Take Red Dead Redemption 2's developer Rockstar. When Red Dead Redemption 2 hit shelves in October of 2018, gamers were blown away by the amount of details that the world was populated by. This included everything from realistic irises that expand when near light sources, to dynamic snow effects. Yet with more details comes more work, and a culture of crunch soon developed at Rockstar. A Kotaku report detailed how at one point in late development, it was decided that all cinematic scenes from the game should have black bars. This dramatically increased the workload of many employees, requiring many of the scenes to be reframed. As more and more details emerged of the development of Red Dead Redemption 2, it became clear that a culture of crunch had existed at the studio for months, if not years with employees expected to work 80-100 hour work weeks.
The games produced by crunch culture are undoubtedly impressive and full of details, but the human cost is too high. The good news is that with every gaming ethics report on crunch culture comes a change in studio policy and more awareness from gamers, which will hopefully eliminate the need for crunch culture within the gaming industry.