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Rockstar Games, crunch, and the great shame of the video games biz

October 17,2018 19:22

Building a video game ain't easy. A great game looks effortless when you sit down and play it, but few people really consider just how much went into making it that way. Lots of people have been ooo-ing and ahh-ing over all the tiny details in Red Dead ...and more »

Building a video game ain't easy.
A great game looks effortless when you sit down and play it, but few people really consider just how much went into making it that way. Lots of people have been ooo-ing and ahh-ing over all the tiny details in Red Dead Redemption 2 from Rockstar Games, but the revelation this week that those details may have been fueled by 100-hour work weeks prompted shocked and horrified responses.
It's also gotten a lot of people talking about a troubling pattern of inhumane working conditions in the game development scene. Overwork is common, and once you couple that with the studio downsizing that follows the completion of many projects, you're left with people working themselves to death with little reward.
To be clear, this is not a new conversation. Developers have been working unhealthy amounts of hours in the name of finishing a game for a long time, but in recent years players in the media and fan community both have started to push back, and ask why this needs to be a thing.
The ticking clock of gamedev

Image: rockstar games

Here's a good thought exercise. Pick any popular game, the sort that gets mainstream coverage and sells for $60 new. 
Got one in mind? Good. That game took at least three years to make. For sure that long, and possibly longer. Over the life of its development, more than 100 people — and probably multiple hundreds — worked on it.
Three years is a long time. Three years ago, no one could seriously entertain the idea of a President Trump. In lots of games, if you watch the credits all the way through you'll typically see a section titled "development babies" — literally, the babies that were born while the game was in development. Building a modern video game is a lengthy process.
It's also a process that works on a deadline. Because of the way the video game biz is wired, the biggest "AAA" games tend to be propelled by a major (and costly) marketing push that lays out a release date many months in advance. 

That game you're thinking of took at least three years to make.

Changing that release date is even more costly — people continue their work during that whole time, and then there are all the attendant costs of re-tooling the marketing campaign on top of that — so once the date is out, the studio is working against a ticking clock to deliver a stable and playable finished video game. For the biggest games, like Call of Duty, it's a holiday release or bust. 
All of which means that when something goes wrong during development, there's no ideal solution. Pushing the release date sometimes works — you'll see that happen a lot around the holidays (when the biggest games typically come out), with developers often citing the need for "more polish." 
But delays aren't financially viable every time. A new Call of Duty gets released every fall. It doesn't miss that window. So when development on 2018's edition, Black Ops 4, started lagging, people behind the scenes made the decision to cut the story mode out of the game — a first for the series.
(Call of Duty: Black Ops 4 doesn't suffer at all for that change, to be clear, but lots of other games aren't so fortunate.)
For games that can't get away with either a release delay or a narrowed scope on the project, there's really only one alternative: work harder. This scenario, often referred to as the "crunch" phase of development, involves large portions of the dev team working above and beyond their normal (or even legally allowable) hours, typically with no overtime pay.
Video game development is a competitive job market, and it's largely filled with people who do what they do because they love it. So when crunch rolls around, you get a situation where people willingly, even enthusiastically, plunge themselves into an unhealthy work dynamic simply in the hopes of impressing the top brass and getting ahead.
Not all crunch is equal

Image: rockstar games

That's not always a bad thing. Working hard, going above and beyond — to get ahead in most fields, it's a good idea to sometimes say "Hours be damned, I'm gonna get this thing done." A perceptive employer acknowledges that and rewards it appropriately, while also openly encouraging moderation and healthy choices.
In the case of game development, the best studios plan for crunch ahead of time to ensure it's handled in a healthy way. Because of the way game development works — or, really, any project-based, deadline-oriented job — putting in extra hours is just a requirement sometimes.
"I think it needs to be kept short," said Ron Gilbert, creator of the Monkey Island series, in an interview from longtime industry pro Michael Futter's book, The GameDev Business Handbook.
"Crunching, to me, is a sprint for the finish line. It's like, 'We're gonna ship this game in a month and these are the things we need to do. We're just gonna crunch and we're gonna get them done to make that deadline."

"Everyone knows that crunch is linked to burnout. That's basic stuff."

This is true for lots of games as they're coming into the home stretch. Those final months are some of the busiest, as developers try to polish off their creation and stamp out bugs while also figuring out other easy ways to make the day one experience even better for players.
It's not a situation where throwing more bodies at the problem is necessarily helpful, even. Each game has its own needs and processes, and introducing newcomers to an otherwise well-oiled machine in the latest stages of a project can be more of a burden than a benefit.
So in the end, you've got a short timeline under which a game needs to be finished and a locked team of people available to work on it. Say there are 10 people, roughly 10,000 hours of work to go, and 10 weeks left to finish. Those 10 people are going to work 100-hour weeks for 10 straight weeks — two and a half months — to get the job done.
That's awful. There's no advance planning that can fix such a situation; it's just unhealthy. Futter, in the same chapter, points to a 2017 talk at the annual Game Developer's Conference in which Dr. Jennifer Hazel, founder of the mental health organization Check Point, talked about crunch.
"[Crunch] works for about two weeks, and then, after that, you reduce your productivity, you reduce your financial benefit, and you burn out your employees," Futter quotes Hazel saying. "Everyone knows that crunch is linked to burnout. That's basic stuff."
Talking is only the first step

One important thing to understand here: Crunch periods have become the norm in game development over a long period of time. It's why Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser seemed to mark the studio's 100-hour work weeks on Red Dead Redemption 2 as something to be proud of, and probably why the reporter on that story didn't challenge the notion in the moment.
(It should be noted here that Houser clarified his remarks on Monday, stating that the 100-hour week comment applied specifically to the senior writing team, which he's a part of. That clarification has drawn a range of responses, ranging from support to disbelief, but that's a subject for a different discussion. For our purposes here, the original remark is what kicked off the conversation this week.)

Crunch periods have become the norm in game development over a long period of time.

No one is really sure how to solve this problem, but most seem to agree it's going to require some degree of norm-shattering. The deadline-driven nature of game development could be curtailed by less of a focus — at least far out from launch — on release dates. And the industry as a whole could stand to cool it on prioritizing the holiday season as some idealized release window for all the biggest games.
An industry-wide unionization of game development talents would also help when it comes to negotiating and enforcing fair employment practices.
Outside of gamedev, critics ought to spend more time thinking about the human cost behind the games they're covering. Reporters should push back against claims that hold up crunch as a positive. And fans can use the power of social media to let studios know they're not happy. If a small squad of bad faith trolls can get someone fired, a larger group of concerned fans can certainly be heard — and listened to — as well.
Beyond all of that, it's important to take the time to listen to people who know better. The issues surrounding crunch are pervasive all throughout the games industry, and lots of veteran developers have spoken about it openly. 
Sift through some of these threads to get more of a firsthand glimpse at exactly what crunch entails and what the human cost looks like. (Note: These are all Twitter threads, so make sure to click through and read the full stories.)
This is a serious problem. The more you educate yourself on what actually goes into all those great games you play, the better equipped you'll be to let business leaders know that unhealthy work practices aren't tolerable.

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