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Crunch Culture Consequences

by Jared McCarty on 10/15/19 10:23:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

In late 2004, an anonymous letter was penned from the spouse of a game developer working for Electronic Arts (EA.) This particular letter laid out — in no short terms — the abhorrent and frankly immoral working conditions developers of the time had to undergo within the walls of EA. At the time, the letter was written by user “ea_spouse,” although it was revealed a few years later that it was written by author/developer Erin Hoffman. This anonymous letter made waves throughout the industry, and is often sited as the first time labor issues within the video game field became highly publicized. That was nearly 16 years ago. The games Erin Hoffman’s spouse was working on may have been FIFA ’06, Madden ’06, The Sims 2, and Battlefield 2: Modern Combat. While these games released in 2004 and 2005 may have been massive, influential games, they seem archaic by today’s standards. This allows for an easy conception of how long ago this letter was actually drafted.

In 2010, 6 whole years later, yet another letter was anonymously penned by the spouses of developers. This time, it was the wives of Rockstar developers that wanted their voice to be heard. This letter, although written poorly relative to the EA spouse letter, details roughly the same thing. Grueling 90 hour workweeks were the norm. Chronic headaches, depression, fatigue, and sickness became commonplace. Both letters ring the same bell and hit a lot of the same points, showing overlap in studios and a problem with the industry as a whole. The Rockstar wives letter was written nearly a decade ago, so surely things have gotten better by now, in 2019? Unfortunately, not really.

In 2017, the International Game Developers Association posted the Developer Satisfaction Survey (DSS) to get a better understanding of how developers feel about their jobs as a whole. They found that three out of every four game developers still experience crunch times during developing, working more than 40 hours a week. Of the respondents, 32 percent state that even though they do not have “crunch,” they still experience periods of extended work hours or expansive overtime, and the numbers get even more extreme. 35 percent reported working 50 to 59 hours a week, 28 percent report 60 to 69 hours a week, and 13 percent stated they worked over 70 hours at the office during crunch periods. That means that slightly more than one out of every ten developers will be working 70 plus hours a week for potentially months on end. Freelancers tend to have it even worse, with only 4 percent that responded stating that their contracts included any time off. Half of the responding sample of freelancers also state that the don’t make more than $15,000 a year developing, while 60 percent of full time employees said they made over$50,000 a year.

While this may not seem like such a bad wage, many studios are located in California, which is the United State’s 6th most expensive state to live in. Worse still, many developers are paid salary, meaning that their umpteenth hour of work for the week isn’t compensated in any way. 34 percent of the developers that answered the DSS said that they received no compensation what-so-ever, while 44 percent said they got compensation in ways of free meals and 29 percent got additional time off. If they were paid hourly — or unionized — they would be compensated for their overtime, if it existed at all.

Some people ask, “Why are the developers staying with these companies, or in the field in general? Why don’t they leave?” Well, they are. Most developers stay in the field for anywhere between 3–6 years (in the tech world you’re still considered a “junior” by 6 years.) Some of this may be attributed to the lack of job security that comes along with developer jobs, but it tends to be linked back to the grueling hours programmers have to endure. Many of them seem to jump ship to standard programming positions, which tend to pay a lot more and have much more manageable hours. Regrettably, this has caused a shortage in programmers, especially in places like the United Kingdom. Fewer developers mean more work for the ones that stayed, which in turn means more crunch.

Therein lies one of crunch culture’s most glaring problems. Video game developers take less pay, work harder hours, and have less job security than other tech hires because they’re passionate about the thing they’re creating. Passion tends to be used by employers to exploit and abuse their hardest working employees, which is blatantly obvious in the games industry. EA and Rockstar may have some of the most vocal detractors, but they are not the only ones. Huge names like BioWare, Treyarch, Epic Games, NetherRealm, and even CD Projekt Red have been accused of unacceptable crunch times. These companies make billions of a dollars a year, but feed off of the passion and dedication of their employees.

The worst part about this situation is that long term crunch doesn’t even work. In the short term, crunch can be an effective way to pull together on a project and really make sure deadlines are met sufficiently. In the long term however, crunch is shown to actually slow down worker productivity. Individuals who work 60 hour work weeks are actually shown to be two-thirds as efficient as those who work 40 hour work weeks. This model can be applied to most work environments, and video game development is no exception. Overworked employees make more mistakes, causing other facets of that team to devote more time to fixing the mistake — overworking themselves in the process — thus making them prone to more mistakes. It is a vicious cycle, and one that has been proven to be unsustainable. There is a tangible human cost to enjoying our favorite electronic entertainment (being labeled as “passion”) and it needs to be addressed, whether publishers want to admit it or not.

So, what can we do as a community? Most video game enthusiasts have a general understanding of the arduous and difficult undertaking that is creating a video game. As such, we need to show more patience with developers, and show publishers that we will not accept terrible conditions for the people who bleed for our favorite pastime. Show publishers that — as with Nintendo — we will allow games to be pushed back if the date is just too close, and that we will be understanding about said delay. It would also be pertinent to slow down the hype train on big releases. One could argue that pre-orders are helping to ruin the industry as-is, and massive pre-order promise is just more ammunition for publishers to push developers in the last few weeks leading to a game’s release to their breaking points. Hundreds, if not thousands, of real human beings are behind some of our most treasured electronic experiences, and it’s time that the industry, the consumers and most importantly, the publishers, recognize that, and make a change.

Hey everyone! I hope you enjoyed the read and found out some more about crunch. I’m aware most people know crunch culture exists, but many are unaware of the extent of it within the industry. Be nice to the next developer you meet, as it may be their one day a month off!

Thank you so much for reading!

Jared McCarty

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