Publishers and developers speak out against crunch

In the wake of Red Dead Redemption 2, talk of extreme working hours reaches a crescendo.

Recently, the conversation surrounding crunch culture in game development has grown from a soft murmur to a cacophonous debate being held on the public stage. Thanks to Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser’s comments to Vulture about he and his team working 100-hour weeks on Red Dead Redemption 2, as well as the subsequent Kotaku report, the mental and physical consequences of intense crunch have been dragged into the spotlight.

While the demands of modern game design are more strenuous than ever, not every major studio codones extreme overtime. In an interview with Gamasutra, Ubisoft Quebec managing director Patrick Klaus described his team’s efforts to strike a work-life balance while developing Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

“While we can always do better, I can tell you hand on heart that [Assassin's Creed Odyssey] hasn’t required a massive crunch, like maybe some of the triple-As from five or ten years ago,” Klaus told Gamasutra. “We can still always do better, but we have managed pretty well to succeed in delivering a game of huge magnitude which is hitting a good quality [level], while making sure that our teams are not burnt out and disgusted with working in games.”

There’s no question that crunch is harmful to the well-being of workers, but there are also mounds of evidence that the finished product will suffer as well. Seeing leadership for a huge studio such as Ubisoft admit that there is a lot of work to eliminate crunch is a welcome step in the right direction, but there’s still a long way to go. Now that we are publicly discussing the negative effects of crunch time, many developers and publishers are stepping forward to offer advice on how to avoid its damaging results. In a recent series at GamesIndustry, some developers gave their two cents.

“I've learned over the years, the issue was down to a combination of commonly occurring issues,” said Casper Field of Wish Studios. “These I would summarise as: poor planning by (often inexperienced) managers; under-staffing of the team; over-specification of the product; and refusal or inability of middle management to push back on demands from above or outside. It's usually a fatal combination of those factors.”

That outside influence might affect a game’s development is a common refrain in the industry. Criterion VP Matt Webster told GamesIndustry that avoiding that influence is a key element in reducing crunch time. “There's a big fear out there about whether a product is good enough and often there's not enough tools to measure this accurately,” Webster said. “This leads to management just putting in more features, more hours and more people onto a product, to try and alleviate that fear. It's important to not give in to this easy way out and to keep the faith. Believe in your original vision and the implementation of that in the software.”

The most important element to reducing extreme working hours is leadership. Studio leaders are the ones determining working hours. They’re the ones who set goals and demand that they’re met. Management can determine a project’s success or failure, and they’re often the first and last line of defense against debilitating crunch.

“The leaders in the business need to lead by example, avoid sending important emails on weeknights or weekends and encourage holidays and long breaks,” Shaun Rutland, CEO and co-founder of Hutch Games told GamesIndustry. “Your next big idea will come from rested and motivated staff returning from holiday.”

This attitude seems to shape Webster’s work philosophy at Criterion. While leadership has an obligation to deliver a quality product, Webster said, it also has a responsibility to ensure the well-being of its workers. A happy workforce will produce a better product. “It's up to leadership to have the responsibility and discipline to know what they are making, to not bite off more than they can chew.”

It’s good to see the industry addressing unhealthy work conditions, but there’s still a long way to go. Development teams are made up of people with families, friends, and other responsibilities beyond work life. A healthy team may result in a healthy product, but more important than a polished game is the well-being of that team. The games industry has been incredibly volatile as of late, and it’s time to start considering the human cost of a medium that values numbers over empathy.

Sam has been freelancing since 2016, and has bylines at IGN, PCGamesN, PCGamer, and Unwinnable. When not writing about games, he is most likely taking care of his two dogs or pretending to know a lot about artisan coffee. Get in touch with Sam by emailing him at sdesatoff@gmail.com, or follow him on Twitter.