Crunch time: the last-minute all-nighter, the deadline rush, the sweat and Red Bull and sleeping at your desk. For fledgling companies, it can be a perverse milestone—one which has become largely taboo. But there's one corner of the tech industry where billion-dollar products still live and die shamelessly by crunch time: video gaming.
Over-exertion is a problem in a lot of industries, but in gaming, whistleblowers and disgruntled employees regularly vent to the press, often anonymously, indicating that marquee game studios have formalized the habit in a way that other industries haven't.
For most game developers, the crunch is a fact of life. An industry survey of approximately 1,000 developers found that 52% of of those surveyed put in between 40-60-hour workweeks during a crunch period, while 32% put in 61-80 hours or more. Furthermore, the study found it almost always negatively affects the personal lives of developers:
Asked to measure the impact crunch cycles have on their social and family life, 1% of devs respond that it has a very positive impact, 4% report a somewhat positive impact, 17% see no impact, 50% see a somewhat negative impact, and 28% see a very negative impact. In general, devs start reporting a negative impact on their social/family lives when crunch schedules exceed 50-hour weeks.
To get a feel for what this was like, I reached out to a game developer with experience at three different marquee studios who agreed to speak to me on the condition of anonymity. According to the developer, the crunch experience varied from place to place. "I've had it both ways. I've had it where I was happy to stay late... and then I had times when it was imposed on me and it had lasting damage to my relationships and my life."
The experience the developer referred to occurred from 2011 to 2012 where they worked for a major studio on a top-selling, highly rated first-person shooter. Their troubles began when top brass at the studio decreed early in 2011 that the game’s release date was moved up a full year—from an original Fall 2013 projection to Fall of 2012.
"Despite our engineering, creative, HR, every kind of risk that we posed to them, and all of our concerns, we were given a due date... So people scrambled to make new decisions, cut features, deprioritize features, come up with a whole new production pipeline."
In the mad dash to adjust to an accelerated timeline, the required crunch time began to escalate.
"It kinda crept on. It was like, ‘Hey guys, we're gonna be ordering food on Tuesdays and Thursdays every week. If you are staying past 7 p.m.; if you have a lot of work to do, email us, and we'll make sure you get a meal.’" For a month or two, that arrangement stood. But then another email went out, adding another day to the list. And then another.
"In it's final form, it was lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and then some people were coming in on Sundays."
The word, "crunch," the developer says, was never used.
"This is people coming in at 9. Working all day. Leaving 10, 11, 12, 1, depending what they were doing. And then coming back the next morning and doing it all over again, six to seven days a week. To my knowledge, five couples got a divorce because of this. Almost the entire creative leadership has now quit, after ship. It was toxic; it was a toxic environment."
"My relationships became affected," the developer said, "I became affected as a person. I wasn't sleeping, I wasn't eating very well. I was going out to drink a lot [sort of laughs] It was the only way to deal…[you start] shirking work, because you feel the anxiety. I'd wake up in the morning, and I'd be like, ‘Oh god I have to go to work. I do not want to get out of bed today, because I don't want to deal with this crap.’ Because if people on the ground are feeling this, it means the leads are feeling it, the execs are feeling it—and they push down harder and make it worse, you know?"
The game industry is an insider affair, but in 2004, a Live Journal post by the disgruntled spouse of an Electronic Arts employee exposed the darkside of crunch time. The post described a management that required longer and longer hours, eventually mandating shifts of 9 a.m. to 10 p.m., seven days a week "with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30 p.m.)."
The post struck a nerve in the game development community, and set off a media firestorm in the industry press. Its author, Erin Hoffman—who had remained anonymous for three years for fear of retribution—stepped forward in 2007 after EA settled two resulting class action lawsuits out of court, paying out over 30 million dollars to employees and reforming a number of practices.
While "EA Spouse" remains a seminal, widely cited case study in the gaming industry, its impact did not seem to herald widespread change.
In early 2010, a group of similarly disgruntled spouses organized themselves and published an open letter on industry trade publication Gamasutra. This time, the studio in question was the San Diego branch of Rockstar Games as its developers crunched to release Red Dead Redemption by mid-2010. Following the letter’s publication, employees of the San Diego studio stepped forward anonymously to corroborate the letter’s claims of poor management, as did a former employee of the company’s New York office, who claimed there were similar conditions at the studio’s East Coast head office.
A year after the Rockstar debacle, a report surfaced detailing comparable conditions at Team Bondi, the studio behind the Rockstar-published L.A. Noire. Last November brought the topic to light again when an ill-advised tweet from development studio Crytek bragged of the thousands of dinners they served during crunch time. And two weeks ago, a Reddit user claiming to have worked on Ubisoft’s alleges numerous unrealistic expectations and unfair demands by management.
Most notable figures in mainstream game development believe that crunch will never go away. It’s an inevitable evil in a field where most projects have an immeasurable number of unknowns and a marketing commitment to a seemingly arbitrary ship date, and it can be caused by any number of reasons. Some of them can be good—an organic response from the team in order to meet a goal that’s in the project’s best interest.
But Avery Wong, cofounder of independent mobile game studio Critical Bacon, does believe there is an element of exploitation in the industry. "You're not in the game industry because you like money. You're in the game industry because you have this passion to make games. So, a lot of crunch time is tolerated because of this passion."
That passion, and the insular nature of the industry, perpetuates harmful crunch periods to this day, 10 years after EA Spouse. It makes it impossible to find employment and have a family, and even affects the livelihood of a few who work independently, outside of the demands of a large studio. It’s also why, of the many instances cited here, few of the people involved use their real names.
When I asked our anonymous developer about the condition of their anonymity and why they felt it was necessary, the dev first quoted the EA Spouse, Erin Hoffman:
I am retaining some anonymity here because I have no illusions about what the consequences would be for my family if I was explicit. However, I also feel no impetus to shy away from sharing our story, because I know that it is too common to stick out among those of the thousands of engineers, artists, and designers that EA employs.
Then they used their own words.
"It is understood that major publishers have the litigation dollars sue into submission. They may not actually follow through but the implied threat is enough for people to remain quiet. Frankly, it's not worth the risk to go out publicly. And on top of that, the industry is a very small place. It may forgive, but it rarely forgets."