Crunch time for videogames

Crunch time for videogames

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How one of the most profitable growing industries is built on the backs of its workers

Considering that humanity as a whole has spent unprecedented amounts of time locked down in their homes this year, it’s unsurprising that the videogame industry has seen the kind of profits that would have film moguls ready to smash their Oscars in jealous rage. Videogame sales in January-July raked in over $21 billion, not even counting hardware sales that “only” reached $848 million (and that for consoles that have been on the market for years). These already eye-popping figures are the taking for the U.S. alone and gamers in the wider world have been in no way slacking off when it comes to (console assisted) slacking off. As profits from the gaming sector soar ever higher however there has been an accompanying shadow of gaming corporations effectively forcing long periods of protracted, generally unpaid overtime on their staff with the only end limit being the release of the game. This so-called ‘crunch’ period has seen developers on many of the top games working 100-hour weeks over a period of months prior to the release of the game, often going as far as to sleep in the studio.

For older generations, there is a certain tendency to view modern gaming as roughly the same as playing Asteroids on an old arcade machine: an inherently immature pastime, primarily for teenage boys who need a job and/or girlfriend. On nearly every level however, this no longer rings entirely true; the proliferation of gaming has seen narrative taking an increasingly central role, with sweeping story arcs and tear-jerking finales having almost completely overtaken the “shoot the alien with a bazooka” style of ‘story-telling’ of the 80s and 90s. As far as the idea of gaming being an exclusively male domain, figures recorded by the Interactive Software Federation of Europe in 2012 broke down the gender divide in gamers as being as little as 10 percent with 45% women vs 55% men. The audience for gaming is vast and simply keeps growing which has made corporations take serious notice. The sheer capacity for profit and the ever-growing user base has helped to fuel a culture that has seen ‘crunch’ move from a last ditch attempt to save a game in the last month before its release to the industry norm, even something desirable.   

Whilst there has been an explosion of well received games from indie and even single person gaming studios thanks to game hosting platforms such as Steam or the Epic Store, the vast majority of high selling games comes from the so-called ‘Triple A’ game companies. These companies produce games which have a development cost that’s closer to Saving Private Ryan than Tetris. Costs have ballooned over the past 20 years, going from the then record breaking $64-72 million for Final Fantasy VII (1997) to $265 million for Grand Theft Auto V (2013) and big games often spend up to five years in development. This new standard for development costs has made blockbuster games effectively too big to fail; if an expected industry heavy hitter fails then it would bankrupt the studio. In the past game companies would make dozens of games a year, but now as a result of the raised stakes they tend to focus on two or three anticipated big hits. As a result, this has led to an exponential rise in corporate interference in game design, probably the biggest single factor in ‘crunch’.

Crunch rarely springs from something as critical or simple as developers being slow to deliver. Time and again games will be years into their development when the parent company funding the game will change their mind about what they want. Possibly a character has focus tested poorly and instructions come to replace them, or a new gaming innovation will emerge and they will order the developers to radically shift their plans for the game to feature it. This will require scrapping months of work and rebuilding the new vision from scratch. From writers to concept artists and coders the entire team will have to grind to a halt and undertake an amount of work commensurate to what could be years of already finished work, whilst the release date remains unchanged so as not to affect profit projections. Project leaders who protest or demand extensions could easily see themselves replaced or even see the entire game shuttered and so are forced to resign themselves to the reality that crunch periods for them and their entire staff are unavoidable.

Tales of the realities of crunch are sobering: nine months of 80-hour weeks that see workers cut their own hair in the studio rather than waste their few precious off hours, junior developers coughing up blood out of stress and entire galaxies of broken marriages and lost friendships. Whilst some companies say that crunch is strictly optional, office culture and prospects of job advancement are savage for any hold-outs. A 2014 survey undertaken by the International Game Developers Association found that 81% of game developers had experienced crunch in the last year, and the situation has only worsened over the last six years. Back in the 1990s crunch was limited to the months before a game’s release, once it was shipped developers could (in theory at least) relax. Now almost all games have online connectivity and frequently use player complaints as a way of unofficially focus-testing or bug-spotting. In the 21st century the months after a game’s release is often the most busy time for a development team, working insane hours to ‘fix’ parts of the game that the first wave of gamers object to. Increasingly with priced downloadable content (sometimes story-based missions but often aesthetic items like clothes or hats) game companies attempt to keep their players on the hook for months or even years by releasing new content for a proven unit-shifter rather than work on a new game. By extension this keeps the developers busy as well, working on modifications for the game in real time. The only respite being when they leave to work on a new game which will naturally end up in crunch in due course as well.

As long as the gaming bubble keeps growing this problem will keep growing with it. Gaming isn’t just for fun anymore, it’s for profit and that profit is built on avoidable suffering. Any industry is potentially open to exploitation and as gaming establishes itself as a pillar of the arts industry, it needs to prove it can do better for its workers or it will be Game Over. 

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