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Words: Olivia Sheed
From 100-hour work weeks for Red Dead Redemption 2, to "stress casualties" resulting from the production of Anthem, there is a systemic problem in the video game industry - and another casualty is on the horizon.
Over the last few years, reports of unhealthy working conditions at major game studios, like those above, have caught the eye of the average gamer. As these stories have become more widespread, and more frequently covered by the mainstream media, an unspoken truth of the industry has been forced into the open. The issue of "crunch culture".
Crunch culture is a practice adopted by many triple-A studios where employees are expected to work over their contracted hours per week, at any given time during the development of a game. Many workers have expressed that they feel forced to comply with this extreme work culture for fear of being replaced, or for making extra work for their colleagues. Not only is this a terrible standard in the workplace, but those who work on a fixed salary are not guaranteed to be paid overtime. (If you want a video explainer, we made one in 2020 which is as true now as it was then.)
And yet, high-profile figures such as Bethesda's Todd Howard have even called crunch culture "deserved", suggesting that some amount of it is actually "healthy". Polish studio CD Projekt Red has also defended the practice - but we'll get to them in more detail, later.
There have been many articles written on the effect crunch culture can have on the individual worker financially, mentally and physically - but still, not everyone who enjoys video games, who plays them without much thought given to how they're made, agrees that the practice is a bad thing. As long as the end result is a finished game that sells well and scores highly on Metacritic, the crunch that made the release possible is too easily swept aside, by players and the higher-ups at publishers alike.
Watch a video of Cyberpunk 2077's release-period performance, below...
However, to paraphrase a famous Shigeru Miyamoto quote, a crunched game will never be a perfect game. There is no greater example of this than Cyberpunk 2077, a game that will forever be famous for its disastrous launch and horrendous crunch in the lead up to it. A report from Bloomberg revealed that crunch was made mandatory by the developer, CD Projekt Red, where the developers were required to work on the game for six days a week, after the studio previously vowed not to do so.
While this overtime was paid, the cost of this crunch can be seen in the finished product, which was buggy at best and near-unplayable at worst. Even though they had already delayed the game multiple times, by refusing to budge on the final December 2020 release date CDPR effectively killed Cyberpunk 2077's chances of being everything fans wanted it to be, before it had even released.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing after all, but many gamers have not learned from this incident - and another, very similar situation is looming ahead. The release date for the highly anticipated Dying Light 2: Stay Human was announced by its makers, Techland, at the end of May to much hype, but little scepticism. Several reports regarding poor working conditions at Techland have been published during the developmental phase of the game, but they seem to have been all but forgotten by many gamers preferring instead to simply focus on the game they think they're getting.
A worrying (but familiar) trend is surfacing when examining the various interviews with current and previous members of the Techland team. In May 2020, one anonymous developer, as covered by PolinskiGamedev, simply describes the game production process as a "f*cking mess", citing issues in "story direction, gameplay direction" and that a large portion of the workforce don't know what the game will look like.
There has been a revolving door of writers responsible for the story of Dying Light 2, most notably Chris Avellone who was removed from the project and the company after disputed allegations of sexual harassment arose. Even before his departure, it was reported that Avellone and upper management clashed constantly over the type of story the game was wanting to tell.
Avellone's successor, Paweł Selinger, seemed like a good choice, as he had worked on the first Dying Light game and was an industry veteran. However, reports have stated that starting on the project was like working on a "Frankenstein's monster" of Avellone's material, as well as that of five other writing teams. Selinger left less than a year later. If a narrative has had so many writers, opinions and changes over its production, it's not hard to see why many of the people who worked on it had no idea what the main campaign would look like.
Many of the interviewees blame a toxic management system, one worker quoted as saying "The fish rots from the head" - and it isn't hard to see where they are coming from.
Repeated issues with Techland CEO Paweł Marchewka have apparently impeded the progress on Dying Light 2 - he is said to have provided multiple ideas and requests for the game, only to change his mind at a later date. A February 2021 report on TheGamer revealed: "Marchewka wants to work with the best people in the industry, and so the studio constantly hires new experts. Presumably, this also helps to refill the ranks, since staff turnover is high." Over the course of the game's development, it can be estimated that between 50-70 workers have left the studio, over an eighth of the entire workforce.
Even if a game comes out to critical acclaim and commercial success, that doesn't erase the suffering that was put into it. Studios such as Rockstar and Naughty Dog are some of the worst offenders, with stories of "100-hour work weeks" on Red Dead Redemption 2 and the hospitalisation of staff during the production of The Last of Us Part II representing huge problems beneath a surface of award-winning triumphs. While these projects were successful, that success was compromised by the number of overworked, defeated and ultimately exhausted creatives burned out of an industry they used to love. Crunch never guarantees a good game, and so gambling with people's health and wellbeing shouldn't be the way that games get made.
The trends being shown by the stories coming out of Techland are immediately comparable to the worst of what's gone on at other big studios, and yet not much is being discussed amongst Dying Light fans. Though some were sceptical ahead of the release announcement, much of their worry has morphed into excitement at the game being promised. But what those fans receive come winter 2021 is far from certain to live up to their expectations, based on the precedent of previous instances of crunch and poor working environments.
Crunch shouldn't be a part of the gaming industry for many moral reasons - but if we don't recognise the tell-tale patterns in crunched games, history will be doomed to repeat itself over and over again. Games that once had promise will be warped by the exhaustion of overworked staff, the failed assurances of upper management, and the misplaced trust of the people who play the game. Crunch not only destroys good games, but it can also harm everyone remotely close to it.
What can we do about it though? If you're not prepared to outright not buy a game, then the least anyone can do is acknowledge the slog that developers often go through to produce that title, especially in the triple-A space. Be more aware of the human effort, the cost, and be empathetic towards those who've burned out to bring you that new piece of entertainment. After that, we can further identify the toxic traits of a crunched game, and question what the end product will actually look like when we're seeing them appear once more. Doing so can save disappointment and keep expectations in check. Whichever way you look at it, scrutinising crunch helps the whole industry and everyone in it.
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