Video Game Development and Crunch: The Industry’s Worst Kept Secret

“A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is bad forever.” This quote, often misattributed to Shigeru Miyamoto, relates to something that happens quite often with video game development. Sometimes when a studio hits a snag and they believe that they won’t be able to make their release date, they will delay a game, pushing the release date back to give their developers more time. However, if the publisher won’t allow for their product to be pushed back any further, there is another option: they’ll push their developers further than what is reasonably expected of any worker with a process infamously known as “crunch.” 

“What is crunch?” you may ask. Crunch is the term given when developers are pressed to work extreme amounts of overtime to make sure that their games make their release dates. In a 2019 survey conducted by International Game Developers Association, 40% of the devs surveyed said that they have experienced some form of crunch with their games. The amounts of overtime differ during these periods, with some devs reporting that they could be stuck working over 70 hours some weeks to meet deadlines. 34% of those having to work overtime said they were not compensated for their extra hours. 

The thing about crunch in video games is that it really isn’t anything new. Game companies have been overworking employees for years, especially when it comes to the development of triple A games. Rockstar Games is one of the industry’s most financially successful companies with their biggest release, Grand Theft Auto V, raking in nearly a billion dollars a year. The studio is infamous for the way they push employees to work inexcusable amounts of hours. 

Red Dead Redemption (2010) was made with awful working conditions that left its staff burnt out. Almost a decade later, nothing changed with the creation of its sequel.

This even dates back to 2009 with the development of Red Dead Redemption. An open letter published on behalf of the “Wives of Rockstar San Diego Employees” accused Rockstar of working its employees during RDR’s development 12 hours a day for 6 days a week. This type of work overload continued on nearly a decade later with the development of Red Dead Redemption II, where employees were still expected to work 60 to 80 hours per week for months, all in dedication to the game.

One of the ways that studios often get away with being able to push their employees to the brink as often as they do is by labeling some crunch as “non-mandatory.” This means that none of the workers have to engage in working beyond their work schedule with crunch. However, as reported by Kotaku, the workers at Rockstar say that if they do not commit to working overtime, they will be looked at differently by their superiors. A handful of employees cite a “culture of fear,” as a main reason as to why they commit to crunch, as well as a “fear of getting fired, fear of under-performing, fear of getting yelled at, fear of delivering a shitty game.” 

I want to stray away from Rockstar games, because—despite how hard their workers were pushed—Red Dead Redemption II received near universal acclaim from outlets and fans alike, and is heralded as a once in a generation experience. I do not want to give the idea that this is always the case: that by pushing developers to put in ungodly hours of work, the result leads to an incredible product. In most cases it will not. 

The most common need for crunch stems from mismanagement by the heads of studios. You’ll occasionally find them referring to the time from when crunch starts to when it ends as when the magic happens. So, by the time the game is released, all the bugs, glitches and any other errors prevalent before will be ironed out.  Except video games aren’t made with magic wands and wishful thinking. They’re made with the hard work of hundreds of game testers, artists, coders, and sound designers, who all get taken advantage of by their higher-ups when crunch is rolled out as a last minute resort. This doesn’t lead to “magic” happening for the game; it leads to the team being overworked, overstressed and can leave the door open for more problems than fixes. 

Just look at CD Projekt Red and its 2020 release, Cyberpunk 2077, the much anticipated game that suffered delay, after delay, then went gold, and then was delayed again. Eventually the game couldn’t be delayed anymore and had to be released, so in an attempt to speed up production, the staff of CDPR were told that they would have to put in mandatory crunch hours and work 6 days a week up until the game’s release. All of this would lead up to what many consider to be one of the most botched game releases of the past decade. 

The game was released with what appeared to be a limitless amount of bugs and glitches, from technical issues with the game often hard crashing for players, to a narrative impacted by storylines being cut so the game could be ready for launch, to a promised multiplayer mode that had to be scrapped entirely. Cyberpunk released in a condition so dismal that it was eventually pulled from digital stores by Sony. All of this despite months and months of CDPR’s devs being worked ragged. There was no magic found during these periods of crunch, just people being forced to work inhumane hours to make a company’s fiscal year look better. 

That’s where we may have to look inward if the process of crunch continues. I’ve found there to be this guilty feeling that comes with playing certain games the more horror stories about their development have been made public. Recently I’ve been playing Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga and it’s been great. I’ve been enjoying the co-op mode and laughing at all the jokes while enjoying all the fun little details that the game has jammed into it. However, prior to the game’s release, articles began to surface detailing just how mismanaged the project at studio Traveler’s Tales was. These articles detailed yet more stories of workers with low salaries being forced to work unpaid overtime. Long-time workers of the studio said that their experience has given them “PTTSD” from trying to fulfill the unreal expectations being thrust upon them. 

Any time I step away from the game, I find myself thinking, should someone have had to suffer just so I could have some fun?  If players find themselves putting down money to buy this product, are they inadvertently supporting awful work practices in the games industry? Is that even their responsibility? I think the sad truth is that no one individual can stop it. Crunch periods have been so ingrained into the system that veteran devs simply consider it a part of the game development process. However, it doesn’t mean that there aren’t studios out there that aren’t trying to change the way things have been. 

Supergiant Games, the studio behind masterclass action-RPGs Transistor, Bastion, and Hades, have a culture behind the way that they develop games that goes against the grain—a culture that supports their developers both inside and out of their work, never forces their devs to work long hours and offers them unlimited vacation time. It is the studio’s belief that, as long as their devs want to come in to work on their games, the work they will put in will help elevate the projects that the studio puts out. 

Hades (2018): A beautiful game made by a beautiful studio.

Of course, that style of work is easier for a smaller indie studio to uphold, but even bigger ones are starting to change their approach too. Insomniac Games, developers of the Ratchet & Clank series and the massively successful Marvel’s Spider-Man games, are also working to end the cycle of crunch. The studio is putting forward many initiatives to support the mental health of its developers; along with dialing back the scale of projects as to not overwork them.

Beyond just the studios themselves, developers from the industry’s biggest companies have been standing up to their employers the past couple of years. Employees from Blizzard-Activision, Ubisoft, and Riot Games have held some form of protest against the culture of crunch and harassment that has surrounded these studios. This all happened alongside the establishment of the first video game union in North America. A wide-scale labor movement may soon be happening within the industry. 

While every step towards change against crunch culture is one in the right direction, sadly it does not mean it will go away anytime soon. Crunch has been so ingrained into the development process for so many studios that it can’t just be expected to go away overnight. However, now may be the time that we start to encourage this change from within. 

Because while it is important to hold those accountable who do use crunch as a crutch, we should start holding the studios that attempt to make meaningful change to a higher standard. Instead of awarding a studio like Naughty Dog with a best directing award, after it consistently overworked its employees, it’s time we start to acknowledge and appreciate the studios who create a better place for their devs to work. We as a community should show that we care for the creators just as much as we do for the games that they create.