Crunch Culture's looming threat to the gaming industry


Tasha Acres (she/her) discusses the prevalence and the dangers of crunch culture for games developers

Article Image

Image by CD Projekt Red Presskit

By Tasha Acres

In December 2020, one of the most anticipated games of the year was released after three consecutive delays. And yet, when Cyberpunk 2077 was launched on players’ consoles around the world, they discovered countless bugs and issues that made gameplay unbearable. From typos on signs to physics-defying vehicles, this reveal could be seen as embarrassing from a studio that had previously developed the award-winning Witcher series. These delays pushed workers at CD Projekt Red into several crunch periods which, according to Polygon, included six-day weeks when CDPR previously promised against the practice. Before we even scratch the surface of toxic workplaces within the gaming industry, we have evidence that crunching cannot always promise a high quality game.

Crunch has been too normalised in the gaming industry, particularly by Triple-A Studios, but also with the less famous developers of free-to-play games, whose software is dependent on a constant stream of new content, leading to hours of overtime to ensure deadlines are met. While the issue was first highlighted through an anonymous letter known as the “EA Spouse Letter” in 2004, it certainly remains significant to this day: the development of Red Dead Redemption 2 reportedly led to 100+ hour weeks, and Hogwarts Legacy is also experiencing delays. The game was originally set to have been released in 2021, its release date for the PlayStation 5, Xbox Series S and X, and PC is February 10, 2023, while the Play-Station 4 and Xbox One is now April 4, 2023. The Last of Us: Part II also experienced major delays upon release, and while the game was technically outstanding, many fans questioned the structure of the narrative, as if the delay and subsequent crunch had been used to rehash the game altogether. Although Red Dead Redemption 2 received excellent reviews, indicating that its crunch period was potentially useful for the game, for Cyberpunk 2077 and The Last of Us II, the reception may not be wholly positive.

Imagine being shackled to your desk for twelve hours a day, racing to complete a task that your colleague is waiting on so that they can complete their own task and avoid being chastised. Imagine deadlines closing in, so fast and unforgiving, that you aren’t able to eat dinner in fear of missing them. And throughout it all, you aren’t being compensated for your effort and time. IGN reported that Todd Howard, director of Bethesda, believes that every game “deserves’’ some crunch at the end. Additionally, Naughty Dog’s perfectionist approach to its projects means that while the games they release are artistically outstanding, the workers behind each masterpiece are devastatingly overworked, leading to mass depar-tures from the company due to burnout. It isn’t a surprise, then, that the issue of crunch culture is now being addressed and analysed more often by media outlets. However, this doesn’t mean that games are extraordinary because they have been crunched.

Ubisoft claim that they avoided crunch culture with their 2018 release of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Their awareness of the issue presents an admirable example to the rest of the industry: in a Game Developer interview, Patrick Klaus expressed his consideration of the risks of crunch culture, understanding that “[the studio] risk[s] disengaging” their team, and they “will simply not get the best out of those talents if [they’re] forcing them to work insane hours in a crunch.” Of course, the almost annual release of games in the Assassin’s Creed franchise is a different discussion altogether, but it’s impressive that despite this rapid turnaround, staff such as Klaus can declare that they have avoided crunch periods.

Is there a way to decrease the prevalence of crunch culture? Is it possible that we as consumers can express more concern for the wellbeing of artists and programmers rather than an earlier release date? A precedent has already been set by games such as The Outer Worlds and Fallout: New Vegas to prove that crunch culture isn’t necessary in the first place, as both were outstanding games that are still praised to this day. Unionisation is a solution that workers are gravitating towards: a group called Game Workers Unite is at the forefront of the campaign. However, as this is only a recent development, it is unclear how far along this path the gaming industry is. If video games continue to become more expansive and expensive without compensating its developers fairly, the future of the game industry becomes uncertain as workers may begin to wonder; is it all worth it?