The Cost of Corporate Crunch

A year in the gaming press isn’t complete without at least one horrifying tale of terrible labor practices. In 2020, it came from the formerly beloved developers at CD Projekt Red, a Polish video game studio, which recently unveiled Cyberpunk 2077. The main story around Cyberpunk 2077’s release was its spectacular failure. It released buggy and unfinished, and that was large enough to even catch the attention of some of the traditional media. 

A spin off of the popular Cyberpunk roleplaying game, Cyberpunk 2077 was highly anticipated since its initial announcement in 2012 and especially since its initial release was confirmed for 2020 during mid-2019. But even before its release, leaked stories and anonymous sources were revealing a culture of consistent and required employee overtime, or “crunch” as it’s called in the video game industry, despite promises from CD Projekt Red’s studio heads that this wouldn’t happen.

Crunch isn’t just overtime — it is consistent, regular and brutal. Crunch is to overtime what the nuclear bomb is to a firecracker. And it doesn’t just happen at CD Projekt Red. It is a regular tool used by project managers and studio heads at many big and small video game companies to hit deadlines and push out products. It has been a problem in the video game industry for more than two decades.

The first big story of video game crunch came in 2004, with the publication of a letter by “EA spouse,” the anonymous wife of an Electronic Arts (EA) employee. She detailed the sadistic culture of crunch in the company. What started as months of working eight hours a day, six days a week turned into twelve hours a day, six days a week and eventually twelve hours a day, seven days a week. The only break the employees received was the occasional Saturday evening, after 6:30 p.m. And, as EA spouse makes clear, the studio managers and producers had factored crunch into their schedules, setting deadlines that they knew couldn’t be achieved without crunch. 

Things now aren’t much better. A quick search of “video game crunch” will return articles from the past five years, all talking about high profile incidents of crunch from those years. Crunch isn’t just a bad labor practice anymore. It’s a part of the culture of many game studios. Even if it’s not explicitly required, it’s an unstated expectation in the video game industry. Often, managers and studio heads will use it to quickly shift course on video games to account for focus group testing or to hit unrealistic deadlines. While overtime in other industries is used, mostly, at the end of projects, in the video game industry, big studios use it regularly throughout a project’s life cycle.

Cyberpunk 2077’s crunch was no exception. For the months leading up to the bungled release, employees worked mandatory six-day work weeks, and it was later revealed that some developers had been working nights and weekends for the past year. The crunch was intensified by numerous delays. This kind of crunch has a high human cost. Not only do workers become less productive, they can often fall ill. They lose weight. Their relationships suffer. Some developers detail how they don’t see their families for weeks. And much of this crunch is uncompensated. The developers, programmers and animators who work on video games are salaried, and thus exempt from overtime pay, and promised bonuses are generally withheld unless the game obtains certain review scores on release. 

This is not a niche issue either. Video games are a massive industry, larger than movies and North American sports combined, with a worth totaling almost 180 billion dollars. In the U.S. alone, over 250,000 people are employed in the video games industry.

Those huge numbers come from a broken model, a model that underlies all of the modern entertainment industry. Big corporations and publishers control enormous purse strings, and they continually bet on massive projects that need to have record breaking sales to make money at the cost of the well-being of their workers. Movies have shifted towards the Marvel-model, big-budget schlock, which sometimes requires computer-generated imagery (CGI) artists and animators to crunch

This model of mega-corporate control doesn’t produce good art. It produces repetitive garbage. Workers should unionize, but unions don’t solve the underlying problems of these industries. Creative control is given to executives who care more about money than art and people. Because executives bet huge sums on these projects, they are unwilling to take risks on new ideas. Instead, they choose to ape what has come before. 

This has happened in movies, with the rise of the superhero genre, and in video games, with the proliferation of the generic first-person shooter, the Call of Duty series being the worst offender. These types of games rarely offer more than updated graphics. At the behest of unions these games and movies could be made without crunch, but the underlying mindset of the industry is the same. This mindset places profit above all other considerations. And the biggest, and most consistent, profit is not found in risky artistic moves. That kind of profit is found in repeating what worked yesterday.

There is hope though, at least for the video game industry. As Steam (a digital game distribution platform) grows, independent developers increasingly don’t need to use publishers to get their games seen. Because of this, some of the best games in the past couple years have been both independent and made without crunch. Supergiant Games, the studio that made Hades — named the Game of the Year by publications like Time and the Washington Post — explicitly rejects crunch, requiring their employees to take two weeks of leave every year. Motion Twin, the studio behind Dead Cells (one of the top hundred reviewed games on Stream), pays every member of their eight-person team the same salary to ensure everyone feels equally valued, and no member of the team is allowed to work more than five days a week. These games show that highly successful and well-received products can be made without exploitative labor practices. 

If we want the rest of the industry to follow the example set by Supergiant and Motion Twin, we need to move to an entertainment model that gives creative control to artists, not cynical executives. Consumers can, and should, support independent art. They should buy independent games. The more politically minded can get involved in movements such as Game Workers Unite. While not a union itself, Game Workers Unite advocates for better international labor practices for all workers involved in the games industry. Movements like these across the entertainment industry are vital to making sure that workers can continue to do what they love, without being put into exploitative situations. There’s even a chapter of Game Workers Unite in Boston.

But this problem will not be accomplished solely through changing consumer behavior or even through establishing unions. The current structure of project financing favors the moneyed few over the artistic many. Until that is changed, big-budget kitsch will continue to dominate. I guess that means we can expect to see the twentieth Call of Duty: Modern Warfare remake sometime in 2040.