Level Up! | Crunch culture in the gaming industry

Level Up! Is a biweekly blog about all types of games, from Dungeons and Dragons to Mario Party.

By Sinéad McDevitt, Digital Manager

Video games are very hard to make, especially on a deadline.

A bug can come out that the developers don’t know how to fix, or maybe the quality assurance team found something that crashes the game. Now you have to go back and fix the game, and that’s not as simple as going back and rewriting a scene in a book. You have no idea what in the code might be causing a problem, and it might be very counterintuitive and require hours of time trying to fix it — hours you might not have if the game needs to ship in a month and there are other things still unfinished.

You can either delay the game, hire more staff or force your developers to crunch, and it is unfortunately common for team leaders to choose the third option.

Crunch is something any college student can understand, to some extent. It’s when you hunker down at 1 a.m. to finish a 10-page paper due in five hours as you chug coffee, Monster energy or whatever your preferred caffeinated drink is. That’s not healthy either, but it is mostly in short bursts and self-inflicted to some extent, and I am speaking from personal experience here.

Crunch culture, on the other hand, is an environment that actively forces people to crunch and work hundreds of hours of overtime for little to no additional pay, potentially for months on end. This has horrific effects on the mental health of developers, while also affecting their home lives and relationships.

Some people see crunch as a badge of honor or something that makes the game better. While the quality of a game is subjective, crunch has resulted in games that are both popular and ones that are despised, so it’s hard to say it definitely makes games better. Besides, even if crunch did result in better video games, that doesn’t excuse the bad effects it has on the health of workers.

At BioWare — the company known for developing the “Mass Effect” and “Dragon Age” series — there’s a term for people who are so overworked that they just leave, according to Kotaku.

“A ‘stress casualty’ at BioWare means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t,” one developer told the news website.

Then, after all that effort, the developers might still get laid off. Even if a game does well, this can reinforce crunch culture, with managers requiring more games be made in the same unsustainable amount of time. It also leads to game studios feeling like people should be honored to work for them, taking advantage of young game developers’ passion. The idea that crunch is a sign of passion, or that you really care, is pervasive to the point where veteran developers see it as a red flag on a job posting.

Developers like to use the “gun to the head” defense — they’re not directly forcing people to crunch — but there’s often an unspoken expectation that people will crunch to get the game released on launch day when everyone else is crunching. Also, the mindset of working as a “family” means that someone choosing not to crunch while others do can feel selfish or even hold up parts of production.

One of the reasons crunch culture is so bad is that many gamer developers currently don’t have any form of labor union to defend their rights. That is starting to change, though. IWGB Game Workers is a union based in the UK, and workers at Activision-Blizzard have recently started a unionization campaign in response to outcry over terrible working conditions.

Other improvements include increased attention brought to crunch and other terrible working conditions in game studios. Many smaller indie game studios such as SuperGiant Games, Hutch Games and Crispy Creative try to avoid crunch. There have been efforts to support “shorter games with worse graphics” to prove that crunch isn’t necessary to create a great game.

Crunch culture ultimately won’t change without changing how we think of the game development process, or without prioritizing the health of developers over getting to play a game right this second. Patience is a virtue, after all. Hopefully the gaming industry will continue to move in a healthier direction, for everyone’s sake.