Developers find their personal time increasingly meaningless to development companies despite skyrocketing profit margins.
With the backdrop of the pandemic at play, the pressures of the video game industry have intensified; American total spending on video games hit a record high of $56.9 billion in 2020, according to the market research organization NPD. This demand for content—alongside online communities of devoted, waiting fans—has translated into a grueling cycle of meeting deadlines at whatever cost. Workers have become more expendable than ever. Despite billions invested into video games, the quality of life for developers is defined by strict deadlines, pervasive layoffs and worsening mental health.
This somber reality reflects the state of the video game industry, where the phenomenon “crunch culture” has tightened its grip more than ever. Crunch is a form of unpaid overtime where employees are expected to work long hours to meet the project deadline set by the studio. Indeed, crunch culture is a systemic issue within the video game industry, where companies brandish their exploitative work practices as a testament to their game quality rather than a horrifying reality.
Consumer expectations paired with bad studio executives or unrealistic deadlines may be to blame for this corrosive issue. As a result, developers may focus more on extra features—more things which will wow the customer and justify a product’s expense—and closer release dates. So, crunches and layoffs exist as an omnipresent threat to developers, where the overall profit of the game determines the livelihood of employees.
Many former employees reveal the ways they were affected by crunch culture. When “Fortnite” launched, a worker reported to Polygon that they worked “an average 70 hours a week.” The writing team of “Red Dead Redemption 2” worked “100-hour weeks” to satisfy the executive deadline. Bioware, the developer known for the “Dragon Age” and “Mass Effect” series, reported to Kotaku the need for “stress leave,” doctor-mandated periods of weeks or months of mental health vacation: these “stress casualties” are seen as an epidemic for the company.
Others point to this competitive, masochistic model as simply a facet of an industry characterized by drastic wealth disparity. The industry widely churns out young, passionate workers and bleeds them for their worth, leading to a destabilized job market.
Meanwhile, crunch endures because it is legal. Unlike other entertainment forms like television and film, the North American video game industry currently does not have any options for unionizing. Unions can help workers feel more supported in this constantly shifting industry, but it is not the all-encompassing solution promised. Others believe the best way to rebel against crunch culture is for consumers to simply not buy the product, though that feels the most unrealistic; regardless of working conditions, people will still readily buy the product, so what can be accomplished there?
As the video game industry evolves, crunch does, too. For developers and observers alike, crunch seems to take on the form of a necessary evil, continuing to deepen its roots within the industry. The consequences of crunch culture are clear: this method remains unsustainable and harms video game development far more than it helps.