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Crunch culture is far from being a losing game in 2021

Although gamers are more aware than ever, The Last of Us II and Cyberpunk 2077 are shameful reminders that ‘crunch culture’ is as rewarding as ever

In response to crunch culture, I’ve seen the phrase “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding.” being reproduced a few dozen times throughout 2020, either retweeted, pasted to a poorly edited comic or being repeated on some un-ironic meme.

A meme about crunch culture in the for of an edited Sonic comic book panel saying “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I'm not kidding.”

This level of unseen empathy and modesty seems to be wishfully growing and contagiously spreading among gamers. Although the sentiment reveals a certain amount of consideration for devs, and by stating it out loud, audiences should help with raising awareness to increasingly precarious labour conditions and denounces the naturalization of irredeemably damaging workplace practices, companies are still (very) behind on schedule into delivering a response to crunch crisis that fulfils our expectations.

Beyond 60-85 hour work week, the infamous “crunch culture” is a set of practices known for coercening professionals into relentless work flow, with thin schedules, scarce breaks, excessive overtimes many of which are unpaid, that frequently leads to burnouts, breakdowns and “stress casualties”.

Unfortunately, almost a decade and a half after the enlightening “EA spouse” article, crunch culture is alive and well. Its effects, while damaging to the physical and mental well-being of game devs, are still profitable and leading to vigorously healthy financial outcomes for the industry. It’s rewarding even. I mean… quite literally.

On that note, two games stand out from the rest, and may enter this year’s annals by leaving a stained mark on the history of video games: The Last of Us II and Cyberpunk 2077, developed by Naughty Dog and CD Projekt respectively. Those are a couple of 2020’s infamous examples on how to create an astonishingly profitable product, while also concocting a detrimental workplace environment for their employees. So let us dive into these case studies, shall we?

The case of The Last of Us Part II:

The game is consensually considered to be a blast, despite receiving an avalanche of undeserving hate for being “too political”, reinforcing the “promotion of the gay agenda” and “not knowing what a tRuE FeMaLe bOdY actually looks like”, and all sorts of the usual mob mentality of incel’s propaganda and sour “gen-oners” butt-hurt made up acusations that couldn’t be more severely departed from the truth.

Nonetheless, despite the title’s success and bold contributions to more representation on video games, it goes without saying that its development faces many valid criticisms, and “crunch culture” is one we shouldn’t take lightly.

At Glassdoor, a website that compiles anonymous workers’ reviews of their companies, it seems consensual even among the five stars evaluations that crunch is insanely brutal. One professional gets a complaint off their chest: “Terrible work hours at the end of the project, crunching here is one of the worst in the industry. Overtime is practically mandatory and only comped with some days off after the project.”

Another staff member let the steam off in the form of an advice: “We keep losing our best people because they keep getting burned out. Lets evaluate our scope and develop for the studio we have and not the studio we wish we had. Hiring a million contractors in the 11th hour isn’t going to fix this.” – and warns newcomers with an ominous conclusion – “If you have a child or a loved one waiting for you at home, chances are you won’t see their waking faces for days at a time. They either need to be really understanding or this is not the job for you.”

Many of these stories are unsettling to hear, some are even heartbreaking. Of course, It’s hard to know for sure how reliable these reports are. Although, even if some of them were fabrications they still find echoes in many interviews from reliable journalists that protect their sources with confidentiality. It is tempting to take them with face value, since they are indistinguishable from the facts that are being newscast. It is also all very curious how these narratives manage to mimic what our collective consciousness expects of the industry.

This is a website most people use to gather information on a company and job position they are applying for. This is what a game dev expects when working for Naughty Dog! THIS IS EXPECTED. In terms of trustworthiness, these anecdotes are at best faithful descriptions of the workplace environment, and in the worst case scenario, those fables serve as a very believable cautionary tale. “Crunch hours are a lot, think about it first” – five reviews says.

Well, as frustrating as it may sound, Naughty Dog shows that you can have a cake and eat it too. At the end of the day, The Last of Us II couldn’t had it better. The game was a triumphant accomplishment, while being both critically acclaimed and a commercial success. It is currently featuring in the 4th place on the list of most selling games of 2020. To put it in context it is currently just above 2020’s gamers’ sensations like Ghost of Tsushima, Final Fantasy VII: Remake or Super Mario 3D All-Stars, and only behind some sales juggernauts like Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, Animal Crossing: New Horizons and  Madden NFL 21.

In terms of critics reception, The Last of Us II is resurfacing in late 2020 among many “top 10 game of the year list”, and, more often than not, it is stealing the number one spotlight for itself. Probably among the most notable nominees was The Game Awards’  with seven trophies for Game of the Year – in recognition for being “a game that delivers the absolute best experience across all creative and technical fields”.

It also fetched some prizes in the categories of: Best Action/Adventure, Best Audio Design, Best Performance, Best Narrative, Innovation in Accessibility, and (against all odds) Best Direction. About this last one, Kotaku made a really bold and necessary statement that reverberated even at Forbes: “Games made under crunch conditions don’t deserve ‘best direction’ awards” – which is an urgent and lucid declaration I’d like to subscribe to, advocate for and share with y’all.

This position comes from the fact that crunching is hardly an “outstanding creative vision and innovation in game direction and design”, as the award description evoques. Afar from being innovative, crunch is rather a symptom of a diseased management system. A rotten practice that plagues obscure creative visions, not outstanding ones.

As Ian Walker impeccably points out in the Kotaku’s article: “Let’s be clear: the existence of crunch indicates a failure in leadership. It’s up to game directors and producers to ensure workloads are being managed properly and goals are being met. If workers are being forced to crunch, explicitly or otherwise, it means the managers themselves have fallen short somewhere, either in straining the limits of their existing staff, fostering an environment where overtime is an implied (if unspoken) requirement, or both.”

It is quite an urgent matter and almost an unavoidable choice to speak out against crunch culture. And while this particular discussion is centered around the best direction award, it can very easily be extrapolated to any category. What is the ethicacy in rewarding a corporate that doesn’t take its employers well-being for granted? What is the ethicacy to review a game as a 10/10 without bringing it up to the conversation? What is the ethicacy of giving the game of the year award to such companies? Crunch culture should be punished, not awarded. At the bare minimum it shouldn’t be celebrated and incentivized. But, let’s put a pin on that thought and come for it latter.

Cyberpunk 2077’s stumble and fall:

In contrast to the Last of Us II, Cyberpunk 2077 is so unambiguously disastrous that the  months of brutal crunch and multiple delays almost bends into the indistinguishable plethora of problems and bad reputation of CD Projekt. At this point, talking shit about this game is pretty much the equivalent of beating up a dead horse, and it is so fresh on our collective memory that I’ll assume we can be briefer.

One of the most interesting aspects surrounding Cyberpunk 2077’s discourse that I’ve noticed is that some people are legitimately taking it as the prime and definitive example that “crunch culture” doesn’t pay off. Almost as if we were inside a magical xmas movie, the industry itself was struck by a miraculous self realization of its wrongdoings, and that this moment is destined to be a turning point for implementing best practices to create healthy workplace environments. Game devs will finally be respected as human beings and labor laws will be treated as the Fundamental Rights they definitely are.

This sounds really inspiring. And really cool. Certainly it is a learning opportunity that only time will be able to tell to what exact extent. But this isn’t a Christmas’s Carol, and video games’s executives didn’t foresee a neglected tombstone with their names on it this holiday, nor had a Grinch heart growing moment.

I hate to be a party pooper and the bearer of bad news, against all the buzz, and all the memes, and all the shade, Cyberpunk 2077 was very successful. On its own twisted way. To be fair, according to reports, the game performs decently on cutting edge PCs, and it’s okay-ish in next-gen consoles. Yes, there are a few bugs and glitches, but this isn’t our generation’s E.T. being buried in the desert.

Even if we take into account that the game has revealed itself to be a monstrosity on PS4 and Xbox One, as per the ridiculously low score and piles of outrageously frustrated reviews from customers on Metacritics. And combine it with a trust-damaging marketing campaign that kept the true state of the playthrough experience highly secretive, overpopulated by misleading cinematic cutscenes and no sign of actual gameplay footage, followed by the deliberate promotion of a journalistic coverage that emphasised exclusively the obviously better PC version. A combo that was interpreted at best as some shady window dressing, and at worst borderline scamming.

Even after the PR nightmare immediately succeeded the game releases, leading to Sony removing it from PSN, along with digital stores, GameStop, Best Buy and the ashamed CD Projekt itself offering full support to refunds.

All those things combined caused the hype induced bubble of Cyberpunk 2077 to burst right after its release, creating a ripple effect that was felt on CD Projekt RED stock price fall of 29%, roughly one billion drop in the overall company value. The company responded by emitting a soothing note in an attempt to calm the spirits of its investors. It states that even if a handful of refunds isn’t taken into account, the game managed to sell 13 million copies of the $60 title in only 10 days. It isn’t an unexpected deed, since it was already on the mark of 8 million copies sold in pre-order, but it’s quite remarkable nonetheless.

According to Forbes, while the “hype card” inherited from The Witcher III is in jeopardy for future titles, it currently made the game destined for greatness. According to an article, the game was just “too big to fail”, achieving a massive level of success, and it’s possibly in the line to be the biggest game of the year.

Specialists also predict an increase in sales once the promised patches are implemented and prove to work on finishing the job of this practically unfinished released game.

An article from Financial News acutely brings attention to a bigger picture: “Despite its share price almost halving from its year-to-date high of 464.20 zloty in the last seven days, CD Projekt Red’s stock is still up more than 4,900% since Cyberpunk 2077 was first announced in May 2012.”

Unfortunately, the truth is that the new patches and updates promised to be released in January and February of 2021, such an obviously thin schedule, can only be a sign of another perpetuation of new cycles of overwork. While CD Projeckt managed to pull a stunt, consolidating itself as one of the best-known developers in the world, became a 3 billion dollar worth company, and is leaving the stage facing close to none consequences.

This is madness!

What can we do about crunch culture?

Nothing!

Enjoy the downfall of civilization during late capitalism. Thanks for reading.

I’m just kidding. I don’t intend to leave this article on a grimdark unescapable end. Ok, we know the problem. Now, what is the solution? The answer to that is not simple, nor easy and definitely not short. There are actually many fronts to fight in the war against crunch culture: mental health, labor organization, political activism, lawmaking, and OH MY GOD THERE IS JUST SO MUCH STUFF. Many of which I don’t have the time or knowledge to discuss.

I’m just a guy who buys, plays and sometimes reviews about video games, what can I do?

As said before, I do believe that crunch culture should be penalized, not rewarded. And by that I don’t mean you should lock executives responsible for mismanagemensts inside flaming torture dungeons and poke them with pitchforks as a punishment for all eternity. Though this is comically tragic, why are we not funding this?

But you can try and make smart, informed and ethical purchases. For example, you can deliberately lower a game score and mention the reason for doing so is that you don’t respect a process on which it was made whenever you write a review online. This raises awareness, makes the topic relevant for other buyer’s decision process and somewhat penalizes companies in small doses.

If you think this is too feeble of an action, you can walk an extra mile and boycott the product entirely. Yes! Cruelty-free games only! Like a vegan, but with video games. Or you can just make whatever the #NoMeatMonday equivalent is like, and deliberately consume, promote and cherish games and companies that are known for best practices and healthy workplace environments. Like Supergiant’s Hades, for example.

Supergiant is being appraised for being… well… decent. A fine place to work. Wow! (The bar is so low!) Some of its anti-crunch practices include: unlimited time off, with obligatory minimum of 20 days off per year, no work communications on weekends starting on Friday nights, not committing human sacrifices, and so on. And it is possibly because of this beam of hope posture that Hades is currently dominating the “game of the year” in the journalistic scene. Claiming a spot that most certainly would go to other crunch-inducing companies any other year.

It seems that the media is starting to denounce such issues more in depth. It’s still hard to know if it is an actual condemnation, or an exploitative coverage as in a gossip tabloid since that sweet, sweet drama sells. But, I think that it’s safe to say you should incentivize and support news outlets who speak up against long-term crunches and abusive employers.

I mean, there isn’t a magical answer that will solve everything. Many cultural and structural problems will take time and effort to solve. Some will require a greater level of community engagement and collective action.

I heard GTA’s fans made a petition so that game devs could take their time and release a nice finished product without the pressure seen on Cyberpunk 2077’s novella. (Yet, on the making of this text, I couldn’t find any reliable source that backed it. So either it is merely a hoax, or it is too underground and not yet popular to be found. Still, this is an interesting idea.) And itch.io recently made the ongoing The Shorter Games With Worse Graphics Bundle that already reached the goal of $6969.69. Nice! I hope to see this kind of thing more often!

Another meme about crunch culture with the same saying of previous image

In conclusion, “Happy employees are probably more productive”, says Take This organization on a white paper about crunch culture and mental health that also concludes that games made under crunch conditions tend to be more expensive, have more bugs, lower scores on metacritics and make workers overall more sick and prone to leave their jobs. So, let us as a community reward happier employees and not miserable ones in the year to come.

 

 

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Thiago Villar

Carioca, cinephile, chocoholic. Juggles between finishing law school and pop culture critique. Loves movies, comic books and games. Avid switch player. Indies ftw!

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