Does the crunch culture of video games need to evolve?

I recently read an interview with one of Rockstar Games’ founders Dan Houser which prompted me to put this quick post together. It’s probably not going to be as long or as comprehensive as I’d like it to be; the ‘crunch culture’ of the video games industry is something I would like to properly investigate, and conduct real interviews with real people who have experienced the world of crunch first hand. (Drop me an email!)

Speaking to Vulture, Rockstar’s Dan Houser described some of the insanely long hours that have been poured into video game development, specifically the upcoming Red Dead Redemption 2. Because it’s a title that includes 300,000 animations and 500,000 lines of dialogue, it seems that much has been asked of the team that has been charged with bringing this Wild West world to life, including the working of 100 hour weeks. Apparently, even the game’s trailer was not a simple undertaking, with approximately 70 (and up to several hundred) versions having been compiled in the editing suite. Which is a lot of cutting.

Now, I doubt many people are going to read these comments and think that such graft is enviable. True, the more energetic and ambitious types might be itching for the opportunity to role their sleeves up and dive in, but I’d wager that most of us can agree that 100 hour weeks are not a good thing for our physical health, or our sanity.

(Also, 70 trailers?! Call me a noob – which I am – but there’s such a thing as over-thinking. Plus, from experience, I can guarantee that it’s never a good thing to invite too many opinions. Just some advice that you don’t need and didn’t ask for 😉 )

In fairness to Rockstar, we know that the crunch culture is an intrinsic part of video game development, and isn’t tied to any specific company. Most (if not every) title experiences an intense period in the final weeks leading up to release, and even the creatives working on the very earliest editions of the Tomb Raider franchise described occasions when people were sleeping at their desks – and even in cupboards – as they desperately clawed their way towards the finished disc. It seems that it’s always been a necessary evil.

Indeed, following the untimely demise of Telltale Games, some former employees candidly spoke out about the realities of working in the sometimes harsh video games industry. “The mentality was work harder, faster, and for as long as you can to hit your milestones,” said one individual to US Gamer. Churn and burn.” Apparently, one senior member of staff championed the idea that, “It’s not about how much time you need to make a good game, it’s about how good of a game you can make with the time you have,” and they had a sign to this effect pinned on their door.

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The Walking Dead from Telltale Games.

I suppose you could write an entire doctorate on the back of this quotation alone, probably under the simple heading of ‘Is Capitalism evil?’ I remember when I worked at the Co-op (a British grocery retailer) I was expected to single-handedly manage the shop (I was a supervisor) whilst simultaneously run the bakery (I was the baker) whilst simultaneously cover the till when my sole second employee needed the loo, whilst also deal with any customer who might accost me whilst on my way to or from any of the above jobs. I remember raising this with my manager, who told me that the best way to deal with the subsequent stress was to “just not get stressed.” Brilliant 😛

The point is, most companies will stretch their employees to the absolute limit if there’s an opportunity to make a saving and increase the profit. The Co-op knew that my strange supervisor / baker / till operator job role could theoretically be achieved and therefore had no qualms about implementing it. I guess things work a little differently in other industries, but the principle is the same.

And coming back to video game development, in a sense the expectations of us consumers are partly to blame. We demand a heck of a lot from the latest titles, scrutinising resolutions, frame rates, and often going after developers with pitchforks if they delay or fail to adequately deliver. The need for many triple A titles to have photo-realistic graphics and thousands of hours worth of replay value puts immense pressure on those who are responsible for realising those individual blades of grass and intricate side missions, exacerbated by ever-powerful consoles such as the 4K-ready Xbox One X, which promises to deliver an as-yet unparalleled video game experience. Surely we’re hitting critical mass, and this is an unsustainable business model? If the whole thing doesn’t implode under the crushing force of expectation, surely the publishers will – at the very least – finally relent and significantly increase the price of games?

Assassin’s Creed Odyssey.

And to be honest, I think I would prefer this. I would much rather wait longer and pay more so that I could play my game safe in the knowledge that nobody’s physical or mental health had been compromised in the realisation of the finished disc. Right now, I don’t think there’s any title that I can boot up in good conscience. Of course, I don’t know the full development story behind any of the titles in my library, but I know that the crunch culture is prevalent in the industry and, from the little I’m hearing, I think it’s definitely time for the sector to evolve.

How do you feel about crunch? Do you have any experiences that you’d like to share? Would you consider paying more for video games if it meant that working conditions could be improved for those working on them? Leave your thoughts in the comments below, or drop me a line.

  • Click here to pre-order Red Dead Redemption 2 and help support this site (game launches on October 26th.)

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