That white paper is one of the only academic examinations of video game crunch -- what it's called when developers work significantly more than 40 hours a week to complete a project on time. It's a pervasive, divisive factor in the industry and one of the top rallying cries for those who want to unionize game development in the United States. Crunch, according to Take This, negatively affects productivity, brain functions and mental health of employees and their families, increasing burnout and turnover.
Crunch is in the news right now because of a single sentence proudly uttered by Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser and quoted in an October 14th Vulture article about the creation of Red Dead Redemption 2: "We were working 100-hour weeks."
The fuse was immediately lit. Developers and critics pounced on Rockstar, denouncing crunch as a practice, while some former employees shared horror stories about working at the studio, saying crunch was not only accepted, but expected, and it had been for years. Developers described getting to the office at 9 in the morning and not leaving until 10 or 11, seven days a week for weeks at a time. They outlined a pattern of mandatory unpaid overtime practices, and many described losing friends, family and their own mental stability during these times.
"I was pushed further into depression and anxiety than I had ever been while I worked there," a former Red Dead Redemption 2 developer told Kotaku. "My body was exhausted, I did not feel as though I was able to have any friends outside of work, I felt like I was going insane for much of my time there and I started drinking heavily."
The crunch spotlight
Rockstar is one of the largest video game studios in the world. Founded in 1998 as a subsidiary of Take-Two Interactive, Rockstar is responsible for the most lucrative game in history, Grand Theft Auto V, and a lineup of other successful AAA franchises including Red Dead and Max Payne. It has eight offices across the US, England, Scotland, Canada and India, and thousands of employees.
Rockstar co-founders (and brothers) Dan and Sam Houser have a reputation for seeking perfection -- a strategy that has paid off handsomely over the years. In 2012, Dan Houser bought the Brooklyn mansion where Truman Capote wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's for $12.5 million, setting a monetary record for the city. In 2014, former Rockstar North President and head of the Grand Theft Auto series Leslie Benzies spent £500,000 to preserve a church in Scotland. The Housers had a combined net worth of £90 million in 2014.
Meanwhile, Grand Theft Auto V, which came out in 2012, continues to bolster Take-Two's bottom line. When the company reported having more than $1.4 billion in cash and short-term investments in its 2018 fiscal year report, it noted, "We achieved these results despite an unusually light release schedule, reflecting the strength of our robust catalog led by Grand Theft Auto."
Rockstar is an effective and profitable studio. However, that success has been irrevocably tied to extreme crunch, and not just recently. In 2010, during development of Red Dead Redemption, an open letter purportedly written by wives of Rockstar San Diego employees detailed a distorted work-life balance required by the studio. They threatened legal action if conditions didn't improve. Rockstar waved off the letter, and Red Dead Redemption came out later that year to fantastic sales and acclaim.
In regard to recent claims of extreme crunch, a number of current and former Rockstar employees have spoken up in support of the company. They don't deny working overtime, but they say it's worthwhile and not excessive, especially when they get to create such high-end experiences. Other employees argue this attitude contributes to the problem, creating situations where they feel pressured by everyone around them to work longer hours.
The issue is bigger than Rockstar, though. Crunch has long been an accepted fact of the video game industry, and it first took center stage in 2004 with the publication of the "EA Spouse" blog post, a letter sharply criticizing the labor practices at Electronic Arts. According to the post, employees worked months of "pre-crunch" (eight hours, six days a week), and then "mild crunch" (12 hours, six days a week) and finally crunch (12 hours, seven days a week), with no hope of extra days off or overtime compensation.
"The stress is taking its toll," the letter said. "After a certain number of hours spent working the eyes start to lose focus; after a certain number of weeks with only one day off fatigue starts to accrue and accumulate exponentially. There is a reason why there are two days in a weekend -- bad things happen to one's physical, emotional, and mental health if these days are cut short. The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing."
"The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing."
That was 14 years ago. Today, Rockstar is the face of crunch, with developers sharing eerily similar stories about life at the studio. However, the environment for these complaints is vastly different than more than a decade before. Twitter and social media sites make it easy for the narrative to travel, take shape and affect even casual video game fans; there's a growing movement to unionize game development and high-profile cases like Rockstar's are fuel for this particular fire. Video-game critics and fans are more awake to the dangers of crunch and are less willing to accept it as a necessary facet of the industry, at least in its most extreme forms.
Which brings us to Red Dead Redemption 2.