Under the wrong conditions, however, talented developers will build terrible games. And sometimes, despite every mental, emotional and strategic roadblock thrown their way, they'll create fantastic games, and then get laid off a few weeks later anyway. That's the business, baby.
A crunch-lite process plays out all the time in Silicon Valley, with scrum sprints that give developers aggressive month-long or short-term plans to complete a product. Developers at all levels, in all tech industries, are familiar with the idea of strict deadlines and working overtime to see a project through the finish line. Crunch becomes a problem when executives build months of mandatory 80-hour work weeks into their production cycles, relying on a frantic, brutal and extended push from developers, even when things are on schedule.
Crunch becomes a problem when executives build months of mandatory 80-hour work weeks into their production cycles.
Of course, mandatory crunch isn't the only way to make games. Plenty of AAA developers have ditched the complex entirely and formed independent studios, and many of these smaller teams approach development from a human-first perspective. They work hard and create spectacular experiences, but they also don't clock more than 40 hours a week, or they prioritize time off for vacations, rest and burnout prevention. Not every indie studio is a bastion of humane working conditions and creativity, but anti-crunch action has definitely found a home in these smaller spaces.
As indie and AA studios demonstrate that game development doesn't need to be soul-crushing to be successful, larger companies are coming under fire for their approach to crunch. Take Rockstar for example: In the run-up to the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2, founder Dan Houser bragged that his team was working 100-hour weeks to finish the game, and a firestorm of criticism immediately sparked. Rockstar developers spoke up to say they were expected to work themselves to exhaustion, logging 60-hour weeks, including nights and weekends, for years. RDR2 came out in the middle of a full-blown crunch controversy, echoing similar scrutiny that Rockstar faced in 2010 during the development of Red Dead Redemption.
EA has been in the business for 36 years. It employs nearly 10,000 people and reported more than $5 billion in revenue last year. Some of its internal hierarchies and processes have been ingrained in the company for decades, and so far, they've served the company well. One of those baked-in policies, crunch, has helped EA studios churn out genre-defining franchises such as Battlefield, FIFA, Madden, Mass Effect and Dragon Age.
Crunch has also been a documented problem at EA for just as long. In 2004, a game developer published the "EA Spouse" letter, accusing the company of enforcing cruel crunch practices, with months of mandated overtime and weeks up to 85 hours long.
"The stress is taking its toll."
"The stress is taking its toll," the letter reads. "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."
That was 15 years ago. Crunch has been an accepted facet of game development for so long because, for the most part, it's worked. This system has given the world Grand Theft Auto, Mass Effect, Call of Duty, The Last of Us, Halo, Red Dead Redemption and hundreds of other industry-shifting universes. Red Dead Redemption 2, while mired in controversy, made a record-setting $725 million its launch weekend, collected a slew of awards and has clocked 23 million units shipped worldwide. And it's no surprise; it's a great game.
This is exactly what BioWare argued in its rebuttal to Kotaku's report -- crunch is simply part of the process if you want high-quality games. However, just because it's worked in some cases doesn't mean it's the only way. It also doesn't mean the system will continue to work forever, as Anthem can attest.