The Human Cost of Video Game Development
2020 is turning out to be a promising year for video games. Sure, COVID-19 dulled the usual marketing hype for most high profile announcements. But that has not stopped game studios from flourishing. In fact, the industry has thrived amidst the pandemic.
Microsoft reported a 130% increase in multiplayer engagement during the March-April period. Nintendo’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons sold 13.5 million copies since its late March release. Twitch reported a 50% increase in traffic in April (MoM). CD Projekt — who dethroned Ubisoft as Europe’s biggest game company has hit 50 million sales for its popular Witcher series.
Adding on, 2020 will also host some of the most anticipated AAA titles. Naughty Dog’s Last of Us Part II, CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Microsoft’s Halo Infinite, are among the few that take the spotlight. But as promising as things are, these AAA quality games come at a huge cost. The labor that goes into producing these games are often overlooked. As Business Insider puts it, “Playing games is delightful. The business of making video games is another story altogether.”
Fortunately, attention has been drawn towards this area as of late.
Crunch, crunch, crunch
One of the biggest underlying problems in the industry is the “crunch culture”. In case you didn’t know, this refers to when developers are forced to work overtime at a high frequency in order to meet tight deadlines.
The toxic crunch culture has been haunting game developers for decades. Back in 2004, an anonymous open letter titled “EA: The Human Story” made the rounds online. It might not have been the first time for such a letter. But it reflected the unspoken side of the seemingly promising industry.
The letter, in particular, resulted in multiple lawsuits against EA. Eventually, the game publisher ended up paying as much as $30.5 million in settlements within a span of 2 years.
Six years after the first “spouse letter”, a second one made it online. This time, the finger was pointed at Rockstar Games. By then, the company has already reached settlements with over 100 ex-Rockstar San Diego employees. Unfortunately, this was not the last time for Rockstar.
Red Dead Redemption 2 was one of 2018’s best selling games and remains as one of the most successful titles under Rockstar’s belt. Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games claimed development involved 100-hour weeks to ensure the game shipped on time. This statement sparked another episode of the problematic crunch culture.
But as things are, successful AAA games are often plagued with horror stories of employees having to work overtime at their expense. In some cases, things go beyond crunching. Last year, about 100–150 Riot Games employees staged a protest against the company’s toxic culture. In another case, an entire company in the form of Telltale Games was shut down.
The plague continues
Fast forward to 2020, the industry still undergoes the same problems. These issues started to resurface in headlines with the announcement of some of the upcoming titles. Most recently, The Last of Us Part II. Compounded by multiple delays, the game raised questions with regards to the work culture at Naughty Dog, the company behind the franchise.
Kotaku went into detail on the crunch schedules at the studio and the impact it's leaving on Naughty Dog’s employees. Particularly where these crunch schedules reflected 12-hour workdays for many workers and longer work hours for some.
In an earlier instance, 14 of 20 non-lead designers from Uncharted 4 left the company because of the tiring work environment. One of the company’s renowned directors, Bruce Straley also left the company citing burnout shortly after Uncharted 4 was shipped out.
Following Kotaku’s report, former Naughty Dog animator Jonathon Cooper talked about the work put into the showcased game demo in September 2019. Tweeting about the demo he mentions how “the gameplay animators crunched more than I’ve ever seen and required weeks of recovery afterwards.”
The light at the end of the tunnel
The silver lining of all this is the mounting pressure on the companies to improve work culture. Game studios like Respawn have been vocal about discouraging the crunch culture. Even Rockstar Games have apparently been working to improve the situation.
Unfortunately, this is not something that can be fixed overnight. Meaningful impact can take months if not years. According to LinkedIn, the game industry records the highest turnover (15.5%) in tech. As such, it should come as no surprise about the current unionization efforts.
Companies in the technology and game industries have gotten away with avoiding accountability for far too long — Communications Workers of America President Chris Shelton
Organizations like Take This and Game Workers Unite have already been set up with the aim of addressing this longstanding issue. But at the end of the day, the responsibility falls on the companies to incorporate a healthy working environment. Great games should not be the result of torturous work schedules. Hopefully, in time the business of making games will be as delightful as playing them.