EXPLAINER: What is crunch culture and how does it affect video game studios?

More than a decade and a half after the EA Spouse letter was published in 2004, crunch culture is still a big issue in the video game industry. In this explainer, Umar Hassan explores the term and how crunch is used in a development cycle of a video game.

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During the coronavirus pandemic, video games have played a major role in helping millions stay connected with friends, family members, and work colleagues.

A report from Robert Walters and Vacancysoft noted that 47,000 people are employed directly and indirectly in the video game sector in the United Kingdom, which includes sectors such as merchandising and eSports.

The issue of crunch is not new in video game development, and goes way back to November 2004 when an anonymous letter was posted by EA Spouse around working practices at Electronic Arts.

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Crunch is a form of unpaid overtime where staff in a video game studio are forced to work long hours to finish a project.

The idea behind the concept is employees are expected to work long hours until the project deadline has been met by the studio.

Within the game development cycle, there are many different forms of crunch, which can affect not only big triple-AAA studios such as Rockstar Games, and Ubisoft, but also independent studios too.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to crunch in game development as it can range from a few weeks at the end of a project or it can go on for weeks and months.

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There are a number of reasons why crunch is used in game development, but the reason why this practice is used comes down to a lack of time.

When a studio uses crunch in a game project, it is often down to the following factors:

· New feature request or change of direction in the product without budgets being provided.

· Overpromising and under-delivering on the amount of work required to create the game.

· An unexpected issue that is so large that the studio or developer has no budget allocated to deal with those issues within the development cycle.

Video game studios are often staffed with early-career workers where they’re prone to exploitation, and lack the confidence and experience to refuse demands for extra work.

While the issue of crunch is not just restricted to young people who are starting out in game development, it also affects experienced employees who have been working in the industry for years.

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For employees who work at a video game studio, crunch can not only take a toll on an employee’s personal life, but also their professional career.

In the 2019 International Game Developers Association survey, employees at a game studio reported working in the crunch phase of game development between 50–59 hours (38%), 60–69 hours (19%), and 70+ hours (13%) per week.

Take This, an American non-profit mental health charity for the video games industry published a report in 2016, titled “Crunch Hurts: How Unmitigated Overwork Harms Employee Health, Productivity, and Your Studio’s Bottom Line”.

In the report, it covers how employees within a gaming studio have to make compromises to not just their own wellbeing but also their work/life balance.

The report notes that:

“Crunch doesn’t just impact developers — it also impacts their family members, and eventually employers. Developers with spouses or children see them less often. Developers who are responsible for dependents may not be able to arrange alternate care. Family members may resent the time crunching developers spend away from home. This can contribute to the employee turnover and additional training costs mentioned above.”

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Crunch culture is not an easy thing to tackle in the video game industry, but there are some solutions that studios can use to avoid using crunch in the development cycle.

There are many solutions for reducing crunch in a video game project, and it could include the following:

· Creating a culture of transparency within upper management, and not punishing employees who deliver bad news.

· Embracing risk and making sure the areas within a project are worked on and mitigated quickly.

· Ensuring employees can disconnect from work when not at the office so work/life balance is prioritised over working unpaid overtime.

· If employees are sick, the studio should encourage them to stay at home to reduce productivity loss while they’re at work and avoid spreading the illness to other team members in the office.

Shaun Rutland, Chief Executive Officer at Hutch Games tries to avoid crunch in their game projects. He told gamesindustry.biz:

“Teams who are having fun make better games and making games should be fun — otherwise, what’s the point?

“We have a responsibility to our staff to ensure our development culture and processes foster a productive, creative and motivating environment.

“There’s always enough work and urgency from our players that we could easily ask them to work 12 hour days, 7 days a week. There’s just no let up in our opportunities so we simply never allow it to happen, its zero tolerance attitude towards crunch.”

The future of crunch in video game development

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Things are changing when it comes to crunch in the video game industry with new trade unions being formed and the emergence of crunch-free game development in independent studios.

IWGB Game Workers (formerly Game Workers Unite UK) is one of the very first trade unions that represents video game workers’ rights.

Based in the UK, IWGB Game Workers campaigns against the use of crunch in video game development while also supporting game workers who have been abused, harassed or need to be represented in the workplace.

Alongside the emergence of video game worker unions, independent studios such as Crispy Creative, and Supergiant Games are leading the way in not using crunch.

Crispy Creative and Supergiant Games have demonstrated that it’s possible to create a game without resorting to using crunch throughout the game development cycle of a project.

Data Journalist specialising in technology & investigations. Rock n’ roll enthusiast, recovering gamer & fitness addict.