In 2016, Jason Schrier, formerly a writer at Kotaku and currently writing about video games for Bloomberg, wrote “The Horrible World of Video Game Crunch” for kotaku.com. At the time, this article provided a reality whiplash, revealing what game development often looks like in contrast to what some might imagine. Rather than retaining the image of playing video games all day and getting paid for it, people outside of the industry started to understand what it was really like to work for a major AAA studio. Schrier described the crunch culture often used in the game industry: long hours, even longer work weeks and going weeks at a time without game developers being able to see their families were just some of the things he touched on. Now, in 2020, not much has changed.
December is a notoriously big month in the industry. With it comes The Game Awards, an awards show hosted by Geoff Keighly designed to celebrate the games of that year, much like the Oscars. It’s also when just about every video game journalist releases their choice for “game of the year.” This year, December also comes with the release of CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077, a game that’s been hotly anticipated for years. Game of the year choices and big new video games aren’t just a matter of having something fun to look forward to every year. Game of the year picks far and wide go to games that use crunch culture as a part of their production cycle, because those are typically the biggest or most graphically impressive games.
This year’s The Last of Us Part 2 is a likely candidate to win the coveted Game of the Year award at The Game Awards, but its studio, Naughty Dog, is notorious for its crunch culture. In an article covering this, Jason Schrier quotes an anonymous Naughty Dog employee as saying, “This game is really good, but at a huge cost to the people.” The company thrives on being the best in the business, and 12 hour work days are normal in those crucial last days of development. Cyberpunk 2077 which released on Dec. 9, was made by CD Projekt Red calling for six-day work weeks for employees working on the game, after promising that they wouldn’t utilize crunch in their work.
Facing the reality of the real people working on these games, we have to ask if companies who utilize these work practices should be eligible for winning these huge awards. Should we only uphold the companies who treat their employees fairly? If so, most games would no longer qualify for these awards. Should we nominate them in spite of these practices, as a way to honor the people who worked so hard to make these incredible works of art? Most people think that we need to completely restructure game making to make crunch culture obsolete, but why would the president of one of these companies change the practices that have made them nothing but piles of money?
Until this industry is improved upon, all we can do is recognize the people who make the games we like and vote with our wallets for the change we want to see, even if it means not pre-ordering a game that you are really looking forward to. Though most major studios use these practices, indie artists such as those on itch.io tend to not have this problem. Research the companies that you’re buying from, and look up the artists directly to see what they have to say. The cost of workers’ mental well being vastly outweighs the hours of fun that you might have for $60.