When it comes to the crunch - Unpaid overtime in the games industry

When it comes to the crunch - Unpaid overtime in the games industry

Shane Mason, a Solidarity Federation member, libcom poster and games industry worker writes about the practice of 'Crunch Time' - the long hours of unpaid overtime in the games industry and the reasons behind it.

Imagine if you had to give your company over fifteen hours of extra unpaid work a week. Imagine if you hadn’t been able to cook yourself a proper meal in over two months. Imagine if you came home late at night and left for work early in the morning, that’s if you even leave work at all. Welcome to the modern games industry!

The above is what is meant by the term ‘crunch time’, a phrase all too familiar to those in or around the games industry. Technically crunch time is any form of overtime (almost always unpaid) required by a game studio in order to complete a project on time. In reality however there are differing types of overtime, dependent on the country a company operates in, the particular labour laws they work under and whether or not they are owned by a large company. The type of crunching I do is technically voluntary. I say ‘technically’ because even though I could theoretically refuse to do any overtime, you can bet that I wouldn’t last very long with the company if I didn’t. Overtime may not be obligatory, but it is expected.

The other type of crunch time is mandatory unpaid overtime. This is every bit as soul-destroying as it sounds. Very common in North American games studios and those owned and run by big companies and publishers (such as EA, Activision, etc) where it is colloquially known as a ‘Death March’. In this case the company bosses have decided that the game will come out on release date X, with no schedule slippage allowed for. This is usually done for monetary reasons, where fears of a shrinking profit margin have grown too much for executives to bear. This decision inevitably means that huge amounts of work have to be compressed into incredibly small amounts of time. The solution to this problem is inevitably ‘Crunch Time’. This will usually involve working till late into the night (in extreme cases working overnight with little to no sleep), subsisting almost entirely on what cheap food (often junk) the company will provide and sometimes even going without weekend breaks – all without any pay.

This is not an exaggeration. For the upcoming first-person-shooter game ‘Homefront’ publisher THQ has said that the New-York based studio ‘Kaos’ has been put into a ‘seven-day’ crunch period for two months in order to meet their scheduled release date of March 8th, 2011. So this dev team have been working unpaid overtime, without weekends for two months. Yet this is not the worst the industry has to offer. EA’s CEO, John Riccitiello, admitted that they had the Vancouver-based Black Box studio on a near constant crunch churning out yearly additions to EA’s Need for Speed franchise for five years. He says that ‘those days are gone’ and that they now have the team on much healthier ‘bi-annual cycle’. While it’s true that doing a bi-annual release schedule is much less stressful than doing a game yearly, someone had better tell Riccitiello’s findings to the EA Sports division. Those studios are still churning out a game a year for their respective franchises, and I’d be surprised if they weren’t being crunched just as hard as the devs at Black Box were.

There have been one or two voices raised against the practice of crunch time, but they are often few and far between. We work in that most desirable of things, a creative industry. It’s common knowledge that for every single job in the games industry there are hundreds of people just waiting for their chance to get in – often influenced by very idealistic concepts of how the industry actually is. Combine this with a deliberately atomised work culture based around small, insular teams and there’s not much room for dissent. No one wants to be the one to put their head above the parapet. Yet even when arguments against crunch time are made, they often miss the heart of the matter.

The first argument often made is based around how crunching affects our ‘Quality of life’. This is most definitely an issue, as being on crunch time is an awful sensation. Your life becomes an endless cycle of work, sleep and take-away food. You may stop getting the chance to see your friends, families and loved ones. Your working environment can become filled with stress, tension and hair-trigger tempers. The negative effect that crunch time has on day-to-day life is certainly one of the worst things about it, but focusing on this as the only part of the problem is kind of missing the point. It implies that working long hours unpaid would be absolutely fine if it could just be made more pleasant. Yet the stresses and strains of crunch time are inherently intertwined with it. The game developer’s quality of life doesn’t take a hit because he is doing badly managed unpaid overtime, it’s because he’s doing that much unpaid overtime in the first place.

The second type of argument comes from the ‘pragmatic management school’ of thinking. It puts forth the rather radical idea that perhaps this level of rapid, intense overtime isn’t very good for productivity. I can tell you this is true from personal experience. When you’re undergoing a particularly bad crunch time you can just completely zone out. The food makes you feel ill, the lack of sleep makes you distracted, and it takes you a lot longer to do even the simplest of tasks you would otherwise have sailed through.

Yet this argument assumes that crunch time is something that companies should ideally avoid as being ‘bad for business’. You will often hear it said that crunch time happens because of ‘bad planning’. That the schedule was put together way too tight from the outset at which point management will turn around in desperation and decree crunch time in order to cover their own ineptitude. Yet this ignores the huge amounts of money made by big game companies who use crunch time the most. You don’t make those sort of profits without knowing exactly what you’re doing. Crunch time is used as a deliberate part of the game development cycle precisely because it works from the perspective of those who make their money at the top. Why was the schedule made so tight in the first place? Well, to save money on development costs and get a new title into stores as quick as possible. This drive to push games out quickly in order to maximise profits is what also drives companies to crunch their developers. Forcing such a large amount of free labour out of workers is another way to make more money out of a project, even if it is to the detriment of those workers’ lives and even to the quality of the project itself.

This is the true issue with crunch time, that it is a form of blatant economic exploitation. The quality of life issues suffered by developers when crunching are symptoms of a much deeper disease. Games industry workers will often say that they put up with crunch time because they love games and love working with them. Of course we do. Yet look at other creative industries, such as film or television. Those who work in their respective mediums love them just as much as we love ours, yet also get paid for the hours they work. It is not a radical demand that someone be paid for the work they do - whether they love that work or not. If we truly love games we should want to fight to end an industrial practice that harms not only us as workers, economically, physically and mentally, but also damages the games we make, by cutting creative endeavours down to fit a timescale defined by profit alone.

Yet even though the culture of crunch-time is currently ingrained in the industry, we do not have to put up with it. The only reason that companies get away with demanding their employees work crunch time is because we the workers put up with it. If every games industry worker refused to work a single hour’s overtime, what would happen? If crunch time was as necessary and inherent in the industry as companies claim, then the industry would simply die. We all know that wouldn’t happen. What would be far more likely to happen would be that companies would learn that they could no longer leave the workforce out of the equation when planning new projects. Schedules would have to be re-thought to take account of workers unwilling to suffer so much purely for the profits of their bosses. Unpaid overtime is only so common in the games industry because we allow it to be. If enough industry workers banded together and refused to do it, it would become unworkable and would no longer be so ubiquitous.

We’re obviously a long, long way away from anything like that happening in the industry, yet it helps to illustrate the point. We, as games industry workers, could choose to end crunch time if we truly wanted it to happen. It would need workers to stand together and support each other, both within a studio and across the whole industry, but it could be done. Our bosses can only dictate our lives and living conditions in this way if we allow them to do it. If we stand together and support one another, then we can be the ones to make the decisions, we can be the ones in control of our own lives. We want to work in an industry that helps produce the games we are passionate about, not just profits wrung from another late night with no pay.

We do this job because we love games. Let us work for our passion, not for our bosses’ profits.

From http://www.solfed.org.uk

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Comments

Harrison
Apr 21 2011 16:58

thanks Auto, this was a really interesting insight into an industry rarely (if ever) examined from a workers standpoint. i've only ever been involved in hobbyist open source stuff and i thought that was stressful!

PS have you ever thought of applying sabotage as an industrial tactic - assuming you could band enough devs together? it could be seriously effective if need for speed's cars wont go above 5mph, or all the guns in a FPS are waterguns laugh out loud

flaneur
Apr 21 2011 17:37

There was a decent discussion on crunch time here where sabotage was mentioned, namely the Simcopter incident. That pushed back the release date but we're now in the age of mandatory updates for the games to actually work, so it could be patched out instantly. I think the last notable act of sabotage was a unhappy worker at Rockstar who had just got the boot, leaked a new release to torrents.

Auto
Apr 22 2011 13:08
Quote:
PS have you ever thought of applying sabotage as an industrial tactic - assuming you could band enough devs together? it could be seriously effective if need for speed's cars wont go above 5mph, or all the guns in a FPS are waterguns laugh out loud

The thing is, any form of direct action in the games industry would be ridiculously effective. The investment/profit risk in a game is incredibly high for shareholders and bosses. Add to that the fact that a game studio is effectively production bottlenecks as far as the eye can see (animators can't do animations without having character models, modellers can't do modelling without the artwork etc) and you have the recipie for very effective workplace action.

The main problem in the games industry is the culture. The way the games industry has generally worked is by burning out the old and exploiting the young. You get some guys in their early twenties who can't believe their luck that they're working in the industry and they'll put up with all the shit thrown at them. These same guys get to their thirties and fourties, burn out and say 'I'm done'. This kind of turnover means that games industry workers never get to build up enough of an 'us vs them' culture in order to take on their bosses over working conditions and creative control. Those who do stay in one place for a long time are often ground down into compliance. One of the worst sights to see in the games industry is a once creative and forthright person joylessly churning through another crappy iPhone port because 'that's just the way it is'.

I definitely think there is a space for worker organisation and resistance to open up in the games industry, but it's going to take a big culture shift. It'll be especially important for young workers in the industry to know their rights and not put up with the shit. If that happens then bosses will find it a lot harder to just cycle people onto the scrap heap and force down working conditions.

Hopefully I'm going to be writing more stuff about working in the games industry, so stay tuned...

Harrison
Apr 22 2011 14:06

i wonder if you could somehow get Anonymous involved
theres a sub-fraction called Anonymous Anarchist Action who work within Anonymous who would help initialize anything over the web that could possibly help with labour disputes

but as you said, its a question of social attitudes toward taking action not a technical issue.

perhaps anonymous (not the hacker group) threats of sabotage and acts of sabotage during periods when everyone is collectively pissed off during a crunch might help spark some solidarity or collective action... (i'm just throwing around ideas)

since its a creative industry with loads of eager scabs, anonymity might be the best protection so that they can't fire the "trouble-makers"

Mike Harman
Apr 22 2011 14:23
Harrison Myers wrote:
i wonder if you could somehow get Anonymous involved
theres a sub-fraction called Anonymous Anarchist Action who work within Anonymous who would help initialize anything over the web that could possibly help with labour disputes

but as you said, its a question of social attitudes toward taking action not a technical issue.

Actually I think it's a bit of both while I've never worked in the games industry, on large technical projects in general there is a massive cycle of crunch and lulls - during the crunch the tendency is for people to try to power through it in the hope they can take it easy after launch. But then after launch, everyone is dispensable, so people have to look busy (and it's quite easy for companies to lay people off then if they want then).

A new game (or iphone app, website - anything else that is software) is completely different from a car factory or whatever - once the product is built, distribution is mostly online now (and if it's in shops, then the DVD printers are not going to be at all connected to the games company). While websites go down, and games have bugs in them, they can also keep running for days (if not months or years) without any human interaction. in some cases, say a games company where the website is run in-house, or they might host the centralised update system for the games - so there might be someone who could take it down/deface it and that might affect sales - but that person is going to be extremely easy to identify (unless they deliberately left avenues to sabotage in there - but that is also extremely risky compared to 'traditional' sabotage and with a much higher chance of getting caught). In many cases, the people who would end up being 'scabs' in such a situation are people working for the App store, or a hosting company - who'd just be asked to restore a backup, or move the site to a new server, or block a DDOS attack - all of which are routine tasks and they may not even realise they're scabbing.

So while the few months before a big deadline there is definitely a lot of power (and some areas in the industry have a high demand for workers, who are not easily replaced), it is very uneven over the overall lifecycle and there are a lot of weaknesses too.

yuumei
Apr 25 2011 12:10
Auto wrote:
Quote:
The main problem in the games industry is the culture. The way the games industry has generally worked is by burning out the old and exploiting the young. You get some guys in their early twenties who can't believe their luck that they're working in the industry and they'll put up with all the shit thrown at them.

Exactly.

I used to work in the games industry. There were a few 70+ hour weeks. I put up with it because I was a new graduate and probably wouldn't have gotten in otherwise. I did enjoy it sometimes, but the thing I find most disturbing is that only the really terrible games are like this - the publishers want the world on a stick in a short ammount of time to specification. If the companies actually let the employees be creative (It is a creative industry after all) and didn't have to rely on publishers there would be so many better games out there. And not just sims 4.

I have since moved on to just non-game related 3D. Much less stressful :3

Auto
Apr 25 2011 14:12
yuumei wrote:
Exactly.

I used to work in the games industry. There were a few 70+ hour weeks. I put up with it because I was a new graduate and probably wouldn't have gotten in otherwise. I did enjoy it sometimes, but the thing I find most disturbing is that only the really terrible games are like this - the publishers want the world on a stick in a short ammount of time to specification. If the companies actually let the employees be creative (It is a creative industry after all) and didn't have to rely on publishers there would be so many better games out there. And not just sims 4.

I have since moved on to just non-game related 3D. Much less stressful :3

This, this, a thousand times, this.

jef costello
Aug 24 2019 19:17

Sabotaging a game isn't necessarily impossible, one game was made unplayable with a spelling mistake. It doesn't say if the person repsonsible faced any consequences or was even identified. Of course the company released the game broken and never fixed it, it was fixed by a modder 5 years later. Like is said in the article, the industry relies on exploiting young people and then drops them when they burn out (a bit like teaching in the UK and probably quite a lot of industries) IT isn't going to be an easy industry to reform because there are always a lot of people ready to replace the workers, but then gain, that argument is the basic argument used against any industrial action and it is rarely true. Scabs can't usually integrate seamlessly, even for 'unskilled' work. It doesn't always mean workers win unfortunately, but it costs the bosses more to beat us.

Reddebrek
Sep 7 2019 19:50

Reading this in 2019 unfortunately while crunch periods and other abuses are still very common in the industry there is more a pushback. Bigish games news services are taking a more hostile line with things like this and there are some signs of game dev workers pushing towards organisation.

https://youtu.be/E8G7zipy6bM