The VG Crunch

“It must be fun making video games.” “Being a video game developer sounds like a dream job!” These are familiar quotes for those in this creative industry; an “easy” job, outsiders may say, but behind the curtain of artistic indie titles and massive AAA blockbusters, things are not always as perfect as they may seem.

There are pros and cons with all jobs. Many will always decry that making video games is “easy” and “not a real job”, but there are often leaks and chatter from behind the scenes that stain the image of the idyllic career many imagine it to be. These insights are sometimes from developers themselves, primarily thanks to the power and voice Twitter gives its users. From QA (quality assurance) to designers and programmers, it seems some companies can abuse the loyalty of their employees with intense and unreasonable workloads and expectations, sometimes for unknown prolonged periods. This is something known in the industry (and likely known to many students, and project workers) as the ‘crunch’. The ‘crunch’ being a period of time, typically days and/or weeks, in the run up to a project or task deadline where said deadline looms, stresses set in, and the list of things still to complete seems to be ever increasing.

Recently, prior to one of the most anticipated game launches this year, Red Dead Redemption 2, developer Rockstar found themselves under public scrutiny. At the forefront of this scrutiny was the highly intense work time ‘crunch’ and the managerial pressure workers were allegedly subjected to. Claims online and from insider reports indicate that workers were frequently made to work over 100 hours a week for long periods of time, and partake in unpaid overtime in order to meet deadlines of a ‘crunch’. This controversy came to the public’s attention when Rockstar’s co-founder Dan Houser claimed in a feature piece for New York Magazine (in a seemingly proud manner) that employees were working 100-hour weeks to finish the company's latest game:

“We were working 100-hour weeks several times in 2018. The finished game includes 300,000 animations, 500,000 lines of dialogue, and many more lines of code. Even for each RDR2 trailer and TV commercial, we probably made 70 versions, but the editors may make several hundred. Sam and I will both make lots of suggestions, as will other members of the team.”

Following this interview, many developers (past and present) had mixed reactions: some acknowledged and criticised the crunch conditions, and some denied the claims. This paints a confusing picture of the situation behind closed doors at Rockstar.

Unfortunately, the ‘crunch’ is common practice within the gaming industry, and is not its sole issue, as the sudden closure of US studio Telltale Games earlier in 2018 shows. In the instance of Telltale Games shutting down, it was claimed by some developers from the now defunct studio (which closed due to a lack of funds stemming from poor management over the years and failed deals), that workers were only informed of their firing upon their arrival at the studio. Upon receiving this ‘formal notification’ they were reportedly allowed only 30 minutes to gather their items and leave the premises, and were not provided any severance pay. On top of this (and a major issue in the USA) workers’ healthcare plans from the company would only continue to cover them for up to a week following their firing. Of course, these claims are to be taken with a pinch of salt as The Verge reported information that points to the contrary:

“By all accounts, the layoffs were handled as professionally and gently as possible. Those who had lost their jobs were paid out until the end of the year...” […] “People were not denied severance or escorted from the building by security...”

This again only adds to the confusion of the truth behind the scenes in the industry.

The situation was not aided when members of Telltale Games management tried to calm customer/player fears by stating that work to finish a series (left in limbo following the studios closure) would be outsourced for completion. It could be argued that the large pool of workers were sacrificed to protect management positions in the longer term. This has even lead to an ex-staff member filing a proposed class-action suit.

Game Workers Unite, an independent group pushing for industry members to unionise, previously issued a scathing statement on the situation of Telltale’s closure arguing these kinds of closures and mass layoffs are "a problem endemic in the industry”:

"Let us be clear. The executives at Telltale are incompetent. They are exploitative. They knew that this was coming and failed to warn anybody... We as workers can forge a better industry with sustainable, fair, and dignified working conditions. An industry that provides safety nets and holds our companies accountable. An industry where no worker lives in fear of being exploited by the executives of the company."

Legal unions and support institutes for workers within the video game and digital entertainment industry could better protect countless workers in this highly competitive industry, providing more job security and employee protection (both under employment and post-support in instances of redundancies/mass layoffs) through a large and vocal union. A union similar to RMT Union UK (National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers), has managed in the past to perform large-scale industrial action in retaliation to what it deemed to be unfair treatment of employee. Unions (across all countries involved in the industry) for workers could also protect them from the ultimate worse-case scenario: sudden studio closures and the following redundancies. Sometimes, such redundancies are undertaken illegally without severance pay. This was the case with the closure of Telltale Games (based in California, USA), where Californian law was breached (the Cal-WARN Act). This legislation requires employers to provide 60 days notice for mass-layoffs.

It has been many years, decades even, since video games were (although sometimes still are) viewed as a childish thing to be involved in, or part of a nerdy subculture. As the industry has grown in monetary value and mainstream influence (sometimes eclipsing even Hollywood), it seems the archaic workers’ support mechanisms and protective legislation need to be overhauled and developed to keep up with modern times.

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