Delays don’t stop crunch, only ethical management can

Posted January 24, 2020

What a start to the decade. The tide has certainly gone out and taken with it a whole lot of upcoming games. FF7 Remake got a nudge, Cyberpunk 2077 took a push, and Ubisoft seems to be taking its whole library back to the drawing board. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little dismayed. But as always I try and push the childish disappointment down. After all, delays benefit developers, right? Surely more time to develop makes the process less stressful. It’s a reasonable assessment, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Unfortunately, such ideals do not reflect the reality of some AAA companies, which routinely rely on a diet of overworked staff.

Delays & Crunch: Two paths through the chaos of game development

Let’s not pretend that delays have no place in games production. As a game developer myself, I know the chaos that is the creation of games. Bugs, plummeting frame rates and programming glitches just come with the job. The repository will fail. A piece of code will fail, and the person who wrote it will call in sick. The time needed to finish key features will be underestimated. As such plans must be flexible. Usually this means features need to be prioritised, with more fancy features set as “stretch goals”. These elements will be left on the cutting room floor should time and resources become insufficient. As the chaos leads to small problems building into large ones, something must give. If developers want a chance to make the game “perfect”, more time is needed, thus delays. In bigger companies with the cash to burn, this leads to temp contract work. But for other companies, unphased by the detrimental impacts such a system may inflict on their staff, there is a third option – crunch.

Crunch is simply the “tactic” of overworking staff. It’s sad in a way that crunch has a name, signalling its prevalence and the need to summarise an oppressive standard. The practice has seen use in various AAA companies. Rockstar has boasted of 100 hour work weeks and bringing a poorly planned Anthem together in the last months pre-launch has been called “Bioware Magic”. I would happily go on, but the message is clear. Crunch is not only acceptable, it’s admirable. There’s toxic mythology in place here.

The developer slaving at a computer mimics the aesthetic of the starving artist. Both characters imply that life can be sustained on passion. They ignore the harm and burnout one can so easily inflict on oneself. Sure, there are people with no commitments, and full of passion. However, holding aloft such a person as a standard to live up to is truly abusive. Do not misunderstand, this is an abuse of the developer to favor the CEO.

“It’s sad in a way that crunch has a name, signalling its prevalence and need to summarise an oppressive standard.”

Yes, in small doses, it’s reasonable that one might need to work longer and harder leading to a release. People want to know release dates, and with the chaos of development, one can’t just push a game back a week, they need to push through and get it done. But the AAA industry has taken this to unsustainable, unreasonable extremes. A week of crunch is ok. When we’re seeing crunch on the scale of months, years, hell maybe even whole development cycles, that is truly untenable.

For those of you not convinced that developer health is important, it should be known that games suffer too. Overworked workers don’t work well long term. They will make errors that take time to undo. Perhaps crunch could be linked to the “patch culture” seen in modern games. The “ah screw it, just get it out and fix it later” mentality. Crunch is truly a ridiculous thing. There needs to be another way to get this work done in a way that isn’t so damaging.

Indies & Nintendo: Delays doing right by developers

There’s a clear benefit to delays. More development time reduces the workload on a day to day basis. This seems to be the case for many independent developers. However Nintendo is probably a bit more famous in this regard. When speaking on Animal Crossing’s delay, Nintendo of America president, Doug Bowser, cited developer well-being as a contributing factor. The following quote comes courtesy of an IGN article on the matter.

“The crunch point is an interesting one. For us, one of our key tenets is that we bring smiles to people’s faces, and we talk about that all the time. It’s our vision. Or our mission, I should say. For us, that applies to our own employees. We need to make sure that our employees have good work-life balance.”

The good deed did not go unpunished. Nintendo stock took a dip; it seems like ethical delays have a bad economic image. The simple fact is that Animal Crossing will make Nintendo money. But a delay in the product leads to a delay in a payday for investors. It’s the right thing to do, but for companies that value money over the well-being of staff, there are clear priorities. There was another unintended consequence. There’s a strong link in some people’s minds – delays benefit developers. After all, this is how it should be. Delays are seen in opposition to crunch. But the news around Cyberpunk has broken this illusion, and upon inspection, it is not alone.

Cybercrunch

The real issue for Cyberpunk 2077 wasn’t the delay itself, but the follow-up. Cyberpunk had claimed in the past that they would plan out and ensure that less pressure was placed on developers. Co-founder Marcin Iwiński spoke to that effect, but said they can’t be “200 per cent sure that there won’t be some pressure”. However a different story has emerged from a CDPR conference call. Adam Kiciński, joint-CEO of CDPR, had a different point to share when he was asked if the studio would be crunching after the delay announcement. His response can be seen below.

“To some degree, yes – to be honest. We try to limit crunch as much as possible, but it is the final stage. We try to be reasonable in this regard, but yes. Unfortunately.”

But how could this be? Isn’t the whole point of pushing the game back 5 months to relax crunch? Why, pray tell, would a company push back the release of a product, if not to give more time to developers? Well the truth is, companies push back games to improve the games, but not the lives of their staff.

Crunch & Delays: How to make the worst of both worlds

Delays can also allow development to squeeze in a few extra features. Recall if you will that previously-mentioned list of features. Right at the bottom of the list are the stretch goals. There isn’t enough time or resources to get to those. But what if, purely hypothetically, you had, say, an extra five months? You could get through that list now. But there isn’t enough workers for us to get those features done. The only solution? Make the workers do a lot more work. And that ladies, gentlemen and non-binary friends, is what we call crunch.

In this version of reality, delays are actually making things worse. Essentially, while the deadline shift allows for more development time, studio heads can see this as an opportunity to add more work to the pile. In this situation, delays do nothing to help the crunch. Honestly, delays merely extend the duration of crunch, exacerbating the issue. The people on the top of AAA food chains are the ones handing down these orders. These are people who will never feel the tolls of their decisions. There is no reasonable treatment of the workers, and that is truly scary.

But what I personally found truly scary is how new this information is to me. I regard myself as a fairly vocal critic of the AAA games industry, and their less than scrupulous practices. Yet, barely a week ago I was defending the delays. “I’m annoyed that my game got pushed”, I’d think, “But really what’s more important is the well-being of the developers, so it’s good”. There is no such certainty anymore. This is by no means a new problem. This is but another ghost hanging over the industry, old and invisible. And it still is invisible, if we’re being honest.

“This is by no means a new problem. This is but another ghost hanging over the industry, old and invisible.”

We’re talking about Cyberpunk 2077, sure, but only because they got called out. They didn’t fully admit this truth to the press, only under pressure of investors. It can’t be denied the spectre of such delay-enabled crunch has been present in various projects. Hell, with the industry as closed off as it is, we can’t tell the intent behind any delay. In this month of delays, there is just no way to tell which, if any, are easing crunch, and which are merely drawing it out.



Sam Harkin

About the Author

Sam Harkin

Melburnian nerd, podcaster, game writer and critic. Always curious always poking around, looking for important stories. Keeps the AAA people in check, and promoting the indie darlings. A Game dev in training. @sammydeedge on Twitter ^_^