Crunch culture in the game industry (RDR2, et al)

There’s been a lot of back-and-forth reporting since the “100-hour weeks” boasting by one of the heads of Rockstar. The deepest and most measured account so far of what crunch looks like at Rockstar and whether it’s voluntary or mandatory is Jason Schreier’s Kotaku report:

Long hours aren’t rare in a lot of industries. If anything makes game development different, it’s the length of crunch periods (RDR2 devs report 50-60 hour weeks for more than a year) and that it seems to be part of the culture of certain very high-profile developers of smash-hit games, like Rockstar and Naughty Dog. In fact, it’s common for some studios and publishers to say “This is just what it takes to make AAA games.”

Game developers should care about this because even if it doesn’t affect them personally, it drives good developers out of the industry and it sets standards that mean that it could easily affect them in the future.

Game players should arguably care for the same reason they should care about working conditions where their smartphone is made (albeit adjusted for different degrees of egregiousness in each case). Their purchasing decisions determine what gets made in the future and how.

There’s a thread dedicated to RDR. Can you keep your comments in there?

(sorry couldn’t resist)

As a gamer and a fan of game development, I just wanna say, I hope developers unionize at some point.

See, when I hear crunch, this doesn’t really strike me as that. 60 hours is a lot, but was basically normal for me for 11 years in the print industry. I maybe worked two weeks that were less than 45 hours in that span.

There’s a world of difference between a 50 hour week, a 60 hour one, a 70 hour one, and a 100 hour one.

The most significant conclusion I draw from that (excellent) Kotaku piece is that Rockstar has some terrible management practices. It’s really the same as any big company, but it does seem like certain Rockstar studios are more prone to bad practices than other companies or studios.

The anecdotes which stick out to me are:

  • Practices where hours are tracked down to the minute, and people are reprimanded for coming up short, instead of getting judged solely on the work they get done

  • Management’s surprise at the fact that some employees feel obligated to come in on the weekends when they’re there, even if they don’t need to in order to get their work done. Managers need to acknowledge that they are setting an example even implicitly. The great managers I work for are completely transparent about this - I’ve often been directly told “Do not worry about this or work on it over the weekend” and “You’re on vacation - please don’t worry about this / send mail while you’re out!”. Those messages from managers go a long way

  • People who literally had nothing to do yet felt obligated to sit at their desks for 8-10 hours on the weekend - either forced my managers or implicitly through cultural pressure - just to record those hours

Honestly from that Kotaku article I’m left with a much better impression of Rockstar than before. It sounds like a case of some (or many) terrible managers which need to get weeded out to let the really talented artists shine on their own terms without artificial pressures on top of it.

(Except for all the QA mistreatment - that’s completely unacceptable)

I’ll repeat: as long as worker protection legislation allows for unpaid overtime, crunch will be seen by executives as a producer’s success instead of the utter failure of planning this is.

I’t basically “you got them to work how much for free?” vs “you spent how much over what we had planned?”.

It’s either worker protection legislation or Unions. Films, another industry where there’s a lot of overtime, is indeed heavily unionized and overtime is paid even in the US. You can bet producers plan the hell of each shooting day (and allow for a percentage of the budget to cover unplanned overtime among other things).

All that said in my previous statement, the management problems do seem to stem from the top - not malicious, but just oblivious:

I’ve been reading a lot of the Digital Antiquarian lately and the ‘elves’ comment is reminiscent of disputes that have been going along throughout game development history. From Trip Hawkins’s abortive attempt to promote devs as ‘rock stars’ (ahem) to Ray Kassar’s completely contemptuous treatment of Atari programmers that led many of them to break off and form Activision… it seems like the perception of game developers as either brilliant visionaries or nameless drones has been oscillating back and forth all along. Of course, in those days it was somewhat different as dev teams were tiny, often single individuals. Nowadays, a dev team (like a movie crew) could be composed of both brilliant visionaries and nameless drones.

I think incidentally that journalistic recreations of game development may be susceptible to the romance of crunch. You know – Romero and Carmack working all night long, devouring pizza, all that sort of thing.

I feel like we should timestamp this thread with “Crunch culture in the game industry 2018”, because it’s 14 years since EA_spouse, and I expect more threads in the next 14 years.

That’s a good point about the history of this topic here at Qt3.

Here’s a great thread we had in 2013 on it:

Here’s another great one from 2011:

This thread from 2010 is great, and this post talks in detail about Rockstar (but there’s lots of great stuff above and below that post in that thread):

I can search for more later, but those threads were all great reads.

There is no romance of crunch. It is what it is: near-OCD phasing out of the world around you to concentrate on the blessed art-creation and puzzle-solving symbiosis that is programming. It is wonderful and horrible at the same time. Like an itch you can never scratch but feels so good when you do.

Source: experienced it many, many times in my halcyon days of youth. My output was nowhere near Carmack-like, but man, pouring through those lines of code after that one fucking bug

The shitty part of it is a bunch of MBA cunts taking advantage of this Aspie behavior and expecting everybody to conjure this magic up on demand to put money in the shareholder pockets. And the fact it’s been going on for ~30 years and there’s no programmer’s union yet. Probably because unlike the film industry, there’s no big dudes like grips or best boys to bust a manager’s nose if he asks for something retarded, and also the fact that Aspies don’t unionize

I’m not saying it is really romance, I’m saying the descriptions sometimes paint it that way.

Man, and I went looking for other catch-all threads on the topic before I made this one… Thanks for finding those, Rock!

@Gordon_Cameron, your point about the awkward dichotomy between stars (dare I say, “Game Gods”??) in the industry and drones who are burned out and cast off is a good one.

@CraigM, your print industry story sounds pretty awful to me, frankly. I mean, if it’s regularly around 45-50 hours… well, okay. But 60 or more hours a week for more than, I dunno, a month? For one thing, it doesn’t really even qualify as “crunch” at that point–which implies coming up against a hard deadline and needing to finish the last few things. It’s just working people for 50% again more time than is considered normal without compensating them for it.

My dad did 60 hours for years. For me, no real diff between that and 80 or 100 or whatever. He was absent.

Now that I have a kid even 40 sometimes feels hard. 60+? Yeah I just wouldn’t be around except weekends. Sure my wife would love that…

To me, the real horror story is that so many folks feel that working 50, 60, or more hours a week routinely is at all acceptable. In the USA, we have this insane culture that seems to ignore all the evidence about the psychological and physiological effects of overwork, and exaggerates the bottom line benefits. Or, just as often, only looks at the benefits to the company bottom line, and ignores the inequity in how those benefits get apportioned.

There’s a reason most other developed nations have labor protection rules that limit if not prohibit some of these overtime practices. It certainly doesn’t cripple their productivity, either. But in the good ole USA, it seems, the only thing that is truly sacred is corporate profit.

Fortunately for me I was hourly. But, to put it bluntly, the print industry is pretty sociopathic. Partly driven by economic realities, where the industry has been contracting about 3-4% a year for about 15 years, and how about each year there are 5% fewer companies in the industry due to buyouts and closures.

The 60 hour stuff rarely went for more than 2-3 weeks, but 50 hours was more or less the normal, probably at least 2/3 of the weeks. I averaged about 500 hours of overtime a year.

For over a decade.

This is why I went back to school, while working those hours, and changed careers last year.

this. this X 1000.

Someone doing it when working on something because of love of doing it is one thing, but companies forcing it on people is bad management. For anyone doing that I hope you are making sure that you are getting paid for all that work you are doing on top of the 40 hours your salary is for.

Very routine in every company I’ve worked as a professional so far. What causes it is management wants though, like someone woke up this morning and decided they want something… Now. Not some built in crunch although we have crunch too.

I cannot stress enough that one person doing this means everyone needs to which makes it forced.