A 90-Hour Work Week Is Believable Because Game Development Is Toxic


#1

Yesterday, Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor - Martyr developer NeocoreGames revealed their upcoming action game would be delayed a few weeks. During this period, the studio would “push this extra three weeks in 90+ hours per week.” There are only 168 hours in a week, which means the developers at NeocoreGames would be spending more than 50% of their waking hours on the game. The average work week in the United States is roughly 34 hours.

My initial response to the comment was skepticism; through extra hours wouldn’t have surprised me, the developers are Hungarian, so English might not have been their first language. It seemed possible this was a joke gone awry. Overnight, the game’s PR manager argued as much in a statement to me.

“Our producer meant it as a joke,” said PR manager David Martha. “What he meant to say was that we're going to work hard in the coming weeks to finish the game. I've been working at NeocoreGames for over three years and I never had to work 90 hours a week. =) I would like to clarify that we're treated well at Neocore and the community don't have to worry about our well-being. We're doing our best to finish the game, but we're not working 90 hours a week.”

But most of the Internet didn’t take it as a joke, including many developers.

“Please, please don’t do this to your dev team,” said Telltale narrative designer Emily Grace Buck, a studio with its own history of toxic crunch culture.

"90 hour work weeks are truly unproductive and dumb," said Pillars of Eternity game director Josh Sawyer. "The WH40K inquisitor team should not be subjected to them."

Several developers at Neocore lined up behind the notion it was a joke. But it’s a joke Neocore has made several times. Previously, the studio “joked” about forcing everyone to work on Christmas and New Years Eve, and alluded to 80-hour work weeks.

Hilarious!

Even if we take Neocore’s statement at face value and presume it was a joke, what does it say about an industry when the initial response is believing it’s true? It suggests decades of successful exploitation, grinding passion into dust, has resulted in accepting the most extreme of conditions. A 90-hour week is within the realm of possibility, and while we’ve progressed to a state where people are happy to get indignant on social media, it does nothing to place power in the hands of the individuals being exploited.

It’s typically not an individual’s choice to work hours that deprive them of having anything resembling a life outside the office. It’s either mandated by an employer, with the tangible or understood threat that not participating means you’re out of a job, or part of a work culture pressuring individuals to grind the same hours are pulling.

Over the years, I’ve heard countless stories where developers stayed at work, despite having nothing to do, because leaving when others were working was seen as disrespectful. There was no one around to tell them "Hey, go home."

That’s bullshit, obviously.

“Crunch is a systemic, top-down solution to the problem of extracting the most labor from game developers,” argued Waypoint writer Cameron Kunzelman last year, in response to a developer’s personal adoration with crunch, as part of their creative process. “It is a strategy that is implemented on workers, and it is performed widely in most sectors of the industry. One developer's complicated relationship with crunch is a blip on the constantly-screaming radar of worker exploitation that the practice enables as part of the normal operation of the game industry. It is not an exception in one person's life, it is the norm.”

Last year, game developer Tanya Short wrote a piece on Waypoint about how (and why) developers fall into crunch, even if they're trying to avoid it.

People have families to feed, livelihoods to support. Not everyone can be assured leaving one problematic job means finding a “good” one, if such a job exists at all. In an industry where crunch is not only accepted but encouraged, what option do you have?

It doesn’t have to be this way. The present system of exploitation and oppression demands it, of course, but there’s a way out, if a complicated one: unionization. At the Game Developers Conference this year, Waypoint contributor Ian Williams reported on the industry taking the first concrete steps to realizing a long held belief the only way for development labor to truly wield any power is through collective strength. They formed an organization: Game Workers Unite.

“People talk about unions like they’re impossible, but it’s just not true,” said Liz Ryerson, an independent game designer, critic, and Game Workers Unite organizer. (Disclosure: Ryerson has written for Waypoint.) “You can ask for more, you know? You don’t have to accept how things are because things are messed up, and most people know that.”

I haven’t worked in game development, but I have worked long, unwieldy hours with no promise of additional compensation. When I came to work at Waypoint, knowing I had a child on the way, it was the first time I was deliberately upfront with my employer about work commitment. I was being paid a salary to work from 9:30 in the morning, until 5:30 in the evening. That’s a full eight hours. At 5:30, I clock out, pick up my kid, and focus on other parts of my life—my wife, family, self-care. This is important to me.

There are quirks to this arrangement. On occasion, I spend time before or after “work hours” getting things done. It happens, but crucially, it’s rare. I am not paid for the many hours playing games at night, and while I spend some hours playing purely for fun, most evenings I’m only playing games because I need to new things to write about for work.

A big reason I’m more comfortable with my arrangement, as imperfect as it might be, is because I’m repped by a union at VICE. I was repped by a union at Gawker, too. When Gawker made the transition, I was ambivalent. My last experience with a union was while working as a checkout at a grocery store, and watching part of my already very meager teenage wages be sliced up for a union contribution. I had no idea where that money went. Back then, it was just money being taken away from me.

But I was a teenager. At Gawker, I watched the union fight for better pay and regular salary bumps, pushed back against cuts to insurance benefits, and more. I was proud to contribute money to the union because it meant my life was getting better.

Game developers should have that, too. It’s long overdue.

There’s comfort in knowing others are by your side. We believe a studio might ask workers to slave away for 90 hours in a week because...why not? That’s just the way it is.

It is, at least, until it isn’t. Hopefully that day comes soon.

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

Have thoughts? Swing by Waypoints forums to share them!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/ywxjmx/a-90-hour-work-week-is-believable-because-game-development-is-toxic

#2

I was actually very heartened by the replies to this:


#3

Now is it time to talk about Game Workers Unite on the podcast? YES @austin_walker I’M CALLING YOU OUT. :kissing_heart:


#4

I’ve often wondered if this issue isn’t just a weird confluence of the types of people who made up the first generation of game developers and the standardization of work within the games industry that followed, if that makes sense. Defining the first gen as those who made games in the 80s and 90s, there are many unique, intense personalities: the robotic, technical genius of John Carmack to the garrulous creative genius of Richard Garriott to the shy brilliance of Sid Meier…they all shared a common trait in losing themselves in the work, and happily doing so.

Unfortunately, as the industry became more accessible and standardized, it seems like that kind of OCD-like dedication to the work also became accepted as commonplace, but as the work became more accessible, it wasn’t as necessary for those doing it to have the kind of aforementioned traits. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that Indie Game: The Movie came around, and that all those who were part of that film eventually triumphed. But again, the personalities who made up that movie are similar to those already mentioned, which likely puts them on the far end of the distribution curve and in some way, makes them unfortunate examples of what it takes to “make it” in the games industry.

All that being said, as someone who’s a lifelong gamer for 30+ years now, looking at the games industry from the outside is fairly horrifying and the idea of trying to become a part of it on any level sounds like a deal with the devil, so this talk of unionization is certainly a good thing and an interesting development that will be worth following.


#5

Taniks Axemtitanium has called you out, Guardian, in the ways of old


#6

I think it’s interesting and telling that a lot of those replies are “I, as a consumer, do not need this product so badly” whereas the pressure to crunch almost universally comes from a top down management point of view. It helps when fighting those battles because it gives devs a tool when in meetings, but deadlines and milestones are rarely about consumer expectations and usually way more about finances and investment.

This leads into discussions about the sustainability of games that came up around lootboxes, and crunch is definitely another symptom of that ecosystem.


#7

I think it’s less being a teenager and more “I was being exploited by my employer, who did not pay a living wage (and even as a teenager, this was meagre); by my elected representatives, who did not consider my labour rights to be essential human rights that needed to be codified into law; and my union representation, who probably didn’t feel the need to really work for those dues by actually representing my needs in collective bargaining (possibly because I didn’t even have the option of not paying for their representation, so they had no incentive to fight their hardest for every worker or see me choose a different union to represent me/represent myself)”.

In the wake of (academic tangent) more wildcat strikes in the US and the erosion of faith in union leadership in the UK, the question becomes less of if some monolithic union will magically save workers from exploitation and more about the concrete demands of workers (focused on the most precarious) and how best to force ongoing dialogue with the corporations that so far have only acted to suppress the bad PR of working conditions rather than tackling the underling issues of widespread mismanagement and workplace exploitation and harassment.


Why Are So Many People Leaving Video Games?
#8

You’re leaving out another option beside “crunch and release on time” and “release late” – “cancel project”. That’s what motivates people to crunch, the idea that all their work will never see the light of day at all. Combine that with the sunk cost fallacy and you have some pretty good conditions for labor exploitation.


#9

In both cases, the tools are in the hands of the management to make the decision to crunch or cancel. At no point do the workers have a say, other than to recognize the psychologically manipulative pressure to crunch-because-other-people-are-crunching.


#10

Having been in that exact situation, totally. Though “cancel project” is typically an extension of finances/investment, really.