With the release of the oft-delayed but highly-anticipated Cyberpunk 2077 just a few weeks away, some attention has also been drawn to the problem of "crunch culture" in the video game industry. With respect to game development, the term refers to the time period in which a team is directly or indirectly forced to work an extra number of hours to achieve milestones, and this typically happens near the public release of a title.
During this "crunch time", some companies offer their employees fringe benefits such as free meals, and at other times, bonuses and compensation leaves subject to the game's success after its release. In this period, developers tend to work overtime applying final improvements and polish to the game. Recent surveys have revealed that nearly 50% of developers still work more than the regular 40 hours per week, and in crunch time, this has gone up to 90 hours a week.
It is interesting to note that crunch culture was largely a well-kept secret in the video game development industry. That is, until 2004, when the famous "EA Spouse" letter sharply criticized Electronic Arts' crunch culture. The open letter was penned by Erin Hoffman, in which she blamed the firm for her fiance's deteriorating health conditions due to the unpaid overtime he was being forced to put in. An excerpt from the letter reads:
This crunch also differs from crunch time in a smaller studio in that it was not an emergency effort to save a project from failure. Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.
Following this letter, EA was taken to court in a class-action lawsuit by software engineers at the company, and was forced to pay $14.9 million to the plaintiffs.
As a result, prevalent crunch culture present in the video game development industry has come under the magnifying glass. Reports about this activity have emerged frequently from various companies including Rockstar Games, Naughty Dog, Starbreeze Studios, and most recently, CD Projekt Red in the ongoing final stretch of Cyberpunk 2077 development.
While there have been talks of the possibility of video game developers unionizing over inhumane treatment during crunch time, nothing concrete has emerged as of yet. In fact, many companies have been known to hire contractual workers during crunch period because they are not subject to compensation policies offered to regular employees. Many critics have also asked for stricter state laws discouraging this practice.
That said, some also support crunch culture indirectly by claiming that working overtime when close to a public release is normal, and should be completely acceptable as long as you are being adequately compensated for the extra hours you are putting in. This pattern of thinking is noticeable in comment sections of forums and social media whenever a game development company is being scrutinized for practicing crunch culture.
Proponents of this side of the debate state that crunch culture is common in most, if not all, industries and that video game development shouldn't be held atop a pedestal. There are also some examples in which companies which encouraged crunch time released stellar games such as Red Dead Redemption 2 and The Last of Us Part II, although of course, whether crunch culture can be attributed to their success is arguable.
We would like to know: which side of the debate do you lie on? Should crunch culture be discouraged in video game development (or any industry, for that matter) regardless of the latent benefits it offers, or is it acceptable to work overtime provided that you're offered adequate compensation? Let us know in the comments section below!