Crunch Should Not Survive the Pandemic

Here's why

During the pandemic, several industries stalled or collapsed while the video game industry thrived. 2020 sales were up 31% when compared to the previous year, a substantive year-on-year increase that directly correlated to the ever-increasing demands of in-home entertainment. Keeping up with demand to offer new games has been one of the industry’s biggest challenges, in part because pivoting to work-from-home (WFH) has reputedly caused delays. The other part is simply this: current demand for video games far exceeds production capacity as it currently stands.

While it might be easy to blame remote work as the problem for skipped deadlines, in video gaming the issue is complex. Missed deadlines don’t originate from where people work - but how and how well they work. It is misguided to assume the pandemic did not have a dramatic impact on mental and physical health. WFH was necessary, but it wasn’t a natural shift. That should be taken into account when reviewing any reports that productivity slowed.

Before the pandemic, almost half of salaried teams engaged in crunch - working anywhere from 80-100 hours of unpaid overtime - to meet their deadlines and ship a game. This cultural and, often, mandatory expectation, which has been proven to reduce the efficacy of project managers and their teams, exists because productivity is expected at increasing, inhumane rates. Crunch wasn’t physically possible during the pandemic for some game developers, but this is not the full story.

Crunch is an issue when discussing the future of work and how that applies to the video game industry, because it’s easy to assume that the data supports an in-office environment that necessitates crunch to ensure deadlines won’t be missed. The calls to return to an in-office work environment to keep up with increased demands will almost certainly unfairly burden video game employees, resulting in an increase in crunch as companies fall back into bad habits.

Pre-pandemic data does not support crunch. It is an archaic, well-studied practice that does not have to be revived to ensure demands are met.

Here’s why.

Crunch is unhealthy

According to a 2019 survey by the IGDA, over 40% of the industry still embraced crunch. If you consider that a company’s greatest asset is its talent, any system that mandates a precarious work-life balance is bound to fail at some point. Many, many studies have been done over the years to underline the effects of stress and fatigue on our physical and mental well-being, but changes are rarely implemented to prioritize employee health over profits.

Mandating that deadlines can only be met with unreasonable hours puts the burden of failure on an individual employee’s shoulders. The issue, often, isn’t the hours available to work. It’s the fact that the deadlines were impossible to begin with. Attempting to meet unrealistic deadlines lead to burnout, depression, and a host of other health issues that negatively impact employees. This matters because production plans rarely, if ever, take into consideration what happens when employees fall ill. If one employee gets sick, someone else may be assigned additional work - increasing an already packed workload.

Though productivity has fallen as demands rise, this was not 'just' due to the challenges from working-from-home as so many have said. Many game developers reported dealing with burnout during the pandemic - a side effect of dealing with unreasonable production cycles for an extended period of time. Burnout is a health issue that impacts productivity, but is one hundred percent preventable in environments that do not demand excessive work weeks.

If your team is piling up for a nap like this, you're probably doing something wrong let's be honest.

Crunch is expensive

One of the reasons why crunch continues to be employed as a productivity 'tool' is because of its legality. It is not illegal to demand salaried employees work ridiculous hours. In theory, pushing employees to work 70 to 80 hours a week to meet a deadline satisfies the demands of investors, owners, and the average gamer who expects a game to be released on time. This, however, is an 'on paper' ideology that does not hold true, because mandating excessive overtime is a result of poor project management - a costly mistake.

According to Evan Robinson, one of the reasons why crunch is expected is because an employer is “achieving maximal output” from their staff. This, however, is purely ideological and not based in actual data, because bugs do not just affect profits. They also impact developmental teams while sparking a cascading effect of additional work, impacting everyone from core teams to customer service to social media managers who manage angry fans when a newly released game does not meet their expectations.

Pressuring employees to finish a poorly-planned game results in slower development and bugs that are expensive to fix. Additionally, soft metrics such as mental, physical, and social health are often self-reported and can be hard to assess, but they do cost. No human being can produce the same output in a high-pressure environment for extended periods of time without suffering health issues which cost money to fix and time off to recover from.

Hard data is challenging to gather because the proof is not found in one, accessible metric. That said, the data does exist on a company-wide basis. Turnover can be a key indicator, because it is more expensive to train a brand new employee to work on an existing game than it is to retain talent. Tracking hours or tickets related to bugs can also point to an issue, too.

While expenses can be opaque, buggy games point to a series of systemic failures exacerbated by poor deadlines and crunch. Combined, this can damage a company’s reputation, an unmeasurable metric, and impact future sales.

Crunch negatively impacts quality

In addition to bugs, a high-pressure environment is not sustainable for creative projects because it negatively impacts the overly quality of the game. Creative productivity can be challenging to measure, because this work isn’t measured in lines of code or words per minute. Assembly line metrics are unrealistic when applied to game development. Brainstorming sessions, research, teambuilding, play, and rest all contribute to a complex process that, when working optimally, results in great gameplay and memorable experiences.

In recent years, multiple companies have employed crunch, despite claiming they wouldn’t. This has resulting in buggy releases and poor experiences - proof that the creative process was damaged by employing this tactic. Notably, CD Projekt Red’s Marcin Iwiński stated that crunch was voluntary for Cyberpunk 2077’s production, though that did not hold true. Even if Iwiński’s intent was to avoid unhealthy practices for his company, there was a disconnect that couldn’t be overcome. Often, when stating an entrenched, cultural act is voluntary, the decree has the opposite, intended effect as it encourages insecurities to blossom - especially in a high-turnover industry.

An undercurrent of fear, whether that’s from losing one’s job or proposed bonus, is not healthy for creative teams. That added, unmeasurable stress impacts the creative process and damages morale. Some basic levels of job security are needed to keep employees focused on delivering a quality, fun game, and that can’t happen if they’re anxious about their hours.

Stock photography really is the gift that keeps on giving. Anyway, while it's a bit of a silly image, it doesn't change the fact that burnout can be very serious.

Crunch is a gatekeeper

Perhaps one of the lesser-recognized impacts of crunch is the fact that, by its nature, the practice is an active gatekeeper limiting applicants. The identity of those who can participate in crunch, to work extended hours, is limited to people who don’t have obligations.

Neurodiverse and disabled employees cannot thrive in a culture that demands inflexibility and sacrifice. Adult caretakers for children, the elderly, and other dependents cannot participate in crunch, either, because the demands of their job erase what free time they have. This, too, can disproportionately affect pregnant employees, which further limits the talent pool.

By reducing the talent pool, this practice limits the perspectives and work experiences that increase the quality of a game. The consequences of limited perspectives may not be apparent in the broader scope of video game production, but it can point to why some games lose appeal and, as such, money. The video game audience is incredibly diverse but can’t always be quantified, because retailers and gaming platforms hold onto proprietary data, unless sold through third party channels. The data that does exist is often a sample. For example the ESA’s 2021 report, which includes the statistic that 45% of players are female and 54% male, is based on Ipsos’ survey sample of 4,000 players and is supported by data from the ESRB. That’s not to say the ESA’s statistics are faulty. Data that does not incorporate deeper, demographic data is not actionable and often breeds popularized beliefs.

For example, the New York Times highlighted that: “African Americans made up 14 percent of the population in 2018, according to Nielsen, which measures audience analytics. But 73 percent of African Americans ages 13 and older identified as gamers, compared with 66 percent of the total population, the company said.” And yet pervasive assumptions, such as Black characters can’t sell video games, remain entrenched in an industry that cannot afford to remain stagnant if it wants to meet demand.

Crunch limits the talent pool and its effects are not apparent due to incomplete demographic data. When it’s unclear who is playing a game, it’s very easy to design and hire for a perceived audience. Combined, this contributes to gatekeeping from top to bottom and makes it easy to justify turnover. The solution isn’t an easy one, because data is often needed to “prove” to investors and company owners why game design needs to shift toward diversity and inclusion. That conversation, however, begins with crunch and who that practice is unduly keeping from applying.

Crunch’s absence has been noticed

Though demand for video games has risen during the pandemic, the shift to work-from-home has also been noticed by game developers who were freed from the high-pressure demands of crunch. Whether they were burnt out or not, WFH has allowed people to assess and prioritize their mental health away from the office. This is a neon sign the video games industry cannot 'go back' to the way things were. Let’s face it: maybe “the way things were” wasn’t that great to begin with.

The future of work must include conversations about mental and physical health alongside innovations in remote communications, team building, and project management. Unfulfilled basic needs and the income disparity between billions in profits and non-commensurate salaries have led to increasing discussions about forming unions. Unfortunately, this has sparked unjust fears that games cannot be produced by union employees.

Consider the alternative: crunch is the rot that hasn’t been fully dealt with yet. It has always been true that crunch is not a sustainable, guaranteed solution to produce quality games on time. Crunch exists primarily as a PR stunt to “prove” how hard a company is working on a game for its investors and, in some cases, players, and does not benefit the game nor the employees who dedicate so much of their time to creating a complex, interactive, work of art.

So, what is the solution? First, recognize that crunch isn’t necessary and should be treated as a pre-pandemic artefact. This decision creates opportunities for innovation and substantive changes to project management, both of which can be tested when employees return to the office. Instead of fearing their requests for a better work-life balance, welcome them as part of the solution. Second, consider that this is an opportunity for communication between leadership and teams to improve, because both perspectives are crucial to navigating change. Unhealthy, toxic workplaces tend to generate gossip and paranoia - especially if morale is low and trust is nonexistent. And, this vibe is not always perceived by upper management.

Lastly, the value of employees needs to be reestablished, especially in high-pressure, competitive environments, for productivity to function optimally. Veteran game developers are the best resource a company has. Chances are, current employees have observations and ideas that will improve workflow and help meet deadlines without forcing undue sacrifices. The trick is to encourage sceptical employees to speak openly without fear of reprisal or cultural backlash, to make them feel vested in the process. Without that investment, no change will stick.

Though the pandemic hasn’t ended yet, there are rising calls to return to in-office environments and satisfy demand. Needs can change rapidly - especially as activities resume and less time is spent indoors - and forcing employees to crunch in this environment is a sign of faulty leadership. Crunch is a relic. Employees should not have to suffer producing entertainment for others.

If there was ever a time to rethink the nature of work in the video game industry, that time is now. Otherwise, the cycle will simply continue at a cost many cannot afford to pay.

Monica Valentinelli
Monica Valentinelli is an author and narrative designer for licensed and original properties. Find out more at:

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