There’s a term in the video game industry that has haunted game developers and quality assurance workers for over a decade: Crunch. This article posted by The Guardian elucidates the term and investigates how its presence within the video game industry has changed throughout the years.
But what is crunch? Unless you are familiar with the industry, you’re unlikely to have even heard about this concept, which refers to vast periods of mandatory, often unpaid, overtime that may kick in during the months leading to a release date. And it gets worse; although the idea of “crunch” sounds like it’s beneath the dignity of major video game companies, it’s actually quite a normal practice. Among the companies that have been reported to promote crunching are Turbine, Kitfox Games, even Rockstar Games, which produced the infamous GTA series.
Crunch doesn’t only affect the gaming industry. As Ian G Williams of T.G. says, “software development is high pressure, susceptible to sudden market changes, and lacks an institutional memory of labour negotiations”. Therefore it should be no surprise that the same crunch patterns can be seen throughout the Information and Communication Technology sector in major names like Amazon and Google (Williams, The Future of Crunch).
To do something about this issue, we must first understand what allows it to survive and even thrive in the present day. According to Williams’ research, the long working hours ingrained into video game development culture, as well as a general culture of peer pressure to deliver quickly, exploit developers’ (often newer ones) natural desire to do well. Another, more popular theory is that the industry is too young and faced-paced to integrate proper management techniques. In fact, one major consequence of the financial success caused by crunch is its implicit incorporation into video game development culture; in a DSS IGDA survey from 2014, a whopping 26% of student respondents agreed or strongly agreed that crunch is necessary. As Williams’ says, “its not a failure of the system – it is the system”.
So has crunch changed throughout the brief history of the industry? According to the article it remains an intrinsic part of development culture, although it’s less of a problem than it was in 2004. Companies like Obsidian Entertainment and even Electronics Arts (better known as EA) have taken steps such as downscaling to reduce the need for crunch periods. The latter even claims to no longer enforce additional hours, and if additional hours are picked up their workers are reportedly compensated.
What can we do about crunch? Although most of us aren’t in a position to stop crunch on our own, there is one thing we can all do: Conduct research on your favorite (or just any) video game companies. See if they promote this crunch periods. As cheesy as it may sound, the full deconstruction of this toxic practice can only succeed with the planned action of those who support the companies that allow it.