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If you’ve been keeping up with the latest news in the gaming industry, there’s a good chance you’ve been witnessing the spreading forest fire of corporate disasters. Quite possibly the only good thing to come out of all this is the rousing discussion regarding ethicalities in the industry and certain issues that have a dire need to be addressed.

Cybercrunch 2077

The elephant in the room here is clearly the game that arguably everyone had been looking forward to last year, Cyberpunk 2077. After multiple delays, the game released on the 10th of December, and since then there have been reports of corrupted save files, performance issues, and some hilarious bugs. It’s safe to say that Cyberpunk 2077 is a bit of a hot mess, and with it pushed to release before the year ends, it fits right in with the theme for 2020.

Back when the game was first teased in 2013, the trailer mentioned “Coming: When it’s ready,” a statement that has definitely aged like milk. CD Projekt Red’s co-founder, Marcin Iwiński, stated in an interview with Kotaku that they were hoping to create an image of the company treating their workers with respect and that a “non-obligatory crunch policy” had been implemented. Fast forward to the post-release of Cyberpunk 2077, and the developers themselves are questioning the directors and asking whether it’s hypocritical to make a game about corporate exploitation when the expectation was that their employees work overtime.

A number of conversations surrounding ‘crunch culture’ have sparked thanks to it. It doesn’t take a trained eye to see that Cyberpunk 2077 was greatly rushed, having even been pulled from the PlayStation store, and CD Projekt Red having to issue a statement saying they’d offer full refunds, no questions asked. Hotfixes for all the bugs are in the works as quickly as they can be, and it’s apparent there’s going to be quite a few of them rolling out. This isn’t CD Projekt Red’s first rodeo with a more than bumpy release for a long-awaited game. The Witcher 3 can be referred to for that. However, it’s when there are delays after the game ‘goes gold,’ do you really start to wonder; what on earth is going on behind the scenes? 

From Passion to Crunch

Crunch can be defined in many ways, but most commonly it is known as the practice of working long hours to make sure the game is ready for release. Depending on the company, it can be unpaid hours that are being worked. For the record, this isn’t the first time the issue of crunch in the gaming industry has been brought to the public eye, but the expectations behind Cyberpunk 2077 just made the discourse much more prominent. In fact, the first instance of this was back in November of 2004. An anonymous user, by the name EA Spouse, posted an entry on LiveJournal expressing their distress for their significant other working at EA, and their time working 90 hours in a week with no overtime pay, no additional leave, or any other incentives. 

The anonymous user wrote No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product,” which still holds true today, and so does their predicament. A passion for their work and gaming is what drives a majority of employees in the industry to work insanely long hours, and it’s horrifying to know that this is being used as a means to exploit them.

Following the 2004 letter from EA Spouse was another similar letter from the spouse of an employee working at Rockstar Games in 2010. “Ergo, where there are times of acceleration, there are other times of deceleration in order to recuperate. This is not being practiced though, and instead of valued employees, a sentiment grows that they have lost not only the sense of being valued but turned into machines as they are slowly robbed of their humanity.” While Rockstar settled this over a class-action lawsuit, there didn’t seem to be any change in their work ethos. 

Red Dead Redemption 2’s release was met with a lot of acclaim, but what was not, however, was the fact that employees were working 100-hour weeks at one point. Dan Houser, co-founder of Rockstar Games bragged about it in an interview with Vulture, and in regards to the backlash he faced after it, the company stated that it was only him and a small group of writers that were working the extra hours. Kotaku’s interview with over 75 current and former employees at the time seemed to say otherwise.

Similar cases of disgruntled employees popped up from everywhere; BioWare, Treyarch, Epic Games, Naughty Dog, and the former Telltale Games. What seems to be a common factor in these companies’ responses after hearing these statements, claim that overtime is optional. Instead of alleviating some of that strain, however, is a sense of peer pressure that is created for employees. No one wants to be that guy who left early and passed on the work to his fellow co-worker. Nor do they want to be let go of for underperforming.

With games like Fortnite and League of Legends that follow a seasonal format of content, it gets worse. Skins, character models, new modes, and much more are constantly being added. In an interview with Polygon, one person working with Epic stated “At first, it was fine, because Fortnite was a big success and that felt good. We were solving problems that were new for Epic: how to run a big, global game as an online service. But now the workload is just endless.”

Crunch has practically become an industry standard. The demand for shiny AAA games is at an all-time high as of yet with next-gen consoles having the ability to run them in all their glory, but at the cost of the well-being of employees. The video game industry, unfortunately, functions the same way as any other industry. There are shareholders that need to be pleased and profits that need to be made. 

Where the bigger companies can learn from is the likes of smaller indie studios such as Supergiant Games. The team behind the critically acclaimed 2020 game, Hades has taken certain measures to make sure their work culture is healthy, as well as their employees. From Kotaku’s article in 2019, “Supergiant began as a company with unlimited time off. But, Rao explained, this created an “invisible pressure” to never stop working because developers always had endless vacation time in their back pockets.” Employees are required to take off at least 20 days in a year, as well as unlimited time off still being there. 

Of course, there are further initiatives being taken by the developers themselves. Unions such as Game Workers Unite and the Communications Workers of America have formed to seek the betterment of the way employees are treated, which includes looking into matters like crunch time, inclusion, and diversity, as well as harassment and discrimination. The 2019 walkout at Riot Games, which saw over 150 workers protest over the company’s unjust treatment, was greatly backed by the GWU union.

What You Can Do

The results of all the whistleblowing have caused journalists and gamers alike to be more critical about the games they’re playing. Ideally, reviews should take into consideration the ethics behind the game’s production, but would largely be dependent on an individual’s morals and whether or not the art should be separated from the artist.

Instead, this boils down to one question; how can we as consumers help in this case? While the way a company treats its employees can’t be helped by us internally, there are a few ways to assist the plight of developers. For starters, lowering the expectations when it comes to the release of games is one. It’s understandable that the third-part of your favorite series might be something you’ve waited years for, but good things come to those who wait. 

Whether or not it’s a good idea to entirely not buy a game because of the wrongdoings of company executives is a matter that’s up for debate. Boycotting it might not be in the best interest of the devs who’ve toiled for hours, but at the same time, it doesn’t hurt to spread the word responsibly. Maybe don’t snap your copy of the game in half in frustration, but instead sell it, or even buy a second-hand copy from the get-go. 

It can be easy to forget that while video games bring joy to the hearts of many, there’s a dark side to them. The recent years have seen a good increase of employees shedding light on the malpractices of these giant studios, and while their truth is incredibly alarming, it brings some hope in the sense that remedying actions will be imminent in the future.

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