In the grim darkness of the 21st century, there are only bad choices about game delays

SO MUCH SHOUTING

Today’s Gaming Drama concerns the ever-contentious matter of videogame crunch, i.e. making staff massively overwork during the final months of development in order to meet a pre-determined release date. In the dock is Games Workshoppy action-RPG Warhammer 40,000: Inquisitor – Martyr, whose developers yesterday appeared to baldly claim they would be crunching like billy-o as a result of a delay to its PC version’s escape from early access.

Devs NeocoreGames yesterday posted a somewhat crawling letter explaining and apologising for the delay. A letter which included the following comment: “We promise we’ll push this extra three weeks in 90+ hours per week.” A comment which prompted no small amount of outrage. A comment the devs now say was a misunderstood joke. A joke that, it just so happens, they’ve also made repeatedly in the recent past.

In short: shouting, basically.

Yesterday’s delay post has since been updated to instead read “With the three extra weeks, we’ll now have the time to do this,” in response to a whole lot of social media dismay. Those who took Neocore’s initial 90+ hours comment at face value were aghast at the apparently unapologetic use of ‘crunch’ – a notorious system used in the development of far too many games that are racing to reach a pre-determined release date, and which involves making the staff working insane and exhausting hours.

It happens all over, it’s monstrous because it’s always about satisfying marketing schedules, publisher demands or the impatient baying of so-called fans rather than having anything to do with realising a creative vision, but it’s rarely spoken about in quite so unapologetic a fashion as Neocore superficially appeared to.

In response, Twitter did its Twitter thing last night. A lot of game devs and game players were aghast about what they interpreted as dangerously overworking staff in order to meet an arbitrary release date. Come the morning, assorted Neocore staffers claimed that the crunch comment was a joke, furthermore telling PC Gamer that “It sounded ironic in Hungarian.”

I can’t answer the question of whether it was or wasn’t a joke myself. There’s too much room for either reading, though a further wrinkle is that Neocore have made the exact same promise/quip in the past. “We still have tons of work to do, and many of us are already pulling 80+ hour weeks, as it usually goes during crunch time,” they wrote in a March update on the game’s status. It’s definitely trickier to find the vein of humour in that one, I’d say. Same goes for a December update that promised “Seriously – we’ll release this patch even if the whole company has to spend Christmas and New Year’s Eve in the office.”

At the very least, Neocore are guilty of making light of an invariably management-imposed extreme overtime system that is notorious for harming people’s health and relationships, and for general undermining standards of fair employment. At worst, they are guilty of routinely employing crunch culture, even for mere patches, and that raises the question of priorities. All three mentioned posts about delays are heavy with apology to the audience they feel they have let down – or, perhaps, are simply afraid of.

Clearly, I can’t speak to Inquisitor’s exact financial circumstances and whether or not outside investors are demanding certain results by certain dates, but on PC it is a self-published game, which might imply that any pressure for updates to land on a certain day, week or month is an internal one. And that internal one could well be motivated by fear of the paying audience vocally turning upon them. However, the console versions are being published by Big Ben, and will also be beholden to physical manufacturing costs and schedules that the PC version is not, which could potentially be another motivating factor for alleged/subsequently-denied crunch-hell.

Nobody wins here, do they? Blood for the money god.

42 Comments

  1. Infinitron says:

    Relevant – Josh Sawyer’s talk about crunch at Reboot Develop: link to twitch.tv

  2. Someoldguy says:

    I’m always intrigued as to what happened to the EU Working Time directive when it’s EU-based companies in the firing line for this sort of crunch. With the WTD requiring that your average hours over the reference period (usually 17 weeks, but up to a year) total no more than 48 per week, that allows for crunch as long as you have a substantial leave or light hours period to make up for it.

    I’ve only had to do extended periods of long shifts twice in my life, both when I was pretty young and fit. It was shocking just how quickly the mental and physical fatigue built up from not having any kind of opportunity to unwind properly.

    • Rhywden says:

      It’s a moronic thing to do and it will hurt you and your company more than it helps. According to studies I read, your productivity takes a sharp nosedive after passing 50 hours per week.

      In case of jobs with high demands on mental capacity like software development, this of course means more bugs. And fixing said bugs will then devour the time you added by working longer. Which in turn makes everyone miserable for no real gain.

      It’s related to the fallacy where adding more developers at the 11th hour will cause even more delays instead of preventing them.

      • Jaeja says:

        Right, this is the thing that a lot of discussion about crunch in gaming tends to step over, namely that it doesn’t help.

        The 40-hour week was standardised after a chunk research determined that that was optimal for the employer, and this has been reasonably robustly validated for gamedev specifically.

        If you do a couple of weeks of moderate crunch (like, 60 hours or so) for a key deadline, then you’re likely to see increased output over that period relative to doing 40 hours – and if you ease below 40 hours for a period afterwards, you might even pull off doing so without negatively impacting your whole-project output. You’ve fucked up your project planning at that point and your staff shouldn’t feel any obligation to do it, but it’s at least effective.

        But, based on both research and experience, you’d reasonably anticipate sustained and/or high-intensity crunch to result in less work done than if you’d stayed at 40 hours.

        Yes, there are other reasons you might want to do it – a certain flavour of young, “passionate” developer finds a perverse enjoyment in long hours and it can lead to strong bonding experiences – but from a “shipping a game” point of view there is no upside to intense/sustained crunch. It’s literally all downside. Don’t do it.

        • GrinningD says:

          I have worked more than a few jobs in my life and I always believed that working for TV as a camera operator was the hardest with some weeks including 10 or even 12 hour days with no bonus pay – just flat salary / contract rates.

          Then my dearly beloved aunt was diagnosed with dementia and to help understand and support her and her immediate family I quit the world of bright lights and became a professional Carer for a nationwide company.

          EVERY day started at 6:30 and finished at around 23:00. Because I considered myself young and tough (at 30) I told the company to ‘just put me in where you need me’ – I think I worked 40 days in a row or so before I told them that maybe I did actually need the odd day off.

          Now please understand we did not work solidly for 16 hours because we were not paid for travel time nor for the split shift nature of the day (2 hours off here, 45 minutes off there) but it’s not like you can sleep in such short time periods or go home and relax, because you would constantly be called to cover shifts for other carers who were too burnt out or running late due to the variety of things that can go wrong when caring for the elderly or physically or mentally impaired.

          I thought this was hard then, after a few years I moved into management and learnt that the 60 hour office week also had a lovely 40 hour weekend of wrangling missing carers and delayed calls attached to it.

          I was able to put a lot of what I had learnt into use for my Aunt, we used every trick, loophole, contact and dirty trick to promulgate her care and I do believe that when she passed away a few years later she had experienced the best and safest care that her husband children and siblings could provide for her.

          I suppose I just wanted to rant a bit here. Things have changed marginally in the UK since then (Carers are now paid for their off time and travel time) and contentiously ‘0 hours’ contracts have been mostly eliminated, but I sometimes find the ‘crunch time’ articles that I read about to be nearly offensive in nature.

          YES they are terrible and exploitative but they do generally pay well for that exploitative nature. But there are jobs out there that pay not only comparatively less but physically less and demand that commitment on a daily and weekly basis.

          Teaching, legal and military service spring readily to mind in my social circle.

          N.B. Please let me reiterate that I am not trying to demean the incredibly hard work that Games (and technology) companies perform. I simply wish to bring attention to the fact that they are not alone, and are at the more relaxed end of the workload spectrum.

          ~ fin

          • GrinningD says:

            Ahem,

            That was longer than it looked in word :p

          • mitrovarr says:

            They’re not really at the more relaxed end of the spectrum. Most people have pretty sane work schedules. You just managed to find a rare one that is worse.

          • Jaeja says:

            I hope your industry gets its stuff together too. No reason we can’t fix both.

          • poohbear says:

            ya in my 20s & early 30s i would tell myself “now’s the time to do it” meaning now’s the time to work those insane 12-14 hour days to save up. Some of the work i loved and so didn’t feel it was “work” per say, but it was still my time.:p I saved enough and saved well that i can now say i’m enjoying the benefits of all that hard work. “Cry now, laugh later” they say, and for me that was true. The 50-60 hour work week is simply not sustainable for long periods of time though and will eventually burn anyone out.

          • Vodka, Crisps, Plutonium says:

            Only the people who sit on their ass all day long (and I’m not talking about office jobs, not all of them) with no meaningfully long experience of activities, physically closer to actually changing/morphing/helping/interacting with something in real life, would feel entitled to complain about the hardships of occasional overtime (that is, one month at the end of, at the very least, a 1-year project, if not the longer one)

            Thank you so much for your story (at least, it reminded me that the internet social space is not 100% comprised of those kinds of people)

    • Nolenthar says:

      What most seems to forget is that taking time to develop a game requires money. A big company such as Ubisoft, Bethesda Softworks or CDProjekt can easily say “it will be ready when it will be ready” but for some companies, each game is a gamble and paying an additional X months of wage may simply be impossible. The people working for this company know it and would probably rather keep their job and finish their long term project even if this sometimes mean crunch hours.
      You’re not wrong, this affect productivity and may not be positive in the long term, but sometimes they may not have a choice.

      • Viral Frog says:

        But by making people work a double work week, you’re essentially paying those extra months worth of wages anyway. And then some, actually. Unless the EU doesn’t require overtime to be compensated with additional pay? In the USA, when I hit the overtime mark I’m paid my base wage PLUS 50% of my base wage for every hour I work above 40 in a single week.

        • Rindan says:

          It’s called being on salary.

        • Nolenthar says:

          My work contract in the UK says that my working hours is 37.5 hours a week, but it’s also written that this is “typical” week and that I am expected to work as many hours as required to do my work. If that is 70 hours, I’m still getting paid 37.5 hours.
          What you described was true in France (I’m a French expat in the UK) where my employer was forced to compensate me either by way of wage or by lieu days) but once again it depends of your contract.
          In the case of those companies, I’m not convinced the guys pulling 80 hours in the week are getting paid for those 80 hours. If they are though, I agree with you, it makes absolutely no sense from a financial perspective.

          • gunny1993 says:

            Yeah depends on the job, I get paid overtime at time and half every hours above 37.5 but my boss (who works far more than me) doesn’t get any overtime pay . I’ve never asked but I’m assuming she gets faaaaar better base salary than me.

      • Jaeja says:

        Crunch doesn’t work, though. If they want to keep their jobs and finish the project on schedule, they shouldn’t crunch.

    • GomezTheChimp says:

      The British government only signed up for a partial execution of the working time directive, meaning that any company could require individuals to “opt-out” of the WTD as part of their contract.

  3. bacon seeker says:

    If Jason Schreier’s (quite interesting) book is to be believed, this is a universal practice in the games industry, so I don’t know if it’s fair to criticize these guys in particular just because they’ve been semi-honest about it. I would prefer if the countries with humane labor laws start actually enforcing them, in this and other industries.

    • Xocrates says:

      The problem is that this extends well past laws and goes deep into gamedev culture. I’ve had co-workers considering working on weekends even when no-one asked them to, and several who have work related side-projects they pursue on their own free time. I also once heard someone beeing offended because some co-workers asked for a monday off after working all weekend.

      And here’s the thing, none of the above are even particularly egregious examples of how bad crunch culture permeates game/software development.

      • bacon seeker says:

        It’s a fair point, and I admire people who pour their heart and soul into their work, but a few nasty fines might go a long way towards changing a bad culture. I doubt everyone in the games industry is enthusiastic about working overtime to the point it hurts their health and family life.

  4. kud13 says:

    I can’t speak for the devs, obv.

    But coming from a somewhat similar, post-communist background (with its focus on “the virtue of labour” and similar stuff in propaganda), there’s definitely a left-over tendency to be overtly ironic about “over-working” and putting “work first, always” , and talk up “working to death” in the context of self-referential humor.

    How much this maps onto the actual working conditions at Neocore, I obviously don’t know. But hyperbole when it comes to “I’ll do anything to make sure it’s done” is pretty common (the one that’s always been in colloquial use back home translates literally as “even if I start getting nosebleeds from it, it HAS to be done”

    So, this could be serious. Or it could quite literally be a poor translation from non-native speakers.

  5. KidWithKnife says:

    I absolutely agree with the criticism of crunch time, it’s a stupid and obviously counterproductive practice. That said, I think that this conversation is leaving out an important factor: pressure from players. I don’t play Martyr (not yet, anyway) but I’ve played enough MMORPGs and similar online games to understand the kind of pressure player communities put on developers when they feel like their wants or needs aren’t being catered to. As this is licensed game I suspect it may have some of the same community issues that Marvel Heroes had; specifically, a lot of players who were attracted by the IP and don’t know or care much about how online games and the business behind them work. I would be very, very surprised if there isn’t an aggressively vocal portion of the Martyr community screaming about the supposed evils of lazy devs not getting updates out on time. People like that don’t care about the effects their demands have on the game’s staff, they only care that they want what they want right now and they aren’t getting it.

  6. SydSilver says:

    Ah the old “it was meant to be ironic” defense. Used by bigots, misogynists, and racists the world over.

    At very best they are making light of a very really problem in the industry (and many other industries) whilst they operate idyllic workplace bliss, or more likely they are jovially exaggerating their work practices, whilst still overworking and pressuring their employees.

  7. TrenchFoot says:

    Marketing Departments promising what Production can’t deliver is probably as old as capitalism. Of course there need to be rules governing over work like this.

  8. Imperialist says:

    If you guys joined/looked at their Discord, you would see the Devs are pretty lighthearted about…everything. They make jokes, post memes, and even wear stereotypical slav tracksuits and sunglasses on their livestream. Many countries that used to be in the general vicinity of the Soviet Union tend to have a cultural humor about overworking, and Neocore’s community team has embraced all sorts of these references in the name of fun.
    Theres this thing, where in order for something to hold up in court, you need “proof”. Until a Neocore dev comes out and decries his treatment at the hands of his department Commissar, there is no criticism to level. That is called “hearsay” and has no substantial value whatsoever.

    Regardless, the game is coming along well, and Neocore has been pretty up-front and transparent about everything. They didnt delay it all that much (less than a month), so theres nothing to complain about there. They also are releasing a beta build for founders…which they initially said they werent doing, but are doing now to test the final build. They are a small eastern-european developer…cut them some slack.

    • SydSilver says:

      Maybe you could provide some proof like independently verified list of employee working hours. Internal emails showing the lack of pressure placed on the employees. Even just their list of HR guidelines that shows how much they prioritise a healthy work life balance.

      I’m not convinced that their public Discord channel is a reliable source of evidence. Perhaps a little more legal knowledge is required before you get to be condescending about what happens in courts.

      • DefinitelyNotHans says:

        They never said that that was proof of anything in the first place, but no, that’s not how it works and that was the whole point. Neither this person or that company have any reason or obligation to provide anyone with proof of rightdoing when they’re not being charged with wrongdoing, because of the whole thing where there’s no actual evidence of any kind of any wrongdoing.

        Meanwhile you’re being much more condescending over your own awful advice that you can’t even follow, as your other comment here shows that you’ve clearly already formed a stupid, baseless opinion about these people without needing any proof either way.

      • jonahcutter says:

        “Guilty until proven innocent”.

        The social media, moral panic, witch hunt way.

      • Imperialist says:

        Well…the thing is, no charges are being leveled, and i wasnt claiming i had PROOF of the alternative either. But to successfully prosecute someone you need to have actual evidence, and you need to convince the Jury. Typically this means testimony or a literal smoking gun.

        …since we have nothing of the sort aside from an offhand joke, which are prevalent on their own media (ffs, their community manager posts memes and says “send nudes” all the time on their discord and twitch channel.) then…i guess we have no trial. Baseless accusations. And as someone said, yeah, a Witch Hunt.

      • Xelos says:

        Speaking as a part of indie development studio, I’d guess they have none of those things. You’re describing corporate documents.

  9. Michael Johnson says:

    I’ve visited Neocore’s offices when they were gearing up to release Van Helsing and I didn’t ever get an impression of any management structure above the people making the actual games – they seemed small, independent, self governing and proud to be making successful games (in a country with maybe 2-3 companies that actually make video games).

    Obviously many things could have changed since then, but I think it’s highly likely this was an earnest (if misguided) way of showing fans that they care and were working hard, or a misjudged joke.

    Obviously, It’s important to crack down on crunch, because it’s a fucking terrible practise, but I kind of hate seeing a vehement social media backlash directed towards a small company who made an ill-judged comment, when it’s such an incredibly common thing within the industry.

  10. bill says:

    If they’re a small independent studio then they may well be self-motivated enough to work long hours.

    A lot of small business owners work crazy hours, because it’s *their* business and they care about its success and will do what they need to to succeed.

    While I agree (and know from experience) that extended periods of crunch will kill your productivity, I think there’s a pretty big difference between a small business owner or a small group of independent workers working long hours and a studio of employees being forced to work long hours by management.

    That said, even the small business owners / indies can burn out, as evidenced by several kickstarter situations.

    • Jaeja says:

      It still doesn’t work so it’s still stupid. Yes, it’s less ethically bad if it really is their decision to do it… but it’s still stupid.

      • jonahcutter says:

        If you have a deadline it does indeed work to pull extra hours.

        It’s not as efficient and has diminishing returns. But if you have to deliver within a narrow time frame no matter what, putting in more hours will generate more work.

        This is true across many and varied industries. It’s hardly unique to gaming/software development.

        Most prefer it not be done. The downsides aren’t lost on most, even on supervisors and managers. They see very well the mistakes made, and quality of work and efficiency drop. But you do what you have to do if you have a hard delivery date.

        • rusty says:

          Very well put.

          These days you have to put up with the people who get pissy because the software’s late, and the people who get pissy that some people have to work extra time so the software’s not late.

  11. Tsannik says:

    The problem is not ‘crunch’. This entire article is ridiculous. Do you have any idea how many industries overwork their employees? Do you have any clue how many people are forced to work insane hours to meet deadlines? This is not a video game industry problem.

    The specific problem here, is early access.

    This idea that you sell your game prior to it being made. This idea of turning consumers into investors. So that, rather than they wait to purchase your product, take it or leave it, they become an entity that places demand. They want a return. They gave you their money, where is their game?

    That is the problem. No one would even notice how much they worked, or care, if they were creating their product behind closed doors, and sold it when it was complete.

    Early access has converted the simple act of selling a game to a market into this demanding timeline based ‘return on investment’, and clearly it is only causing more turmoil than benefit.

    Whatever happened to playing a game until the next game out? Now with EA we’ve moved beyond dictating when and how we get our games, to nitpicking when and how they make our game.

    It is nonsense. And EA is to blame.

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