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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.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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