"Crunch! A-ah!" sang Queen. "Failure of the industry!" Sadly, even Brian Blessed and his black leather horde descending from the skies failed to make a lasting impact on game development. This week, a Rockstar co-founder put his foot in it talking about "100-hour weeks" for some on Red Dead Redemption 2 and Sega's parent company proudly declared that now only some employees work more than eighty hours of overtime per month (progress, but...). Another good week in the video games industry. But if you want to put your monkey where your mouse is and support crunch-free games, a load of devs have piped up to point out games they made without crunching; many are good.
First, the background, which all sounds like stories heard year after year with mega-budget game after mega-budget game. In an interview on Vulture this week, Rockstar co-founder and storyman Dan Houser supposedly said that, several times during 2018, "We were working 100-hour weeks." Which is augh. But he clarified to Kotaku that he was only talking about the four-person senior writing team, and only for three weeks. Then he said something that made me pull a face like one of those face GIFs people post to signify they pulled a face.
"More importantly, we obviously don't expect anyone else to work this way. Across the whole company, we have some senior people who work very hard purely because they're passionate about a project, or their particular work, and we believe that passion shows in the games we release. But that additional effort is a choice, and we don't ask or expect anyone to work anything like this. Lots of other senior people work in an entirely different way and are just as productive – I'm just not one of them! No one, senior or junior, is ever forced to work hard. I believe we go to great lengths to run a business that cares about its people, and to make the company a great place for them to work."
Which is quite contrary to stories several Rockstar former employees are telling. And the 2010 claims from supposed spouses of folks at the San Diego studio which is co-developing Red Dead Redemption 2. And "additional effort is a choice" would still overlook how workplace pressures can make people feel they don't have a choice, especially when company leaders are talking in interviews about how they've crunched 100-hour weeks.
Thimbleweed Park's Jenn Sandercock today told a grim story about working on L.A. Noire at the notoriously crunchy Team Bondi, where she started baking and bringing in cakes for a half-hour weekly 'Cake Day' chat&scoff. She says she stopped it cold after her boss told her this one weekly break was making higher-ups (i.e. publishers Rockstar) think the whole office was always slacking, and that it would jeopardise her career. "That's what voluntary crunch pressure does: it scares people into believing there's no other choice," she said.
As for Sega, ah, it's good news really, but I've seen it presented as a counterpoint to the Rockstar fuss and it's not sunny enough for that. Parent company Sega Sammy (who don't just do video games) said in their annual report this week that, thanks to an effort to improve working conditions, since 2014 they have "Reduced number of employees working long overtime hours (more than 80 hours per month) by 80%–90%." Which is a good reduction! But grim when you consider there are still people doing more than 80 hours of overtime per month. And doing up to 80 hours of monthly overtime is not good either.
Enough of that! I promised crunch-free games.
"If you made a game without crunch, feel free to reply to this thread!" Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer said yesterday on Twitter. "Everybody else: get your hands on some crunch-free games..."
In came replies from developers behind games including Minit, Loot Rascals, Guacamelee!, Wandersong, Cultist Simulator, Sunless Sea, Lieve Oma, Regency Solitaire... good stuff. That's just a handful I know well enough to highlight and recommend, so do go see JW's Twitter thread for more. It's not a comprehensive list, of course, but it is good.
I'd be surprised if many players start skipping games made under poor working conditions, or enough to make mega-big companies consider changing anyway, but it is a nice bonus to know a game you're enjoying was made without crunch. Talk of unionising the games industry is growing, and progress has been made to improve conditions at some studios, but it's still grim out there. It's grim everywhere, really. But we still have to try.
Disclosure: Like half the population of Edinburgh, I know a few folks who work at Rockstar. Also some of the Loot Rascals lot are pals.