These days, most video game fans are sympathetic to delays. They recognise that more time makes for better games, and that game development is too complicated for anyone to accurately predict release dates very far in advance. So after a string of high-profile delays this week, including the role-playing game Cyberpunk 2077 and an action game based on The Avengers, a whole bunch of fans were happy to declare that they’d rather wait a few extra months than see developers work overtime to hit their deadlines. If only!
Crunch—the colloquial term for extended periods of overtime that can last for weeks or months on end—is an epidemic in the video game industry. Sometimes it’s just a few extra hours a week; other times it’s mandatory Saturdays at the office. Companies might ask their employees to crunch to make an E3 demo, to hit a development goal for their publisher, or to squash bugs before a game’s release. Often, game developers willingly put in extra hours to help ensure the game is polished or prevent their favourite features from getting axed. Crunch happens all the time, but it peaks in the months just before launch, when the contrite emails start going out. “Hey everyone, thanks so much for all your hard work. We’re just going to have to push a little bit harder to get this game in the best shape possible!”
Imagine, then, having a single release date in mind—knowing that you’ll just have to work nights and weekends until then—only for that date to slip back five more months. Maybe at that point, the emails will start getting even more contrite. “Hey everyone, thanks so much for all of your hard work. The good news is that we just got some more time, which means we’ll be able to get in all those kick-arse features we wanted. The bad news is that we’re just going to have to keep pushing a little bit harder.”
Yesterday, Cyberpunk 2077 developer CD Projekt Red announced that it was delaying the much-anticipated role-playing game from April 16 to September 17. During a Q&A with investors last night in Poland, where the company is based, co-CEO Adam Kiciński took a question about overtime in the wake of this delay. Here’s how that went:
P6: And is the development team required to put in crunch hours?
AK: To some degree, yes – to be honest. We try to limit crunch as much as possible, but it is the final stage. We try to be reasonable in this regard, but yes. Unfortunately.
This shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone, even after the studio’s promises to Kotaku last year that it would do its best to mitigate overtime. Ambitious video games like Cyberpunk 2077—with a massive open world and hundreds of branching storylines—don’t get made without extra hours. At least CD Projekt Red pays for overtime (thanks to Polish labour laws), which distinguishes it from most of its North American counterparts. If you’re on an annual salary instead of getting paid hourly, all you can hope for is some extra time off after the game ships and maybe, if you’re lucky enough to work on Fortnite, a generous bonus.
With very few exceptions, video game delays lead to more crunch, not less. When Naughty Dog bumped The Last of Us II from February to May, that’s meant three more months of developer overtime at a studio that’s well-known for workaholism, according to those I’ve asked about it. Earlier this week, when The Avengers was delayed from May to September, the developers at Crystal Dynamics may have been relieved—The Avengers did not show well at E3 2019 and will undoubtedly benefit from the extra time—but the crunch will continue, even if, as at many studios, it’s still called “optional.” (Crystal Dynamics, also infamous for crunch, has a raffle system in which developers can acquire tickets and win prizes in exchange for their overtime hours, according to two people familiar with goings-on at the studio.)
It’s natural for human beings to work hardest when a deadline is imminent. In video game development, where progress is non-linear and the pieces might not all come together until the very end of production, the crunch tends to be hardest at the last minute. That’s why delays in the final year can be so difficult on developers’ lives. All that extra polish has to come from somewhere.
Crunch in the video game industry wouldn’t be quite as harmful if it weren’t coupled with so many other issues—high stress, low pay, inadequately trained managers, sexism, extreme volatility, and so on—but delays can sometimes exacerbate them all. Delays might be good for games, but they’re not always good for game workers.