Games Made Under Crunch Conditions Don’t Deserve ‘Best Direction’ Awards

Games Made Under Crunch Conditions Don’t Deserve ‘Best Direction’ Awards
The Last of Us Part II is a great game, but we shouldn't praise the conditions under which it was made. (Screenshot: Naughty Dog)

Last night, The Last of Us Part II walked away from The Game Awards with seven trophies, including those for Game of the Year, Best Narrative, Best Audio Design, Best Performance (by Laura Bailey as Abby), Innovation in Accessibility, and Best Action/Adventure. Arguments can be made as to whether it deserved those or not, but I think it’s pretty obvious that no game that required its developers to crunch, like The Last of Us Part II did, should be given a Best Direction award, which The Last of Us Part II somehow also won.

According to The Game Awards’ website, the Best Direction award is given for “outstanding creative vision and innovation in game direction and design.” This description makes it clear that the responsibility for winning or losing this award rests squarely on the shoulders of the people in charge of leading development. In the case of The Last of Us Part II, this would be director and Naughty Dog co-president Neil Druckmann, who is often credited as the auteur behind the game’s successes.

It’s no secret that Naughty Dog subjected its workers to unbelievable levels of crunch to get The Last of Us Part II out the door, but that’s hardly an innovation when it comes to Naughty Dog or game development in general. Over the years, the studio has seen constant employee turnover as developers crunch on games like The Last of Us and Uncharted, burn out, and throw in the towel. Relentless overtime, missed weekends, long stretches of time without seeing your family — these things take a toll on even the most passionate artist.

“This can’t be something that’s continuing over and over for each game, because it is unsustainable,” one The Last of Us Part II developer told Kotaku earlier this year. “At a certain point you realise, ‘I can’t keep doing this. I’m getting older. I can’t stay and work all night.’”

Let’s be clear: the existence of crunch indicates a failure in leadership. It’s up to game directors and producers to ensure workloads are being managed properly and goals are being met. If workers are being forced to crunch, explicitly or otherwise, it means the managers themselves have fallen short somewhere, either in straining the limits of their existing staff, fostering an environment where overtime is an implied (if unspoken) requirement, or both. And as ambitious as The Last of Us Part II director Neil Druckmann and his projects may be, “questionable experiments in the realm of pushing human limits” are not required to make a great game.

Hades — and, tacitly, those directing its development at Supergiant — was up for the Best Direction award last night too. It’s a great game, just as good as The Last of Us Part II and arguably better in some ways. Why it didn’t win Game of the Year is a subjective discussion I’m not interested in right now, but Hades deserved to win for Best Direction, at least more so than The Last of Us Part II, thanks to the studio’s meaningful avoidance of crunch culture across its various projects.

Even the realms of hell respect workers' rights. (Image: Supergiant Games) Even the realms of hell respect workers’ rights. (Image: Supergiant Games)

“You mention sustainability,” Hades writer and designer Greg Kasavin told Kotaku last year. “That’s a word we use a lot, and it’s something that we really highly prioritise as a team. We’ve been working together for 10 years. The percentage of folks on the team that have gotten married or had kids or something is quite a bit higher than when it was just [Supergiant studio director Amir Rao] and [co-founder] Gavin Simon in the living room of a house and a kind of startup company lifestyle. It’s like, if we’re gonna be around for the long haul, we can’t operate the same way we did when we were just getting started.”

Supergiant offers its employees unlimited time off, requiring every worker take at least 20 days for themselves every year. Emails stop being sent out after 5 p.m. on Friday. They say everyone keeps an eye on everyone else to make sure no one is getting burnt out. Much in the same way crunch culture is partially borne of good qualities like passion and dedication, these and various other decisions have created a culture at Supergiant where people learn to take care of themselves and their coworkers, by simply being mindful of the kind of environment they foster with their own actions.

I don’t hate The Last of Us Part II. I don’t hate Naughty Dog nor Neil Druckmann nor anyone else involved in its development. Who has the time? But I will say that I am disappointed by The Game Awards, show creator Geoff Keighley, the show’s advisory board, and the unnamed journalists and developers whose opinions are heavily weighted in deciding the winners and losers. I feel like the industry, now more than ever, is willing to discuss the dangers of crunch culture and solutions to eradicate it. But lavishing praise on the way The Last of Us Part II was directed feels like a tacit endorsement of crunch and only serves to push that conversation to the backburner again.

A popular online statement, first coined by Fanbyte podcast producer Jordan Mallory, says, “I want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more to work less and I’m not kidding.” The message from all those who share it is clear: No game, not even industry darling The Last of Us Part II, is worth destroying lives to create.

Comments

    • I agreed with him til the Jordan Mallory quote.
      I dont agree with that at all, If you want that, go play indie games.

  • Is it just me or do people treat crunch as though there’s no middle ground? There seems to be this notion that either “all crunch is bad” or “crunch is good”, when really it’s a grey area. Gaming journalism acts as though crunch is only in the gaming world but in reality it’s in every facet of life. We crunch for exams, we crunch for those last minute deadlines, and depending on your job, you may even crunch because the consequences can be dire. I don’t agree with the quote “Let’s be clear: the existence of crunch indicates a failure in leadership.” That’s such a narrow minded thought. I’ve worked in various jobs where even though you can prepare yourself as much as you can, life still throws a random curve ball and you have to crunch to meet a timeframe.

    I agree that in this case crunch is handled poorly by ND, but there’s also an element of risk reward to this. You can’t compare a multi million dollar AAA budget to an indie game budget. It’s just not going to happen. What should be allowed though is the choice of crunch, paying people for overtime and rewarding those who do commit to long hours.

    • Undeniably true. Hell, working as a teacher and hearing about 60-80 hour weeks in ‘crunch’ I’m like ‘Sounds like an average week to me’…

    • Thats the thing… industry crunch in video game production is mostly unpaid over time. Thats already not kosher..

      And then remember for AAA games these are projects that sometimes takes years to come together like a film. For something to catastrophically change at the end of a multi year project requiring months of unpaid overtime requiring full overhauls *is* a failure in direction.

      Im not saying crunch in if itself is *bad* (heck i work for state and the work crunch because of last second decisions can be infuriating) but to make it the *only* way production is ever finished is terrible production management.

    • To be fair they’ve covered the difference between good and bad crunch before and when they talk about it negatively it’s usually the latter.

      There’s a good reason why most people think of games development when the words “crunch time” are uttered and why it’s not often viewed in a positive light.
      It’s usually a planned part of the process more than it is a reaction to unforeseen circumstances and often leaves a trail of unemployed, underpaid and burnt out bodies in its wake.

  • Crunch is never good but often a necessary evil to meet a deadline. Rather than take it out on the people that worked hard on it by not recognising their effort, take the blame to those that set the deadlines themselves which often is not the studio itself but the publishers. I can assure you directors and leadership within development studios would love to have as long as they need to get the project right.
    I’ve worked on very few projects where crunch is not needed but I’ve seen it dealt with in different ways. Often it’s unexpected turns in the direction which require more time. Sure, it’s a collaborative and artistic endeavour mixed up with money making which is why we end up with crunch. In film and advertising it’s often the publishers that set the dates as they have plans in place. Crunch is a reflection of the lack of flexibility to change those plans as it comes down to the delivery of a product which the people selling it often don’t know the difficulties in making it.
    Just my two cents.

    • Great comment, I agree.

      Look I certainly don’t want to see situations where the statement “No game, not even industry darling The Last of Us Part II, is worth destroying lives to create.” … is true. In reflection though, maybe life was shitty, unfair and hateful for a period. But have lives been “destroyed”?

      I’ve worked in the IT industry (not gaming, unfortunately) my entire career. I wholeheartedly believe in: Pay staff what they are owed. 100% Incentivise and reward creativity. Diversify and encourage/foster the “new”.

      But. Let’s not pretend that sometimes, to get the job done, you have to work hard, long nasty hours. And for sure its not fair. No way is it fair. But sometimes, that’s what life presents you.

      I want to repeat though, that not paying staff what they are owed if 100% BS and that’s why, in Australia at least, we do have a reasonable legal structure in place to prevent/resolve this. I know its not ideal. I know that some employers are total shits. But lets not tar and feather the entire industry. And lets not think that life is all flowers and unicorns because ladies and germs, its not.

  • I think some people have a never narrow view of crunch. It is either: there is none or it is the greatest workplace crime since child chimney sweeps. I work in an industry that works with crunch all the time, it is the nature of the industry, and it is way more ethical than when I started 30 years ago. So while sometimes we may not have a choice sometimes, we are well respected in it, we are well paid, and our bosses allows us different types of freedom and perks. if I wasnt willing to crunch I would get one that doesnt even involve the chance of it.

    And this article comes across as a lament that the game you wanted to win, didnt, and there needs to be an excuse for that.

  • I think this is a question for Geoff Keighley, if he believes his Game Awards show and his own views/comments on staff exploitation are to be true… the award for Games Direction should not be some Oscar winning nod for what looks good just on the screen (that’s another award) and should also hold all technical and management talents to account, ethically and honourably.

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