Game Dev Crunch Time Crisis Illuminated (Again) by ‘Anthem’ Woes

Game developer BioWare hoped that “Anthem,” its massive open-world game, would become an industry-defining blockbuster. But according to critics and many players, the final product is a mess—and a bad workplace culture (including excessive reliance on “crunch time”) might be the culprit.

In a lengthy article posted to Kotaku, Jason Schreier details mass burnout among BioWare developers, along with a lack of project focus. “I actually cannot count the amount of ‘stress casualties’ we had on ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ or ‘Anthem’ [both BioWare games],” a former (anonymous) developer told Schreier via email. “A ‘stress casualty’ at BioWare means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t.”

Other (also anonymous) sources pointed to “indecision and mismanagement” within the “Anthem” leadership team as a key reason behind this burnout, along with a supposed “lack of vision.” (According to various studies, poor leadership and unclear direction are top reasons for workplace burnout, along with excessive workloads, so the claims of BioWare’s developers make sense in context.)

Those sources also blamed Frostbite, BioWare’s custom game-development platform, which lacks some of the features (and extensive documentation) of industry-standard development platforms such as Unreal. Developers and designers would create a prototype, only to find that Frostbite was unable to bring that prototype to convincing life.

Although “Anthem” was in development for many years, indecision over core features and production snafus eventually created a bottleneck, and the final months before the game’s release featured insane “crunch time.” As one developer told Schreier: “It felt like the entire game was basically built in the last six to nine months. You couldn’t play it. There was nothing there. It was just this crazy final rush.”

The article is lengthy, but definitely worth a read.

Crunch Time

Does this story sound familiar? If you follow the game industry, it should—only a few months ago, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser said that the creation of “Red Dead Redemption 2,” a massive open-world game set in the 19th century American West, demanded “100-hour weeks” at several points.

Although Houser later walked back those comments, tellingThe Verge that the “additional effort is a choice” and “we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this,” he nonetheless reignited a longstanding debate within the gaming world about developer workloads and burnout.

With games, deadlines are often set in stone. If a game isn’t released in time for the holiday shopping season, or the end of a company’s fiscal quarter or year, the result for everyone—from the CEO down to the individual developers—is potentially Armageddon. Thanks to those pressures, “crunch time” has been a longtime phenomenon in the video-game industry; and while there have been many calls for reform, the fact that reports of these crises (“Red Dead Redemption,” “Anthem,” etc.) pop up every few quarters suggests that companies have little interest in dropping the practice anytime soon.

Whether or not you’re in the game industry, if you feel like you’re burning out, you can still take some concrete steps, including:

  • Get on a regular sleep schedule.
  • Go on vacation.
  • Develop relaxing rituals (and make time for them).
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Stop checking your email at night.
  • Integrate breaks into your schedule.

Often, a proactive discussion with your manager about schedules and workloads is all it takes to change the situation for the better; your boss might not realize that you’ve taken on a hefty portion of a particular project, for example. But if your job actively prevents you from taking breaks (or a well-earned vacation), you might want to consider whether it’s time to jump to someplace new.