In the game-development industry, “crunch time” remains a persistent and emotionally fraught issue. Game companies of all sizes have pledged to respect their developers’ work-life balance, and not subject them to 100-hour weeks and other scheduling insanity. Nonetheless, reports of scheduling crunchiness continue to pop up.
Now Rockstar Games, which has caught considerable flak over the years for its developer schedules, has been actively working to reduce crunch time and change its overall corporate culture.
“In these last several months we have undertaken a lot of work across every area of the company, looking at our processes to determine what works and what doesn’t, what we are great at and what we could improve,” Rockstar head of publishing Jennifer Kolbe wrote in an internal email obtained by gaming blog Kotaku. “We hope that the majority of you have felt some of these positive changes already and those that haven’t soon will.”
Specific changes include flexible schedules, more training for management, a tighter communication loop between managers and teams (via feedback surveys), and tweaks to how the company updates employees on the corporate roadmap. “We [realize] we still have plenty to do in this area and will continue to take steps so we can more accurately predict and schedule games and DLC in a way that is more sustainable but still allows us the creative flexibility to iterate on the incredibly ambitious and complex games we make,” Kolbe’s email added.
If these changes are genuine, it’s a particularly auspicious evolution, as Rockstar has a longtime reputation as a hard-charging development firm. When the company was grinding through work on “Red Dead Redemption 2,” its blockbuster Wild West game, co-founder Dan Houser attracted considerable press attention for claiming that the team worked “100-hour weeks.” He later tried to walk back those comments, claiming that the additional effort was “a choice” and “we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this.”
“Crunch time” isn’t limited to Rockstar, of course. Last year, when the massive online game “Fortnite” was reaching the apex of its popularity, a sizable portion of the development team ended up working 70+ hour weeks. “There’s probably at least 50 or even 100 other people at Epic working those hours. I know people who pull 100-hour weeks. The company gives us unlimited time off, but it’s almost impossible to take the time. If I take time off, the workload falls on other people, and no one wants to be that guy,” one of these employees told Polygon at the time.
Epic, publisher of “Fortnite,” also pushed back, claiming that it was doing all it could to reduce crunch time; it also said that the average contractor overtime totaled less than five hours per week.
The problem with “crunch time” is that it doesn’t always yield good results. While teams working excessive hours can result in a critically lauded, bestselling product, there are also instances in which a hellscape of endless hours and development stress can result in something underwhelming. Take “Anthem,” for instance, an open-world game that BioWare was betting would become a massive hit. After a troubled development process, though, the game that emerged didn’t seem to move the needle for gamers.
“I actually cannot count the amount of ‘stress casualties’ we had on ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ or ‘Anthem’ [both BioWare games],” a former (anonymous) BioWare developer told Kotaku last year. “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.”
“Crunch time” is a longstanding issue in the game-development community, and a particularly tenacious one. But if Rockstar is actually making concrete steps to address the issue—even if that means an adjusted release cadence for its games, including the upcoming “Grand Theft Auto”—that’s a good sign that there might be solid momentum behind genuine, industry-wide reform.