It’s a story as old as game development: An intrepid team of developers and other technologists works insane hours over many months to deliver a great game. This “crunch time” might result in a great product, but at the cost of team-wide burnout and retention. Game studios have promised to tackle the issues of overwork head-on, but are they making progress?
The issue is coming up again with the release of “Cyberpunk 2077,” one of the most highly anticipated games of the year (and featuring a digital performance by none other than Keanu Reeves). The game was delayed repeatedly as its studio, CD Projekt Red, attempted to polish and refine the open-world gameplay.
Reports (compiled by Polygon) suggest that, by the end of the production cycle, the “Cyberpunk 2077” team was firmly in the grip of crunch time, complete with six-day weeks, long nights and weekends working, and a generally “exhausting pace.”
“Let’s not sugarcoat it: Crunch is cruel,” Polygon added. “It is the result of poor management, and evidence of a disregard for the people working to make the games that we love to play. Crunch at this scale, and for this duration, casts a shadow over Cyberpunk 2077 — and actively undermines some of the progressive and cautionary themes no doubt present in the game itself.”
What makes the situation especially ironic is that CD Projekt co-founder Marcin Iwiński told Kotaku last year that the studio was trying to become more humane when it came to crunchy schedules. “We’re known—let me be humble for a moment here—we are known for treating gamers with respect,” he’s quoted as saying. “This is what we’ve been working hard toward. And I actually would [like] for us to also be known for treating developers with respect.”
Iwiński added that crunch time wouldn’t be “mandatory,” which sounds quite a bit like what happened at Rockstar Games when it was pushing to release “Red Dead Redemption 2,” another massive open-world game, back in 2018. At the time, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser told The Verge that “additional effort” during the production cycle “is a choice” and “we don’t ask or expect anyone to work anything like this.”
Two years later, Rockstar claimed that it had made progress in reducing crunch time, including the institution of flexible schedules and additional management training. “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 Kotaku. “We hope that the majority of you have felt some of these positive changes already and those that haven’t soon will.”
Despite some attempts at reform, stories of worsening crunch have leaked out of BioWare, Epic (makers of the ultra-popular “Fortnite,” and still other studios. It seems like, when it comes to technologists’ workloads, game studios are making big noise about reform—but when the time comes for the game to ship, it’s back to 80-hour weeks and the risk of burnout. Framing the extra work as “voluntary” or “not mandatory” probably isn’t a big help if there’s a company-wide culture of everyone working as much as possible; nobody wants to let their team down or incur their manager’s disappointment.
Burnout isn’t isolated to the game industry, of course, especially during a year in which technologists everywhere had to wrestle with the stress and isolation of remote work. But it’s also an issue that clearly isn’t going away. For technologists who want to work within gaming, it’s important to evaluate the company’s culture during the interview process (and talk to as many current and former employees as possible about their experiences); if something gives you a bad feeling, perhaps it isn’t the opportunity for you.
For those struggling with burnout, there are a few proactive steps you can take. The biggest one is to talk to your manager and figure out how to adjust your schedule and workload; chances are very good that you’ll end up having a productive discussion. There are also some additional steps you can take:
- Get on a regular sleep schedule.
- Take vacations.
- Develop relaxing rituals and practice them on a regular basis.
- Exercise regularly.
- Stop checking your email constantly.
- Integrate breaks into your schedule.
While those might sound like minor steps, they can help keep you sane even when everything around you is rapidly becoming insane.