How do we solve the problem of crunch in the games industry? Let’s start by assuming it’s not going to just solve itself. And let’s recognise that devs forming unions barely works even in countries with strong traditions of unionisation, such as Sweden. The solution might lie in an industry very different from our own.
Why do studios coerce their own people to work unreasonable hours? It’s easy to blame poor project planning, or accept that making a game is inherently unpredictable. But if a project does become unpredictable, the studio has a choice between imposing crunch to hit the deadlines, or allow for over-run. So why do we always prefer the former to the latter? Why do we choose to hurt the employees, and never the investors?
In some countries, especially those following the Anglo-Saxon model of business, putting the investor first is quite a normal response. But plenty of countries such as Germany have a more balanced approach between the interests of the employees and the investors. Yet we still see crunch in the games industry all across the world. So when we talk about cultural issues, we really mean the culture of our industry, not of individual countries. What, then, is the real problem?
Part of the problem is that developers don’t have much power. Even when we are given employee rights by law, devs often allow our own maltreatment because of a love of the job. Grumble as we might about over-work, we are driven to excellence and take pride in the collective final product. And that passion can result in studios taking advantage and making us work increasingly long hours in the promise of a better end product. But it gets worse. Our industry, and tech in general, actually has a history of celebrating long hours! We laud hero techies and managers who show their passion by putting in ridiculous shifts. We have this culture of venerating overwork and exploiting the passion of developers. And we can’t solve crunch until we change this culture. So what can we do about it?
Well, here are two ideas. In our industry, we’re all interconnected, so if one company starts demanding things last-minute then it affects all of us in the chain. We need to understand that pressure kills creativity and so should be seen as bad in its own right, not just because it creates long working hours. Even a middleware company such as ourselves should play our part and look to prevent crunch across the industry by not putting time pressure on others and not accepting it from others.
But that will not be enough. As long as customers expect a game to be delivered by a certain time, investors and publishers will always be pushing studios towards crunch. So how do we stop them doing it? Well, we need to get the customers on board. We need to get gamers to accept release delays and want to buy games which were made without crunch. Sound crazy? Unrealistic? Well there is a very different industry which managed to do exactly that. And we can learn from them.
Years before Greta Thunberg came into our lives, the timber industry was concerned that South America could flood in the international market with cheap timber by gradually chopping down the rainforest. There was no international incentive to manage forests sustainably and the whole industry was structured towards self-destructive practices, just like the games industry is today. So they came up with an idea. The Forest Stewardship Council was created as a logo which could only be used on products which were certified as being from sustainable sources. And it worked! It worked because customers began to look for the logo and only buy products which had that logo. Suddenly, big retailers only wanted to stock products which were from sustainable sources, which led to more and more countries instituting sustainable forest practices and seeking certification. Sadly, the rainforest has still suffered from farming, but the forest industry has reduced its own impact and has swung significantly towards sustainable practices. All because the consumers were educated to care about an issue and were given an easy way to choose where to spend their money.
And we could do the same. We need to engage with ordinary gamers and make them care about crunch and care about buying a game that didn’t need to impose unfair working practices on their own employees. And we need to make this metric visible to them so they can easily make a decision. Maybe this could be done through a certification scheme, or maybe through publishing metrics of hours worked per person on a game. We should start talking about ways to get the customers to care so that the investors pay attention. For all that we are complaining now about crunch, we cannot let this concern become a passing fad. We need to resolve it in a way that motivates people towards reasonable working practices.