Crunch culture is an appalling practice that's spread throughout the gaming industry. From AAA game studios to small-scale indie developers, the staggering workload and short deadlines create unhealthy amounts of stress and pressure that become their own lifestyle and mindset.
But, are gamers to blame for crunch culture, or does the blame lie with the people that work within the gaming industry? Let's find out.
The Cycle That Fuels Crunch Culture in Video Games
If you're unfamiliar with crunch culture, check out our quick explainer on crunch culture in video games. In short, video game developers face tremendous amounts of pressure throughout a game's development cycle to deliver vast quantities of work in a limited timeframe. If this was only in the ultimate days or weeks of a game's development—or even paid fairly—this might be OK.
But, crunch culture becomes its own mindset that means developers are crunching (i.e., working around 60-80-hour weeks, usually without extra pay) on a video game for months and possibly years.
To see if gamers are to blame for this, we must first look at the three key parties that feed into crunch culture in video games: video game publishers and investors, video game development studios, and gamers themselves.
1. Video Game Publishers and Investors
Starting off, we have video game publishers and investors. Examples include Take-Two Interactive, Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE), Electronic Arts, and Activision Blizzard.
Video game publishers and investors finance and market a game; they work similarly to how film studios finance and market movies. As it's their money on the line, these parties can get involved in the creative aspects of a video game, as well as set deadlines and mandatory features in a game.
And, as games are getting more expensive to make, publishers and investors want as big a return on their investment as they can; they might give video game developers less freedom or take fewer risks to achieve this.
So, then you get objectives such as 'launch this game during holiday season', or 'include this popular feature in your game', or 'microtransactions are an awful practice, but they make us money; you must put them in your game'. Stuff like that. You can already see the pressure this would create, especially when publishers and investors rarely understand the intricacies of making video games and just want things done.
These factors outside the developers' control can mean that they have to rush their game or change it, working day and night, in order to meet the required deadline, quota, or checklist.
2. Video Game Development Studios
Next, we get to the people that make games: video game development studios. Examples include CD Projekt RED (the Witcher Games, Cyberpunk 2077), Naughty Dog (the Uncharted and The Last of Us franchises), and Arkane Studios (Dishonored, Prey, Deathloop).
You might ask, 'hang on a second, aren't video game developers the ones that crunch culture affects?'. Well, yes. But also there's a bit more to it.
Like most businesses, not everyone does the same thing at a video game studio. There are multiple departments, teams, directors, managers, and other various roles. These all need to be working together holistically to create a complete video game and healthy workflow.
So, when one or more of these areas encounters something that sets them back, a game's development can go off-track or slow right down.
Poor management lies at the heart of this, alongside pressure from company superiors. If a manager or director poorly manages their team, then that's going to cause imbalances in the workflow that will permeate throughout the studio.
This can include last-minute additions or removals of features, going in a new direction way too late into a game's development cycle, over-promising features which then create a huge amount of work, and working on a huge game with endless bugs to iron out. In short, there are plenty of ways a game's development cycle can go awry.
What these things do is create a huge workload for the video game developers that directly work on the game. Yes, the managers and directors are under stress and crunching, but they're also at the helm; the many game devs in less senior roles get a ton of work, minimal time to complete it in, no overtime pay, and little thanks.
Right now, the cycle of crunch culture seems pretty internal. But, a crucial component to this ugly practice is gamers.
The gaming community can be wholesome, kind, encouraging, and positive. It can also be abusive, racist, misogynistic, and impossible to please. Gamers will always find something to complain about, even if it's something they want. While you could argue that this is a minority of gamers, it's a large enough portion that you'll regularly find comments, photos, and videos of gamers being downright rude.
The people that endure this are the video game developers that are working endless hours to create a great game. And while publishers, directors, and managers can receive criticism, they also directly control the workflow, whereas most other game devs have to go with it, with fewer perks (if any), and fragile job security.
For example, when a game developer announces a delay, it can be because the deadline the publisher gave was unreasonable and the game is incomplete, not because they're being lazy. However, if you look at the replies to such announcements, they're filled with angry gamers upset at having to wait a few more months to play the game (as if there aren't enough games to play till then).
Then, the game studio will crunch to deliver the game without another delay, but problems will always slip through the cracks. And what do they get for working overtime? Likely a lot of abuse and complaints about the game, how it's broken, and why did they release it now instead of wait till they finished it?! And, if game developers are really lucky (sarcasm) they'll receive death threats as well. For releasing a game with bugs or broken features. That they can fix with patches.
So, the gaming industry faces a bit of an unsolvable problem in trying to satisfy a community of people who are incredibly demanding and ready to be abusive if anything is wrong, which feeds into crunch culture.
So, Are Gamers to Blame for Crunch Culture?
Now that we know what feeds into crunch culture in video games, let's tackle the question at hand: are gamers to blame for crunch culture?
This writer thinks that, while gamers aren't directly to blame for crunch culture, they are arguably the biggest unaware influencers and supporters of it.
The biggest driving factor of crunch culture is greed, with publishers and investors looking to get the biggest bang for their buck at the cost of game dev's livelihoods. To do this, they'll study gamers and see what gamers will buy, or what they can convince gamers to buy.
In come the yearly releases with superficial changes, bloated games, microtransactions, season passes, battle passes, subscriptions, games-as-a-service model, and other tactics that prioritize these people making as much money as possible. Perhaps good games make the most money, but the video games industry—as with most industries, sadly—isn't a meritocracy.
Gamers influence and support this because we're the ones that buy and play games. Every yearly release we regularly pick up, every microtransaction we buy, every mean post we tweet when a game is now launching next year, every game we ignore if the support cycle is too slow (because the developers aren't crunching) showcases our support for this behavior.
With this, we're essentially saying 'give us your game as soon as possible, give us content all the time, and make everything perfect right now!' which supports the practice of crunch culture, whether or not we know about it.
Crunch Culture Is Brutal and Unforgiving, So Be on the Side of Game Developers
Crunch culture is a practice that needs to die down, but looks to be increasing as developing games gets more demanding and expensive. Add to this the endless complaints and demand from gamers, and video game developers will burn out after working endless long hours for months or years on end.
The choices we make as gamers influences crunch culture. So it's best to do your research, support companies that deserve it, speak out against abusive practices, and, above all, be kind and patient with video game developers.