Development Hell: How Game Studios Exploit Developers
By: Arjun Joshi
I think I speak for many people when I say this: quarantine was boring. On top of a public health crisis, anxiety induced by racial violence, and the academic and career uncertainties that came with quarantine, we had to find literally anything to fill the time. After my school finally shipped my things home after frantically kicking us out of the dorms, I returned to my video games, a hobby I’ve enjoyed since Spyro on The Playstation. Spider-Man and Red Dead Redemption II brought me to tears with beautiful narratives, exciting gameplay, and stirring music (shoutout D’Angelo for “Unshaken”). But the recent, broken release of Cyberpunk: 2077 made me reexamine whether my love of video games is worth it. So I want to ask, is our entertainment worth the human cost to developers?
Examining the Human Cost
I think it’s important to contextualize what exactly this “human cost” is. Video game development isn’t some creative dreamworld of developers working on intellectually and artistically invigorating games to grace the entertainment-starved public with content. Especially as games come closer to their launch dates, it is common practice in the industry for developers to put in weekend shifts and 12 hour workdays, termed “crunch,” neglecting their own health and families for the sake of this art form they love so much. In any other industry, overtime would make this time commitment worth it, but developers are mostly “salaried” workers. This designation makes them ineligible for overtime pay, and by extension means that developers are constantly working for their job security. But even the creation of a brilliant game doesn’t guarantee that job; of 20 non-lead developers in the credits of Naughty Dog’s 2016 hit Uncharted 4, 14 of those people are no longer with the company. If you’re unable to keep your job after making a superb, award-winning product, what hope do smaller developers have?
If you follow video games, you’ve almost certainly heard about the Cyberpunk debacle, but here’s a primer for the uninitiated. Developed by CDProjekt, creators of the critically acclaimed Witcher video games, Cyberpunk was delayed several times from the initial April 2020 release until December, ostensibly to polish up the game as it launched on two generations of console and PC. While the PC and next-gen launch were relatively smooth, though with a surprising amount of technical bugs, the game has been received as practically unplayable on PS4 and Xbox One.
Both consumers and company developers were furious, with consumers rightfully questioning how a game with so many delays can launch with such severe problems, and employees outraged that their names are on a faulty product when they were subjected to crunch during a pandemic. Sony has pulled the game from the online story, CDProjekt is facing lawsuits and very angry employees, and it has left me surveying the industry landscape for some sign of hope.
Dangerous Reality for Developers
Sadly, crunch time isn’t an exclusive domain of this European firm. Kotaku’s brilliant reporting has revealed the prevalence of crunch in almost all the famous AAA studios in the U.S., including Rockstar Games, Bioware, Ubisoft, and Electronic Arts. Don’t even get me started on the Japanese game industry; where an already draining work culture is compounded by developers paid almost half of what their U.S. counterparts make, with less benefits.
It may seem like a strange analogy, but I think about athletes whose bodies are broken down and whose mental health is degraded by their profession for our benefit. If you think that seems excessive, Netherrealm Studios employees who designed the Mortal Kombat fatalities have been suffering from PTSD… because they had to watch videos and images showing the gory mutilations for “research.” I’ve seen GoFundMe’s where developers, who are living away from their families and underpaid, need crowdfunding to pay medical bills or get car repairs. Parents spent the last 30 years decrying what violent video games would do to their children, but it seems to me that kids aren’t the ones who needed the protecting. Video game developers have been burning themselves out for our benefit!
Is There Any Path Forward?
At the end of the day, this is a labor rights problem. While it’s wonderful that some companies who used crunch in the past, such as Rockstar, are moving away from this model, developers still remain at the mercy of their employers. Who’s to say they won’t cut their employees loose as soon as a project finishes? For this reason, I’m so happy to see nascent developer unions like Game Workers Unite. Economic and labor history shows one unassailable truth: from meatpackers to coal miners, workers have been able to best improve their conditions by organizing and banding together. Though hard to initiate in an industry without a strong union heritage, unionizing must occur, as the center cannot hold without it.
As gamers, we can’t let our creatives – the wizards who crafted Los Santos and Night City – toil away, struggling to make rent or pay for a doctor’s appointment. Traditional unions in mining and manufacturing aren’t losing power because the idea of unions have failed. Rather, they’re losing power because their labor bases are decreasing. This industry, with computer scientists, engineers, and graphic designers, is the new frontier of labor rights and union organizing. It isn’t just a nice story to see Game Workers Unite organize, it’s an absolute imperative to protect creatives and engineers in a field we love and value so much.
I don’t write any of this out of spite. Video games have given the world so much culture and art, from ubiquitous figures like Link and Mario to more off-kilter games such as Portal and Journey. I’ve personally learned so much about crafting narratives and how intentionality in design can strengthen stories through video games, so I have a soft spot for this art form. So it’s out of love that I need to look directly into the camera and tell the industry: get your shit together.