Is crunch really a necessary evil in indie development?
“Choose a job you love and you will never work a day in your life.”
It’s one of the most bewildering quotes facing you when emerging from the chrysalis of education. The idea is pretty basic – work out what you love to do and earn your money from that. Super simple. Great. Thanks, ‘Derek from the Career Center’, life sorted. Yes, managing to find a job that you love does make the working day go a little faster, but there is no getting away from the fact that work is always work, no matter what you do.
It can be brilliant or bland, invigorating or exhausting, but no matter how much you love it, when your contractual time is up, there should be a door, metaphorical or physical, to close on the working day. No matter what you do, after your hours, a perfect world would offer enough time for you to rest and recharge. Of course, this isn’t a perfect world, and it often doesn’t work that way. It’s a well-reported fact that game development has historically fared poorly with this work/life balance; so much so that the term ‘crunch’ has become the universal gaming industry term for when labour practices are about to get dicey.
Often, crunch culture is put down to the game development industry’s surplus of people with a real passion for their jobs. As if, because these people love what they do, it’s okay that they run themselves into the ground. This argument is a slippery slope often leading to an acceptance of this unhealthy work attitude and, perhaps more damaging, an expectation of this practice.
For AAA companies, a solution is often found in infrastructural support from the companies themselves. But what if you’re developing a game on your own? Or just starting out in the industry? What if the success of your small studio depends on the performance of your next game?
For independent developers the emergence of crunch culture can be less of an organisational oversight of the companies themselves and more a ‘necessary evil’ that seems to be required in order to create games that stand out in a flooded industry. To discuss this idea, we speak with two independent gaming industry figures. We want to determine if the crunch really is an unavoidable part of development for smaller studios, why independent developers are being hit so hard by crunch culture, and how companies are working to counteract such pressures.
When we spoke to Director of Engineering at the award-winning Brighton-based studio BossAlien, Thaddaeus Frogley (fantastic name, we know), he detailed for us just how tricky avoiding the crunch can be for indie studios:
“You strive to make the best thing possible, especially in the indie scene, people are very deeply personally invested in what they’re making and they don’t have the support structures that a larger organisation might have in regards to planning and resources so they just work and work”
We can certainly see Frogley’s point. The indie industry has picked up a good deal of momentum in recent years, with the increasing number of success stories allowing small teams to grow into their own studios, and inspiring solo developers to join the fray. But if there is still work to be done. Who is there to tell you to stop at the end of a long day without the proper support practices in place? With these questions still lingering, it’s clear to see how indie developers fall into “the trap of overworking,” as Frogeley describes it.
The fun doesn’t stop at launch day, either. Indie developers are often ground-level when it comes to their game’s reception, through social media, public relations, and Early Access. With this round the clock responsibility, it can be incredibly difficult for developers to step back from their projects, ultimately leading to the burnouts associated with crunch. These preview processes, such as Steam Early Access, while being incredibly useful resources for smaller games’ funding and development, no doubt play a part in this. Allowing players access to a game at such early stages may offer valuable feedback, but also paves the way for criticisms and unproductive obligations for quick short term fixes that ultimately prolong development times.
Independent game development is uniquely positioned in its relationship with its players. Game audiences are often involved in development from the start, thanks to crowd funding platforms like Kickstarter, and the resulting titles are honed and refined by the community they serve. This can be an enormous benefit in a world of cookie cutter AAA titles waving off consumer concerns, however it’s difficult to draw the line between dedicated, user-centric development time and bowing to every concern raised in every Steam review.
We see a similar issue in the increase of studios moving towards making games as a service, rolling out constant updates and DLCs to keep players interested. While it may have become an expected industry norm, it is also a practice that feels particularly unsustainable as the project becomes an endless exercise in pleasing players.
And what if the game isn’t successful? Just last week it was announced that the developer of Driveclub had experienced several layoffs after Onrush 2, it’s latest project, failed to garner the market success they were hoping for. When a game’s success poses such a threat to job security, it’s easy to see how developers fall into negative work patterns of “the crunch”. As Marc Mixon, Producer at House Pixel, explains:
“Crunch leads to emotional exhaustion which manifests as short-sighted decision making, turnover, and other phenomenon that translate into an inefficient use of development time. This often leads to a vicious cycle of increasing crunch to compensate. Ultimately these inefficiencies must be balanced by increasing development time and therefore development costs or cutting features which lower the quality of the game, likely hurting sales.”
Because of this unfortunate cycle, Mixon has made a point of forming House Pixel as an “anti-crunch” studio from its very outset. His stance is a refreshing and encouraging one, as he details:
“Crunch culture survives on the premise that it is a necessary evil if you want to create a successful game. The only way to change that culture is to prove that premise is faulty. [If] a studio does not crunch, it will have a competitive advantage in terms of attracting and retaining top industry talent. This in turn will translate into a better game and better financial performance”
French indie studio Motion Twin have taken these ideas even further. The developers of Dead Cells, a 2017 rogue-like Metroidvania-esque platformer, operate as an “anarcho-syndical workers cooperative”, according to their recent interview in Kotaku. Let’s break that down; the studio holds all workers at an equal level, meaning no potentially distancing corporate hierarchy and equal pay for everyone. While this structure has not rendered crunch totally obsolete, game designer Sebastien Benard acknowledges that the studio’s operational systems have somewhat lessened the strain:
“Years of experience told us it’s much more important to have people working together, at the same time, in the same place, than people working at home, or late at night alone in the office”
We can only hope that as more independent developers discuss and acknowledge the dangers of crunch culture, its preconception as a necessary evil will become antiquated. Studios such as BossAlien, House Pixel and Motion Twin are leading the way in attempts to address work/life balance in indie development. There’s still a long way to go, and it might take some getting used to, but there’s a vision of the future emerging where developers aren’t exploited for their passion.
Because, in the world of indie development at least, “do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life” just doesn’t stand true. Work is still work, and God do we all need a rest.