A conversation about overtime in the game industry has sparked up again after the co-founder of Rockstar reported working 100 hour work weeks to finish up Red Dead Redemption 2. Excessive overtime, or crunch, is so common in the game industry that it’s hardly newsworthy anymore. It’s expected amongst developers, and is often praised as a sign of a passionate team by consumers.
I experienced an extended crunch while working at a small mobile game company that is now defunct. I’m hoping my own story will shed more light on the repercussions of extended crunch on both the health of the employees and the work culture.
My first real job in the game industry was for a small mobile game company in Connecticut. We were a team of roughly 14-15 people, plus a few interns. I worked my way up from QA intern to Associate Designer in my first year.
The company was developing mobile games before it became the billion dollar industry it is now. When I first interned, we were still developing games for cellphones. The iPhone was growing in popularity since its release in 2007 and the app store became a new market for developers. I was fortunate enough to come onboard to work on our first major iPhone game, which came out in 2010 alongside titles like Angry Birds. In addition to in-house games, we also developed titles for major publishers like EA and Zynga.
Over the next few years, the app store marketplace began to shift towards freemium games, which were games that were free to play but had in-app purchases that players were incentivized to buy. Premium titles didn’t perform as well on the marketplace unless they were priced at a $1. Unhappy with the games that were leading the marekt at the time, we decided to develop our own freemium title which would deliver a premium experience.
We began development on a free RPG where you could design your own hero and go on quests fighting monsters in a time based battle system. Going on quests consumed energy, and once your energy was depleted, you either had to wait until you regained energy or purchase more. You could also purchase in-app items to make questing easier.
At first, the development team was very passionate about the project. But as development progressed, we realized the design challenges of making a satisfying freemium game experience and had to compromise on many design decisions.
The project went over schedule and so we began a 2 week crunch to wrap it up. This meant we were putting in 10-12 hour days, and working Saturdays. After 2 weeks, we were still no where close to finishing so we began working Sundays as well, and then even holidays.
ENTER CRUNCH MODE
Around this time, we had lost major contracts with both EA and Zynga. Prior to this, our contracts with EA were our main source of income. Without those contracts, we couldn’t keep the lights on. In-house titles had been profitable but not enough to keep the company afloat. It became even more imperative to finish our freemium RPG and make a profit off of it, which put even more pressure on us to get it done.
The bulk of the work was shouldered on the design team. We would have all day meetings that were incredibly draining and unproductive, but my boss said helped him think out-loud. At first, we were working 50 hour work weeks, putting in about 10 hours a day. Soon, we were working 60 hour work weeks, working every day of the week. I believe I capped at around 70 hours in one week which averages out to 10 hours a day for seven days. We were working holidays as well. I appreciated the irony of working on Labor Day that year.
For perspective, an average work week is 40 hours a week, or 160 hours a month. We were averaging about 60 hours, which is 240 hours a month! This means we were working the equivalent of 2 extra work weeks each month.
These hours weren’t mandatory, but I didn’t even consider leaving early during this time. There was also pressure from my boss, the lead designer, to be in the office when he was.
One day, after I started developing serious health issues due to the excessive overtime, I walked into my boss’s office to ask if I could leave. I had already worked over 60 hours that week, and was burned out. My boss had little sympathy for me, countering that he had worked over 70 hours that week and so he didn’t give a shit. I didn’t know how to respond, so I silently walked out of his office and returned to my desk. He later apologized to me, thanking me for being there as some of my other co-workers had already left that day.
There were those who couldn’t keep up with the excessive overtime and felt guilt over it. Our producer, who was in late stage pregnancy at the time, said she felt shitty that she couldn’t put in more hours. In retrospect, it’s crazy that this was the mindset we had all bought into.
Not everyone gave in to the pressure though. One programmer would leave on time, and only work overtime if there was a real need to. I resented him at the time, but now I admire his conviction. He worked hard but also had a life outside the office. He also probably ended up being more productive, given the documented cognitive decline of prolonged overtime.
After a few months, the overtime began to seriously take its toll not only on our health but the morale of my co-workers. There was a toxic atmosphere in the office, and it became miserable to work there. The fere dinners were little incentive and the overtime wasn’t paid either. It was instead converted into a fraction of vacation time, which we couldn’t use anyway since we were working all the time. Any passion we had for the project was long dead.
The overtime did end eventually, but there were casualties. One employee quit after, not wanting to repeat the overtime again. I also suffered burn out, and was unhealthy for a long period. Our work culture never really recovered after that.
Crunch mode, in short term, is hard to avoid in the industry, and it can be a positive experience. I recall one weekend we all stayed in office finishing up a prototype to send to EA. There was a lot of pride amongst employees that we were able to come together and deliver the prototype on time.
Long term crunch on the other hand has no place in the industry. It’s well documented that productivity drops within a few weeks after starting overtime, and continues to drop. One study showed that at about eight 60 hour work weeks, the total work done is the same as what could have been accomplished in eight 40 hour work weeks! I can attest to that, as everyone in the office was suffering cognitive decline. After the first month, I felt like I was in a drunken haze, often forgetting what I was working on. We were also making a lot more mistakes, which slowed down production even further. You can read more about the negative consequences of overtime in this article titled Why Crunch Mode Doesn’t Work: Six Lessons.
Work conditions have improved in the game industry, but we still have a long way to go. There have been increasing talks of unionization in the industry, which is not a topic I’ve followed much. It’s important that we, as both developers and consumers, recognize that people working on games are not computers, and more hours doesn’t equal more productivity. This holds even more true for jobs that have you sitting at a desk doing cognitive work for long periods. A work/life balance is important, for both physical and mental health.