Take it for granted that if you’re doing the thing that you love, if you’re pursuing your chosen creative pursuit, it’s probably not going to be easy. In fact, it’s going to be challenging, require long hours, and necessitate blood, sweat, and tears when things go wrong (and sometimes when they go right). But being miserable doing the thing you love shouldn’t be the norm, something the developers at game studio Crytek saw last night as other game creators and commentators reacted to a particularly tone deaf boast about the amount of crunch going into the final stretch of the upcoming Xbox One game “Ryse: Son of Rome.”
— Ryse: Son of Rome (@RyseGame) October 15, 2013
The associated hashtag, #RyseFacts spawned some strong reactions among the developers following the “Ryse” Twitter feed. Gamasutra has an excellent piece detailing some of the reactions from this post, most ranging from sarcastic to outright angry that a studio would brag that its employees are grinding away at overtime trying to get “Ryse” across the finish line. But they all speak to the same idea that comic writer Mark Waid so eloquently touched upon in his advice for freelancers from a couple of weeks back:
“But when people jealous of how you make a living try to rag you with that old truism that every company employee has to eat s#*t now and then, remind them that you are not an employee. You’re a contractor. You do not receive health benefits, sick days, pensions, vacation time, or any of the other considerations traditional employees receive.”
I’m going to amend Waid’s quote to include full-time employees as well. To wit: no matter who you work for or what your standing is in a job, you have a right to a life and you shouldn’t have to eat s#*t from anyone.
But let me back up a bit and explain crunch which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Crunch or crunch time represents those sprints where employees work long, sometimes brutal hours to get a game across the finish line. The same thing is sometimes required in film, television, and any other creative endeavor. It just happens sometime that you need to put in the extra time to tighten up the work so that it’s at its very best. Hell, I’ve put in some time myself, (in my work as a narrative game designer) staying late to get a game’s script where it needs to be thanks to some last-minute edits or localization challenges because it’s part of the job and yes, sometimes stuff happens. Unfortunately, in the game industry–particularly in large-scale, so-called AAA production, “crunch” (AKA unpaid overtime in most cases) is standard operating procedure as programmers, designers, and artists contend with the shifting, top-down demands of a game whose vision wasn’t articulated from the beginning, or inadequate staffing, or any of the dozen or more things that would otherwise be accounted for in an organized, well-planned project. A 2004 post from the spouse of an employee of gaming giant Electronic Arts articulates so much of what’s wrong with this system, which assumes that a salary and amenities are somehow a fair trade for a lack of a personal life:
“This crunch also differs from crunch time in a smaller studio in that it was not an emergency effort to save a project from failure. Every step of the way, the project remained on schedule. Crunching neither accelerated this nor slowed it down; its effect on the actual product was not measurable. The extended hours were deliberate and planned; the management knew what they were doing as they did it. The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.”
The EA spouse then goes on to talk about the nexus of salary exemptions and curious nature of corporate consolidation that means more large companies are in control of a larger pool of game developers at fewer studios (allowing these practices to propagate). In the near decade since this anonymous letter was published, some studios, ones I’ve even worked at, have made strides in reducing endless crunch, but it’s still a pernicious problem–employees coming in to work at 8 in the morning only to slouch out at 9 or ten, red-eyed that night. Again, I’m not going to pretend that long hours can represent a necessary challenge in some endeavors, but as a cost-saving measure versus either: A) paying employees better for sapping away their time, or B) staffing up sufficiently, or C) planning and sticking to a development road map, crunch is just management code for a similar kind of Gilded Age-era abuse the robber barons would inflict upon their workers, albeit with free dinners from Chipotle.