There was a time in society where if you asked people what they wanted to do, a good number of them would tell you they want to work in the video game development industry, in any capacity. The idea of getting to create immersive worlds that suck the players into them is incredibly appealing to many.
To write extensive stories with character arcs and build a world of your own that others get to drop into and play in seems like a dream.
However, over the last decade, some truly harsh realities have begun to appear surrounding the gaming industry. Once it was a field that was looked upon with desirable eyes. Yet the reality behind video game development has turned many people off.
We have been shown more and more how game creators and teams get beaten down and overworked, with very little to show for it in the end. This has become a huge problem, and people really need to be more aware of it. Therefore, we wanted to help this, just a bit at least.
This is a history of overworked and underpaid game developers, which has become the bane of this industry.
When It Started & Why It Exists In Video Game DevelopmentBefore the internet became the mainstay it is today, your average consumer had little to no way of finding out what it was like to develop a game. It was for that very reason that many young people grew up with an inherent desire to enter the video game development industry. We didn’t know what we didn’t know basically
Most just wanted to be part of a team that would work passionately and proactively together with others to accomplish the same goal. That would be to create an iconic game or franchise that the whole world would fall in love with.
This led to a generation of young people who started going to school with that exact field in mind. With more and more schools dedicated to that very thing (not you Full Sail), the world has opened up. The initial problem was people looking to get into the gaming industry with no genuine idea of what the actual industry was like.
People had no clue just how competitive and brutal it was. They didn’t know how it wasn’t the dream industry they had imagined in their idealistic heads. It was something much more caustic than that. From coders being overworked to 100 hour work weeks as a norm in some of the bigger companies, the reality of the gaming industry is nothing if not ugly.
The saddest truth in this was the fact that this has always gone on in this industry. It is just that our eyes are being opened to it for the first time from the outside. Moreover, it has only gotten worse since the video game industry became so massive.
It’s Called “The Crunch” & It Is HellTwitter, as vile as it can be, was initially one of the better places for people to learn about the video game industry. That’s because it was the place overworked teams were starting to come to in an attempt to air grievances where they would not be ignored. What we learned from leaked information was cause for concern.
It was here that we began to learn about “the crunch.”
The crunch is a name given to the thing that drove most people in this industry over the edge. That being: the drive to get a game out in time, no matter what. This often means developers risk getting physically ill just to ensure a game is dropped when it was expected to.
It started with a (now-deleted) simple enough tweet by a man named Jared Rea that opened quite a few eyes. He referenced, in passing, how 100 hour work weeks were not uncommon as a game tester for Atari. He also claimed they made individual workers feel like they were obligated to do this.
As if opposing long weeks showed a “lack of passion” for the project.
Rea goes on to explain that, for all the work he put in and how mentally and emotionally exhausted he was at the end of it, the game he put all that time and energy into was never even released. They can work you to near death and then just say “nah” to you at the end of the day. That is a Sisyphean struggle that leads nowhere.
This rampant worker abuse was by no means just something Atari did. The deeper we looked the more we found. Almost all the big brand game development companies practice the crunch in some form or another.
Deadlines & Dead MindsThis is where the video game development industry gets the infamous “deadline.”
In simplistic terms, a game company will give a release date for their I.P that they consider realistic or possible. They will set that date in stone for the most part. What that means is, if they encounter a huge game-breaking bug, they still intend to meet that release date.
You would think they would prioritize releasing a finished, unbroken game. However, just a glance at Ubisoft’s most recent games, which tells you that isn’t true.
Triple-A games being released in an unfinished and broken state is pretty normal nowadays. Therefore, we know the grind doesn’t exist to ensure we get better games. It exists to ensure the laborers in the field understand their place. They are treated like cogs in a machine.
Brands are quick to let you know that if you don’t “want the gig,” somebody else most certainly will. Thus making it hard to be a video game creator.
This forces those who work in this industry to find themselves in a state of constant anxiety. Even though these are some of the best writers and artists and coders in the world, they are made to feel very replaceable. That very feeling is used to keep them in line and ultimately, overwork them to a staggering degree.
With an emphasis on the deadline, they seemingly take the humanity out of the worker. If you don’t work to meet the deadline, you are not “a team player.”
This places workers in a sort of time loop, where they get burnt out. They are convinced they won’t work in the field again unless they do exactly what they are told. Even if what they are told is impossible. That cycle then continues consistently.
The Most Egregious Offenders Are Also The Most Well KnownOnce you start name-dropping all the companies that have been accused of encouraging a grind-heavy work environment, you see just how widespread and frankly shocking it really is. Some of the most popular games out there have been part of the problem.
These are not small developers working on a single game or tiny teams trying to make up for their work haul by putting in twenty-hour shifts. They are legitimately the biggest game companies in the world. Literally.
The bigger the game developer’s name, the higher the chance they have used and abused workers simply because they could.
Some of the worst offenders are quite noteworthy. See if you recognize a few:
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That is just the tip of the iceberg too.
What makes it so alarming is the fact that every single person reading this right now likely has games in their collection from the above companies, myself very much included. We have unintentionally supported the abuse going on at those places.
The truth is, you wouldn’t wish twenty-hour workdays and 100 hour work weeks on anyone. Even typing about it just made me want to take a nap.
Now that we know about this problem, can we, as consumers, do anything about it? That answer is a resounding yes. The first thing we need to do is observe that changes are already beginning to take place, finally.
Indie Gaming As The New SchoolThere is a breath of fresh air that has been breathed into the video game development industry in the last decade. For every massive, major studio running itself like a sweatshop, there are ten to twenty indie companies getting into the gaming industry for the right reasons with the right things emphasized from the get-go.
These are not massive corporations turning humans into soylent green. Rather, they are smaller operations run by smaller teams of people who want their games to sell. Yet they also want the people who make those games as comfortable, as happy, and as incentivized as they can be. This ensures they are staying mentally and physically balanced.
Happy and healthy workers actually are known to produce higher quality content more consistently than people who are beaten down. Happy workers are 47% more productive than sad workers to be exact. Thus, there is actual fiscal worth to keeping your team happy.
New-school developers realize that keeping their teams prioritized generally means a better end product for all involved.
The other side of the coin is the fact that developers who have worked for some of the sweatshops developers are starting to branch out and start their own teams. This ensures that what they went through as young developers doesn’t happen to anyone else.
It is a beautiful full circle where things had to get bad enough, and people had to be vocal enough, to open the door for change in this industry. That is just where we are right now, on the true cusp of change.
How Do You Help?That might be what you are asking after reading this. What can you do as a consumer of the product this field creates? Truth is, it is pretty easy. By being aware you now know this problem exists. With this article, you know the names of some of the bigger brand game development companies associated with those problems.
You can simply stop supporting them.
You also use your voice to let them know that what they’re doing is not okay. The only way they will feel it is if you hit them where it counts: in their bank accounts.
Stop buying their games on day one. Stop preordering their games, which ultimately tells them what they do is okay. Don’t wear their merch or download their DLC.
It really is THAT simple.
You can show the gaming industry that things need to change in a way that they can hear you. Then, go find smaller game companies who treat their workers like humans and not cattle, and support what they release.
Try buying these indie games on day one. Pre-order games when you can and make sure to download DLC for games you like.
Plus, be sure to do a little research of your own on video game development and how each studio treats its workers.
Once the industry sees that its fan base will not allow rampant abuse and sweatshop conditions, those things will go away by default. We just need to send a clear message.
Do your part, because the industry cannot fix itself on its own. It needs all of us. Each and every single one of us.