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Daily Reaction: Crunch is Bad and Never ‘Magic’ for Video Games

Two stories came up today about crunch. One was from our own interview with the developers behind A Plague Tale, and the other concerned Epic Games’ work on Fortnite after the game became extremely popular. For A Plague Tale, those devs see crunch as almost a necessity and say that’s where the “magic” happens. But running your workers ragged is not “magic.” When people’s lives are being mentally drained for the sake of the bottom line and the consumer’s expectations, that simply shouldn’t be acceptable.

Look, I get it. There are certain timetables that must be met. Video games are at this strange crossroads between art and consumer product, so the artists can’t be allowed the types of freedoms that they would all like to just create on their own time. But the answer should never be to work people an unhealthy amount (something that actually damages productivity and creativity in the long run). The term “magic” should never be used to describe a video games coming together in a playable state. We saw this with Anthem and the supposed BioWare magic” that allegedly allowed the studio to bring a game together within the last few months before release.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of the end user, all we see are the results. All we ultimately see is the game releasing, and updates that come to it. There’s a significant lack of comprehension regarding the intense amount of work, effort, and testing that goes into not just making a game, but in the case of something like Epic and Fortnite or Bungie and Destiny, keeping it updated and fresh for players consistently.

Fortnite’s pace of updates has been absolutely mad, and now we finally know why. The studio is crunching in order to keep the game updated with brand new interesting content so that it never gets stale. We’re already seeing this slump with Apex Legends, and it’s a problem that Destiny has never been shy to. The difference is that both Respawn and Bungie operate on more realistic timetables instead of trying to push their staff to work “magic” at unrealistic and unsustainable levels. And yet demanding fans go crazy asking for fixes, updates, etc. that simply might not be something that can realistically be accomplished.

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In a way, that consumer hunger has drive the industry to a point where developers and publishers feel pushed into a corner. The justification is that it’s what’s best for the fans. Epic worked mega major overtime hours because they wanted to provide a great game for the people playing it, but at what cost? Is it worth the good night of sleep that one of the lead designers missed, or the stress felt as the creative team spends hours and hours in meetings? None of that is magic. It’s a matter of planning for the appropriate timetables and judging what’s realistic and possible for you team.

To have any developer try to say crunch is necessary or justify it away feels like they are out of touch with their own company’s creative vision. Crunch is a symptom of attempting please the shareholder, unrealistically acquiescing to the whims of the gamers, and a sign of bad management and poor planning. Burning people out of jobs that they should be loving is a good way to make sure that our industry remains sterile. There has to be a far better balance between respecting the bottom line and the money that goes into these projects and their timetables, and making sure that the developers are working on it in a sustainable and mentally healthy way.

I’m not going to pretend to know exactly the right answer, and it’s going to differ for every company, but I do know what the wrong answer is. Crunch should never be the most viable option. There’s the ability to delay releases. There’s the ability to hire more devs. There’s even the ability to cut features and ideas due to lack of time and manpower to complete them. But the answer should never be running people ragged, and the devs should never feel like they have to fun themselves ragged. It’s not magic. It’s proper planning and hard work that make games, and crunch needs to be disillusioned as this magic pill that makes “magic” happen. It’s just not sustainable in the long term.

Daily Reaction reacts daily to the video game industry. Have suggestions for the column or subjects you’d like us to react to? Let me know in the comments below and be sure to check out previous Daily Reactions for more dives beyond the headlines.