Crunch Culture Behind Games as a Service

Polygon interviewed Epic Games staff about the success of Fortnite and the stress it brought on the team.

In summer 2017, Epic Games launched Fotnite: Save the World, a zombie-themed co-op shooter that spent several years in the making. Around the same time PUBG became a global hit. To address the competition, the company decided to quickly battle-royalize their title and scheduled it for release in September 2017. The resulting reincarnation has been the most popular game in the world ever since.

The revenue surge that followed the release of the game also heralded the rise of the new trend in the industry: “games as a service.” Under this model, a game stays competitive and relevant (and keeps that cash flowing) through a never-ending series of updates. Each of them introduces new maps, new skins, new characters and other features.

So, instead of one major deadline before the hard release, the company succumbed to a constant barrage of deadlines for every update.

According to several current and former Epic Games employees, the success of Fortnite is paid for by constant crunch. The developers cite the “culture of fear” that assumed crunch as a tacit norm.  After working from 70- to 100-hour weeks for several months, some found their physical and psychological health deteriorating.

fortnite

To be fair, Epic Games seems to recognize the problem, even if a company representative calls 100-hour work weeks “incredibly rare.” In an attempt to alleviate the situation, the company took a number of steps. It allowed employees to take unlimited time off and work in shifts. The management also distributed workload among multiple teams that work in parallel. These measures, however, did not help. Sad irony surrounded the generous time off allowance.

“The company gives us unlimited time off, but it’s almost impossible to take the time. If I take time off, the workload falls on other people, and no one wants to be that guy,” said one employee.

While people are paid overtime, and handsomely so, they really do not have the option not to work those extra hours, including weekends. And it’s not just because they would feel guilty.

“I know some people who just refused to work weekends, and then we missed a deadline because their part of the package wasn’t completed, and they were fired,” said one of Polygon’s sources. “People are losing their jobs because they don’t want to work these hours.”

Contractors are even more replaceable. One of the sources actually remembers contractors being referred to as “bodies” at the company. As in “Get more bodies.”

Polygon’s feature is the third big article in April alone that deals with the topic of crunch in the game industry. Earlier this month, the makers of Anthem introduced the world to the notion of “stress casualties” when describing the production process at the Bioware. Later, former Telltale employees came forth with stories about unhealthy workload distribution due to the episodic nature of their games.

These disclosures underscore the persisting problem of employees’ vulnerability in the game industry. In December 2018, the UK labor organization Game Workers Unite became the official trade union.  Other countries are yet to follow suit.

Live services dominate the market at the moment, but they might not prove viable in the long run.

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