Worst Cases of Crunch Culture in the Video Game Industry

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Blood, Sweat, and Pixels" by Jason Schreier. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is crunch culture in video games? Why do game development studios push their employees beyond their limits?

According to Blood, Sweat, and Pixels by Jason Schreier, many game development studios prioritize mandatory overtime over their employees’ mental health and personal lives. This is to meet deadlines and avoid delays that mean pushing the release of video games back for months or even years.

Continue reading to learn why crunch culture has become so normalized in the gaming industry.

Scheduling Is Difficult in Video Games

A major challenge that game developers face is knowing exactly how long it’ll take to finish making a game. Schreier notes a few reasons for this.

First, delays and setbacks are almost inevitable during game production, due in large part to the development challenges video game creators face. Second, developers might underestimate how long certain tasks will take, leading to crunch culture in video games. 

(Shortform note: As risk analyst Nassim Nicholas Taleb notes in Antifragile, predicting the future—such as how long a game will take to develop—is practically impossible. Furthermore, predictions become less accurate the farther into the future they go; for example, weather forecasts are only accurate for a few days, after which they become infamously untrustworthy. So, for video games with development cycles lasting years, any kind of predicted timeline is likely to end up being inaccurate.) 

Schreier adds that another common reason for delays is that games are art, and it’s hard to know when a work of art is finished. Even if a game is fully functional, it’s hard to say that it’s “done.” For example, perhaps the graphics could be improved or a new feature added to make the game even better. 

Are Video Games Art?

Schreier’s statement that video games are an art form is arguably controversial. Many people, such as famous film critic Roger Ebert, argue that video games are simply games, and they can’t be called art any more than baseball or poker can be called art. However, some fans of video games point out that they have images, music, and stories, all of which had to be created by artists of some kind. Others point out that games can evoke emotions as effectively as any other art form, lending further credence to the game-as-artform argument.

Still others, including some video game developers, say the question is irrelevant. Whether video games are formally recognized as an art form has no bearing on the work and passion that go into creating them, nor on how much people enjoy them.

The Controversial Solution: Mandatory Overtime

Schreier explains that because development cycles often take much longer than expected, “crunch”—meaning enormous amounts of mandatory overtime—is a common practice in video game development.

Game studios frequently resort to mandatory overtime to meet important deadlines, such as having demos ready for major conventions. In some cases, developers have been known to work for as much as 14 hours a day, with no days off, in the weeks leading up to a major deadline. 

Such grueling schedules take a heavy toll on developers’ personal lives and mental health. Keeping up with the work requires a fervent passion for gaming and a workaholic mindset; even then, exhaustion and burnout are common problems in the video game industry.

Does Mandatory Overtime Work?

A large and growing body of research indicates that mandatory overtime isn’t just bad for employees—it’s also bad for the company involved. First, it’s simply not effective: People become fatigued and reach a point where more hours worked don’t translate to more tasks getting done. Furthermore, exhaustion and overwork result in employees missing work, getting sick, and quitting their jobs, all of which hurts the company’s bottom line.

So what’s the ideal number of hours to work in a week? There’s no simple answer, but research has provided a couple of benchmarks: Working more than 45 hours per week is harmful to physical and mental health in numerous ways, and the maximum productive hours for the average employee is around 55 per week. Any time worked beyond that 55-hour benchmark doesn’t result in increased productivity. This suggests that it’s neither healthy nor productive for a developer to work 14-hour days, as that would amount to 70-hour weeks.

Case Study #1: Uncharted 4 

Schreier says that almost every video game company resorts to mandatory overtime sometimes, but Naughty Dog is infamous for it. The company is known for creating games with gorgeous graphics. Everything from wrinkles in the main character’s clothes to leaves on trees is rendered with loving—some would say obsessive—attention to detail. 

(Shortform note: Recently, Naughty Dog’s reputation has taken a bit of a hit thanks to leaks of their remake of The Last of Us. Some critics report that the remake is nothing but an almost-unnoticeable graphical update being sold as an entirely new game. As a result, these leaks have some gamers accusing the company of making a cheap cash grab using one of their most popular games.) 

However, that level of perfectionism takes a lot of time to achieve, which is why Naughty Dog is also known for exploiting mandatory overtime. In the case of the studio’s hit action-adventure game Uncharted 4, Schreier says that employees often had to work past midnight for days on end to hit deadlines, including on weekends. While it’s common for other studios to have their employees on such a schedule for a few weeks, Naughty Dog’s developers worked those hours for months. 

Uncharted 4 sold 2.7 million copies in its first week and got excellent reviews, with particular praise for its graphics. However, after its release, numerous developers quit their jobs at Naughty Dog, citing burnout as their reason for leaving. 

The Impact of Crunch Culture

Schreier may be understating the impacts of Naughty Dog’s mandatory overtime: A former employee said that at least one developer ended up in the hospital from overwork, and around 70% of the studio’s game designers quit after Uncharted 4’s release. In addition, Naughty Dog’s high turnover rate and reputation for requiring long hours have caused problems for the studio in recent years—experienced developers aren’t willing to work there, so the studio has had to resort to hiring industry newcomers, resulting in significant production delays. 

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels was published in 2017; in 2022, Schreier stated in an article for Bloomberg that the video game industry is growing less tolerant of “crunch culture.” However, in the same article, he notes that crunch is still deeply ingrained in the industry. He says that’s unlikely to change until studio executives stop glorifying overtime and start valuing their employees’ work-life balance instead.

Case Study #2: Stardew Valley

Mandatory overtime doesn’t just hit large studios like Naughty Dog. It can be even worse for small studios and independent developers who don’t have as many employees to share the workload. 

Schreier spoke to Eric Barone, the one-man team behind the beloved farming simulator Stardew Valley. Barone spent over four years working on the game, during which he says he put in anywhere from eight to 15 hours a day. He consistently told friends and family that it would be done in another month or two, but that timeline kept stretching since he had no supervisors pushing him to finalize and release the game. 

Eventually, Barone struck a deal with a small publisher called Chucklefish Games, and Stardew Valley finally came out in February 2016. The game was an unexpected hit; it sold over a million copies in two months and made Barone a millionaire practically overnight. 

Schreier notes that Barone’s work situation didn’t improve after Stardew Valley came out; a few months later, Barone worked himself into burnout and couldn’t bring himself to work at all. Having so many players meant that Barone was suddenly under enormous pressure to fix bugs and release new features. He frequently pulled all-nighters to develop and release patches—small updates designed to fix problems in the game—but those patches often created as many issues as they solved. 

Barone took the summer off to rest before entering a cycle of intense work and equally intense burnout. He’d push himself for weeks to crank out new patches—then, he’d have to take weeks off to recover. 

Schreier says that he got in touch with Barone in December 2016 to see how he was doing. Barone replied that he was exhausted, sick of Stardew Valley, and thinking about starting a new game with a more realistic timetable. 

Worst Cases of Crunch Culture in the Video Game Industry

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  • A rare look into the harsh inner workings of the video game industry
  • The four main challenges that video game developers face
  • Why Star Wars 1313 never made it to the shelves

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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