What Is Crunch Culture? How Bad Is It Really?

Anyone who follows gaming news has probably heard the term ‘crunch’, or ‘crunch culture’. It’s something that, while not being something unique to games development, is unusually prevalent and extreme within the games industry. So what is crunch culture? Crunch is a term used when talking about overtime. This could be working long days, evenings, or weekends. This is most often unpaid.

The term alludes to a period of crunch, usually before an important deadline or release which is sometimes unavoidable to hit a deadline. Crunch culture is slightly different and refers to a company that relies on crunch excessively or even plans it into their schedule, making it inevitable. This is bad on its own, but also allows no room for error, meaning that if something goes wrong you need to crunch even more intensely, to the point where you may not see your family for quite some time.

How Bad Is Crunch?

The first thing that someone might think when hearing about crunch in the games industry is that everyone has done overtime from time to time, so why all the fuss with games? The issue really is less with the fact that some overtime happens and more so the scale that it happens. There have been numerous stories from Rockstar to TT Games of crunch that add up to 100 or more hours a week. To put that in perspective, that would be working the equivalent of working over 14 hours a day not just every weekday, but Saturday and Sunday as well. For this reason, it’s not uncommon for people to sleep in the office at their desks, and not see their family for long periods.

So the working time is already crazy but they get to work on games, a lot of people might be willing for a week of hell for a dream job. But this isn’t happening for just a week. Depending on the company this can range from anywhere from a few weeks to many months or even more than a year. And not earning a penny for your troubles. Relationships have been broken and homes destroyed by the pressure to work excessively.

Man checking the time at his computer shocked by crunch culture
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

But maybe you’re not bothered by working conditions, people could always find another job, you only care about the game that you’re playing at the end. Even then crunch culture is disruptive and damages the end product. An employer sees it as being able to get free labor, and in the short term, that may be the case. But long term you burn your employees out, making the quality and quantity of the work significantly worse. You also force people to leave their job, losing out on some of your best employees. Because of this, they don’t bother to train their staff as they know they won’t stay. Overall everyone is losing out.

Is Crunch Inevitable?

One argument in the favor of crunch is that it’s inevitable. Games are incredibly complicated. There are so many moving pieces spread across so many different departments that things will go wrong. That much is inevitable. This is why you’ll always find bugs in games, no matter how much money and people were thrown at it. If the thing that goes wrong is a huge game-breaking bug that will take weeks to fix just days out from release then you either crunch or you ruin your company’s reputation and, as games companies often rely on one big release every few years, risk everyone losing their jobs. Sometimes crunch is inevitable.

Woman sleeping at desk after being overworked and burning out.
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

That being said, 99% of issues that come up can be solved with sufficient planning. Allowing enough contingency and testing time can cover almost every issue that will crop up. The problem arises when a company doesn’t want to spend that time ensuring the product is good and wants to rush it out to make money, or even worse when crunch culture comes into effect and they are actually scheduling in overtime from the start. This means that people will have to break themselves to work on the project no matter what, and if anything goes wrong you don’t have any contingency time to fix it, and you’re already crunching, so the only option is to crunch more and more, making mistakes more likely and leading to more crunch. That’s when you reach those ridiculous 100 hour work weeks that sometimes leak to the press.

How Common Is Crunch Culture In Games?

Crunch culture is pretty widespread within the industry and you would be hard-pressed to find a large AAA company that doesn’t have some kind of excessive crunch. Usually, these companies know that you will want to live your dream of working on your favorite bit IPs and as such, they will always have new people queuing up to work on a project. Many employees will suffer these conditions to get a big title under their belt knowing that it will be a big boost in applying for jobs at better companies.

While it may be pretty standard it’s not an inevitability. More companies are starting to build an anti-crunch culture into their workplace norm. Some companies do this out of good management but many others, particularly established companies, unfortunately, need to be shamed into it by bad PR from press leaks and the impact that might have on company stock prices.

Woman sleeping at work after crunching
Photo by Ron Lach from Pexels

Crunch Culture At Home

As most of the industry moves towards more working from home, you would think this would be better for crunching as people can stop whenever they want and already be at home. Unfortunately, companies will track time as well as output very closely. Some trust their employees to get the work done without monitoring whereas others will require constant check-ins or will track how active you are at a computer. So it’s hard to escape even then. It’s also much easier to overrun at home to get something finished when there is not a clear work/life separation.

Still, at least sleeping in the office is more comfortable now.