Game developers, time crunches, delays, and why we all need to just chill

Spoiler alert: overworked and unpaid workers don’t make great games. In a year with more release date delays than ever before, it’s important to hold your anger and remember why they’re happening.

2021 has brought us many things. COVID, the absolute tidal wave of thirst for Lady Dimitrescu, and a lot of game delays. 55 in fact, according to IGN’s running tally. Which has got to be a record, but 2021 isn’t just the year of delays. It’s the year of workers’ rights in the industry too.

In recent years, but mostly this year, we’ve seen a huge increase in game developers speaking out about uncompensated overtime, unrealistic expectations, and workplace abuse. Sexism and crunch in the industry has proven to be two of the biggest issues. Thankfully, those are actually getting addressed… slowly.

floating bag Cyberpunk 2077
Image: via Twitter user @dorabka

The crunch crisis

The problem with crunch time stems from labour laws, according to the Washington Post. Currently, it’s completely legal on the federal and state level (in the US) to consider workers exempt from overtime protection laws.

A 2019 survey from the International Game Developers Association found that 40% of game devs reported crunching at least once in the previous year. Most of them weren’t referring to a few hours staying back at work, or maybe a long weekend. They were talking about 60 hour work weeks.

Because game devs often “have salaries that are… higher than the median US salary”, they find it a lot easier to just accept this workplace abuse. Either that, or the alternative is to “move on to other industries” like film. Somewhere their rights are more well-protected, but their passions may be less well-aligned.

This loop of “endless and uncompensated overtime” comes from unrealistic schedules and budgets that development studios have to follow. Managers have to balance out the budget, the scope of the game, and the set schedule they’re given. Worker hours are the most flexible of the three, but only if they’re free. Paying extra to make sure you stay on schedule throws your budget out. So unpaid overtime is the easiest, if abusive solution to this problem.

In time, this practice has proved to cause more trouble than its worth.

Why, you may ask? Because we get shit games. Take Cyberpunk 2077 as an example. Despite being delayed a total of three times, Cyberpunk 2077 was met with scathing reviews upon its release. Its employees were subjected to six-day workweeks for over a year before we all finally got a copy into our hands.

And we hated it – in fact, we hated it enough that Cyberpunk 2077 has become the emblem for shoddily released or mismanaged games. Battlefield 2042’s opening week has been less than ideal, but it was the phrase ‘Cyberpunk 2077’ that trended on Twitter as gamers and reviewers compared the two.

Not only are developers forced to work ridiculous hours to hit unrealistic deadlines and maintain budgets, but we don’t even like the results. Probably because they’re rushed, or exhausted workers overlook small details.

These games are buggy beyond belief and nowhere near worth their dubious $120 price tags.

Dealing with delays

So what’s the solution? Advocate? Absolutely. Stand beside the people who work hard to give you hours of entertainment, especially when they’re being taken advantage of. Continue to call out bad practices like Riot Games’ forced arbitration and Activision-Blizzard’s sexist culture. Continue bringing crunch time to people’s attention.

But we can also help by being understanding. Let me remind you that 55 games have had a delay in 2021 alone and it’s not just because of COVID. Yes, that’s thrown schedules completely out of whack while people scramble to accommodate for social distancing measures. It’s not the only reason though.

Some of these games end up pretty close to perfect once released. They’re polished. They’re optimised and ready for players to jump right into. They don’t need a slew of patches to fix the basic things. Because they’ve given their developers the time they need to do it correctly.

And honestly? We should too. I know I’m absolutely sick of receiving half-baked games for what feels like an exorbitant price. But I’m also tired of looking forward to the newest expansion pack, DLC, or RPG, only to find that it’s been delayed. Again.

Some of us even book time off work to play the latest instalments in our favourite franchises. Only to find that two weeks from the release date, like in Final Fantasy XIV’s case, they’re pushing everything back.

I might argue that the decision and announcement should’ve been made sooner. It would give people time to adjust their own schedules. But if they’re putting all this genuine time and care into their content, I really don’t mind at the end of the day. I want my money’s worth and I want the workers who are creating it to be treated fairly too.

Removing specific release dates until games are finished could be a solution too. Just look at Ruined King: A League of Legends Story. Originally it was announced for “early 2021”, only to be delayed and left without a specific date. Nobody was too fussed about that. Next thing you know, we’re all delighted by its sudden release in late 2021.

No rescheduling your paid time off or anything, just a nice surprise for your after-work entertainment.

At the end of the day, we need to keep the people behind the games in mind. Be understanding. Support their rights as workers. Remember how much time and energy is put into this unique form of entertainment. And most importantly, deal with the delays. We have plenty of time to play.

I know I’d rather wait an extra month, or a year, if it means I get the best version of a game that I can.