'Cyberpunk 2077' and the ethics of video game crunch culture

<p>"Cyberpunk 2077" has become well-known not just for its hype in the gaming community, but for the hours of unpaid and unfair work that went into making it.</p>

"Cyberpunk 2077" has become well-known not just for its hype in the gaming community, but for the hours of unpaid and unfair work that went into making it.

CD Projekt Red is creating one of the most anticipated games of the year, but is it justified in forcing their employees into grueling work weeks in order to release the game on time? What is the state of “crunch culture” in the video game industry?

Only a small number of games live up to the hype generated before their release, and those games usually become cultural milestones for video game history. For the past several years, “Cyberpunk 2077” has been growing in popularity with its action-adventure storyline and cyborg-inhabited world. After much anticipation, it's finally set to release this November after numerous delays. But “crunch culture,” the expectation to push yourself harder than normal to meet a deadline, has marred the game’s hype.

In an effort to release the game by that deadline, developer CD Projekt Red has reportedly adjusted their work schedule to review the game and make last-minute fixes. This would include a 6-day work week leading to the release of the game, and it contradicts CD Projekt Red’s promise that its workers would not be subject to excessive overtime hours.  

The company is known for making high-quality games that define console generations like “The Witcher 3,” which received several free additional content packs on top of its massive, open-world story. Unfortunately, even this came at a cost for the studio’s employees, as they were forced to work long hours in order for the game to ship on time.

This is the bleak world of "crunch." Game developers work unethically long hours to complete these projects, and it ends up being a few passionate individuals tasked to deliver multi-million-dollar blockbuster games by a set deadline.

But this extends far beyond CD Projekt Red, as crunch has been a common trend in the game industry for years. Naughty Dog’s “Last of Us II” and Rockstar’s “Red Dead Redemption 2” are among other popular titles that employees reportedly had to spend long hours on, with some developers getting sick or leaving altogether because of crunch.

If requiring unethically long workdays is clearly an unsustainable trend that violates the rights of employees, why does crunch happen?

The clearest observation is that games are getting bigger, more expensive and require several years of development. Copious amounts of money are invested into these games by major publishing companies like Sony, and those publishers may require studios to create a deadline for their game to justify investing thousands of dollars into them. These publishers enable studios to continue unsustainable crunch practices, especially when it’s an exclusive game that could potentially help sell gaming consoles.

Another factor is poor management and foresight. Unforeseen events, like the pandemic, can cause the timeline of the developing process to change completely. Yet studios still try to stick to their initial plan and find themselves rushing to finish a game, even putting out a game that isn’t complete (see: “Anthem”.)  

Crunch exists sometimes in the form of social pressure. When a manager urges employees to work overtime in order to complete a task, this places external pressure on employees to crunch on a game, even when it’s not required. Refusing to take overtime in this situation could come at the cost of being passed up on a future promotion or potentially being the first to go when job cuts occur.

A sad truth is that crunch usually doesn’t affect sales. “Cyberpunk 2077” is set to be a bestseller, and many consumers might not know about the crunch that goes into the game they purchase — or even worse, they don’t care. There’s a growing concern that people are normalizing crunch, especially when the mandatory overtime is paid. For many, working in the video game industry is considered a dream job, which leads outsiders to believe that long hours can’t be so bad if it’s something that you love to do.

These beliefs are false and dangerous. At the start of a new console generation, it’s important to realize that the public has the power to hold studio leads accountable. Change comes by shining a light on crunch, either through the media or brave messages from developers themselves.

As crunch makes it way into our cultural consciousness, people can and should learn about  the issue. The collective messages for change can serve as a wake-up call for the industry to treat their employees ethically at all times during the development process or face legal consequences. Even now, there are grassroot movements like Game Workers Unite that are searching for solutions to address crunch and ensure fair and ethical treatment of game developers.

CD Projekt Red is well-respected within the gaming community, but quality games don’t justify unethical treatment of employees. Poor standards of living is a deep-rooted problem in our country, and the sad truth is that overworking has long been a fact of life. The question studios and we the public need to ask is simple: do we value the release of a project more than the lives of those tasked to make it?


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