Crunch: Are Triple A Games the Problem?

Crunch: Are Triple A Games the Problem?
After the article published on September 29 on Bloomberg by Jason Shreier, the debate on crunch is rekindled. In the sights this time there is CD Projekt RED who, after declaring by Adam Badowski's voice that the studio would never subject employees to mandatory crunch, was forced to impose overtime on the whole team to finish Cyberpunk 2077 in time. talk about crunch inevitably the debate arises: "it is to be condemned", "we hope they pay the overtime" and "it is a necessary evil" are the phrases that run continuously in a climate where no-one takes the issue seriously.

The crunch, in fact, is a phenomenon that concerns labor policies and rights, protections and regulatory gaps that vary from country to country; it is a topic that must be addressed with a social spirit and a good dose of legislative material in hand. This is the reason why we will not embark on this discourse.It is equally true, however, that the writer finds the practice of crunch unbearable and will never argue that a culture of super work, where the overtime is used as a psychological deterrent, where the demands made by the employer they always travel on the verge of bullying, where the expectations towards workers in the sector are increasingly pressing, that the crunch is a necessary evil. But necessary for what then? Well, to splendid AAA games, to those essential masterpieces, great pride of the videogame industry. So let's try to tackle the question from another point of view: if crunch and AAA games cannot be separated, since the former is a necessary evil of the latter, why don't we try to take AAA games out of the equation?

Market opening and growth

Before weighing all the negative sides of AAA video games, it is right to give them due credit, because thanks to these mammoth productions the video game market has expanded, reaching many consumers who would never touch a video game. In short, the AAAs have opened the doors of the market to a wide audience, demonstrating to the world that video games are an entertainment medium that has a lot to offer.The opening of the market to the mass audience was undoubtedly very rapid and which has found its propulsion in technological evolution, because it is thanks to improved performance, photo-realistic rendering of the graphics that the gaze of the general public has begun to turn towards video games; asking the cinema to borrow quality actor interpretations and talented screenwriters, the game is literally done. The influx of different types of players is certainly not a bad thing, indeed, and many of those games designed for the general public have been highly appreciated titles even by those with a more consolidated gamer past.

The "problem", as long as you want to define it like this (in the economics of this article it is convenient to give it this meaning), is that the formula works and pays well. And if it works so well why not make it bigger? The video game market has therefore seen a surge in its value in less than ten years, an injection of money that has brought the value of the market, estimated in 2012 to 52.8 billion dollars, to the current 131.23 with a forecast by analysts of 196 billion in revenue for 2022. This dizzying growth, and here is the keystone, has perhaps not been supported by an equally rapid growth of the supporting infrastructure. We say perhaps because we do not have data to support the thesis but there is no doubt that the size of the triple AAA projects has grown to such a point that the same development studies struggle to keep up with it.

Human cost

The Last of Us Part II is a sadly known but significant case worth looking at closely: six years of development, an estimated production cost of $ 100 million, 2,168 developers involved, 4 million of copies sold (transforming this sales figure into monetary value is really difficult but at an average of $ 50 dollars per copy it is reasonable to think of at least 200 million in revenue) in a launch window of just 2 days (from 19 to 21 June ), to which the subsequent sales and merchandise must then be added.

We also know, because various sources report it, that the work was exhausting. The article published in March 2020 on Kotaku by Jason Shreier, a journalist who took to heart the issue of workers' rights in the videogame sector, reported numerous stories from sources inside the team talking about grueling working hours, amount of assignments that were not physically within the standard contract hours, employees who stayed late because waiting for feedback from superiors stuck in grueling river meetings. "You feel obligated to entertain yourself late, because everyone else is there. If you need to put in an animation and you are not there to help the animator, it means blocking his work and that can hurt you. It doesn't have to be for come on said, just a look is enough. 'Dude, you completely screwed me last night for not staying until 11pm.' ". But as we said the problem depends precisely on a lack of adequate support structure for the project: there is nothing wrong with wanting to develop a flawless game, and The Last of Us Part II is, but you also need to know how to manage the machine according to to its resources.

Speaking in rather caustic terms was, again in the spring of 2020, Jonathan Cooper, a former employee of Naughty Dog with an important work experience behind him. Obviously it is Cooper's word against that of his former employer but according to the developer, The Last of Us Part II did not fail thanks to the continued benevolence of Sony which had to make up for financially the mismanagement of staff: in short, it seems that most of the senior animators of the team, less tied to projects than game / narrative designers, have left their posts leading to a lack of professional figures, a gap filled by recruiting young, but less experienced, animators. This is doubly disheartening: on the one hand a story that absolutely does not find any confirmation in the beauty of the game to which it belongs and on the other a message that is not very reassuring for the future of young developers. So does working in the AAA sector mean this? Work up to burnout? Is this what future development teams expect from the new generation?

Can perpetual motion be stopped?

At this point, a clarification must be made. If we talk about mismanagement of resources, such as staff and / or budget and / or time, any team can fail, be it a giant studio used to producing triple A or the small indie group of a dozen people. However, it is reasonable to say that the bigger things are done, the easier it is to make mistakes, postpone issues that are less urgent than others or become the target for some ill-intentioned in search of money, glory or revenge. In short, we are talking about a difficult sustainability of large projects, which can degenerate into the crunch for the most disparate reasons, pumped into the negative by marketing and fanbase hype, in the face of ever-increasing earnings and bets that are always well-paid: if it works why stop?

To use a metaphor, the AAA industry is like the Snowpiercer, the train of French comics from which they have drawn films and TV series. It is a very fast machine, inhabited by a varied group of people who experience strong disparities; the metaphor does not want to dwell on the food chain of the videogame industry but on the fact that, and if you know the story you know it, the Snowpiercer cannot stop, its very movement generates the energy that makes it possible to survive on board. The AAA industry is in the same position because as long as everything works nobody will stop the engine to review the production processes, we have survived this way forever and forever we will go on. At least, as long as the Fondai della coda does not tire. Of course we will never go too far in saying that AAA games must disappear, that they ruin the industry and cause the melting of glaciers. It is a consolidated, necessary business and, as we said at the beginning, what it holds attracts the mass audience.

On the other hand, starting from the two great assumptions discussed so far (namely that the machine does not intend to stop and that the crunch is a necessary evil), it is natural to wonder if there are really no other solutions. A strong message could and should come from developers first of all but there are numerous cases of a toxic work environment, related to the crunch or even more serious problems, which struggle to emerge and it is reasonable to think that what the public knows is only the tip of the iceberg. Extra support could come from the public who should exploit consumer rights and ask for more information about their purchases, just like reading the ingredients list at the supermarket. If the consumer asks for transparency, the producer who refuses to supply it risks making a bad impression. Yet another solution could be to focus more and more on the so-called AA or Indie AAA games, that is titles produced by teams with leaner staffs and which have less funding than the big competitors, and which in this generation have shown their potential; Hellblade: Senua's Sacrifice, Control or The Outer Worlds are, for example, all titles that are more contained (and therefore less long-lived) than the AAA competition, but not inferior in quality.

This, as mentioned before, does not exclude a priori, the crunch, but it is equally true that the smaller a project, the more it has freedom of maneuver, less investment risks, more experimentation on the development side which, hopefully, translates into a more varied offer for the public. Whatever the future of the videogame industry, the most lively hope is that the problem of crunch, and more extensively the protection of workers, will become one of the great focuses of the near future, that serious dialogues will be established in the industry for the benefit. also yes other sectors. Because "better than a crunch today than a postponement tomorrow" cannot and should not become the norm.

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