Sunday Analysis: Epic Games, Fortnite, and Crunch Culture

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How’s it going everybody, Adrian Simple here from The Gaming Observer, and this is Sunday Analysis. We’re going to be talking about Epic games the recent reavling of their abhorrent crunch culture. If this is your first visit to the channel, pehaps consider subscribing, and you’ll have access to daily news from the gaming industry. Let’s get into it shall we?

Ok folks listen, it’s time to stop thinking about Fortnite as the gold standard of games as a service. Instead of praising Epic for their dedication and reactionary approach to development, we need to take a step back and think about the human. Colin Campbell of Polygon conducted a dozen interviews of current and former employees who said that they quote “regularly worked in excess of 70-hour weeks, with some reporting 100-hour weeks.” endquote.

Now, we hear this all the time, right. Pretty much all games ever developed have had periods of crunch, where people are working these hours. Even in some cases, they’re happily doing it. A small team like Yacht Club, who did Shovel Knight, were collectively willing to do that work for the success of their company. What makes Epic Games, and specifically Fortnite different, is that the game never breathes. When a AAA development company releases a single player game, crunch is pretty much an inevitability, in the current world. Let’s say BioWare with Mass Effect: Andromeda. The devs pretty much made that game in just over a year, from the end of 2015 to March 2017. Through that time, they aren’t breathing. They are choking on the mismanagement of pre-production, and a horrible game engine. But then Andromeda comes out, they get to exhale. Years of crunch, and now they can relax. The Fortnite devs don’t have that luxury of breathing. They have released some kind of update basically every week since the battle royale came out. There is no release of the breath that they are holding in, there is no break. Players want more content, and they want it now. You either choose to let your devs breathe, or you kill them from asphyxiation. And that is exactly what is happening with the amount of turnaround that these kinds of companies will have.

Another major issue that this Polygon article brings up is that it’s not just the decision to crunch at an executive level, but it’s a developed culture. Quote, “Workers at Epic operate on an implicit understanding that working crunch is an expected part of their role.” endquote. They go on to say that there are young workers who are given the option to go home but refuse because they want to be promoted, and especially, don’t want to be fired, as Epic has been known to do. In other cases person A would inquire about person B leaving the company, only to be met with weird looks, because they didn’t want to confront the issue. This is a cultural issue. At one point, Epic had even expressly said that overtime was voluntary and could not be demanded, but almost nobody listened to it. Nobody wants to be the reason that a product isn’t shipped on time.

So then how does this problem get solved? Because it doesn’t matter how much we talk about it, there are literally millions of children playing this game that don’t care a lick about how the game was made. And when I talk about this, keep in mind that I’m address games as a service specifically, perhaps even more specifically battle royales. For one, I think that executive developers need to actively pursue a regular work schedule. Vince Zampella has done this already with Apex Legends quote, “There are a lot of people that are like ‘hey where’s the weekly updates, Fortnite does this.’ And it’s like, we’re not set up to do that. We never intended to…We don’t want to overwork the team, and drop the quality of the assets we’re putting out. We want to try and raise that.” endquote. This is fascinating to me, because Apex Legends exploded in popularity even faster than Fortnite, and Vince is sticking to his guns. They know that they have good game that people want to play. I find that confidence admirable, because it means they really care about what they created, and especially it means that what they produce from here on will be just as valuable.

The next thing that can solve this is unions. I personally have a lot of experience with IATSE, which is for theatrical stage employees, but there are definitely parallels in terms of overworking employees. Anyway, what union can do is advocate for the worker, and literally not allow the employer to force overtime. And to be honest, not only would this benefit the worker, but it forces the executives to be stricter organizers, which means better pre-production, which means better games, which means it benefits the consumer. Don’t get me wrong, that is grossly oversimplifying the process, I understand that, but as a concept when talking about overworking people, it’s a vital piece of the puzzle.

The last thing that I want to suggest is that we have to stop looking at Fortnite as the gold standard of games as a service. For a product, and for the consumers, it’s wonderful. But we should be actively speaking out against people that praise that workload, or diminish the workload of games like Apex Legends. Remembering the human is a vital process in any industry, but especially this one, where a culture of overwork has been developed. If you agree, I encourage you to join the conversation, and really try and help the people making the games you love in this way.

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