Crunch at game developers is a particularly hot topic right now, driven by recent accusations of grueling working conditions at studios including NetherRealm and Epic. That heightened awareness is helping spur a backlash against it in some quarters. The CEO of Outward developer Nine Dots recently said that the studio was able to avoid crunch while making the game, and in an AMA over the weekend Machine Games senior producer John Jennings said that his studio is also working to eliminate the practice.
"Crunch is a difficult topic. 'Finding what's fun' in games is so hard to schedule and plan for," Jennings wrote. "The labour laws in Sweden are very prescriptive about what's legal but crunch is also something that we're actively working at eliminating from our studio, and I say that genuinely, rather than as some trite PR answer. We've built a policy over the last 12 month and we're putting in a lot of effort to stick to it, even if that makes life for us in management more difficult from a business perspective sometimes."
Jennings didn't get into specifics about steps the studio has taken to avoid crunch or how successful the effort has been—or how committed to the process the studio will be when deadlines loom, which is obviously a major factor in ending the practice.
Being based in Sweden no doubt helps mitigate the issue, as Jennings alluded to, but it doesn't immunize developers entirely: As Eurogamer noted in this Starbreeze retrospective, "Swedes don't do crunch unless it's to hit a crucial deadline," but they can still end up pulling 100-hour weeks just like developers in other countries.
Even so, it's interesting and encouraging to see a publisher-owned studios working on a major game—Machine Games was acquired by Bethesda parent ZeniMax Media in 2010 and is currently developing its fourth game in the tremendously rejuvenated Wolfenstein series, Youngblood—recognizing the importance of ending crunch in game development. Talk is cheap, but it's a start.
I've reached out to Bethesda to ask if they can say anything more about how Machine Games is approaching the problem and will update if I receive a reply.