Warhammer 40K: Inquisitor-Martyr developer Neocore Games raised a few eyebrows this week when it said staff would work 90+ hours per week to get the game finished. It later said that it was joking, but it started an interesting debate about just how hard development teams work during 'crunch' time, the period leading up to a game's release. It's something that Devolver Digital co-founder Mike Wilson flagged last week at Reboot Develop, where he called developers' workloads "shameful", and said that the amount of hours people put in during crunch time was damaging both their mental health and their relationship with their families.
"The crunch thing that's breaking people in big studios—that's not new. That's just a dirty, dirty secret that the industry has failed to address for 20 years, which is pretty shameful considering the amount of money being made," he said. "We just don't talk about it, and I guess... since there are no unions for games developers, the industry bodies don't want to piss off the publishers that are often their biggest sponsors.
"[But] there's an awful lot of people there being misused and abused, and their families broken by being told they're going to work seven days a week for the next six months with no additional pay and that's just the way it is. Then there's also that peer pressure within that system, which is a big part of it too, so it's not even the boss."
The problem spanned the industry, with developers in both AAA and indie studios suffering, said Wilson, who also founded publisher Good Shepherd. He said that he'd personally seen four developers hospitalised with mental health or stress-related issues while trying to finish a game, including Jonatan Söderström and Dennis Wedin, the duo behind Hotline Miami. "If there were four that were hospitalised, there has to be 40 more at least that were very nearly there and couldn't push that panic button, often because they had to make their game."
For indie games, a lot of the stress comes from interacting with fans, and trying to make an audience understand that a game is being made by a small team, he said. "When you're having a hard day and there's a thousand people on Twitter at any time willing to agree that you're a piece of shit, that you should stop working because you're never going to make anything good, it's pretty hardcore for a sensitive person.
"I think that's why the indies are having such a hard time. It's just this mass of noise from a mix of fans and monsters online. And it doesn't matter if you read a thousand great comments, it's that one or two that say you're an absolute worthless piece of shit that sticks in your heart when you least need it."
Part of the solution, he suggested, was to stress to aspiring developers that "knowing how to take care of yourself" should be a part of their "toolset". For larger studios, one of the keys is to show that working long hours lowers the quality of the games their developers produce. "Sadly, that's the way you have to pitch it to these big companies, that it will affect their bottom line or save them however much in insurance. But whatever works, man."
The entire discussion, written up by gamesindustry.biz, also touches on whether developers should form unions, and it's well worth a read.