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How Video Game Developers Are Exploited

Low pay, long hours and forced "crunch" cycles will destroy this growing industry

Mohammed Sarker's picture
Jul 25, 2019

The Video Game industry has expanded from about $78 Billion in 2017 to over $90 Billion by 2020. At the heart of all this wealth being created is the Studios that create these games, which are colossal operations of hundreds, often thousands of Video Game Developers. On a surface level, any basic search of their salaries shows entry-level wages hovering around the high 40ks, usually around 47,000 a year. Not a  terribly high salary, but also hardly poverty money. However, the industry is rife with exploitations that are thinly veiled underneath the surface. 

Video game development is a tremendously colossal process that takes several (usually 3-5) years and hundreds of millions of dollars to create a single game, with the actual game and marketing. A big-screen Hollywood is only around 2 hours, a typical video game is expected to last at least 20 hours, with bigger titles such as  Grand Theft Auto lasting several hundred hours, especially with extra content released over the internet. The entire industry, from small independent (“indie”) teams of a dozen or less  to larger studios (“AAA”) that can have hundreds to thousands of people depending on a practice known as “crunch,” work that goes beyond the standard 40 hour workweek and is only occasionally covered with overtime pay. “Crunch typically occurs near the end of the video game development cycle, when unexpected bugs are found in the code or when Game Publishers make last-minute curveballs to please consumer demand for their products. 

On October 26, 2018, Red Dead Redemption 2, was released to critical acclaim, in the second biggest launch of entertainment (not just video games). The game sold over 24 million units and made over $725 million in its opening weekend, winning many awards for best game. However, back home at Rockstar Games, all was not going well. Accusations emerged that Rockstar forced employees to work as much as 100 hours a week, often with no monetary compensation. Anonymous sources from the company claimed that some people started “crunching” as early as late 2016, while other people in 2017. What we’re seeing is an expansion of this method of labor cost-cutting. This is hardly the first time Rockstar Games faced flak for their labor practices. Rockstar also developed  Grand Theft Auto V, which itself sold over 100 million units and made $1 Billion in 3 days and was the bestselling piece of entertainment of all time. 

On multiple occasions, spouses of video game developers would pen and promote anonymous letters accusing their husband’s employers of not paying sufficient overtime or simply coercing their loved ones to working exorbitant hours from a 2004 letter titled “EA: The Human Story” (EA is the acronym for Electronic Arts, a major Video Game Publisher). A 2010 “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees” letter, accused  EA of forcing employees to work in 72-85 hour workweeks with no overtime pay, and accused Rockstar of doing a similar offense while cutting overtime pay for more senior employees. This was a slap in the face that is frankly senseless, as it actively undermines employee morale and is blatantly anti-meritocratic. 

The tragedy is that this has been normalized within the industry. According to a 2014 survey by the International Game Developers Association, 81% of Developers faced a crunch in the past 2 years, while 50% believed it was a “normal part of their jobs.” And why wouldn’t they? Crunch has existed to some degree as far back as in the 70s when Atari occasionally made employees undergo 24-hour shifts with no compensation in order to pass QA Tests. (Quality Assurance). This only highlights the pain that has been exacerbated since the resumption of the  Corporate Offensive against Organized Labor in the 20th Century. Technology has helped create new industries and jobs, but without many of the old benefits that were at one time, common, to maintain a healthy, productive workforce. 

The Video Game Industry needs collective bargaining agreements to add stability to this growing industry and reward the hard work of its skilled workforce if it wants to continue to grow and prosper. Avoiding Union Organization will be this industries downfall. 

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