How gaming studios are fighting back against a toxic work culture

·6 min read

Video game developer Eidos-Montreal announced its shift to a four-day workweek last Thursday, marking it as the most high-profile studio in the gaming world to do so.

Eidos’ announcement is a tectonic shift in an industry that’s been notorious for the poor treatment of its developers for decades. Crunch culture — the video game industry practice of working longer hours for big studios (known industry-wide as AAAs), and pushing employees to exhaustion when a project’s deadline draws near — is a common practice at many major game studios. It’s practically seen as a part of the job despite the intense burnout it often causes.

It’s what makes Eidos’ announcement even more surprising. The developer is currently hard at work on Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy game and has been responsible for publishing big series such as "Tomb Raider" and "Deus Ex."

People wait in line to play the video game Shadow of the Tomb Raider,  by Eidos Montreal and Square Enix, on June 12, 2018 at the 24th Electronic Expo, or E3 2018, in Los Angeles, California where hardware manufacturers, software developers and the video game industry present their new games. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)        (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
People wait in line to play the Eidos Montreal video game Shadow of the Tomb Raider on June 12, 2018, at the 24th Electronic Expo, or E3 2018, in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)

“The idea is not to condense the working hours into 4 days, but rather to review our ways of doing things and our quality time invested, with the aim of working better!” Eidos Montreal’s Head of Studio David Andossi said on the company website. “Above all, we want to increase the productivity and well-being of our employees.” The change will not affect employee salaries, Eidos also said.

'We attempted to reward people for not overworking'

The debate around crunch has lasted for well over a decade. Developers have taken to online forums and social media spaces to talk about their experiences. Some went further, suing the companies they’d worked for (resulting in several lawsuits settled out of court).

Despite the issue remaining an incendiary topic, not a lot has changed in the way most big studios work. But smaller independent studios have been busy behind the scenes, leading the charge on a new business model that prioritizes its developers’ happiness and health.

Phil Tibitoski, CEO of Young Horses Games (Octodad, Bugsnax), decided to experiment with a four-day workweek for his company earlier in 2021, deciding to make it a permanent change after seeing the results.

“We were doing 35-hour weeks before this choice,” Tibitoski told Yahoo Finance. “We attempted not to reward people for overworking. So far, people are excited to be back [on Mondays] instead of tired.”

The team at Young Horses Games in a  2017 holiday photo.
The team at Young Horses Games in a 2017 holiday photo. (Photo via Young Horses Facebook)

As an indie studio, Young Horses prefers to take time with its games in order to ship a great product. But for larger companies, the shift to a shorter workweek would be a much more complex process.

Tibitoski is skeptical about them making a similar shift. But Eidos’ move could put pressure on them to change their work practices, he explained, which is why he’s “glad to see a larger studio trying to implement this and hope it goes well.”

Another way that gaming developers are dismantling crunch culture is by changing who makes the schedules in the first place. For KO-OP Games in Montreal, that means that the same artists who make the games also own the studio.

“We voted in a four-day workweek in 2020 to make sure everyone’s mental health was considered,” KO-OP Community Manager Marcela Huerta told Yahoo Finance. “We decided to go back to the five-day workweek in January 2021 to work on specific goals, but by summer we went back to the four-day model. We tracked the numbers and found no productivity differences at all.”

A screenshot from KO-OP's most recent game GNOG, a colorful puzzler where the player explores whimsical structures and solves riddles to progress. (Screenshot courtesy of KO-OP Games)
A screenshot from KO-OP's most recent game GNOG, a colorful puzzler where the player explores whimsical structures and solves riddles to progress. (Screenshot courtesy of KO-OP Games)

Huerta also explained that since each of the nine core members of KO-OP owns part of the business, it makes a profound impact on how they approach what they do as a whole.

“What’s beautiful (about being worker-owned) is that it changes the structure of how you approach work,” Huerta said. “You have to be more proactive because your actions can affect everyone. Our question is: How can you make it more humane to do labor? Treating yourself kindly as a human being, not just as a worker.”

A holistic approach

One path many developers take after the experience of crunch culture is to forge out on their own.

After starting her career at EA subsidiary Dice LA, the studio behind the popular “Battlefield” franchise, Tatyana Dyshlova went on to found her own studio, FuzzyBot, with other ex-AAA developers. FuzzyBot’s goal is to create its first game with as little crunch time as possible. It also offers flexible hours and workweeks to its staff in an effort to foster a holistic approach.

Dyshlova sees a sustainable journey as “paramount” to the success of her studio. But even though she’s well aware of crunch culture, she was fortunate enough not to experience it herself at EA.

“We did a few extended pushes but nothing too bad,” she said.

While it’s easy to imagine crunch culture as something foisted upon weary employees, Dyshlova explains that certain developers actually seek it out.

PARIS, FRANCE - OCTOBER 31:  Gamers play the video game
A gamer plays the DICE-developed "Star Wars Battlefront II" during 'Paris Games Week' on October 31, 2017 in Paris, France. (Photo by Chesnot/Getty Images)

“Some people want to be the BEST at their craft and those people go to AAA [studios], whereas another type of developer looks for the indie environment to be a part of holistic development,” she said. “Indies can take more risks. You’re trading off a huge amount of content for a specific artistic vision. But there are opportunities for different developers and what they want.”

Alexis Brutman, the founder of all-female owned indie Astral Clocktower Studios, told Yahoo Finance that the approach that works best for her team is letting them set their own schedule.

“We do the flexible schedule so that the 40 hours you work will be on your terms,” she said. “I think we get the best of people that way. Most of us are sick of being treated like children. My team feels that they are trusted. Indies do value their people. At big companies, you’re just a cog in the machine. I personally wouldn’t want to leave the indie sphere.”

As for Eidos’ announcement, Brutman thinks that it could make an impact on the industry as a whole.

“I think it’s a lot easier for a bigger company already flush with money to cut from a 40 hour week to a 32 hour week,” she said. “I do hope that more studios decide to start treating their employees better."

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