May 22, 2022

Cyberpunk 2077 Crunch Was Not Inevitable

CD Projekt Red Chief Executive, Adam Kicinski, refered to the inevitability of crunch. In this, he may be right, but that is owed to project mismanagement.

Cyberpunk 2077 Key Art

CD Projekt Red delivered the news that Cyperpunk 2077, one of the most anticipated games of 2020, will be delayed by five months. While disappointing, the overwhelming sentiment was understanding that the time was needed to polish the game. However, this isn’t the most disappointing news that Adam Kicinski, CDPR’s chief executive, has delivered this week.

Speaking in a call with investors, Kicinski explained that development would still require a crunch period.

The Human Cost of Crunch

Kicinski stated that they “try to limit crunch as much as possible,” but that it is unavoidable in the final stage.

Crunch time is a period in which development teams have failed to achieve key milestones required to deliver a finished game on time. Essentially, it’s the mismanagement of project resources. Crunch is an industry-wide issue that generally results in developers working longer hours for protracted periods of time. While this may seem relatively benign, a story in Kotaku’s “Horrible World of Crunch Time” sums up the practice:

‘Jessica Chavez had been working so hard, and for so long, that she had insufficient spare time to cut her hair in 9 months. She dropped 10% of her bodyweight. “It was unbearable after a while.”’

Jason Schrier’s excellent piece detailing the turbulent development of EA failure, Anthem, also unearthed some horrible consequences of crunch.  He notes that it was common for stress to result in employee breakdowns during Anthem’s crunch period. These incidents were colloquially referred to as a “stress casualty”.

“A ‘stress casualty’ at BioWare means someone has experienced a mental breakdown from the stress to the point “they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t.”

It should be noted that developers are not the only people made to suffer during these periods. ‘EA_Spouse’ wrote about witnessing the unethical and illegal treatment of her husband, resulting in a significant impact on his health. This catalysed class-action lawsuits against EA, which resulted in out-of-court settlements in the tens-of-millions.

This is the potential human cost of developmental crunch. The cost of project mismanagement.

Back to CDPR

This is not the first time CDPR working conditions have come under scrutiny. Notably, CDPR had to issue a statement in response to criticism of working conditions during the development of Witcher 3. The statement was not particularly reassuring, with co-founder, Marcin Iwinski, dispassionately stating that the culture and processes was “not for everyone”.

However, Iwinski did provide more reassurance to Kotaku last year, stating that they would be taking a “more humane” approach to development. For brevities sake, I’m going to give that admission of inhumane working conditions a wide berth.

A cursory glance at the CDPR Glassdoor page shows that any improvements have been minor. The overall consensus seems to be “too much pressure and no life” for poorer pay “compared to what other [game developer] companies in Warsaw pay.”

It’s not Inevitable, it’s Mismanagement

Suspecting Kicinski’s claim of crunch inevitability to be utter bullshit, I spoke with a former game developer (not affiliated with CDPR) with experience of crunch periods. In short, it is bullshit:

Q. What would you say contributes to crunch periods and why are they so prevalent in the industry?

A. “In my experience, it was usually unrealistic expectations and deadlines forced on us by publishers, but I guess in CDPR’s case they can’t claim that since they self-publish”

“I think feature creep is probably a big part of it, biting off more than you can chew or overpromising, but they probably do that because they operate under this assumption that they can work people 60 – 80 hours per week instead of budgeting for 40-hour weeks when they’re working out their timelines”

“I haven’t worked at any of the super huge developers but in my experience how it’d go is the people right at the top would promise these big things, then it’d trickle down to us and they’d be like  “you have to have this and this and this and this ready to go by this date” and it’d be up to us to try and find enough manpower to do it. The team leads and project managers down at my level were just as fucked over by it as anyone else”

Being “Optional” Doesn’t Mean it’s Optional

Q. Is Crunch mandatory?

“I was never explicitly asked or told to work more hours but it just comes down to, you’ve been given these tasks to do and it absolutely MUST be done by a certain date, theres absolutely no wiggle room and no plan B, so you don’t want to be the guy responsible for fucking up the game and not having your stuff done”

“So you just end up working the hours you need to work to get it done”

“Sure I guess its technically a choice, but really, you have no choice”

“I mean the ‘choice’ is between working long hours, or being the one responsible for a game not shipping, or it shipping broken; or someone else having to take on your stuff too and work even more hours. You don’t want that either”

Best of Intentions

One of the driving factors behind Kicinski making their statement public is that CDPR wanted staff to feel “comfortable refusing” overtime and requesting holidays. I don’t doubt the veracity of this statement, but it’s inconsistent with the reality of the situation. There are implicit pressures of not wanting to be the person responsible for a delay, or not wanting to offset the efforts of colleagues by taking time off. Presenting a friendly face to the media does no eliminate these. These are not eliminated by presenting a friendly face to the media.

These issues can’t be reversed until projects are managed adequately. Also, it should be pointed out that previous Glassdoor criticism of CDPR has been “incompetent management”.

CD Projekt Red want Cyberpunk 2077 to be their ” crowning achievement for this generation”. I want that too, but not at the expense of the health of those working tirelessly to reach that goal.

Something Needs to Change

Development crunch is something that pervades the industry. It’s something that has a profound impact on the mental and physical health of employees. Not to mention the impact that it has on the families of individuals having to bear witness to the impact of these expectations decisions.

Despite claims made by industry figureheads, such as Adam Kicinski, it’s not an inevitability. Crunch is something invented, and normalised, by humans in response to the mismanagement and unrealistic expectations inherent to current industry practices. It’s a top-down cultural issue perpetuated by key figures, such as Dan Houser, who seemingly boasted about overworking himself.

It can, and should, be resolved.  As Mike Morhaime said, ‘crunch is not sustainable‘.

Several industries have already had their ‘wake up’ moment in terms of worker rights – for example, the Holywood writers’ strike. The games industry had a partial wake-up call in 2016-2017. Voice actors, protected by the Screen Actors Guild (America), took industrial action against several gaming heavyweights to address the poor remuneration and treatment of voice actors.

It’s possible that that the industry will have a Shadow of War/Battlefront 2-like moment, where a tipping point is reached and public perception of the practice is permanently changed. Unless that happens, the source of this tipping point will need to come from within the industry.

Until that moment, the gaming community need to continue holding developers to account – yes, even the beloved CD Projekt Red.


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