Gamescom and Tokyo Game Show, like E3, are the premier gaming conventions for hundreds of thousands of developers, fans, and industry professionals working in Europe and Japan. Both shows bring a wide range of people together, from independent developers living in Sweden to powerhouse studios with thousands of employees in Osaka.
Like other major gaming conferences, little respect is paid to topics outside the most marketable narratives that publishers want to push. Bringing up labor issues can lead to an abrupt end to an interview, but it’s vital to continue to build on the conversations we had at E3, and our continuing coverage of crunch culture and other unfair practices in the industry.
Layoffs, studio closures, and crunch have felt like a daily occurrence in the United States. With companies like Rockstar pushing employees to work constant sixty hour work weeks and Telltale laying off the majority of their staff with little notice and no severance, it's important to keep unfair labor practices in the spotlight so we can work to fix them.
What follows are eight interviews with members of the game industry, from Japanese studios with thousands of employees to a 50-person team in Italy to a two-person studio in Sweden. Many were very open about the challenges that crunch brings to game development while others didn’t want to answer at all. We spoke to the Japanese developers via translators.
Jon Bloch, executive producer on Metro Exodus
One thing we’re focusing on across the show is labor practices in the industry. Looking at how studios deal with crunch, reaching a healthy work-life balance, and other issues. Does 4A Games make any specific effort to help combat crunch and make sure employees are treated fairly?
Bloch: It’s kind of hard to live on an island like Malta and not have a good sense of work-life balance. We do work really hard as a studio, but we don’t do crunch at all. We try to have a sense of self management when it comes to our schedule. People may work extra hours but that has to be a personal choice to make something they’re working on better. We don’t schedule extra hours, although it does happen.
Once you schedule or tell people that they have overtime, you’re setting yourself up for failure. If you work to schedule things early, have everyone agree on it, and bring in that sense of individual responsibility then you’re in a much better situation.
Are there instances with you, as a leader on the team, say “hey I know we all have the same passion, but this can wait until Monday.”
Bloch: That sort of thing is easier said than done when you have a studio full of passionate people. It can happen when we have a company event, we can get people to leave their desks and go relax and spend time together. But when you really care about something, and when you’re in the middle of it, you don’t want to put it down—you want to make it better.
Like our creative director saw the smoke coming out of the train in the Red Dead Redemption 2 announcement trailer and said “Oh I have to go back and make ours better!” It’s a healthy, competitive nature when your on the forefront of technology and visual excellence like we are.
It’s also one of those things that’s a never ending rabbit hole as well, because it’s never really going be done. Like those sayings about art where you’re never really finished. That stays true for everyone at the studio.
Hokuto Okamoto (producer) and Takeshi Uchikawa (game director) on Dragon Quest XI
I wanted to ask about how you, as a Japanese developer, deal with crunch—putting in long days, sacrificing weekends, putting a lot of other parts of your life on hold in order to meet a deadline. I’m not sure if crunch is a familiar term in Japan, but have you had to deal with it? Is there anything you try and do to avoid it?
Okamoto: Oh we deal with it.
One of the things I’m very aware of is that the final product is not going to be everything I wanted from A to Z. So what I do in the creation process is tell my team ‘these are the most important things that you cannot leave out,’ and other than that I leave the rest to the people on the ground allowing them to make decisions with their own judgement.
And on top of that, from a game development point of view, one important thing we did was use an Unreal engine plugin. We didn’t redo any part of the engine for this game, since if you do that you will have to upgrade other things as well. You end up with a bunch of bugs with no idea where they are coming from. It’s a month long process, or sometimes more, at times. Going with something that was stable helped keep the end from being total punishment.
Uchikawa: At some points we didn’t even stop at 12 hours. We made sure the people on the ground went home, but for us checking the game is what takes the most time so it required a big time investment.
I know you said you made sure to send your team home to prevent them from working the same long hours that you do, is there anything specific you do to help them maintain a healthy work-life balance?
Okamoto: That’s just the way the company works, it’s Square Enix’s stance.
Uchikawa: Speaking from a developer perspective, most members of the team joined as fans. They love the series, they play it, and they have really strong motivations. They are also used to making the series, since many of them have done it for years over several iterations. So there is a strong team cohesion to make the game as good as we possibly can in the time provided. So obviously we worked a lot—but that cohesion helped us keep each other in check.
Okamoto: Long hours do happen, deadlines are deadlines and things need to get done. In our case, and this might be something that’s unique to our development process, everything we make goes to Yurisan for checking. If he says ‘oh this is no good’ then we have to go back and remake it, that’s our biggest deadline.
I think it’s good that some of your team members joined Square Enix as fans of the game, but are you worried about any of them overworking themselves out of passion? Putting in tons of extra hours that might make their health suffer or even harm the quality of the work they put into the game?
Okamoto: I don’t understand, how could them putting in more work hurt the quality?
I think it’s been made pretty clear that there is a limit to how much someone should work, and that the quality of that work will suffer if they push themselves too hard. I think what I was trying to say was is there anything you do to make sure their passion isn’t manipulated? Even if it’s not intentional?
Uchikawa: Square Enix would never do anything like that, although sometimes we will say ‘if you love the game, are you really ok with being this quality?’
Okamoto: You know, that happens with big companies. They aren’t perfect. But as far as our company is concerned, we’ve done everything possible to make sure we don’t end up like them.
Can you talk about what you’ve done specifically?
Okamoto: It’s quite different in terms of when teams will have to face crunch. For example the designers will face situations like that early on but there will be periods when they aren’t that busy as well. We try to make sure teams that aren’t as pressed with work take extra time off to rest.
Do you think crunch is a serious problem in Japan?
Uchikawa: Japan does have a problem with long hours. We are aware that it’s a big issue.
Do you think game development is possible without crunch?
Uchikawa: There are ways that game development will get better as tech gets better like using AI to tackle bugs.
But I think things have changed over time, especially with the making of Dragon Quest 1. There was talk of people staying up all night to make the game. I looked at that when I was younger and thought it was so cool. But when I actually got in the industry and I looked at it from a business perspective there were so many things I had to take into account. All the checks that need to occur and all the things that every individual developers dealt with outside of work in their personal life. I think a really important thing to do when creating a game is to make a proper schedule, think things through, and make sure people can continue with their own lives outside work.
I don’t think there is a need to stay up all night and make games anymore. However for me personally, when it’s absolutely necessary to make the game better I will do it.
Oskar Stålberg, designer of Bad North
One thing I’m doing across the show is asking developers from all over the region, from small indie teams to huge companies, about crunch and other labor practices in the industry. How big is your team?
Stålberg: It’s me and Richard Meredith on the main team, we started the company. We contract out audio.
As an indie team, how do you keep on top of your work and avoid crunch? Is there anything you do to try and avoid it?
Stålberg: It’s a lot of work when it happens. It's a shame. I used to work for Ubisoft and when we had to do crunch I could blame someone up the hierarchy from me. But now it’s harder, it takes a lot of work to make a game and sometimes planning doesn’t pan out or it takes you longer to do something than you anticipated.
It can be fun for a short period, working really intensively for two weeks or something. It can be a bit of ‘ok let’s do this.’ We had a bit of a period in Springtime where we were just gonna ship the first version of to the consoles where we had a lot of weekends and evenings with little time to do anything else.
Is there anything you can do to avoid situations like that? Any advice looking back on it now?
Stålberg: That’s tough. I don’t know, just take more time. The thing is, you can take a lot of time but that might mean that you develop things slower. If you have a deadline that’s far off you might not be the most focused. Maybe we could be better at planning, I’m not the best at planning.
You still need to sleep properly and you probably should workout once a while. There are things you can compromise with, but you can’t compromise your health. It’s easier to make these sacrifices when you’re in a better place, when you stay healthy.
Is it possible to make the game you want without crunch?
Stålberg: Oh totally. It’s possible. I’m not entirely sure how but I’m sure it’s possible.
Obviously the more money you have the longer you can have to work, but as you build more experience you get better at anticipating problems and building out proper schedules.
There are differences between what I’m doing now and how I’m working on Ubisoft. When I was there it was always my leads who would tell me to go home when I looked tired. At a company like that you can work hard, but there is always someone to throw it too. In the end if it fails its not your fault, it’s someone higher up. But here, when it's just us, there is no one I can kick it to. If I don’t do my thing it’s not going to happen. With a project like Bad North, crunch takes a little less of a toll since we care about it.
Francesco Antolini (game director) and Maria St Martin (systems designer) on Just Cause 4
One thing we’re asking everyone, in order to try and capture a larger look at the industry in Europe, is about crunch and how it effects game development. How has Avalanche, as a Swedish studio with your office in New York, dealt with crunch in the past?
Antolini : As a company we’re very careful about work-life balance. This is a characteristic of Swedish culture in general and something that happens with Avalanche, so we actually don’t practice crunch. There are urban legends you hear when you get into the industry so you’ll know which companies look at crunch as a normalcy, and we avoid those.
St Martin: The industry is still relatively small and we all talk to each other, so we know about which companies don’t have our best interests in mind with crunch.
Is that a whisper network, or something different?
St Martin: Well we won’t talk about it all the time. We all have friends that work at different studios and when we meet up we ask each other about how we’re doing. Sometimes crunch gets brought up then if it’s happening, but it’s not a general topic of conversation. Like I said, the industry, in general and not just Europe or Sweden, is very small so when you burn one bridge with anyone that’ll get spread around.
Motohiro Okubo, producer on Soulcalibur VI
I’m having a lot of conversations throughout the show about labor issues, specifically crunch. Do you have any ways in which you deal with it during development?
Luckily, even as a Japanese company, we don’t see the effects of crunch on Soulcalibur VI. Japan does have an issue with people working long hours constantly. Working conditions are getting better, but they are still a big issue here.
Is there anything specific you do to help combat it on your team?
The first thing of course is to send them home and not let them work late. [laughs]
As a producer it's my job to monitor that and to make sure they aren't overworking. The other thing I try to do is give clear directions so my team doesn’t have to worry about where to go and what to do. I try to make scheduling and directions clear so they can work without thinking they’ll need to stay late.
The problem with that is the developers always want to experiment and try new things. Of course that’s a good thing most of the time, but I try to make sure no one has to worry about whether or not they should do something. I’m upfront about them being able to talk to me about anything so they don’t feel the need to overwork.
Is it ever about making sure experimentation, especially when its something a developer is passionate about, is limited so developers don’t work late even if they want to?
Yeah, you’re right. Most of our team joined the project because they really wanted to make Soulcalibur. Many of them believe they need to work hard for themselves, so in that way I trust them and I give them a lot of decision making power. The whole point of giving them that is so they don’t work hard, so if they get sick from overwork it misses the whole point.
That relationship and trust makes it easy to keep the team motivated, but then the challenge is making sure they don’t work too hard, which is a unique challenge I still struggle with.
Luca Gafasso, game designer on Ride 3
Let’s switch gears for a second and talk about some labor issues, like crunch, that have been a focus in the industry recently. I wanted to ask you about how you deal with that as a part of game development as a member of a mid-sized Italian studio.
Gafasso: Of course. It does come up, especially when there are issues before launch. But because we specialize in motorbike simulation, even if our production takes a hit we’ve started to optimize the pipeline. So once we develop something good, we can reuse that in other games because the genre allows for that.
But even with that, like when something breaks after launch or something needs to get fixed for competitive players, our community wants things fixed right away. So developers do have to do a lot of extra work if something's off.
What about things outside the optimization you mentioned? Does Milestone have any other programs or focuses that help with employee work-life balance?
Gafasso: Not specifically, but we don’t really have crunch at my studio. The company is aware when developers work too much and they have solutions to help combat burnout, like we get some Mondays off.
Sometimes it’s the developers that try to much and give more than they need to. We have to tell them not to work from home at 3 a.m. It happens often when people connect from home, so the company doesn’t know their working. Milestone doesn’t want that, they want work hours to stay normal.
Kazunori Kadoi (game director) and Tsuyoshi Kanda (Producer) on Resident Evil 2
One of things we’re doing across the show is looking at how different studios deal with crunch. Working long days, evenings, weekends, to make a certain deadline. In some cases putting your personal life on hold for work. I’m sure you’ve dealt with it during development, is there anyway you try to combat it?
Kanda: Most times when you have the master submission of the game you’re right up against the deadline. We try to obey company guidelines in terms of working excessive amounts but sometimes we eat into weekends, do extra work, and those sorts of things. It’s up to us as producers to figure out how to manage our resources effectively. We do have to get more out of people at times like that, but we can’t push them beyond their limits. It’s really about effective resource management.
Kadoi: It’s not like we’re camping out of the office at that point, or those other horror stories you hear. But you do have to ramp it up and work hard sometimes. I think also, back in the day, games were developed on a much shorter cycle so that last stretch at the end was this massive nightmare. Games these days take three or four years so that one crunch at the end is divided up into smaller milestones on projects. You’re spreading it out which I think is healthier than what it used to be.
Even if it’s spread out like that, is crunch still an expectation no matter what?
Kadoi: I suppose so, but you can make it better. For example the engine we’re using for Resident Evil is designed for speedy iteration and trial and error which reduces trouble down the road since we aren’t locked in to a certain decision. We’re in a good place where we can iterate quickly and make mistakes early. If you don’t do that you may have to backtrack on your work which can lead to unexpected crunch time.
You mentioned company rules regarding excessive work, can you talk more about what those are?
Kanda: Not specific to the company, every country has rules about how many hours you can work. We take care and try to stick to those rules.
The bigger you get as a company the easier those infractions are to notice. You’ve got more people involved, there is a big HR department whose job it is to keep everyone working sanely and keeping a work-life balance intact. You can’t just get away with it since it’s very noticeable.
That’s not to say it’s something we want to get away with though. There are good systems in place to keep us in check. We can work hard when we need to but stay healthy at the same time.
(PR: Do you have any more questions about RE2 specifically?)
I do, but I wasn’t finished with this topic.
(PR: Because that’s mostly what they’re here for so please steer it back to that. They’re here to talk about the game)
Kazutoki Kono, producer on Ace Combat 7: Skies Unknown
Something else we’re trying to with everyone we speak too is labor issues in the industry-crunch, unionization, those types of things. Have there been any instances where your team had to crunch while working on Ace Combat? Are there things you did to combat it for your team?
Kono: It's a holiday season in Japan during August and the fall festivals. A lot of people on my team went on holiday. So it looks like they are taking their annual leave properly. I just sent an important email out to a team member and he hasn’t checked it because he’s in Hawaii. [laughs]
I’m not sure if work-life balance is a term there, but outside vacations is there anything you do to try to make sure work doesn’t encroach on other parts of your teams lives?
Kono: Bandai Namco works a lot on work-life balance actually. For example, I have one day a month where the company has me to go out and do something non-work related. So even if I’m incredibly busy I spend one day doing anything I want. Sometimes I watch a film or go to the theater to free up my view. That’s given to every staff member.
Also, something that’s different now compared to the old days, no one works late into the night. So when the time comes the lights just goes off and everyone has to leave.
You have more than just one day off a month right?
Kono: Yeah, that’s on top of weekends and such.
Do you see crunch being a problem in the Japanese game industry? Outside Bandai Namco?
Kono: The Japanese government has a policy of work reform. So other developers have seem to have changed. Now it feels like our industry focuses on how to make the little time we have most effective.
And I don’t think the game industry is the one that pushed the new policies. Historically people in Japan have had the ‘never give up’ spirit. I think as a country we just realized that you have to be healthy to really do anything.
Do you think those policies have really had an impact?
In my personal opinion if you don’t rest or have interesting experiences outside work you will make something that’s boring. If you want to make something interesting you need to have a break and refresh yourself.
Although, I think the people who want to make interesting products are always thinking about how to improve. Those passionate people are working 24 hours a day, just not in the way we’re talking about.
All interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.