Developers will have to crunch, and crunch hard, until Cyberpunk 2077 releases in November.
In 2019, before Cyberpunk 2077’s big E3 showing, CD Projekt Red requested an interview with Jason Schreier, then of Kotaku. Schreier, now with Bloomberg, is one of the industry’s foremost voices on video game labour and conditions, with a level of access many of us dream of.
In that conversation, which was published on Kotaku, CD Projekt Red co-founder Marcus Iwiński spoke of a “non-obligatory crunch policy” for developers working on Cyberpunk 2077, and promised that the developer, famed for its intense crunch on games like The Witcher 3, wanted “to be more humane and treat people with respect”.
Now, weeks out from the release of Cyberpunk 2077, Schreier reports that mandatory crunch is now in effect at CD Projekt Red, following an email from studio head Adam Badowski.
Per the Bloomberg article, quoted verbatim as Thumbsticks has not seen the email directly:
“Starting today, the entire (development) studio is in overdrive,” Badowski wrote, elaborating that this meant “your typical amount of work and one day of the weekend.” The extra work would be paid, as required by Polish labor laws. Many other video game studios don’t pay for overtime.
“I take it upon myself to receive the full backlash for the decision,” he wrote. “I know this is in direct opposition to what we’ve said about crunch. It’s also in direct opposition to what I personally grew to believe a while back — that crunch should never be the answer. But we’ve extended all other possible means of navigating the situation.”
It’s important to stress at this point that crunch is not simply “a bit of overtime”, as many armchair commentators on social media are quick to suggest. Crunch, in video game development terms, is the systematic failure of project management that leads to extended periods – weeks, months, or sometimes years – of development staff working horrific hours with no respite. That will often involve six- or seven-day weeks, evenings and weekends, totalling 60-, 70-, or 80-hour weeks. Week in, week out. For months. Delays to release dates, which you might think offer a reprieve, often simply extend and elongate the crunch.
CD Projekt Red is always keen to point out that – as per Polish labour law – crunch is paid overtime for its employees, reportedly time-and-a-half for evenings and double-time for weekends. This sounds brilliant to our American friends and colleagues, who – far removed from the sorts of working time protections we enjoy in the EU – might have to perform similar crunch with no additional remuneration, only holding onto the vague promise of bonuses should the game perform well upon release.
And for an odd evening here or there, or the weekend before release, that would be fine. That would just be regular overtime.
But when crunch is a culture and lasts for months – or years – it’s no wonder that burnout is endemic in this industry and attrition rates are so high. It’s also often referred to as “optional” but there is a tacit expectation that everyone must crunch; just look at Rockstar, where the Housers reportedly expected everyone to be working if they were, and they were always working. Nobody wants to be seen as letting their teammates down when everyone else is suffering together, missing their families, struggling with their mental health and exhaustion.
Crunch is far from the only issue with Cyberpunk 2077, with questions around the game’s use of racial stereotypes, cultural appropriation, and attitudes towards transgender people circling since that E3 demo. And no doubt people will still buy it in droves. A large portion of the gaming public simply won’t care about the cultural harm or the conditions its developers face. Or, at least, will care less about that than their desire to play the hot new video game. Some will see working on a game like Cyberpunk 2077 as such a “dream job” that people should suffer any poor conditions with a smile.
But we once thought that the food industry wouldn’t change, as was the case with battery-farmed eggs. Then, when the public stopped buying them in favour of higher-welfare options, the industry changed its ways. The same is true of the cosmetics industry and the growth of cruelty-free products with the “Leaping Bunny” accreditation, or the market for ethically-sourced produce with certifications like “Fairtrade” or “Rainforest Alliance”.
These campaigns prove that when the public votes with its feet – or more to the point, with its wallet – then the industry of production can change.