Last E3, Microsoft announced it was acquiring Playground Studios. It was partially a shock because on some level, the Forza Horizon series developer already felt like a first-party studio. Still, Playground joined Microsoft's Xbox Game Studios roster, and in 2017, had already opened up a second studio for another triple-A game. Forza Horizon 4, the first seasonally structured game in the series, has been an endless race of updates, but the studio heads have ensured a healthy work environment.
In an interview with our friends at GamesIndustry.biz, studio director Gavin Raeburn says despite the constant updates every four weeks for each season change, the studio has worked very hard to remove crunch. "It's not something we see as having a place in modern development, and we work very hard to minimise it or remove it completely," Raeburn tells GI.biz. "With the live service, our policy on that is, if we're heading towards a milestone and work cannot be completed in time, we will move it to the next milestone rather than crunch the team to meet that [deadline]."
"The tax for doing a live program isn't so much long hours, late nights, or the things you'd typically think of as crunch. It's just that it's always going," says creative director Ralph Fulton. "Game development is intense and then relaxed, intense then relaxed—it's a cycle. With a live service, there's something you need to do every day."
There is still pressure to work endlessly though, especially when compounded with fan pressure on the internet. "[The team] felt a real pressure to deliver for the fans. But we've been quite clear with them that, because the live service could theoretically run forever, crunch cannot be an option," says Fulton. "And they've avoided it for the period that they've been doing live service."
In the interview, Playground Games also talk more about its second studio that it opened in 2017, of which it has hired about 60 people, with plans to expand to 200. The second studio is working on an unnamed open-world game, which was reported in 2018 to be an unannounced Fable game.
The epidemic of crunch in the games industry has been a huge topic in the past couple years. Rockstar Games, Telltale Games, Epic Games, and many more have all had heavy allegations of unhealthy work environments surface in widespread reports. Some studios have taken the once industry standard practice to heart, and have sought to reevaluate its practices, including CD Projekt Red and now Playground Games.
Playground Games will likely make some sort of appearance at E3 2019 this year, whether it's a tease for whatever the second studio is working on or a Forza Horizon 4 update of some sort. For more on E3, check out our full E3 2019 schedule guide for all the conference times and other coverage.