There's a recent marketing trend going on where companies like Respawn, Nintendo, and Bungie put a positive spin on delays or long waits for new content by saying it will mean less crunch for the development team. Naughty Dog joined the club this week.
And to be fair, these crunch-reducing delays might actually be as advertised. But game companies that say they need to polish a game aren't necessarily taking that reputational and financial hit so their developers can work a 9-to-5 Monday-to-Friday gig in a low-stress environment.
Delays—particularly if they come when a team would already likely be crunching to meet a near-term release window—could just as easily mean an extension of crunch. Sure, the peak hours worked might drop a bit, but it's more like turning a sprint to the finish into something closer to a marathon. And of course, there's a good chance that marathon will become a sprint again as the finish line approaches.
For one particularly pointed example, we can go back to 2009, when Take-Two delayed the original Red Dead Redemption and Mafia 2 "to allow additional development time for the titles and to maximise their full potential in terms of the quality of the player experience and market performance." Months later, the Rockstar Spouse letter dropped, detailing a deteriorating work environment with mandatory 12-hour work days six days a week and management repeatedly promising that periods of intense crunch would be followed by a "deceleration" and return to reasonable working hours.
"This is not being practiced though, and instead of valued employees, a sentiment grows that they have lost not only the sense of being valued but turned into machines as they are slowly robbed of their humanity," the anonymous partners of Rockstar developers said. "The managers at Rockstar San Diego continue in their dishonesty, pushing their employees to the brink promising temporariness fully equipped with the knowledge of another deadline just around the corner."
That letter was released in January of 2010. Rockstar would delay Red Dead Redemption one more time after that, and finally launch it that May, about 14 months after the point where the Rockstar Spouse letter said the studio ramped up crunch conditions.
Regardless of whether or not these recent delays actually have made working conditions better for the developers involved, at the very least we have big companies recognizing that crunch is a bad look, and treating employees well can win points with the player base and take the edge off some delay-inspired anger. In a best-case scenario, that leads to a healthier, more sustainable industry in the future. And in the worst-case scenario, they still crunch people hard, but the hypocrisy spurs some of those overworked developers to go public and let people know what was really going on, which hurts the reputation of the game and the company, makes it harder for them to recruit employees, and gives future installments of This Week in the Business more of those sweet, sweet juxtapositions that lay bare the gulf between what people say and what they do.
As fun as those can be, I'm still pulling for the best-case scenario.
QUOTE | "At this point we were faced with two options: compromise parts of the game or get more time. We went with the latter, and this new release date allows us to finish everything to our level of satisfaction while also reducing stress on the team." - Naughty Dog director Neil Druckmann explains why The Last of Us Part 2 has been delayed from its recently announced February 21 date and will now launch May 29.
QUOTE | "There's people who never go home and see their families. They have children who are growing up without seeing them. I didn't have my own kids. I chose my career in lots of ways, and I could be single-minded like that. When I was making sacrifices, did it affect my family? Yes, but it was primarily affecting me and I could make that choice. But when I look at other people... I mean, my health really declined, and I had to take care of myself, because it was, like, bad. And there were people who, y'know, collapsed, or had to go and check themselves in somewhere when one of these games were done. Or they got divorced. That's not okay, any of that. None of this is worth that." - In 2016, Amy Hennig talked about the "notorious" crunch at Naughty Dog, saying in her decade-plus at the studio, she doesn't think she ever worked less than 80 hours a week.
STAT | 29% - The amount of value Ubisoft shares lost overnight after the publisher announced that it had delayed three games—Watch Dogs: Legion, Gods & Monsters, Rainbow Six Quarantine—from early 2020 into the middle of its next fiscal year (July 2020 - December 2020). Additionally, a fourth title, Skull & Bones, has been delayed into the fiscal year beginning April 1, 2021.
QUOTE | "We have no pay-to-win elements in our games, and what we can say there is that [this is] the philosophy we have for all our games, but it has to be linked to more events, more content for players to play longer." - Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot explains the company's philosophy regarding monetization.
QUOTE | "These items were designed as an optional way for players arriving later to the game (post-launch) to catch up with those who have been playing for longer and enjoy our co-op and challenging end-game experiences." - Ubisoft, earlier this month, explaining why it was selling skill points, experience boosters, and weapon upgrades for Ghost Recon Breakpoint. After players complained, it removed those options from sale "for now."
QUOTE | "What we did was give more options at the beginning of Breakpoint. We understand it has been seen as too big a store and that it was really not appreciated at all, but it came from the fact that players were spending time in the store and buying things in Wildlands, and our teams thought they could give them the opportunity to have more choice." - Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot, in the same interview as above, explaining that aggressive monetization and pay-to-win mechanics are simply "giving people the opportunity to have more choice."
QUOTE | "The funny thing is, I always used to think that if you monetise your audience too hard, they'll leave the game. But it's actually the other way around. Our retention rates for paid users in this game [Transformers: Earth War]—30-day retention for paid users—is 85%. So once they start spending, they don't leave. They want to stay in the game and preserve their investment, and when they stay in the game, they spend more." - Yodo1 CEO Henry Fong, speaking at Game Connect Asia Pacific about player behavior in games. Fong created an algorithm to identify potential whales after two weeks of play that he says is 87% accurate (though he believes that can be improved to 95% accuracy). To give an idea of how big a whale can be, he said one Transformers player spent more than $150,000 on the game.
QUOTE | "We were like, 'Man, we're giving you everything, isn't that cool?' but players were like, 'No, we still want to open stuff and progress.' So about a year ago, we shifted models." - Legends of Runeterra game designer and live balance lead Steve Rubin explains that Riot Games received negative feedback from players when it tried to come up with a business model that didn't rely on exploitative monetization and loot box mechanics.
QUOTE | "You feel like it's a waste of money... and then you open more." - Nick, a 16-year-old FIFA player, talks about opening FIFA Ultimate Team booster packs in an article from the U.K. Children's Commissioner, which this week called for a ban on the sale of non-cosmetic items to children.
QUOTE | "A fully physics-simulated game is one of the Holy Grails of game creation since Trespasser was being imagined 20-something years ago, and now we finally have a platform where we'll be able to deliver some of those experiences." - In a possible case of poetic foreshadowing, Stadia Games & Entertainment head Jade Raymond invokes a technically ambitious yet notoriously disappointing product while promoting Google's on-demand game streaming platform.
QUOTE | "Our goal for Dreams is to last for 20 years, and keep expanding it and keep adding to it and keep improving it." - Media Molecule co-founder Kareem Ettouney says the studio has big plans for Dreams that will see the creation tool go far beyond Sony's PlayStation ecosystem.