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People management crisis hits video game industry


The high-stress “crunch” time on video game projects is affecting the wellbeing of employees in the industry.

The so-called crunch period typically refers to the final weeks of the video game development where there is intense time pressure, and employees – typically game developers – are required to work 100-hour weeks for no extra pay to meet deadline.

However, in the United States, this crunch period has been steadily extending in recent times, leading to accounts of stress, employee burnout and even mental breakdowns.

The situation has become so serious that Democrat presidential contender Bernie Sanders has weighed into the issue, strongly endorsing the gaming industry’s push to unionisation.

“The video game industry made $43 billion in revenue last year. The workers responsible for that profit deserve to collectively bargain as part of a union,” Sanders was reported as saying.

“Every game you like is built on the backs of workers,” said 34-year-old Nathan Allen Ortega, who believed he had found his dream job when Telltale Games offered him a position at its California headquarters.

But he was soon so stressed out by work that he developed an ulcer and started coughing up blood, it was reported in Time magazine.

According to Ortega, part of the problem was that project leaders would order game changes at the last minute, sending developers into overdrive.

“I was working with compromised games made by people killing themselves, to get them out the door month after month after month,” he said.

The brutal hours and job uncertainty that marred Telltale (the company closed in 2018) are by no means unique in the video game industry – according to a number of video game employees that spoke to Time.

“There’s a belief in the games industry that working in it is a privilege, and that you should be willing to do whatever it takes to stay there,” said Emily Grace Buck, previously employed at Telltale as a narrative designer.

In a telling revelation, the CEO of Rockstar Games – which publishes the enormously popular Red Dead Redemption 2 – boasted in an interview in 2018 that employees were working 100-hour weeks to complete the aforementioned game in time for its scheduled release date.

Reports are also emerging from the US that Blizzard – creator of World of Warcraft and one of the world’s biggest video games providers – is experiencing low employee morale and an exodus of top talent with claims that senior management doesn’t understand its company’s employees or the video game business in general.

Worse was to come for the industry, with Riot Games, which publishes League of Legends and has a global headcount of 2500, facing a string of allegations of sexism. So bad was the situation that in May, 150 employees downed keyboards and walked out on the game maker over the issue.

Interestingly, the issues in the US appear largely absent in Asia. Riot Games (acquired by Tencent in 2015) has a large team of developers in Hong Kong and the company has received overall positive reviews on Glassdoor.com from its local employees.

One video game industry expert Human Resources spoke to suggested the reason the problem appears to be worse in the US is due to the lucrative so-called triple “A” projects – the creation of new versions of the most popular video games where there is intense pressure to deliver the finished product on time.

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