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Sony’s Decision about The Last of Us Remake Should be a Reminder about why “Crunch” is still a Big Problem

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If there’s one story that’s prevalent in coverage of the games industry, it’s the idea of “crunch.”

For those who might not know, “crunch” is what happens when game studios, usually high-profile ones like Bioware or Naughty Dog, under a deadline, frequently have their employees working 90-hour weeks, putting aside all other commitments, and even suffering extreme bouts of stress to get a game out the door.

Jason Schreier has covered the topic extensively in his “Blood, Sweat, and Pixels” book, which I highly recommend. It details some frequent problems teams that gave us Uncharted 4, Stardew Valley, and Halo Wars have run into. The response to some of these investigative pieces have prompted big names in the industry to swear they’ll do better, but often times end up in the same position, usually with less of the talent they had previously due to burnout.

But what, exactly, is the cause of crunch? We certainly experience it in other fields, like in the startup world (I myself have had long 70-hour weeks and given up weekends to deliver on some software releases), but it seems especially extreme in the games world.

Some could say higher risk, higher reward. But as we’ve seen lately, several high profile members of other industries are pointing the finger at one place: those at the top.

I heard a pretty interesting discussion between Nolan North and Phil LaMarr, two pretty prolific names in the voice-over industry, about racism. LaMarr’s perspective was pretty insightful, as he seemed to state that in a perfect world, the race of the actor wouldn’t matter, but that we don’t live in a perfect world. The most insightful thing he said that’s relevant to this topic resonates especially well: “don’t blame the actors, blame the producers.”

Similarly, regarding his very telling interview with Vanity Fair about his experience on Justice League, Chris Terrio details how so much of what was wrong with the whole production was dictated by people at the top. They wanted a much darker take on the costumed heroes, demanded certain characterizations, and even mandated a specific running time – an especially impossible ask for a movie about several big name heroes with no preceding intro movie. Terrio’s frustration seems to stem from how much everyone lambasted his writing and the direction of Zack Snyder, even though they did their best to deliver on impossible tasks. Did the producers of the film see any blowback? Not nearly as much as the creative team did.

This is a pretty disturbing parallel with the games industry, Sony in particular.

Sony’s previous generations (specifically the eras of the PS3 and PS4) were rife with some really original IPs. This was the company that gave us memorable experiences in Uncharted, The Last of Us, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Until Dawn, and Astro Bot Rescue Mission. All franchises that were new and unique in their own rights.

Now however, it seems Sony is pushing their existing IPs to the detriment of their studios, and demanding nothing short of complete excellence.

Days Gone, while not the most beloved title, still sold well. Even if it didn’t land with critics right away, the iterative nature of game development means that companies have the ability to get it right with a follow-up sequel. Did Uncharted 2 build on the promise of the first game while adding new and interesting set pieces? Did Resident Evil 4 take the most recognizable series conventions and reinvent them into an immersive and quality experience? Did Bioware do a fuckton on things wrong in the first Mass Effect, setting all of them right in the sequel while building on what people loved?

If your answer to any of the previous questions is “yes,” then it’s clear that sequels can and should be second chances for studios to get right what they don’t with their first outing on an original IP.

But in Sony’s eyes, they don’t. Original IPs should always sell high above expectations, receive universal critical praise, win all of the awards, and be overall exceptional.

With this kind of mindset mandated to all studios under their umbrella, why wouldn’t studios be forced to burn every one of their employees out trying to meet impossible standards?

Blame the producers. Blame the people at the top. Don’t let the creative individuals keep taking the responsibility for the problems given to them from on high.