Crunching To Write About Crunch
The grim reality of video game journalism
Journalists and gaming outlets have spent many years advocating for the fair treatment and rights of those who help develop the games they cover. From stories that cover the abysmal treatment of women at Riot Games and Activision-Blizzard to the torturous level of over-working required to ship Red Dead Redemption 2, Cyberpunk, and Anthem, the examples are numerous.
The collective games press has been largely responsible for breaking the stories and holding companies accountable for how they treat their employees. This unwanted media attention can affect sales and share prices. The efforts from these outlets provide an avenue for the industry to improve, for key figures to be held accountable, and for the general industry to become a more fair and comfortable place to work.
Yet there is a sad irony to all of this.
The games press themselves regularly suffer from the same working conditions they report on, specifically crunch.
What is crunch?
Crunch is a period of overworking to meet an unrealistic deadline. This can mean longer days and working on your weekend. Depending on what part of the industry you are in and what your working arrangement is, employers may not compensate you for this time.
Whilst overworking to meet and achieve an important milestone is something that happens in all industries from time to time, what often sets video game development and video game journalism apart is the fact that it is more often than not required to deliver the product on time. Deadlines are being set with crunch already included in the equation.
So how does this affect game journalism?
Meeting review embargo deadlines
Having a full review of a game by the time the embargo lifts is critical for core websites and YouTube outlets. It is a massive driver of views to their websites and by proxy a big revenue maker for them as they sell adverts based on the number of likely viewers.
So what happens when you or any other journalist in the field are given access to a game with a limited amount of time until the deadline strikes?
Due to the fact that most games are being worked (crunched) right until the day of release, with sometimes multiple day-one patches, what often results is the press receiving access to a game one to two weeks prior to release, often the former. In addition to that pressure, the embargo deadline is commonly a day or so before the game’s actual release date.
In that time the reviewer, and the staff needed to support them, must not only complete the game but compose a quality piece about it. This requires time and mental processing, which will also need to be peer-reviewed and edited by other members of the team. They also need time to correspond with the developer to bring forth questions and issues they may face in the game. There are no game guides online for them to look up (they've yet to be created), not to mention the games are often in a more buggy state than what consumers receive as they have not benefitted from day-one patches.
If you are a bigger outlet or a YouTube channel, you also need time to script, produce, and record gameplay footage for your video review.
Getting a forty-hour game a week before the embargo, when there are only forty hours in a normal work week, simply cannot be done without crunch.
This also becomes a bit of a paradox, where studios not confident in their game’s ability to obtain a good review, will provide access to the game later. Then, they set the embargo closer to the release date in hopes of reducing or even burying the outlets' ability to speak freely about the game. This is all in hopes of preventing such reviews from impacting sales. In those scenarios, these outlets almost certainly work harder for less return as the reviews have less peak time in the public eye.
Creating support content
Following on in the same vein as reviewing the game are the people responsible for making game guides and wikis. Sadly, these people have a harder job and are, as reported by Hirun Cryer on Episode 10 of the Games Press Podcast, often paid less and have less job security.
If you think it's hard to be given one to two weeks to fully review a game, try being the person who needs to write up where to find all the collectibles, which you need to first go find yourself...without a guide.
Often teams of people are needed to play the game at the same time in order to write guides on how to beat bosses, find hidden collectibles, solve puzzles, and fill in important game wiki information. While reviews offer a short-term spike in views, obviously petering out days after a game has launched, guide articles can live on for sometimes years.
Just because guide content lasts longer than review content doesn’t mean it’s not a race. You need to get Google to rank your content as early as possible. Day one of a game’s launch will have players googling “Where to find all 900 Korok seeds”, for example, within hours of the game going live. You need to get in early with Google to be one of the first links. This is why you will see so many outlets make placeholder articles to get Google’s algorithm ticking over early.
Cryer, in his podcast interview, also points out that some game publishers do not provide enough copies of their game early in the review window. Sometimes only one or two copies will be sent and always on their preferred platform (i.e. if the game runs best on PlayStation, they will only send out PlayStation copies).
The outlets do, especially if it is a big open-world game, try to request additional copies for this reason, but that request isn’t always granted. This places extra pressure on all those involved — reviewer, guide maker, video recorder — to use the small amount of time they have with the game wisely, often taking shifts with the limited copies they have. Taking shifts requires employees to work long hours in the office, with games tied to the physical hardware, thus adding to the crunch. You cannot work from home if the review copy is installed on the office’s Xbox and three other people are sharing it.
A real catch-22
These outlets are practically powerless to do anything in these scenarios as they hold little leverage in the relationship with developers and publishers. They are almost all in communication with actual people at the publishers, so one can assume they are repeatedly explaining their needs, yet they carry no stick. Refusing to cover a game because it came in late will cost the outlet money, which will impact the staff and their job stability. Boycotting one title could result in the publisher punishing them when it comes time for an even bigger title — which we have seen before.
You need to understand that this isn’t a relationship on the same footing or even the same page. The games press reviews a title out of a professional desire to ensure potential buyers know what they are getting into, especially if the game is quite bad. Game publishers do not give review codes because they also believe in that same professional desire. They do it because they use those outlets as free marketing.
Press outlets, in general, want to do the right thing, while the publishers want to do whatever will enable them to sell more copies. This de-incentivises publishers from doing the right thing for the outlet, especially now in the era of influencers who are more on the same level as the publishers. Both want to use each other to make more money. We’re even seeing, in some edge cases, influencers being given preferential treatment over traditional journalistic outlets.
While ten years ago, outlets were on the back foot with not many avenues to avoid crunch, today it has just gotten worse and they have even less of a leg to stand on. It wasn’t even that long ago that Bethesda went through a period of not giving early review codes whatsoever.
Covering live events
The crunch doesn’t stop there. For decades, live events such as E3 required basically a week of crunch. A day in the life of a major games press outlet would be to watch a press conference, then as announcements are made, race to get articles up on the website. Then as formal press releases come in, write additional articles. Once the formal conference ended, they would then go to a series of pre-booked one-on-one interviews with certain studios, developers, and studio heads to get hands-on experience with upcoming games or to ask key people questions, which are then turned into more content for the site. All of this is for readers who are eager to get any shred of new information about the just-announced game.
Outlets often take a boatload of staff to these things, set up ‘war rooms’ as a base of operations, and work from morning to night, every single day of the conference. Include a day of travel at either end and the commitment can be six to seven days of continuous working. It’s so common for staff to get sick after these events that it even has a nickname, the PAX-plague. Outlets anticipate and plan for staff to be sick after the shows.
Now of course, with the ESA (the agency responsible for E3) not doing a great job with E3 and the global pandemic, these past few years have been on the lighter side with full-blown conferences, but the building blocks are still there. December's Game Awards show was predominantly a games announcement opportunity, with some awards tucked into the margins. While we watched from the comfort of our own homes, staff at major outlets worked long hours to cover everything that had been announced. Not enough has changed about the industry to ensure that these days are behind us. As long as the industry meets under these conditions, gaming outlets will be forced to crunch to cover them.
Of course, I would be remiss to not mention that the games press is very vocal about how much they enjoy E3. That’s primarily because it’s one of the only times they meet their peers in the industry, making it a networking opportunity just as much as it is an event. The outlets do not have conventions just for them, as other industries do, and so they are forced to do their networking, collaborating, and catching-up at these events.
An unsustainable career
It should come as no surprise that these jobs are predominantly filled by younger people. The long hours and low pay are job characteristics that many people only tolerate early in their careers. Not to mention that up until quite recently a lot of gaming press outlets were located in San Francisco, the most expensive city on the planet. Not many can afford the combination of high rent and low salary.
The crux here is that these are desirable jobs. Many want the opportunity to have a career around gaming. There will never be a dearth of people willing to fill these roles, all of which gives individual staff workers even less bargaining power to demand better pay and/or more reasonable hours.
It's also a career with relatively little room to grow. Of course, Editor, Senior Editor, and Editor-in-Chief are common paths, along with management roles. However, these roles are few and far between, often being a dead-man's-shoes scenario. And in the past few years, outlets have been closing and/or consolidating faster than new ones are being stood up.
While the industry has grown and expanded over the years, this has not necessarily resulted in more career opportunities for writers. These outlets need developers, marketing and sales managers, more legal/finance/HR staff, and video and production specialists. The opportunities are there, provided you are wanting and are willing to change your career.
This is why a lot of the game press eventually sidestep out of the field, taking writing or advisory positions at adjacent companies like a game studio — or if they are big enough — going solo with their own brands like Greg Miller, Jeff Gerstmann, or the Nextlander crew.
I’d imagine that much of this is news to many readers. As we can see, with very few levers to change their situation, many in the industry are forced to suffer in silence, do their time, and grind their way to a better position.
Though my only parting line is that this isn’t right, I acknowledge that so much of the visible content we, the viewers, consume is made under stressful and dire conditions. With very little that we can do, boycotting articles would only punish the outlets. I ask that we all be a bit more mindful of what it takes to provide the content we consume.
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