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cubicles with Fortnite llamas at desks Source Images: iStock, Epic Games | Illustration: Ross Miller/Polygon

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How Fortnite’s success led to months of intense crunch at Epic Games

Sources reveal long hours and intense pressure while working on hit game

The popularity of Fortnite has been transformative for Epic Games. But the game’s explosive growth led to months of intense crunch for Epic employees and contractors, some of whom say they felt extreme pressure to work grueling hours to maintain Fortnite’s success and profitability, resulting in a toxic, stressful environment at the company.

In a dozen interviews conducted by Polygon over a period of several months, current and former employees say they regularly worked in excess of 70-hour weeks, with some reporting 100-hour weeks. Contract staff in Epic’s quality assurance and customer service departments spoke of a stressful and hostile working environment in which working overtime — while officially voluntary — was an expected service to the company.

Although contract staff were paid overtime, developers report a culture of fear, in which they were expected to pull long hours as part of their job. Some reported suffering health issues after working consecutive months of 70-hour weeks.

Crunch is the name given to working intense overtime, sometimes for stretches that last weeks or months. In the game industry specifically, it was generally associated with the period leading up to a game’s launch. But in the age of early access releases, post-launch updates, downloadable content, and games as a service, crunch can be a constant problem.

Some, such as Game Workers Unite, are calling for game industry workers to unionize in order to protect their rights. Many workers in the game industry are hired as contractors, further limiting their rights.

Epic launched Fortnite Battle Royale in September 2017 as a free game, in which 100 players are dropped onto an island, fighting one another until only one remains. The game followed the summer release of Fortnite: Save the World, in which teams of players work together, gathering loot to fend off zombie hordes. While Epic spent years developing Save the World, the game’s original incarnation, the company rushed Battle Royale to market in response to the success of PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds on Windows PC and its impending release on consoles.

Fortnite Battle Royale quickly became a cultural phenomenon, earning Epic millions of dollars per day, and funding rapid growth at the company. It is currently the most popular game in the world, especially among children. Its regular updates, including new weapons and map alterations, are followed avidly by millions of players and fans. In a matter of months, some of Fortnite’s top streamers have become multimillionaires.

Fortnite Battle Royale is part of a broad trend in gaming, known as “games as a service,” in which popular titles are constantly updated with new modes, skins, weapons, and characters to keep the audience playing. This transition away from hard launches of singular products creates a rolling series of deadlines for game makers.

Polygon interviewed current and former employees of Epic, including full-time staff, managers, and contractors working in development, QA, and customer service departments. They all requested that their identities be protected, for fear of retribution from Epic or other employers in the game industry. Epic requires that current and former staff sign nondisclosure agreements limiting their ability to speak about the company’s operations.

“I work an average 70 hours a week,” said one employee. “There’s probably at least 50 or even 100 other people at Epic working those hours. I know people who pull 100-hour weeks. The company gives us unlimited time off, but it’s almost impossible to take the time. If I take time off, the workload falls on other people, and no one wants to be that guy.

“The biggest problem is that we’re patching all the time. The executives are focused on keeping Fortnite popular for as long as possible, especially with all the new competition that’s coming in.”

A representative for Epic conceded that workers had endured extreme working hours. “People are working very hard on Fortnite and other Epic efforts,” said a spokesperson in an email interview. “Extreme situations such as 100-hour work weeks are incredibly rare, and in those instances, we seek to immediately remedy them to avoid recurrence.”

But meeting player demand and maintaining the game’s momentum has forced some to endure ongoing crunch.

“The executives keep reacting and changing things,” said the source. “Everything has to be done immediately. We’re not allowed to spend time on anything. If something breaks — a weapon, say — then we can’t just turn it off and fix it with the next patch. It has to be fixed immediately, and all the while, we’re still working on next week’s patch. It’s brutal.

“I hardly sleep. I’m grumpy at home. I have no energy to go out. Getting a weekend away from work is a major achievement. If I take a Saturday off, I feel guilty. I’m not being forced to work this way, but if I don’t, then the job won’t get done.”

Epic said that the sudden success of Fortnite Battle Royale had created difficulties. “Fortnite achieved a far higher level of success than we had ever anticipated,” said a spokesperson. “Everybody throughout Epic responded to the success with incredible vigor and commitment. The Fortnite team rapidly expanded the game to grow the audience; the Unreal Engine team began a broad effort to optimize for 60fps and support seven platforms; others throughout the company moved to Fortnite to maintain momentum.”

According to multiple sources, workers at Epic operate on an implicit understanding that working crunch is an expected part of their role. This attitude toward crunch has become a trend in the AAA game industry, and is routinely cited in reporting on crunch at other studios.

“I know some people who just refused to work weekends, and then we missed a deadline because their part of the package wasn’t completed, and they were fired,” said another source. “People are losing their jobs because they don’t want to work these hours.”

Another source said: “I’ve had friends come to me and say, ‘I can’t take this anymore.’ I’ve had friends break down in tears. The crunch is constant.”

“We worked, typically, 50- or 60-hour weeks and upwards of 70-hour weeks on occasion,” one source who worked as a contractor in QA said. “If I got to the end of an eight-hour workday and I turned to my supervisor to ask if I needed to stay on, they’d often look at me as if I was actively stupid. Officially, you don’t have to keep working, but in reality: ‘Sit back down, we’ll be here for a while.’ If you did not do overtime, that was a mark against your character.”

Another source said that contractors who declined to work long hours were often replaced. “You’re on a contract. It could be three months, it could be a year. But if you don’t do the extra work, it’s most likely that your contract won’t be renewed.”

“All [management] wanted was people who are disposable,” said a source. “The situation was, ‘Come in and do as many hours as we need you.’ They put the contractors in a situation where if they don’t do that overtime, they know they’re not coming back.

“One senior guy would say, ‘Just get more bodies.’ That’s what the contractors were called: bodies. And then when we’re done with them, we can just dispose of them. They can be replaced with fresh people who don’t have the toxic nature of being disgruntled.”

Asked about contractors’ workload, an Epic spokesperson said, “All Epic contractors have a fixed contract term that is communicated up-front, typically between six and 12 months. Epic makes contract renewal decisions based on the quality of work performed and willingness to work at times needed to meet critical release dates.”

The spokesperson added that average contractor overtime at Epic is “less than five hours per week.”

But for workers on Fortnite, the normal rhythm of working hours was changed by the game’s success. “There was a gym in the office,” said one source. “It was available for technically any employee to use when they had free time, but free time wasn’t something that I was allowed at all. We’re always in crunch. Crunch never ends in a live service game like that. You’re always building more content and more stuff.”

“I was working at least 12-hour days, seven days a week, for at least four or five months,” said one source. “A lot of that was having to stay at work till 3 or 4 in the morning.”

Many of our sources said that refusing to work late hours represented a serious impediment to career advancement. Bosses expected workers to stay late, and to not complain.

“It wasn’t much of a conversation,” said one source. “It really was just a ‘I hope you didn’t have plans this weekend because this is what needs to be done.’ And if you did have something going on, it had to be serious, otherwise it was going to be a negative experience for that person.”

Epic’s spokesperson said that “advancement at Epic is based on the quality of past work and assessment of the capability of taking on any larger role that might be available.”

A source who worked in customer service, dealing with player questions and problems, said: “We went from maybe 20 to 40 tickets a day to about 3,000 tickets a day.” The source added that Epic rapidly hired new staff to handle the deluge, but that the problem couldn’t simply be solved immediately with more employees. “It happened so quick. Literally one day, we were a small amount of people. The next day it was just, ‘Hey, by the way, now you have 50 more people on this shift who have absolutely no training.’

“The managers were very standoffish. When I had some concerns and took them to my manager, I was ignored and [the manager] never spoke to me again. They just didn’t care. When I complained, one of my managers told me to just quiet down, and warned me that I’d be let go. It was a very ‘fuck you, I got mine’ mentality ... and management did nothing to discourage this.

“We were told that we had to work 50-hour workweeks and complete 200 tickets a day. It’s very, very exhausting, because we had to work really fast. When they announced that I cried because I was just so tired and exhausted and it just felt like they didn’t give a crap.”

Epic Games is based in Cary, North Carolina, and employs approximately a thousand people. The company was founded in 1991 by Tim Sweeney, who remains CEO. Epic’s website currently lists more than 200 job vacancies.

Some employees said that working for the company offered many positives, including good wages, an excellent bonus system, career progression, and a lively social scene. One source said that they had never personally experienced crunch, despite working on Fortnite, and described Epic as an ideal employer. But the same source also conceded that some co-workers work long hours.

“The one group of people that do get overworked horrendously at Epic would be producers,” said the source. “They have so much going on. Producers really just work, work, work. Like, it’s kind of insane.”

“It is a hard, grindy, crunchy life,” said one source. “Everyone understands. You are being paid more money than most people will ever make in their careers anywhere else. Your time is bought and accounted for; shut up, keep your head down, and do the work.

“Most employees don’t mind crunching if you are giving them three times their salary in bonuses. A lot of people leave. They come in, think to themselves ‘I am gonna stick it out for four bonus checks, and then I am out’.”

As work piled up, Epic tried to hire its way out of the problem. At first, the Fortnite Battle Royale team was around 50 people, but that more than tripled as the game became more successful.

“We’ve continually hired, slightly more than doubling Epic’s full-time employee base since Fortnite launched in 2017,” Epic’s spokesperson said. “Throughout, we’ve always been eager to hire great people. The limiting factor on hiring is not financial but the speed at which we can find and onboard highly qualified employees.

“We’ve also worked to contract with great independent studios to contribute to Fortnite and relieve internal workload. Finally, we’ve refined our release planning of Fortnite features to incorporate the work of multiple teams working in parallel to reduce the burden on each individual team.”

But our sources report that these initiatives did not fix the fundamental problem of long working hours. “The developmental process was so fast,” said one source. “There were things being implemented that you’re weren’t even aware of. It was insane, more than any other project I’ve ever worked on.

“Crunch was everywhere. Even facilities and office management. The only people that got away with not doing crunch were basically the guys that were telling people to crunch.

“It got to the point where I was waiting for the message that maybe we weren’t crunching that night, or that weekend. You’re waiting for someone to say, ‘Hey, we can actually not have you come in tomorrow.’”

Many of the sources said that Epic had generally handled its working culture well prior to Fortnite’s success. “We did overtime when it was necessary,” said one source. “But we always got a fair amount of time for people to prepare for crunch, and it was not mandatory. We knew what features we had to work on, we knew what the plan was, and we had plenty of time.

“As Fortnite Battle Royale became popular, it changed to having to get a feature done, with hardly any notice, and then having people stay until that feature was ready. So we went from having a month to prepare, to sometimes having as little as a day. A lot of it was mandatory staying at work with no notice until the job was done. Marketing had made a promise, and so we were told that it had to be done.

“It was the most aggressive schedule I’ve ever seen. And people got burnt out in all departments.”

“We have been responding to those challenges by aggressively growing the team, improving our planning process, and experimenting with approaches,” said the Epic spokesperson. The company has implemented mandatory two-week, companywide breaks in the winter and summer.

Most of our sources said that making a complaint to Epic’s human resources department did little to help.

“Ruffling feathers is not conducive to getting where you want to get in the industry,” said one source. “I saw some co-workers who were patient and fine to begin with, but got angrier and angrier over time, pulling so many hours. One day they might stand up and walk out and we’d never see them again. Nobody would talk about them. If I asked, ‘Hey, is [that person] working here anymore?’ I got weird looks.”

In the year prior to the launch of Fortnite Battle Royale, Epic had been downsizing its QA department, in an attempt to move to automated systems. But the company halted the initiative after Battle Royale hit, and quickly hired new contractors.

“It was cramped, and the offices felt like they’d hardly been cleaned,” said one QA source. “We were really crammed in there. We had four people to a side of a table.

“I remember being in a team meeting and there was a Q&A session at the end, and it was just dead air. Then, one tester came forward and asked about how the company was going to deal with crunch. When is it going to slow down? The mood of the room shifted. And the manager said they were trying to figure it out. It was an answer that was not an answer. Very shortly after that, the tester who asked the question left the company.”

Epic sought to alleviate the severe crunch by implementing two-week schedules for updates, which included patches and new features. It also introduced shifts. But the situation did not improve.

“If a build went out into the wild and there was a negative reaction, then someone at the top would say, ‘We need to change that,’” one source said, “and everyone would be pulled in from what they were doing, and people were told to cancel their plans, because they were going to crunch until this was done. It was never-ending. It’s great for supporting the community and for the public. But that comes at a cost.”

At various points, Epic executives have sent out directives that overtime is voluntary, and must not be demanded. But on the ground, this has had little effect.

“The younger people are especially vulnerable,” said one source. “I try to tell them to go home, but they say, ‘I want to get on and be promoted. I need to be here to do that.’ The competition is very high, they are ambitious, and they think it’s fine to work a 100-hour week.

“It’s killing people. Something has to change. I can’t see how we can go on like this for another year. At first, it was fine, because Fortnite was a big success and that felt good. We were solving problems that were new for Epic: how to run a big, global game as an online service. But now the workload is just endless.”

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