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Blizzard was built on crunch, co-founder says, but it’s ‘not sustainable’

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‘I don’t think we would have been as successful,’ without long hours, Mike Morhaime says.

World of Warcraft - Alleria Windrunner controls potent void energy. Blizzard Entertainment

While acknowledging that development crunch “is not sustainable,” Blizzard’s co-founder said that pushing through work periods of long hours was essential to the company’s earlier successes and even a part of its evolution.

In a panel at the Gamelab conference in Barcelona this week, Mike Morhaime (who left Blizzard in October after 27 years there) told Eurogamer “I’m sure there are better ways of doing things, but for us, I don’t think we would have been as successful if we hadn’t put in everything we had.”

“Crunch,” shorthand for long stretches where salaried developers work well more than 40-hour weeks, has taken on mainstream importance lately as designers and programmers share their experiences with large-scale, blockbuster games. Their tales are often filled with burnout, managerial dysfunction and product failure.

Red Dead Redemption 2, although an enormous success for Rockstar Games, became a poster child for crunch thanks to an offhand remark that founder Dan Houser made in a magazine profile shortly before that game’s launch. Crunch is also linked to other industry practices called inequitable or abusive, such as employing and serially dismissing cheaper contractors who fewer rights and no benefits.

Workers at Epic Games told Polygon that development on their breakout hit Fortnite — even though it’s a launched game making tons of money — routinely requires work weeks of 70 or more hours. Prior to Fortnite’s success, many of the developers interviewed said the pace and amount of work was much more reasonable.

And just yesterday, a report from Kotaku detailed poor working conditions at Treyarch during the development of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4.

The issue has since become central to ongoing efforts to organize game developers’ labor. Morhaime said that companies, mindful of both the wear on staff and the optics of the practice, are “doing a lot better these days, managing sort of controlled crunches where people are working really hard, but they’re not working 24/7.” He said companies are now more able to hire on additional staff because “there’s a lot more money coming into the space these days.”

Eurogamer noted a statement in May from John Hight, the executive producer for World of Warcraft, saying his team aspires “to be a no-crunch team.” While not yet at that goal, conditions are better than they were five or 10 years ago.