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The Cyberpunk 2077 crunch backlash

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Misinformation and fandom warp the public’s perception

Shortly after the death of their partner, the player character stares into a filthy bathroom mirror in Cyberpunk 2077. Image: CD Projekt Red

In late September, Bloomberg reported on changing working conditions at CD Projekt Red, the Polish developer behind the upcoming highly anticipated Cyberpunk 2077. Despite previously promising that its workers would not be subjected to extended overtime hours, CD Projekt Red was going back on its word and now making “crunch” mandatory.

Intellectually, most people would probably agree that the idea of crunch, which refers to periods of intense and extended overtime, is bad. Workers should be fairly compensated for their time, the thinking goes, and they shouldn’t be stretched so thin that they risk burning out.

And yet, the gaming industry has seen numerous reports, many of them from Bloomberg (and former Kotaku colleague) reporter Jason Schreier, about poor working conditions at so many major studios that it feels like some fans have normalized the concept. There hasn’t been a big reckoning here; even high-profile games with documented cases of crunch, like Red Dead Redemption 2, have gone on to sell millions. And while some developers have promised to improve, with a looming holiday season and new console generation, push has come to shove.

If anything, after years of reading similar reports, it’s starting to feel like some video game fans have normalized crunch. Many gaming enthusiasts’ response to CD Projekt Red’s decision hasn’t been condemnation or critique. It’s been people debating whether or not the working conditions are truly that bad, especially compared to other documented cases of crunch.

Shooting a shotgun in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red

In a recent YouTube video recounting Bloomberg’s reporting, many of the comments make comparisons to other “worse” studios, or they note that if the mandatory overtime is paid, it can’t be that bad.

“What a cruel world...” one comment sarcastically begins. “Being employed during a pandemic where thousands are being fired at every minute, and being paid for extra hours at office... really unacceptable and heart breaking.”

The YouTuber who created that video, YongYea, ended up acknowledging in a comment that the video was getting a lot of “flack” for holding CD Projekt Red to any sort of standard.

“Mandating crunch after promising not to is simply not a good look, and sustained crunch should not be normalized as necessary to make games,” YongYea wrote.

The top comment in response to YongYea’s message? “CDPR is our Lord and Savior.” There are a number of negative responses to both YongYea’s video on YouTube, along with Schreier’s reporting. The first result you get back if you search “cyberpunk crunch” on YouTube is a video titled “Worthless Media Attack Cyberpunk 2077 Over Crunch.”

Perhaps this fervent fandom was inevitable. Many would argue that CD Projekt Red developed one of the generation’s best video games with The Witcher 3. The base game is so tremendously meaty that most people I know barely make a dent in it. On top of that, the game received 16 pieces of free add-on content. The expansions and DLC that had a price tag? They were reasonably priced and substantial in a way that makes the rest of the industry look like it’s selling food scraps.

Own The Witcher 3 on any platform whatsoever? Well, then you can get it for free on GOG, too. Want to play it on next-generation hardware? Congrats, if you own it already you will get a free upgrade. At this point, CD Projekt Red is synonymous with generosity.

It also doesn’t hurt that parent company CD Projekt owns GOG, a beloved storefront with consumer-friendly practices, such as refusing to use anti-piracy measures. While the Cyberpunk design team isn’t necessarily responsible for what the GOG storefront does, fans lump all the different subsidiaries under the same general entity.

It’s hard to picture how a company that would do so many great things for its customers could, at the same time, be capable of not-so-great things. CD Projekt Red is the good guy, right? In some ways, it’s easy to continue imagining CD Projekt Red as a small outfit punching way above its weight. Cyberpunk 2077 is the first major game the studio has developed, spin-offs notwithstanding, since The Witcher 3 made CD Projekt Red a household name.

According to Schreier, part of the disconnect comes from pure misinformation. As commentators take reporting and recount it to their viewers, details might get changed or not explained with the nuance and context present in the original report. One of the leading misconceptions about CD Projekt Red’s situation, for example, is that its mandatory crunch merely lasted for a short period before going gold, once per week, for seven days total.

But Schreier’s latest reporting was only detailing the newest instance of crunch at the studio. That same article says that, previously, the studio crunched for months to create things like the demo the public saw at E3. CD Projekt Red CEO Adam Kicinski has also admitted that some crunch would be inevitable during an investor call in January. And, more importantly, having an official order to crunch does not necessarily correlate with when crunch actually unfolds. Crunch is often an unspoken ambient pressure.

“CDPR have been crunching for months or even on-and-off for years,” Schreier told Polygon over Twitter.

Driving a car in Cyberpunk 2077 Image: CD Projekt Red/CD Projekt

“Anyone who’s experienced or written about crunch culture knows that it doesn’t have to be ‘mandatory’ to be mandatory,” Schreier continued. “When an office embraces crunch, you’re in there constantly, working nights and weekends because it’s what’s expected of you. Sometimes your boss will tell you to stay late, but often, it just happens. Maybe you’re given too many tasks to finish in eight hours, or maybe you just don’t want to be the first person out the door.”

The mandate, in other words, was merely written confirmation of conditions that, according to Schreier, have “existed at CDPR for a long time.”

Can the public fully metabolize an issue as complex and widespread as crunch? Americans in particular have such poor standards of living that millions of people work two or more jobs, often as gig workers with few protections and even worse pay. Overworking is a daily fact of life, and one that gets minimized in favor of the fantasy of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If your lot in life is bad, the thinking goes, perhaps you simply haven’t worked hard enough. Incidentally, many Americans believe they’re middle class when they’re actually not. Many Americans live paycheck to paycheck. It’s easy to see why the idea of mandatory overtime may not seem particularly eyebrow-raising for some western gamers.

Working in the video game industry, meanwhile, is often seen as a dream job. Could long hours really be so terrible? Folks who love playing video games for hours on end imagine that making them is just as fun or fulfilling, no matter what the circumstances are. Perhaps this is why, at a major company like Blizzard, game developers will take jobs where they don’t even get paid enough to eat three meals a day.

The picture is grim. As Schreier tells it, however, there is reason to be optimistic. While things haven’t massively changed since 2004’s “EA Spouse” scandal, an early high-profile account of the tolls of crunch culture, some people are a little more educated about the issue in 2020. Reporting on the problem of crunch has become more common as well. The trick is whether the public learns the right information, while also putting aside its fandom to hold the people in power accountable.

“I think what some folks fail to understand is that CDPR embracing crunch doesn’t make it some sort of horrible devil company,” Schreier said. “There’s a large chunk of the gaming community that categorizes people and companies into good and evil without recognizing complications or nuances, which can drive discourse into some pretty awful directions.”