Cyberpunk 2077, one of the most highly anticipated video games of the past decade, has already been delayed three times. Employees at CD Projekt Red, the Polish studio behind the game, have reportedly been required to work long hours, including six-day weeks, for more than a year. The practice is called “crunch” in the video game industry, and it is sadly all too common.
It’s also something that the leadership at CD Projekt Red said wasn’t going to happen to the people making Cyberpunk 2077.
Video game developers rarely speak openly with the press about their labor practices, but that’s just what CD Projekt co-founder Marcin Iwiński did in May 2019. In a conversation with Kotaku, he said that his company thought of itself as more humane than its competitors. While long hours would be permitted for those interested in working them, crunch would not be made “mandatory.” He called it a “non-obligatory crunch policy” and said it was something to be proud of.
“We are known for treating gamers with respect,” Iwiński told Kotaku last year. “And I actually would [like] for us to also be known for treating developers with respect.” One month later he doubled down, all-but promising during a podcast that mandatory crunch would not be forced on his employees.
Shortly thereafter, signs began to emerge that the Cyberpunk 2077 project was in trouble.
“We need more time to finish playtesting, fixing and polishing,” said Iwiński and head of studio Adam Badowski. “We want Cyberpunk 2077 to be our crowning achievement for this generation and postponing launch will give us the precious months we need to make the game perfect.”
That same day, during a public call with investors, CD Projekt revealed that crunch would ultimately be needed to get the game done on time. It would also be mandatory for at least some employees.
“Is the development team required to put in crunch hours?” asked an investor, to which CD Projekt CEO Adam Kiciński answered, “To some degree, yes, to be honest.”
“We try to limit crunch as much as possible,” Kiciński continued, “but it is the final stage. We try to be reasonable in this regard, but yes. Unfortunately.”
Six months later, the game was delayed for a second time — from September to November. Once again, Iwiński and Badowski said that more time needed to be spent on polishing the final game. The COVID-19 pandemic was at least partly to blame.
“The final few months are always the biggest hurdle, so these are always the most crucial months,” they wrote, “and we know that from our past experience. We’ve been there a couple of times in the past and of course this is the first time we’re doing that remotely, so we learn as we go — but that’s as much as I can say.”
In September, Bloomberg reiterated what CD Projekt’s leaders said to investors months before. A leaked email mandated six-day work weeks. Crunch had become a requirement, and according to anonymous employees, some developers had been working nights and weekends “for more than a year.”
In other words, delays do not mean relief for workers. Oftentimes, it simply means working at the same exhausting pace for additional weeks or months.
But the story doesn’t stop there. In October, CD Projekt announced that Cyberpunk 2077 had “gone gold,” meaning that the near-final game code had been sent to the major console manufacturers for certification to run on their devices. Then — a little more than three weeks later — the game was delayed again. Instead of Nov. 19, the game will instead launch on Dec. 10.
The move undoubtedly stretched the period of crunch required of CD Projekt’s workers even further.
Let there be no mistake that the practice of crunch is destructive. It’s a fact that those inside and outside the industry have acknowledged for decades. Human beings weren’t made to work these kinds of hours, and the true cost of crunch can be measured in the physical and the mental health of those it is forced upon — and also their families. CD Projekt claims to be a progressive company, and it maintains that employees will benefit from the success of the game that they’re helping to make. Badowski says that employees will share in the profits CD Projekt makes in 2020.
But let’s not sugarcoat it: Crunch is cruel. It is the result of poor management, and evidence of a disregard for the people working to make the games that we love to play. Crunch at this scale, and for this duration, casts a shadow over Cyberpunk 2077 — and actively undermines some of the progressive and cautionary themes no doubt present in the game itself.