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Epic Games Really Needs to Properly Address Fortnite Crunch

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In April, Polygon reported about the brutal working conditions at Epic Games, the studio behind the worldwide sensation Fortnite. To keep up with the rigorous update schedule, developers routinely put in 70-plus hour work weeks. Since the report went live, Epic has yet formally address the claims.

Given that Fortnite updates still arrive at a weekly clip, it’s hard to imagine the working conditions have markedly changed. Even during a studio-wide closure lasting until July 8, Fortnite updates are still arriving as usual. This begs the question: When will Epic Games actually address its issue with crunch?

With major studios such as Bungie and Respawn publicly discussing working conditions for its developers, it’s time for Epic Games to do the same. Epic has set the bar for live service games by updating Fortnite every week — sometimes even twice — but when it comes at the expense of its employees, that’s not a cause for celebration.

On June 20, Epic Games announced that it would be closed for two weeks from June 24 to July 8. One would think this means no Fortnite updates during that time. However, that’s not the case. The first of those updates, which contained a substantial “14 Days of Summer” event and a slew of minor changes, went live June 25, the day after Epic’s office closed. A second update will arrive next week, making this closure business as usual from a consumer perspective. Epic told Polygon that it has “measures in place to ensure we can react to major issues (should they arise).”

Business as usual

epic games needs to address fortntte crunch

From the outside looking in, this sure doesn’t sound like a studio closure. It’s possible that all full-time employees were given two weeks off to enjoy the beginning of summer with family and friends, while contractors were left to handle whatever work crops up while the studio is “closed.”

Another possibility is that Fortnite developers crunched even more than usual to prepare for the closure. Neither possibility is ideal. Not to mention patch notes still need to be written, and updates need to be pushed. It’s unlikely that next week’s update is already set in stone, especially when it comes to fixes.

Four weeks off each year plus vacation time isn’t generous if the rest of the year is spent putting in obscene hours.

Epic is still working on Fortnite even while the studio is technically closed.  It doesn’t matter if the hours are being put in over the two-week closure or if they’ve already been crunched. Either way, the work has been done to keep Fortnite on its regularly scheduled programming.

Epic Games lead animator Jay Hosfelt offered further perspective about the closure on Twitter.

The two-week winter break during the holidays was already in effect. The summer break is new, though. Admittedly, the policy sounds quite generous at face value, as it also includes separate vacation time. But if this is Epic’s response to Polygon’s report, it rings somewhat hollow considering the update schedule remains unchanged. On top of that, Epic didn’t mention crunch or the work-life balance of its employees in announcing the two-week closure. It’s great the developers get to step away from Fortnite for two weeks to enjoy the sun, but it’s not enough.

I cannot pretend to personally know what it’s like to work at Epic, but based on what’s been reported, I wouldn’t describe it as “a company that sincerely cares for its employees.” Mr. Hosfelt obviously has had a more positive experience at Epic than others who shared details about working conditions with Polygon.

Four weeks off each year plus vacation time isn’t generous if the rest of the year is spent putting in obscene hours.

In my recent re-review of Fortnite, I grappled with Epic’s content schedule. On the one hand, regular updates have undoubtedly helped retain an interest in the premier battle royale game. On the other hand, it feels amoral to applaud a studio that sacrifices its developers’ well-being to remain the most popular game around for as long as possible. Don’t get me wrong. It’s impressive that Fortnite developers can consistently shake-up the gameplay. We’ve never seen anything like this before. They are obviously extremely talented and deserve all of the success in the world. But it’s hard to celebrate Fortnite as a whole.

Change the narrative

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Epic Games needs to address crunch publicly and remedy it from within. Not just for the sake of its own employees, but for other game studios across the world whose executives look at Fortnite as a model of success to emulate. Being king comes with responsibilities. One of those responsibilities is setting a good example. If the studio responsible for the biggest game on the planet makes an effort to stop crunching, that could make a huge impact — even just symbolically.

New horror stories about crunch culture are reported regularly nowadays. Name any recent AAA blockbuster and chances are the developers behind it crunched in months (or years) leading up to release. Red Dead Redemption 2, Anthem, virtually every game released by the now-defunct Telltale Games — crunch, crunch, crunch. But Fortnite is unique in that the crunch hasn’t eased after release. If anything, it’s only gotten worse as the game skyrocketed in popularity. And as a live service game, it’s seemingly never-ending.

The ball is in Epic’s court now, though. With crunch becoming common knowledge amongst journalists and gamers, studios are starting to discuss work-life balance publicly. Bungie just delayed a weapon fix patch for Destiny 2 to avoid crunch. Massive Entertainment, the studio behind The Division 2, said it consciously avoids letting its employees work overtime in an interview with GameSpot. Respawn Entertainment has refrained from releasing frequent Apex Legends updates to avoid crunch. Nintendo of America President Doug Boswer told IGN that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was delayed until 2020 specifically to steer clear of crunch.

Despite these encouraging statements, it’d be foolish to think that crunch will magically disappear. Game developer unionization is the ideal long term solution to address this major problem plaguing the industry. In the short term, however, it’d help if Epic Games took steps to change the narrative. If Epic insists on releasing a Fortnite update every week, that’s fine. But the studio should hire enough employees to handle the updates without requiring overtime.

Live service games could be the future of gaming, but Fortnite‘s content model paints a very bleak picture of the future for game developers.






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Why new consoles probably won’t be enough to save GameStop

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How long will this be a common sight in malls across America?
Enlarge / How long will this be a common sight in malls across America?

Things continue to look rough for struggling brick-and-mortar game retailer GameStop. This week, the company announced comparable store sales were down 23.2 percent year over year for the third quarter of 2019. It’s a decrease led by a whopping 45.8 percent decline in hardware sales and a 32.6 percent fall in software sales.

Those are hard numbers to spin, especially when they’re leading to corporate layoffs and hundreds of store shutdowns (including the newly announced shuttering of all GameStop stores in Denmark, Finland, Norway, and Sweden by the end of 2020). But GameStop CEO George Sherman attempted to put a good face on the results in an earnings call this week. There, he argued GameStop’s current troubles are a predictable result of the end of the current console generation—and consumer anticipation of upcoming consoles from Sony and Microsoft—as much as anything else.

“With ‘generation nine’ consoles on the horizon set to bring excitement and significant innovation to the video game space, those anticipated releases in late 2020 are putting pressure on the current generation of consoles and related games, as consumers wait for new technology and publishers address their software delivery plans,” Sherman said.

GameStop CFO Jim Bell echoed the sentiment during the call, predicting that “the cyclicality of the console business” will continue to hurt GameStop’s sales performance for the next few quarters.” After that, though, the company “expect[s] robust sales increases in late 2020 led by the generation nine hardware and software slate.”

There’s some merit to the argument that GameStop is just the victim of a temporary end-of-cycle downturn at the moment. As Sherman notes, NPD reported “significant double-digit industry declines in new hardware [sales] for September and October” across the US game industry, suggesting gamers might be largely holding off on new consoles until new hardware arrives late next year. And while hardware sales are a pretty low-margin business for GameStop, new consoles get people in the door and can renew interest in buying high-margin software and accessories for their fancy new purchases.

But there are signs that the end-of-generation doldrums are hurting GameStop’s core business more than other parts of the video game market. As NPD noted in its own third-quarter report on the overall US game market, spending on “digital console content” was up, while spending on “physical console content” was down. That’s just a single quarter, but it reflects long-standing trends in the US game market since 2010, as consumers have moved away from physical discs and cartridges and toward purely digital gaming.

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