This past year or so, game delays have become even more common than before - not that they were particularly rare before that, either. A large number of those delays were caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, but that's not what we're here to discuss; instead, we're going to take a look at whether delays actually do anything to mitigate the rampant crunch game developers need to deal with.
One might think that the extension of a deadline comes as breath of fresh air, but often times due to the way development actually happens behind the scenes, it doesn't bring any respite to the workers at all, or can even make things worse.
Game delays are odd beasts. Investors and executives are often repelled by them, and many gamers express feelings of disappointment, anger and even betrayal when hearing about them. Meanwhile, in a time when buggy, disastrous launches are becoming more and more problematic in the industry management is more open to delays, while a segment of the audience which is becoming more informed about the extent to which developers need to crunch view delays more positively. More time to finish the project means it will be better while also reducing the amount of stress on developers, right? Delays are good!
Delays are(n’t) good, actually
Well... no, not really - in recent years it has come to light from people working in game dev, most of whom generally stay anonymous during the interviews they provide to protect their position in the industry, have revealed just how little delays help, or outright make things worse. We should be critical of game delays, but for the right reasons.
No, it really doesn't bloody matter that you'll only get what amounts to a luxury entertainment product months later than initially anticipated. This is a hobby, and the market is insanely saturated anyway - it's not like one game delay will leave you with nothing new to play. Feeling disappointed because it was a game you were very excited about? Understandable. Being angry and enraged by a delay? Going off the deep end there, mate. Sending developers hateful messages and threats over it? Absolute, unhinged insanity.
The reason we should deconstruct this modern concept that the woke opinion is "delays are good, actually" is because it's an extended death march for game dev professionals who are already overworked, underpaid and inhabit an industry that is notorious for sexism, discrimination and problematic hyper-rich bosses who pick up bonuses worth millions of dollars while firing hundreds of employees.
See, delays do not happen when things are going all rosy at the studio; despite public opinion mellowing on pushing back release dates, management will typically still try their best to avoid having to shift launch. These days crunch has seeped so deep into the fabric of the video game industry, like the awful cancer-inducing radiation seeping into the Chernobyl soil, that devs are likely crunching even when things are going well enough - but whenever work gets bumpy, hell breaks loose.
Mandatory overtime, working weekends, no leave, no vacation, spending evenings at the office. These are the immediately apparent costs of crunching to "polish" a video game a little more. The long-lasting effects are more insidious: mental and physical health issues, problems arising in personal relationships, growing distant from friends and family - these will leave their mark on affected people even once the crunch itself finally ends.
Delays, for the consumers, just mean that they'll wait a few more months to play that game they've been waiting for and saying "well let's give them time to polish it, right?", meanwhile for developers - who at this point have been under heavy crunch for months, or as documented in some cases, years - it means more months of crunch; possibly even heavier crunch.
Working under these circumstances takes its toll both on the mind and the body, and for many the game's release date becomes a thread of hope to hang onto; it is no longer the triumphant day of victory when the project you've been pouring your passion into finally goes out there into the world, but rather a sweet release from an awful grind. Then in swoops the delay and snatches that light at the end of the tunnel away.
One of the most sinister and frankly disgusting elements of the whole "crunch pandemic" is how corporations try to dress it up and market it to their consumers not as the gross abuse of employees, but as an acceptable and even admirable business practice. Publishers have called crunch "magic", they have done linguistic somersaults to recontextualize it as something to be proud of. They dance around it when confronted, or try to justify it with tired platitudes.
"It's how the industry works" and "this is the last stretch before release, we have to work a little harder to get things right" are common defenses - and the latter also typically appears in trite corporate e-mails sent out to devs. It's like cobbling together a tourist brochure for a penal colony.
We've seen this pattern play out time and again - Cyberpunk 2077 developer CD Projekt Red was gaming's best boy for years, and were being given the benefit of the doubt after delaying the immensely anticipated sci-fi RPG. The company publicly stated that it would pledge to mitigate crunch and treat developers humanely.
A few more delays and a historically botched launch later, several CDPR employees current and former spoke out about the dreadful overtime and crunch conditions at the studio, where each delay just meant that many more months in the meatgrinder.
Naughty Dog, acclaimed developer of the Uncharted and The Last Of Us series has something of a reputation for being an environment that encourages being more diligent than is contractually required - a lot more diligent. When flagship PS4 title The Last Of Us 2 was delayed, professionals would crunch for three extra months. The list goes on.
When placed next to the health and ethical treatment of the very human beings who work tirelessly to bring you these games, any extra 'polish' the products actually get during these extra months of development pales in importance - but really, look at Cyberpunk 2077 and tell me that delays make for better games.
No stopping at the finish line
Another thing to consider is that in the modern video game industry, release day doesn't mean an end to development - hotfixes, patches, DLC and expansions need to be churned out. For live service games where the content keeps coming, development never really ends, especially when the only reason a game stops being supported is because a sequel is around the corner.
Crunch to get a game finished? We delayed it, so crunch some more. Game finally launched? It's buggy as all hell and our stock value is skydiving, so crunch some more to fix it. Game finally runs well? Time to catch up on all that DLC we promised everyone while marketing the game!
In many cases things definitely slow down after release, but there are plenty of situations where things just don't have a chance to ramp down. In the case of Cyberpunk 2077, CDPR had to scramble to patch up all the game breaking issues the game released with, which caused them to delay their free DLC program as well as the two main story expansions - and they're also planning a separate, ambitious multiplayer segment that is apparently so content-laden and different from the main game that even before delays was projected to launch a year later.
Delays don't just increase crunch on that given project or milestone, but due to their affect on the entire content pipeline of a studio, they ripple out in a sort of overtime butterfly effect that effectively elongates the crunch period of subsequent projects as well - either because a bigger rush is needed to keep them on schedule, or because one delay caused another.
The video game industry has a hell of a reputation for being unforgiving and tough. Aside of everything we said about crunch and the other issues we already mentioned - low pay, sexism, discrimination, greedy executives - there is a plethora of other issues professionals have to deal with.
For the average developer, the video game industry is frighteningly unstable and insecure - just look at how Telltale Games folded, as far as the employees were concerned, out of nowhere. Former devs were left without severance, without income and without health insurance. Often studios would wring developer teams dry during merciless crunch times only to fire them the second they ship the game.
Efforts to give professionals working in the video game industry a safety net have been on-going for years and years in the face of strong corporate pushback - naturally big companies want to be able to exploit people unimpeded.
The first major instance where the fight for the ethical treatment of professionals came to head was during the 2016-17 SAG-AFTRA strike that saw many voice actors refuse contracts, backed by The Screen Actors Guild - American Federation of Television and Radio Artists. This worked because SAG-AFTRA is an actual union, protecting actors.
However the other professionals in the video game industry do not have such support, as the industry remains mostly union-less to this day, thanks in no small part due to corporations exerting their influence. That's not to say there aren't efforts being made - Game Workers Unite is the biggest and most prominent organization working towards the creation of a game industry labor union, whilst attempting to protect the rights of developers in any way it can in the meantime.
The UK chapter has recently achieved legal recognition as a union within The Independent Workers' Union of Great Britain, and the US chapter is working towards recognition as well. The absolutely essential importance of unions in the protection of human rights among the employed demographic cannot be overstated, and establishing unions in the video game industry is one of the most crucial steps in ensuring that the professionals who create the entertainment we love aren't exploited.
If you feel you are affected, now is the best time to get involved.