The unexpectedly cool reason Nintendo loves to delay game releases
It's undoubtedly disappointing to hear when the release date of a game you've been looking forward to has been delayed. Fans of Animal Crossing got a taste of that feeling during E3 2019 when Nintendo announced they'd have to wait a bit longer for the latest installment in the series, Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Initially intended to be a 2019 release, Animal Crossing's release delay pushes it to March 20, 2020.
The game development team at Nintendo, headquartered in Japan, did not give a specific reason for the delay other than saying it is "to ensure the game can be the best it can be" during the company's E3 2019 Direct video. However, Nintendo of America's president, Doug Bowser, used the delay as an example of avoiding 'crunch' time during video game development during an interview with IGN. During the interview, he spoke about how delaying the release of games is integral to work-life balance in the industry.
"For us, one of our key tenets is that we bring smiles to people's faces, and we talk about that all the time," he said. "It's our vision. Or our mission, I should say. For us, that applies to our own employees. We need to make sure that our employees have good work-life balance."
In order to maintain that balance, the company would rather admit a setback and push the release date further than force their employees to the point of burnout. "[W]e will not bring a game to market before it's ready," he added. "We just talked about one example [in Animal Crossing’s delay]. It's really important that we have that balance in our world. It's actually something we're proud of."
His words are significant to those in the video game industry. Work-life balance while working on video games is infamously horrific, with 'development crunch' being an enormous reason why. Development crunch, or 'crunch time,' is when a development team is pushed to excessive work hours and conditions in order to hit project goals or finish a game.
Way back in the day, this might have meant development teams had a month or two where teammates worked overtime hours as they polished their game. Now, crunch can happen within the first three months of development and last the entire development period — which often lasts longer than two years.
According to various reports from video game developers, many of whom remain anonymous due to fear of retaliation, crunch can involve 70-100 hours of overtime per week. This causes instances of employees staying at the office to sleep at their desks, mental and physical health problems and impairment, and personal neglect for the sake of coding their game.
Many companies have been put under public scrutiny for these practices. In May, NetherRealm Studios, the company behind the Mortal Kombat fighting games, received heat for crunching developers to the point of risking their mental and physical health while offering little pay. In April, Polygon reported a hostile and toxic work environment within Epic Games, the developers of Fortnite, that basically forced developers to 'volunteer' for months of 50-to-100-hour work weeks while implying they couldn't refuse. In 2018, the developers of Red Dead Redemption 2, Rockstar Games, were reported by Kotaku to foster a work environment that made some employees feel it was necessary to crunch. Ubisoft (The Division, Far Cry) and Bioware (Anthem) have also come under fire for pushing for overtime without additional pay, taking advantage of employees' salaried positions.
The issues with fair employee treatment continue to this day. Game development companies have often responded to these reports rather flippantly or avoided questions about them completely, calling it an effort to 'tear down' another's work, as a Bioware response once put it.
Some studios, such the developers of A Plague Tale: Innocence, have acknowledged the impact of crunch while also attempting to normalize it as a part of the industry.
"You know, the family is not happy, the wife is not happy, the kids aren’t happy. And we have to be honest that it’s not a lovely story all the time," admitted Creative Director David Dedeine to PlayStation LifeStyle. Despite his admission, he buckled down in his belief that crunch causes 'magic' during development.
"There is an alchemy that makes everything [happen] and suddenly you find the right solution. It comes from pressure, so we need deadlines," he insisted. "At some point you realize that you can do better and [developers] want to do crunch."
But "running your workers ragged is not 'magic,'" as author Chandler Wood and other critics have pointed out. Some within the industry are calling for developers to unionize for more bargaining power regarding work hours and overtime pay. But companies often try to avoid talk of unionization and labor laws by hiring contractors instead of full-time employees. In contrast, a handful of developers, including indie studios, have taken steps towards avoiding development crunch completely through effective project management and leadership.
Still, the overall lack of work-life balance within a large number of companies has caused some people to leave the games industry entirely. And some of those who have left are warning new grads interested in games development to go into a different software or coding-related field.
This is why Nintendo of America's response is so important. Last year, the previous president of Nintendo of America, Reggie Fils-Aimé, also stressed the importance of using strategies to lessen the workload on their full-time employees such as hiring additional contractors.
"Our mentality is we're going to flex by adding headcount as appropriate to help us get over a crunch. That's the way we approach it," he explained. "And so we're not asking people to go for a couple days without sleep. We're not asking people to ignore their family and friends and their social life. We're not asking people to do things that are unhealthy. That is not our approach."
Bowser seems to agree. "[At] Nintendo, in general, we absolutely stress the importance of work-life balance," he said in an interview with Time Magazine. "We want our employees to have that balance. We think it’s important because that’s how we are able to produce quality games."