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"I feel extremely stressed and burnt out trying to keep our seasonal releases on the same aggressive timeline as pre-shelter in place productivity," writes one anonymous person in a mid-April Glassdoor review of Respawn Entertainment. The reviewer, who claims to be a developer on Apex Legends, alleges that working on the title's live service updates from home during the COVID-19 lockdown quickly turned into extended crunch. "I currently work 12-13 hours a day and there is no separation between my home and work life."
The review gained attention late last week when it was posted to the Apex Legends subreddit, and soon after, Game Director Chad Grenier and a few other Respawn developers chimed in to both extend their sympathies to the reviewer and defend the pandemic work practices of Respawn and its parent company Electronic Arts. "We were set up for likely the biggest challenge we've ever faced, and are still facing as we continue to work from our homes," says Grenier.
In response to a request for comment from USgamer, a representative for Electronic Arts said that the company doesn't "have anything in general to share beyond Chad's response and [EA's public] Coronavirus response" from earlier this year. A press representative for Respawn has not replied to USG's outreach at this time.
The allegations from the anonymous reviewer are concerning as they relate to Respawn. That said, Grenier's lengthy response is also fairly transparent in terms of developers talking about how they fight crunch. More generally, we should expect to see more teams openly reckoning with COVID-19 remote work crunch in the months and years to come, as there's mounting evidence pointing toward the issue quickly becoming widespread in the industry.
The Pre-Pandemic Steps Taken to Not "Overwork" Apex's Team
Several stories published about the Glassdoor review last week referenced comments from Respawn CEO Vince Zampella about the work-life balance for the Apex team from early in the title's life last year. In April 2019, Zampella said Respawn doesn't "want to overwork the team and drop the quality of the assets [its] putting out."
Earlier this year at DICE 2020, Zampella said the team felt pressure "not from a publisher, but from the fans" to keep pace with frequent updates. "We just had to draw a line in the sand and say, this is what we can do without killing people," he added at the time.
Over the past year, plenty has changed with both Apex and Respawn's broader plans; Respawn shipped its first Star Wars game and Apex pushed out four seasons of updates with events scatterd in-between. Amidst that, a few high-profile Apex developers have exited the studio. That same day in April 2019 when Zampella commented on the issue of overwork, Respawn revealed that it was "pushing out plans for future Titanfall games" in order to focus on Apex Legends. Since then, Respawn has also expanded its operations to include a new studio in Vancouver, Canada that's focused solely on Apex's continued development. Respawn's California location has teams working on Apex, Star Wars, and its VR Medal of Honor title.
Opening the Vancouver studio and shifting away from Titanfall plans (this May, Zampella reiterated that there's "nothing currently in development" for the franchise) stand out as two ways Respawn has sought to make Apex's live service more feasible. Still, the Glassdoor reviewer focuses on mismanagement and long hours during COVID-19 lockdown, not prior.
"They're Absolutely Right in How They Felt"
From the perspective of the Glassdoor reviewer, pre-existing difficulties of running a live service game met encouragement to not miss deadlines in spite of the pandemic, leading to "burnout, stress, and heavy anxiety." The reviewer ends the post by noting that they are "considering leaving without a next job" for the sake of their mental health.
"We have no idea how to do a live service project," the reviewer writes, "which means poor planning decisions and no sizing of work, means we actually have very little idea of how much we can accomplish in a given month. [...] We get two conflicting messages around 'please take care of your health' and 'we must keep the same schedule and work even longer hours to meet our deadlines.'" The review was posted on April 19, a few weeks before the launch of Apex's fifth season, arguably its most ambitious content update yet.
In his response to the review on Reddit, Grenier starts off with a nod to his responsibility for the matter as Apex's director. "I'll chime in on this because a lot of this falls on me as the leader of the Apex team, but I truly believe Respawn has its employee's [sic] best interest and health in mind, and always has," Grenier writes.
Grenier goes on to say that the sudden transition to remote work "was indeed very hard on the team," adding that he knew "work was going to be more difficult and less productive, but people would also be dealing with a scary global pandemic."
As for how Respawn and EA adapted to the new challenges, Grenier says he "was vocal every day telling people to only work as much as they can," and claims this stance was reiterated by both Respawn and EA leadership. Grenier also details new benefits rolled out during lockdown: "Unlimited paid time off if you were not feeling well (physically or mentally) or taking care of someone, reimbursement for any purchases to make working from home easier or more comfortable, additional pay each paycheck to cover increased energy or internet bills, flex work hours, the list goes on."
"Regarding deadlines and delays, I was very vocal to the team about their deadlines," Grenier says. "Like a broken record I continuously asked that people speak up to their managers or producers if they will not be able to get their work done on time without crunching. Delays would be ok, we just need to know one is needed." Grenier points to a previously unexplained two week extension of Apex's fourth season as one such delay, which lead to "a trickling effect of many other much longer delays" for content that has mostly not been announced.
"I'm definitely not trying to say this person who wrote the review is wrong, and I'm not defending myself against the review," he continues. "They're absolutely right in how they felt, and they were clearly working too much, despite being told it was ok to miss their deadlines. The problem is not with the intent of Respawn's leadership, we've got everyone's best interest in mind."
Grenier chalks the crunch issue up to reluctance toward being seen as responsible for a delay. "Everyone wants to fix that bug, finish that cool new character, or get that new gamemode up and running, and will crunch themselves unknowingly to get it done," he writes. "That's how dedicated this team is, they're amazing. Because of this, all of us leaders on the team have learned to better look for the signs, check-in more regularly with the developers, and push features back proactively after reading the signals, instead of waiting for someone to raise their hand."
Hopefully, in the case of this one reviewer, they've since gotten the assistance and support from Respawn and EA that they need. Looking to the industry at large, however, it's clear that management at more companies than Respawn should get serious about checking in with devs.
COVID Crunch Is Already Nearly as Common as the Regular Kind
According to a new survey released earlier this month by the organizers of the Game Developers Conference (GDC), 39% of developers polled say they have started working longer hours since the start of COVID-19 lockdowns. Breaking that data down further, 28% of respondents said they were working "somewhat more hours" while 11% said they were "working much more than before."
Compare this to pre-pandemic data on overtime in the games industry and it becomes clear that longer hours during lockdown is now nearly as common as crunch and overwork was before. Earlier in the year with a previous GDC survey, 44% of developers reported working more than 40 hours a week on average. 4% said their average was more than 60 hours per week.
Having two in every five developers reporting longer hours during lockdown would be reason enough for concern if large numbers of developers also weren't reporting decreases in productivity and creativity since the abrupt move to remote work. With about 70% of the developers polled saying they just made the shift, the realities of working-from-home are new not just to studios like Respawn, but teams of all sizes throughout the industry.
In a recent opinion piece for GamesIndustry.biz, former Rockstar Lincoln head Mark Lloyd singles out a key issue: it is harder for managers to detect issues workers are having when they're not sharing a space.
"If any studio finds themselves in the unfortunate position of traditional crunch as they entered this crisis, then a remote working situation could further harm how a team comes together to overcome the challenges apparent in those pressurised moments," Lloyd says. "That in turn leaves leadership teams no longer looking at tired faces in the office, eating pizza for the second month running, providing a clear reminder of the crunch people endure and the effects it is having on the team.
"Those leaders will be sleepwalking into a crisis where the people in their teams are damaging themselves, their families, and ultimately the studio's livelihood by being unable to manage their productivity and lives remotely."
As for Respawn, Grenier himself acknowledges this same problem in response to a Reddit commenter. "Reading a room is hard when you're not all in a room anymore," he writes.
The questions that the Glassdoor review raise about Respawn, and that Grenier and other employees say the studio is doing an admirable job with, are the same questions that we should be asking about many more studios for the next few years. This widespread shift to remote work has the potential to reshape the games industry for the better in many ways, and we'll likely see remote work become more of a regular practice. Teams that embrace it for the sake of increasing diversity and adopting truly flexible hours may not want to go back. On the flipside, the data suggests it's a matter of asking when and not if more pandemic crunch stories will surface.
Lloyd ends his recent piece by warning that "a rush into this 'new norm' will create a feeling of crunch that we have yet to experience as an industry." It may be the case that one developer at Respawn had an uncommonly bad time within an overall supportive system, but it's almost certainly true that remote work pandemic crunch is the new norm for many developers—we just haven't heard about it yet.