Assassin’s Creed Odyssey looks like a very ambitious, expensive game. The open world is huge and seems to have been meticulously crafted, every corner brimming with possibility. It makes sense – I am still enjoying Origins 70 hours later, and Odyssey seems like it will be magnitudes bigger, more ambitious and more expensive.
As Heather Alexandra rightly pointed out, however, the unseen cost of this ambition is the amount of work the developers have put into polishing the game. Fulfilling grand ambition requires grand sacrifices. To be clear, we don’t know if the working conditions of Ubisoft teams developing Odyssey were marred by this, but it is difficult not to imagine months, perhaps even years of crunch that are required to ship a game as grand as Odyssey in such a complete state.
Just look at CD Project Red’s defence of alleged crunch on another ambitious game, Cyperpunk 2077, dismissing criticism because they are “reinventing the friggin’ wheel”. Crunch is pervasive, it is systemic and it is still happening everywhere in 2018 – but at least now people are beginning to pay more attention and talk about it in the open.
Waypoint’s writing staff asked all developers they interviewed at E3 2018 about working conditions and work-life balance, for example. Telltale’s crunch culture, which we knew about already, was recently exposed again by the sudden closing of the company, surprising the employees and leaving them without severance or healthcare. And remember that time a few months back a developer joked about 90-hour weeks and quickly walked it back after a huge backlash and plenty of people letting the developer know they can take their time?
So, when I see expansive, overwhelming, graphically-intense games like Odyssey, Forza Horizon 4, Shadow of the Tomb Raider, Red Dead Redemption 2 and Spider-Man all coming out within weeks of each other, I cannot help but think just how much literal sweat and tears went into these games, and just how much of that was underpaid, or even unpaid, overtime labour.
Is it worth it? Honestly, I don’t think so.
I’ve been playing some State of Decay 2 recently, courtesy of the Game Pass free trial. This is also an ambitious game, but in a different way – you can see it in the quirky, procedurally generated characters and narratives emerging in a smaller, less graphically intensive world built on systems on top of systems, creating surprises, new storylines and janky-as-all-hell interactions.
This is not Spider-Man with two deliveries for every line of dialogue depending whether he is swinging or stationary. There is no need for that, actually, because my girl Astrid can crack jokes effortlessly as she runs full speed at a zombie, burying her bat in its skull. She’s just that good.
When her friend Rooney goes to sleep, sometimes they use the same bed. They aren’t sleeping together though, they are just lying in the exact same position, in the exact same spot. Rooney also has a tendency to answer your queries while she’s in bed, without standing up, changing positions or complaining that you woke her up, because, well, is she even asleep?
My theory is that they are both ghosts who can phase in and out at will, but are trying to hide it (badly) by pretending that they’re asleep. I think.
Carlos, on the other hand, is definitely not a ghost. He’s a robot (who’s also trying to hide it). It’s either that, or he somehow uses a voice synthesiser at times to make him sound exactly like the default PC text-to-speech voice. He is pretty handy with a gun though, proven by that time he blew away three survivors who attacked him unprovoked after some pleasant conversation. Carlos walked past one of them funny-like, see, so they decided to pull out their guns and start shooting. You know, action-reaction.
You get where I’m going with this.
This game has some good old-fashioned jank. And it’s fine! I am enjoying myself. Nothing game breaking has happened (yet). Sure, it’s not “immersive”, but this is a game about a zombie apocalypse. I’m playing it for the systems and interactions, not “realism”. Would it be better without the jank? Honestly, I am not even sure if that’s a yes for me. Ghosts and robots are fun to imagine.
Bottom line, though, is that this jank is an indication the developers were not worked to the bone on this game.
Here’s the thing. I still have two areas in Origins that I haven’t even been to yet, after 70 hours. I’ve only done one elephant thing and one chariot race. I’ve fought those Animus glitches, like, twice. There are some major villages and minor cities that I stayed in for 15 minutes, tops, because I rushed through them to finish the main campaign. There is plenty still for me to do.
Should our big AAA games be this big, this ambitious? Should their ambition lie in the breadth of play area and the depth of mechanics, rather than in ensuring the developers who create the fantastic are well-compensated and well-rested? I don’t think so.
Sure, State of Decay 2 developer Undead Labs (whose sole glassdoor review speaks of the working environment as “one of the best”) is a smaller team that probably did crunch at certain points during development. But they didn’t crunch to the point where every little detail was perfect, every interaction bug-free, every problem solved. I feel safe in suggesting that Undead Labs probably didn’t crunch every hour of every day in the final stretch.
I sure as hell hope they didn’t, at least, because the well-being of game workers must come before the ambition of their managers.
Julie Muncy is right – we need to change how we talk about game studios closing. To do that effectively, however, we need to change how we talk about games period. Media, critics, consumers, whoever – we need to be vocal in our appreciation for the labour that creates games, and we need to protect it.
The first few steps have been taken. Game Workers Unite are moving from strength to strength. Layoffs, toxic culture, crunch are all being widely debated. In this spirit, Heather Alexandra’s review of Odyssey should be an example to emulate and build on – we need to incorporate labour issues into game reviews, and criticism at large.
It’s time to remake the games industry, and we all have to play a part.