Rampant Crunch At Japanese Game Devs Is An Unspoken Reality. Here's Why.
Trigger warning: This article discusses depression, suicide, and associated outcomes of work-related stress.
Attention regarding development crunch, once a relatively unremarked upon reality of game development, has gone mainstream. As the gaming industry matures and the public becomes more aware of the employment practices at their favorite studios, crunch has become a common part of the lexicon. Exposes have been written about crunch culture in the closing weeks of massive triple-A releases, and players have grown more vocal about the practice and put pressure on companies to build sustainable work environments.
But even as studios in the West come under increased scrutiny, we hear precious little about the development practices and crunch in a major swath of the gaming industry: Japanese developers. This raises obvious practical questions: Does crunch exist within Japanese studios? How is it recognized and treated within the cultural context of Japanese businesses? And how can Western consumers who care about healthy working environments advocate for it in a region that is so geographically and culturally separated from our own?
I spoke with current and former developers familiar with the Japanese games industry regarding game development, crunch, and Japanese work culture at large. Practices that we would recognize as crunch certainly take place in Japanese studios, but Western audiences do not hear these stories for a variety of reasons, not least of which because it reflects a microcosm of Japan's work culture as a whole. The Japanese industry is notably insular, leading to very little information about their inner workings reaching Western audiences. In many ways Japanese studios are black boxes to outsiders--just as reliant on crunch as Western studios were before the stream of exposes, but much harder to penetrate due to language and cultural barriers.
"I'm sorry for leaving before you"
In the West, crunch has become the understood shorthand for an intensive period of overtime on a development project, usually (but not always) in a short period before an important deadline like a funding milestone or shipping date. The practice is often criticized as contributing to poor work-life balance--forcing workers to miss important personal events, or having precious little time to spend with families during an extended crunch period. Several high-profile studios have been revealed as engaging in crunch, and even well-intentioned producers have admitted they've slipped into the habit. It's often shameful and secretive, and studios that make a point to avoid crunch will use it as a feather in their cap for recruitment efforts.
To begin understanding how crunch is perceived in Japan, you have to start with the understanding that work culture as a whole in Japan is rather different from the one we recognize in the West. According to multiple expats who have gone on to live and work in Japan, companies retain employees for much longer than in the West, and firing a contracted employee for anything less than grave danger to the company is almost unheard of. Tomas Rovina Roquero, a former developer who worked across studios in both England and Japan, told GameSpot the labor laws in Japan make it "almost impossible" to fire someone classified as a seishain--literally, a "real employee."
This fosters a sense of belonging within the Japanese working culture, as employees can often plan to make a lifelong career out of their first contracted job. This is a far cry from the norm in the United States, where workers often change jobs for better prospects, leading to an average tenure of just 4.1 years with a single employer. Similarly, companies in Japan are starting to turn toward freelance contracts, or shokutaku, which can simply be allowed to expire once the term ends.
Though being secure in your job would seem to reassure employees and allow them to work without high levels of stress, in practice, just the opposite may be true. That level of job security can come with the often unspoken expectation that the company deserves an extraordinary amount of your effort and time.
Esteban Salazar is vice president of business development at the Tokyo-based studio Stage Games. He previously spent time at Success, Grasshopper, and Marvelous. He said that because of this demanding work culture in the Japanese industry at large, game development crunch is difficult to separate from the broader work culture in Japan.
"Japanese work culture is very different from the sort of things you hear about overseas," said Salazar. "There's the talk of, 'you can't go home before your boss goes home.' Overtime is the norm, stuff like that. So I think in a broader sense, beyond games, the idea that a job is meant to fill up most of the hours of the day is kind of accepted by Japan as a whole."
The legal structure of work differs in Japan, too. Salazar noted that forced overtime is illegal in Japan. If an employer tells a worker they have to work overtime, you could file a complaint to the labor board. As a result, many Japanese companies build overtime hours into your paycheck, with an amount set aside that covers some amount of overtime hours. He said it's typically 40 hours per month, which means any overtime required during that time is already covered by your paycheck, so companies can ask for extra hours without running afoul of the laws.
In practice, this creates the implicit expectation that you need to work overtime, whether it's being requested for a crunch period or not. Otherwise, you're effectively seen as stealing from the company because it has already been worked into your pay.
This combination of incentives and norms create what many describe as a year-round crunch culture, where employees are expected to stay late regularly. Another person knowledgeable about working practices in Japan noted that a colleague at a major Japanese publisher couldn't attend a social get-together because they were crunching on a project that hadn't even been announced at the time. This wasn't a last-mile problem to complete the game before a shipping deadline, which itself is a problematic trend, but something much earlier in the development cycle.
Managers set the standard by their own behavior--it's considered bad form to leave before the boss. This is similar to Western studios, where employees have reported feeling pressured to work long hours because of a certain tone that comes from the top. If your manager is staying late, it's understood that you should, too.
But Japanese studios are more opaque to Westerners than ones in the United States and Europe, so we don't always see the signs of management putting in long hours and how it could impact the studio culture. When we do, we might not recognize them. A New Yorker profile of famed game director Hidetaka Miyazaki, published just ahead of the release of Elden Ring, included a casual aside about his work ethic and how it ties thematically into his philosophy of game design: "In the months leading up to a release, Miyazaki leaves the office only sporadically, to shower. At work, too, he believes that struggle amplifies accomplishment."
That expectation that you'll devote most of your waking time to work has become so ingrained in Japanese culture that it manifests as common figures of speech. Employees who leave work before their coworkers often part by saying osakini shitsureishimasu. This roughly translates, "I'm sorry for leaving before you."
"Anecdotally, I'll go home on time," Salazar said. "My work is done, I'm not going to stick around. And I've been told, 'Oh, you're going home early.' And I'm like no, I'm not going home early, I'm leaving on time. I've finished my work for the day… I'm leaving on time, I'm not leaving early."
The black companies
The cultural norms surrounding Japanese industry have resulted in their own terminology for companies that demand too much from workers. A burakku kigyou or "black company" refers to a corporation known for its exploitative conditions. The term originated in the Japanese tech sector, and while it doesn't refer specifically to game developers, the idea shares some noticeable traits and has become a widespread shorthand for problematic companies. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare even provided a set of criteria for identifying a black company, including "excessively long working hours and quotas" and "unpaid overtime."
While there is no formal designation of black companies imposed by an official body, Japanese watchdogs have opened up voting mechanisms for workers to call out companies for their unfair practices. More importantly, workers will often warn each other away from companies through whisper networks.
"Occasionally you hear things about that," Salazar said. "Like, 'oh, I've heard that company is very black. You know, it's the blackest company, you don't want to work there.' So there is an undercurrent of that--people discussing it amongst themselves, but it doesn't get a lot of press as far as I know. And you definitely don't hear about it in the Western media."
Worked to death
Against this background of standardized overwork and demanding environments, mental health has become a major concern in the Japanese industry. The Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare recorded a record number of applications for work-related mental health disorders in 2021, and the number of cases eligible for compensation increased for the third year in a row. The most commonly cited causes of these disorders was abuse of power by a superior, followed by a "change in the nature or amount of work duties."
The problem is so top-of-mind that Japanese people have coined a term for it: karoshi, or "overwork death." These can range from stress-induced heart attacks and strokes to suicide. One of the most notorious examples of a black company surrounded Mina Mori, employee of the restaurant chain Watami, who committed suicide just two months after joining the company. The company later reached an out-of-court settlement with the family, and the company founder apologized. One warning sign of this can be utsubyou--which literally translates to depression or melancholy, but has become understood as a sign of mental breakdown. Rovina Roquero and Salazar both said they've witnessed colleagues suffering from these acute issues.
"One of these people left because of the stress," Salazar said. "She was working a lot of overtime. I think she had maybe some disagreements with some of the people that were supposed to be training her. She left because she said her health was suffering from the job."
With these cultural problems so prevalent, the Japanese government has attempted to enforce labor laws and come up with campaigns to reduce the tension in its industries to mixed results. Following another high-profile instance of stress-related suicide in 2017 at the advertising firm Dentsu, Japan instituted Premium Friday--a campaign recommending employers allow their workers to take off from work early once per month in order to go shopping or travel and spend time with their families.
It was a positive step, but companies weren't uniformly on-board. One survey of 155 companies found that 45% had no plans to implement Premium Fridays into their work culture, versus only 37% saying they either already had or planned to. Salazar said that, by the time I spoke to him in 2022, it had essentially been discontinued because employers largely weren't doing it, and workers didn't feel they had the permission structure to leave work early if it would reflect poorly on their performance.
And that work culture, in turn, has an impact on family life. One expat noted the common trope of the "Saturday dad," caused by the (usually male) breadwinner working a job so demanding they rent a separate apartment nearer to work where they can stay during the week, only going home to their families on the weekends.
Sleeping and studying at your desk
The most common impact of these demands is not mental breakdown or estranged families, but physical fatigue. And when that happens, it's often interpreted less as a warning sign than a goal.
"I have seen people that are asleep at their desk," Salazar said. "Not just during break time, but at lunch, or our designated break time. Presumably, because they're exhausted because they've worked a lot of overtime and stayed late the night before. It's kind of seen as something to be aspired to. Like, 'Oh, that person's working very hard.'"
Sometimes, those long hours include not just standard overtime, but attempting to learn an entirely new field. Salazar said that at one company, fresh-faced graduates were given an aptitude test that determined their job duties--regardless of whether they had any college training in the subject.
"We had new graduates come in who were very keen to be joining the games business. Fresh out of school, the kind of people you really want. The people that remind you how great it is to make games for a living. Full of enthusiasm. No matter what they studied in school, they were often assigned to different tasks based on the results of this aptitude test," Salazar said. "There were people that were learning to program that had never programmed before and things like that. Killing themselves to do it. Staying after hours to learn more about their new job they hadn't studied at school."
Understanding all of this, the question ceases to be whether crunch exists in Japanese game development. Video games are just one part of a larger tech employment culture that often demands long hours. What we call development crunch in the West remains relatively normalized in Japan across lots of different industries, especially white-collar jobs that take part in an office environment. And while companies are keen to hire international workers, there can be a culture shock.
"It can lead to tension," he said. "There's two different understandings of what hard work is. If your boss thinks, 'Oh, you're not working very hard,' that could cause a lot of trouble. There was a kind of separation between the Japanese employees and the foreigners. Because the foreigners would be like, 'Oh, I'm not staying late. I'm going home. I've got a life outside this company that I want to get to.' During crunch time, the foreigners still crunched. They wouldn't stay until the last train, or sleep at the office. I've seen people sleeping at the office."
And all of this presents a quandary in how we respond as an audience. In the West, our knowledge of development crunch is patchy and inconsistent, but when we do learn about the practice, it has a sense of specificity. We often learn that a particular studio utilized crunch at a certain time and for a certain period. For those who wish to influence game studios and encourage worker-friendly conditions, it grants a goal for direct action. In Japan, crunch is potentially anywhere, at any time. A studio may be pressuring its employees to put in long hours much more frequently than we realize, or even on projects we've never actually heard of. As we aim to build a more equitable industry that treats its employees well, we may need a different approach to influence an industry separated by an ocean, a language, and a culture.
This story originally appeared on: Gamespot - Author:Steve Watts