In January 2020, The Stanley Parable: Ultra Deluxe, the follow-up to 2011’s critically acclaimed first-person explorer The Stanley Parable, had already been delayed. In this situation, most bosses in the video game industry would consider crunch, industry parlance for predatory, often unpaid overtime. But William Pugh and his team at Berlin-based studio Crows Crows Crows implemented a solution that goes against conventional industry wisdom. Producer Alicia Contestabile raised the idea of a four-day week in 2019, and then, a few months later, artist Filo Franke and designer Dominik Johann revived it. “At this point, the question was really, ‘How do we keep going?’” Pugh recalls over a Discord call. “And we were basically Iike, ‘Okay, let’s just go to a four-day week.’”
Prior to switching to a four-day week, Crows Crows Crows was a regular nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday organization; before that, it had been fully remote and operated a flexible working structure, paying employees for a certain number of hours per month because many of them were juggling multiple projects and clients. Pugh, a twenty-something with a background in theater who was only 19 when The Stanley Parable became an indie smash hit, admits this initial transition to in-office work was tough. “I found going in five days a week straight up stressful,” he recalls. “I didn’t have a good work-life balance.” Pugh had read about Microsoft Japan’s trialing of a four-day week, which suggested that workers were not only happier but more productive. So he and the rest of the team at Crows Crows Crows, which has six full-time employees, made the leap because, as he puts it, “there was no real reason not to.” Contracts were rewritten — the same pay for four days’ work instead of five.
For years, stories about labor and workplace culture have made headlines in the video game industry for all the wrong reasons. Erin Hoffman lifted the lid on EA’s grim working hours in the early noughties, and since then, crunch has remained endemic within the industry, despite evidence of overwork’s harmful impacts on health and work quality. According to the latest IGDA developer satisfaction survey, crunch has only intensified since the pandemic began. Crows Crows Crows, alongside a growing number of independent studios — Die Gute Fabrik, Young Horses, Kitfox Games, Armor Games, Ko_Op Mode — plus, most eye-catchingly, Guardians of the Galaxy maker Eidos-Montreal and its subsidiary Eidos-Sherbrooke are pushing back against such ingrained approaches to work. For all intents and purposes, these studios are putting people before product and profit. It is, says Pugh, about ensuring colleagues have space for their lives beyond the office — to “treat themselves with compassion.”
By Pugh’s own admission, Crows Crows Crows, maker of decidedly experimental titles, is a “loose, chaotic kind of institution.” With such a focus on boundary-pushing work, he acknowledges it’s fallen into the trap of “valuing the product more than people.” The four-day week is a means of counteracting this, not least for Pugh’s own wellbeing as much as his colleagues. He mentions a mental health crisis that forced him to take time off and describes the four-day week as “literally life-saving.” With Fridays free, it allows Pugh to schedule therapy more easily, not having to tack it onto the start or end of a workday, which can leave him even more exhausted. While Pugh doesn’t have hard data on productivity, he feels work is more consistent across a four-day week. More than that, he says, “it just makes people happier.”
Pugh’s anecdotal experience reflects scientific research. In Iceland, a trial run by Reykjavik City Council, which included over 2,500 workers (1 percent of Iceland’s working population), reported that workers felt “less stressed and at risk of burnout” while their “work-life balance improved” after adopting a shorter working week. Importantly, workers also reported having “more time to spend with their families, do hobbies, and complete household chores.” According to researchers, productivity remained the same or improved, despite the reduction in hours from 40 to 35 or 36.
Where Pugh confesses that his management style at Crows Crows Crows is hands-off (“I’m not gonna put the thumbscrews in if I notice somebody clocking in on the Friday,” he says), Hannah Nicklin, lead of Copenhagen-based studio Die Gute Fabrik (German for “The Good Factory”), has devised a more rigorous approach to the four-day week. She’s taken steps to make her 15-person team’s use of time more efficient, including working with other studios that might have already solved technical or design problems. (Nicklin, for example, prefers to pay to an external source for two hours’ worth of consultation rather than an employee for a week of research on precisely the same issue.) The company’s creative producer Ben Wilson has devised meeting templates for various aspects of production, taking care to ensure everyone is fully prepared.
“A lot of it is actually about project management,” explains Nicklin over Zoom, “so that’s it’s never like, ‘Oh, what’s this meeting for?’ We’re not just here to shout over one another for two hours while the quiet people in our team just sit there. It’s about working out what the best solutions are for us and our workforce.”
Nicklin, even more than Pugh, has an unconventional CV for a game studio boss — she also has a background in theater, has done stints in community arts, and is a longstanding labor activist. The phrase she repeats is “dignity of work,” a nod to both the political philosopher Michael J. Sandel and the late anthropologist David Graeber. In Nicklin’s view, respecting people’s time at their place of work is one part of this, and so is the four-day week itself. The other big initiative she’s introduced is a flat pay structure, which means she’s paid exactly the same as someone with a less senior role who’s been at the studio a similar amount of time. Where women, people of color, and other marginalized groups might undervalue themselves or indeed lack experience (or the bandwidth) for negotiation, this is an attempt to ensure fairer pay.
Nicklin acknowledges such changes would have been impossible without the support of her directors, who have bought into her workplace vision. “[Dignity of work] means empowering people and actively making space in the recruitment process and practice for a diverse workforce,” she continues. “There are people not thinking about that, who just think about the video game itself and don’t really care about who they burn through to get that.”
Burning through staff is a major criticism frequently leveled at blockbuster game development. According to LinkedIn, the turnover rate in the games is around 15.5 percent, higher than any other tech sector, while burnout, exhaustion, and declining mental health are widely accepted as part and parcel of working for major game companies such as Bungie and Rockstar. For Pugh, this is what happens when you have a passionate workforce who has had formative experiences with the games such capitalist organizations produce. “If your dream is to make games, then why wouldn’t you want to sacrifice to do that?” he says. “But so often, it’s just people sacrificing to make nicer rock textures or optimizing particle effects.”
For AAA developers, dignity of work is even harder to come by. Over the past decade, roles have been atomized in organizations whose scale now resembles gigantic factories. Eidos-Montreal and Eidos-Sherbrooke moving to a four-day week is arguably the first step in reimagining worker wellbeing in the corporate mainstream of an industry that has too long treated it with contempt. (Both Quebec-based studios are under the corporate umbrella of Square Enix, which publishes everything from Final Fantasy to Tomb Raider.) During the pandemic, both studios operated a policy of up to four hours “rest-time” on a Friday, which, according to one employee who spoke to The Leak Herald anonymously over Zoom, was a means of “compensation” for the pandemic and the mental health toll it took. Then, on a company-wide Zoom meeting in fall 2021, Eidos-Montreal head David Anfossi announced the winding down of the “rest-time” program, replaced by the full four-day workweek.
“It was kind of a rollercoaster,” reveals the Eidos employee. “We knew there was some talk of it because there were people looking at the research behind the whole thing, so it wasn’t a total surprise. But going from, ‘We’re looking into this,’ to, ‘We’re actively starting this,’ happened way faster than I thought it would.” Like Nicklin’s initiatives at Die Gute Fabrik, the Eidos studios are implementing smarter work structures, including certain hours of the week where meetings can’t be hosted and “focus time” designed to foster more productive working. These are ultimately measures intended to facilitate less “context switching” during the workday. “The changes make a lot of sense,” they say, “and should have just been done anyway.”
Despite the Eidos studios making the transition, it’s with independent companies that the four-day week is gaining the greatest traction. However, even those who have made the switch remain cautious about its long-term feasibility. Kitfox Games made the change in June 2021 during the lead-up to the launch of its dating simulation dungeon-crawler Boyfriend Dungeon, but the idea had been tossed around a few years earlier. At that stage, however, in the depths of development, co-founder Tanya Short felt it was simply “too risky” to add an “unknown percentage of inefficiency” to the studio’s work. “We’re probably not losing 20 percent. Lots of people aren’t super productive on Friday,” says Short. “But maybe they’re somewhat productive for the beginning of the day. Perhaps we’re losing 10 percent productivity or even 5 percent.”
As co-founder of Kitfox Games, Short’s acutely aware of the pressures on independent video game studios and describes moving to the four-day week in terms of another “constraint” on their output. “On the one hand, it’s not that unusual a feeling to think, ‘Okay, this is just a new difficulty I have to operate under and a new consideration when I greenlight a product,” Short explains. “On the other hand, some part of me does wonder if I’m being irresponsible — if I’ll have to do layoffs or if I’m making these games too expensive to be maintainable. I guess we’ll find out in a few years whether this constraint was the straw that broke the camel’s back or if it was just another way for us to make games in a way that lets us also lead a good life.”
What hasn’t happened is any kind of pushback from the funders of these studios. Short describes Kitfox’s situation as enviable in the sense that the company only accepts funding from sources that trust it knows how best to make its games. “We don’t allow external scrutiny of our processes,” she says. Crows Crows Crows is self-financed, and Young Horses, developer of charming adventure game Bugsnax, has cultivated an impressive level of financial independence, reliant on funding from Sony in only a “conservative way,” according to Kevin Geisler, COO and programmer at the company. For more precarious studios without the proven track record of these organizations, the four-day week may simply be less feasible.
Still, this hasn’t stopped Contestabile, former producer at Crows Crows Crows, from implementing a four-day week at the as-yet-unnamed studio she’s in the process of setting up. Because it’s embedded into the company’s work structures from the very start, “it’s not like we’re losing a day,” she explains over email. That said, Contestabile envisages challenges related to the four-day week as production deepens but, conversely, a team that’s better placed to weather such difficulties — one “more resilient and well-rested.”
For Contestabile, the four-day week isn’t just an opportunity to foster a healthier work culture — one that’s “fundamentally anti-racist, feminist, and LGBTQ+ friendly” — it’s also a way of making a meaningful contribution to the climate crisis. According to a recent UK report, moving to a four-day week can shrink carbon emissions, both by reducing energy use in the workplace and slashing transport emissions in the mornings and evenings. The report also found that giving people an extra day off meant they took part in more “low-carbon” activities, including rest, exercise, and seeing family. Eidos-Montreal and Eidos-Sherbrooke are already doing so at the scale of approximately 500 employees, and if more companies made the transition to a four-day week, it would represent genuine progress in reducing the environmental impact of an industry reliant on electricity-intensive PCs and laptops.
Like everything else, the pandemic has fundamentally reoriented the experience and expectations of work for many. It’s hardly a coincidence that the majority of studios that have transitioned to a four-day week have done so during it. But this is also another development in the longer-running story of labor in the video game industry, one that picked up even greater steam in 2021. The year was defined by worker walkouts, strikes, and, momentously, the first North American video game union, Vodeo Workers United. These were actions initiated by those attempting to secure greater dignity of work for both themselves and their co-workers.
“We have a lot of privilege as video game workers,” concludes Contestabile, “and I hope we all use that to make positive changes not only in our own workplaces but in our local communities and with sustainability in mind.”