Grueling is a harsh, unpleasant word, conjuring images of hard service and exhausting labor. The term comes from the slang phrase “to get one’s gruel,” to eat barely edible slop, not as sustenance but as punishment. Grueling is a word that would seem rarely apt among technology workers in rich countries—a word used hyperbolically, perhaps, but not earnestly. How could video game development, of all things, be grueling?
Shovel Knight’s development was, among gamers and critics, a high-profile indie success. The developers, Yacht Club Games, catapulted past their crowdfunding goal, raking in over 400% of their modest $75,000 target. The retro-styled platformer was released to solid reviews, with critics praising the challenging gameplay, the attractive pixel art visuals, and the charming chiptune soundtrack (which includes two tracks from Manami Matsumae, the woman behind the original Mega Man soundtrack). The game has been a commercial success by indie measures, and far surpassed the company’s own expectations.
Shovel Knight’s development was also, in unambiguous terms, grueling. That’s their word, not mine. In a company blog post, they describe the process: “$30k minus taxes for one year’s salary, a grueling work pace (think: 12-18 hours a day, 7 days a week) and no stability whatsoever….why bother?” To make things clear, they also offer the adverbial “gruelingly terrible.” They planned to develop the game within two years, and “ended up operating for five months without money or payments to the team.” At least one person worked without upfront payment at all: “First, we took [composer] Jake Kaufman’s salary out of the equation – he was generous enough to agree to a post-release payment.”
Twelve-plus hour days. No break. Working without pay. I do not, of course, have personal experience working with Yacht Club Games, but based on their description, “grueling” seems appropriate. What would have happened if they had merely met their Kickstarter goal instead of hitting 415%? How many more months could they have worked without pay? Does Shovel Knight exist only because a group of designers agreed to working conditions that would be, among conventional employers, illegal?
Major game companies have, in recent years, come under scrutiny for their labor practices. The game industry is notorious for frequent and massive layoffs, long working hours, exploitation of contract labor, rampant sexism, and just about everything else on the corporate malfeasance bingo card. This scrutiny is well-deserved. Reporting on these labor practices is one of the few ways that gaming journalists do real and important journalism instead of consumerist cheerleading.
Indie developers, though, receive little attention from the perspective of labor. Yacht Club Games’ blog post was reported as a success story, with headlines focusing on the high sales. “Shovel Knight Developer Breaks Down Its Impressive Sales” reads one typical GameInformer report. Polygon framed the story as a necessary journey: “Why Shovel Knight’s devs had to go broke to become successful.” Shovel Knight was indeed successful, but what headlines would have been written in the alternate universe where it was not?
The rise of crowdfunding has given us inevitable examples of failed projects, games with troubled and sometimes canceled development. Often, those designers are criticized for poor project management and mishandled funds, and they can even be accused of defrauding their fans. In contrast to the Shovel Knight ballyhoo, another Polygon editorial warns that the failure of the Yogventures Kickstarter, based on a popular podcast, is a “painful reminder of the risk of crowdfunding”—not to developers, but to gamers. This Kotaku post, “The Case of the Disappearing Kickstarter,” worries how failed projects might affect supporters. “How many people disappear after earning thousands of dollars? How many people will never receive the rewards that they’re promised?”
Concerns are, of course, warranted when you spend money in expectation of a product. But there is little sympathy for the bedraggled developer toiling in an industry so, to use the word, grueling. Had Shovel Knight failed to materialize, it is unlikely we would regard it as a what-might-have-been story of a project that asked too much of its workers. Very likely, we would treat Yacht Club Games as ill-prepared frauds. Very likely, the threadbare development would be seen in retrospect as an obvious red flag.
These attitudes are not new. The 2012 film Indie Game: The Movie follows the development of two indie games, Super Meat Boy and Fez, and also comments on the success of 2008’s Braid. The film highlights the long work hours and the enormous risk these projects faced. Edmund McMillen and Tommy Refenes, the designers of Super Meat Boy, worked in nonstop crunch time, under financial burden, to jump through Microsoft’s publishing hoops. (The film does not seem to consider it strange that these “indie” developers are still beholden to the whims of a huge corporation.) Nonetheless, Indie Game: The Movie portrays these people as struggling underdogs, and the film ends on an undeniable positive note, with the successful launch of Super Meat Boy and a promising future for Fez. Fez had not, by the film’s release date, even come out, and Phil Fish, the designer, is now well known for his open disdain of the game industry and even his supposed fans. In August 2014, two years later, Fish put his studio and the Fez property up for sale.
We could trace these attitudes back further, to the scrappy perseverance of Tim Schafer’s Double Fine, the Shareware successes of Id Software, to the garage developers of the 80s and 90s. We love stories of independent creators, of passion projects financially rewarded. But EA does not have a monopoly on crunch time. Working without pay means you cannot afford rent, whether you work for Crytek or whether you work out of your own home. Whether indie or corporate, games made under arduous conditions, without safety nets, will continue to be the domain of only those people who can take those risks—boxing out those who cannot live off savings, who cannot sit at a computer for twelve hours a day, seven days a week. It hardly needs to be said that these lines have historically been drawn between young men and everybody else.
In another Kotaku report, anonymous employees shared their stories of corporate layoffs, and one comment in particular stands out.
“This isn’t going to change. It’s a hit-driven industry; the vast majority of games aren’t going to recoup their development costs. What’s truly scary–to me, anyway–is that this logic is going to hit the indie development scene soon, and it’s going to hit hard. It’s not going to be as newsworthy, because the studio names aren’t going to be recognizable, and the games aren’t going to be ones that people played. But the human cost is going to be just as severe; in many cases, it will be worse, because the funding isn’t coming from big publishers or VC [venture capital]. It’s coming out of people’s savings or their families.”
Video games, for most people, are consumer products, entertainment machines designed to occupy some amount of time as a function of some amount of money. For some people, those chest-puffing “indie gamers,” video games are supposedly something more. They are artistic creations that require active, enthusiastic support, whose creators deserve to pay rent and put food on their table. But independence, by itself, is not a true alternative to the corporate development process, unless all you care about is a slightly wider variety of games for sale. Game designers need stronger safety nets, not a Kickstarter pittance. Game development needs more open doors, not indie audiences with demands just as severe as any corporate fanboy. Game development cannot continue to be grueling as a matter of course if we want this hobby and its industry to be healthy and diverse.
Grayson is a writer and editor living in Chicago. Follow him on Twitter at @vghmag.