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The ever-growing instances of game developers speaking out on having to work absurdly and dangerously long hours (i.e. crunch) to reach demanding deadlines was for a while only seen with games I had no interest in playing. My strong distrust in EA as a company already dissuaded me from the publisher’s Bioware-developed titles Anthem and Mass Effect: Andromeda well before allegations of the severe crunch hours were made by Bioware staff. As not being part of Fortnite’s targeted demographic means that similar allegations made against Epic Games’ development of the massive Battle Royale shooter came as no major shocker to me. However the “crunch epidemic” has hit home for me in a franchise I actually have played and enjoyed as a fighting game fan.
Since 2011, NetherRealm Studios (NRS) have had one of the most consistent track records for releasing a new fighting game every two years, those being from the Mortal Kombat and Injustice series. Each entry in the series under NRS’ development has also received post-release content (primarily DLC characters) for often up to a year after the game’s initial launch.
I have wondered in the past how NRS were as consistent as they were with meeting deadlines; which I simply believed was down to good organisation, quality control and teamwork. A recent article from PC Gamer proved that mindset to be naive in hindsight, with former NRS staff members speaking out about crunch hours as severe as those at Bioware or Epic Games.
It’s not just the recently released Mortal Kombat 11 that’s guilty as well, it’s been a trend for NRS since the company’s inception and development of Mortal Kombat 9 in 2010 to 2011. For example Isaac Torres, who was a QA Tester for Injustice in 2012-2013, claimed he “crunched for about 4 months straight and was regularly doing 90-100 hour weeks and worked every single day” in the PC Gamer article.
Torres also comments that “The developers at NetherRealm are some of the best in the world. They deserve to work on a game that has a schedule that actually fits within a reasonable amount of time instead of crunching a year’s worth of work into 6 months”. Although there is nothing illegal with these crunch hours, a lack of unions and workers rights groups means that this can be potentially be exploited by employers; producing deadlines that are impossible to achieve within a weekly 40-hour shift.
Upon reading the PC Gamer article, I have since had a conflicted attitude towards NRS. In the run-up to the release of Mortal Kombat 11, there would be a weekly stream of “Kombat Kast”, where a trio of hosts for the NRS development team would showcase and talk about a playable character in the upcoming game. The Kombat Kast hosts always showed a good deal of passion and interest in their work, coming across as big Mortal Kombat fans themselves.
Since the reveal of the NRS crunch hours however, I find myself questioning how genuine the Kombat Kast is; “How aware are these hosts of the crunch hours? Are they as affected by them as other NRS staff? Do they even care?” I apply these questions now as well even when seeing Ed Boon promote Mortal Kombat 11, who has been the most recognisable face for the Mortal Kombat brand as one of the
original creators of the series.
Further Reading: Activision Blizzard Earn Historic $2 Billion, Fire 800 Staff.
As a fighting game fan, I also enjoy competing in games at offline tournaments and events. Ireland’s main fighting game event, Celtic Throwdown is one of the handful of competitive events chosen to be part of the Mortal Kombat 11 “Pro Kompetition” Tour. While I never been as driven to compete with Mortal Kombat as I have with other fighting games anyway, my motivation to play and overall enjoyment of Mortal Kombat 11 has been stifled somewhat by the reveals of the crunch hours as well.
That being said, the on-goings with the NRS crunch hours and their own E-Sports division of their games could easily have little to no relation with one another. I certainly do not wish however to be that person who condemns those still play NRS titles competitively and host events for them as some sort of protest, and hope that the Pro Kompetition event goes well for Celtic Throwdown all the same.
So what happens from here? Will this speaking out from NRS staff change things for the company in the future? Although Mortal Kombat 11 has come under scrutiny from reviewers for it’s very grind-heavy loot system, the critical reception is a non-issue if the game still sells as well as previous NRS titles.
Unless there is massive shift in workers’ rights for video game developers, change will be all the less likely as well. So, should we see a possible Injustice 3 coming out in Spring 2021, we can assume it’ll be done by the same “crunch” process at NetherRealm Studios, for 10 years running out no less.