Crunch” or “crunch culture” describes a form of work culture in companies which relies on the massive use of (mostly unpaid) overtime during a period of several months to achieve the company’s goals. Employees often also work late into the night or the early hours of the morning and at weekends. Psychological pressure, unrealistic deadlines, or false promises are considered cultural practices, which can lead to burnout and other symptoms among employees in combination with emotional and physical stress.

The topic “crunch” has received particular attention in the US game press (especially by the renowned Bloomberg journalist Jason Schreier) and around the publication of Cyberpunk 2077 by CD Project Red, which was released in 2020 under problematic production conditions. Public pressure recently gave the impression that the US game companies have signaled a certain will to improve the work situation.

However, a video published on March 4th by games journalist Chris Bratt (formerly Eurogamer) on his YouTube channel “People Make Games” now gives the impression that the studios have simply shifted their problematic working conditions into other companies and countries. According to Bratt, this applies particularly to so-called outsourcing, in which external studios handle individual parts of game development. In this specific case, two studios from Malaysia and Indonesia.

Both Lemon Sky from Malaysia and Brandoville from Indonesia have taken on commissioned work, often in the art field, for well-known game manufacturers from all over the world, including, for example for Activision-Blizzard‘s Warcraft 3: Reforged.

In the video mentioned above, Bratt lets some of 19 current and former Lemon Sky and Brandoville employees speak anonymously. What they have to report is terrifying. Due to poor project planning and unrealistic deadlines, up to 30 hours of unpaid overtime per week was the rule for many projects, often combined with working hours until 3-5 a.m. According to those employees, it was not a matter of ordered overtime, but due to strict time planning and pressure to produce results, as the client’s deadlines could not be met without additional work. Brandoville employees also report manipulative practices on the part of management. The voices are unanimous about the enormous strain caused by the working conditions in both studios.

Some of Lemon Sky’s latest projects. Source: Lemon Sky

At our request, Lemon Sky answered with an official statement. The company rejects all allegations back as factually and legally wrong, invoking Malaysian labor law regarding working hours. Lemon Sky does not provide any arguments to exonerate. Still, Lemon Sky is astonished about the allegations and claims that it takes its employees’ well-being and mental health very seriously. Due to the claims, Lemon Sky will conduct a survey among the workforce. A response from Brandoville is currently pending.

The current information does not provide a uniform picture of the working conditions at Lemon Sky and Brandoville, and indeed not of the entire outsourcing industry. Nevertheless, we hope that these allegations will stimulate a general debate on working conditions in the Southeast Asian games industry. Abusive working conditions like “crunch” are not to be tolerated, and it cannot be that western game companies wash themselves “clean” through outsourcing. In contrast, working conditions are far worse at their contractor studios. It would be too easy to only look to the studios from Malaysia and Indonesia to blame. Any company outsourcing has a moral duty to inform themselves about the working conditions there and, if necessary, to adjust deadlines and cost calculations accordingly so that the employees’ health is not abused. Everything else is simply another exploitative method in the tradition of colonialism.

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