Fortnite © Epic Games

The Success Of 'Fortnite' Comes At A Price: Appalling Conditions For Workers On The Game

With impossible working hours and intimidation in the workplace, the teams behind 'Fortnite' are fighting a true battle-royale...

The immense popularity of Fortnite far exceeded the expectations of the game's developer and publisher, Epic Games. What was originally just a "simple" co-op game in 2017 became a successful battle royale several months later. In less than a year, Fortnite Battle Royale had 125 million players on its servers, breaking and holding the record for lightning growth.

However, there's always another side to the coin with such huge success stories and the video games industry is no exception, especially with regard to working conditions. It's far less glamorous than people often think, especially on the development side where coders, programmers and designers work extremely hard. 

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At the end of 2018, the Rockstar Games studio caused a scandal: co-founder Dan Houser let slip that the team "were working 100-hour weeks" prior to the launch of the game Red Dead Redemption 2 to demonstrate the "passion" involved in the process.

This highly questionable management method, which consists of forcing employees to work huge amounts of overtime (which is not necessarily recorded) for short periods before a specific deadline (release of a game, conference presentation, etc.) has a name: the crunch.

According to an extensive study carried out by Polygon magazine, the development team behind Fortnite who worked at the Epic studios, as well as the contractors working on the game, were equally affected by these inhuman working hours as a result of the (excessively?) rapid success of the game and the software company's desire to update it constantly. 

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"I Work An Average 70 Hours A Week"

The statements published by the magazine are very revealing, and the working hours reported are completely insane. Even contractors and customer service workers at Epic mention a hostile, intimidating working environment, where overtime is actually a "service" expected by the company.

The developers openly speak of a "culture of fear". Some of them report suffering health problems after working extremely long hours for several consecutive months. One Epic Games employee told Polygon:

"I work an average 70 hours a week. [...] I know people who pull 100-hour weeks. The company gives us unlimited time off, but it’s almost impossible to take the time. If I take time off, the workload falls on other people, and no one wants to be that guy."

Unfortunately, the video games industry, which is still quite young, has very few instruments for guaranteeing worker protections in the United States. It was only very recently that new trade unions such as Game Workers Unite encouraged employees in the industry to come together in order to protect their rights. 

"All [Management] Wanted Was People Who Are Disposable"

From the statements gathered by Polygon, it appears that the pressure placed on individual employees by the management team is extremely harsh. Those who spoke out asked for their identities to be protected for fear of reprisals from Epic or even from other employers in the video games industry. 

Epic Games requires its staff to sign confidentiality agreements, which also bind former employees, limiting their ability to talk about the inner workings of the company. A witness said: 

"I know some people who just refused to work weekends, and then we missed a deadline because their part of the package wasn’t completed, and they were fired. People are losing their jobs because they don’t want to work these hours."

Some admitted to having nervous breakdowns, bursting into tears at work or experiencing burnout as the precarious nature of their contracts (and the sector in general) squeezed them dry. On this matter, a spokesperson from Epic Games declared that average contractor overtime stands at "less than five hours per week".

However, this claim is contradicted by the employees who spoke about their experiences, who say that they were constantly working in crunch conditions: "I was working at least 12-hour days, seven days a week, for at least four or five months. A lot of that was having to stay at work till 3 or 4 in the morning", reported a former contractor to the company.

The Problem Of Online Games

Despite the huge profits generated by the Fortnite machine (3 billion dollars in 2018), Epic Games isn't planning to give up on its baby just yet, and the software company is redoubling efforts to keep the game at the top in response to competition from games like Apex Legends.

Weekly patches and sporadic corrections to resolve "crises" (bugs, glitches, criticism from players) represent a huge amount of work for developers. A representative for Epic admits that "some" workers have been required to work extremely long hours, saying: 

"Everything has to be done immediately. We’re not allowed to spend time on anything. If something breaks — a weapon, say — then we can’t just turn it off and fix it with the next patch. It has to be fixed immediately, and all the while, we’re still working on next week’s patch. It’s brutal."

Numerous sources have claimed that Epic took a much healthier approach to its working culture before the success of Fortnite, when overtime was only requested if entirely necessary and only at certain times of year. But with the game's success, working hours and expectations of developers have raced out of control.

Epic Games is based in Cary, in North Carolina, and employs roughly one thousand people. The company's website currently features more than 200 job offers. 

 

Article translated by: Eleanor Staniforth

By Pierre Bazin, published on 06/05/2019

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