This past Saturday, Fortnite did the unthinkable when the iconic map's central volcano erupted and destroyed fan favorite drop zone Tilted Towers, but this long-awaited disaster event actually speaks volumes about developer Epic Games beneath all the fanfare. Epic is stuck between a rock and a hard place when it comes to pleasing both casual and hardcore players right now, and the incredibly high pressure to keep the free-to-play title flush with new content has left the developers playing an eternal game of catch-up since the game's launch a year ago.
Though it may feel like it when developers get it just right, video games aren't magic. Every piece of drip-fed content that's come to prominence with the emergence of game as a service, every controversial balance change and bombastic single-player campaign is brought to players through countless hours of developer labor. As games continue to grow larger and more ambitious, developers like Epic have come under fire for over-exploiting their employees in order to meet deadlines and player demand. This practice is known as crunch, and the problem has grown right alongside the industry to a scale so massive that the outside world is finally taking notice.
Since making modern games requires a lot of specialized labor from up to hundreds of developers to produce content that stands up to rising player expectations, it's little surprise that Epic has been discovered to be one of the worst crunch offenders since Fortnite first shot to success. However, anyone who thinks things will be changing at Epic since it was called out for obligating employees to work insane hours on a cartoony battle royale game can keep dreaming, and Fortnite's most recent map-altering event all but confirms this. Crafted over preposterously short amounts of time compared to elements of traditional games and deliberately popularized in order to spur maximum player engagement and spending, Fortnite's stream of significant updates isn't slowing down anytime soon, regardless of the human cost behind it.
And Epic isn't alone in relying on exploitative crunch to meet perceived player demand, as it's an industry-wide problem that developers like Anthem's Bioware and Mortal Kombat's NetherRealm Studios also embody. In fact, it's growing increasingly clear that crunch isn't anything new at all within the industry. Rather than having suddenly sprung up as video game production's grown more costly and risky, alongside the advent of always-online titles like Fortnite, this managerial abuse of power appears endemically baked into the way games have been made over a much longer period of time. Having come to a head as large publishers and developers rake in billions of dollars of revenue in a gaming market that's finally gone mainstream, it's only now that a budding workers' rights movement and internal whistleblowers have slowly brought crunch to light.
In spite of public opinion turning on the practice, Epic is terraforming Fortnite's map, NetherRealm's working away on season pass content, and Bioware may give up on Anthem to start the cycle of crunch all over again for the next Dragon Age. It's hard to tell what will spell the end of crunch, whether it be through industry reform from within or governmental regulation from without. However it happens, history points to the days of worker exploitation in the gaming industry being finitely numbered, and it can only be hoped that when the bottom falls out that publishers and development studios don't push the consequences onto consumers.