After a damning report on the human cost of crunch culture at Bethesda Game Studios and ZeniMax by Kotaku, Xbox Game Studios head Matt Booty reportedly went on the defensive at an all-hands meeting at Xbox. Booty said he was confident Bethesda wasn’t encouraging crunch culture anymore, and that it’s unfair to single out Bethesda for a cultural problem in the wider games industry.
Kotaku reports that Booty was responding to employee concerns and asked to address the track record of crunch at Bethesda and ZeniMax during the troubled development and launch of Fallout 76, which allegedly included mandatory overtime and a peer pressure culture that valorized working yourself to the bone.
“Crunch culture is…if you go back 10 years ago, it’s a little unfair to put that on one studio,” said Booty. “It was just part of the industry. I don’t say that to justify it, I’m just saying it was part of the culture of the industry. I literally slept under my desk early in my career. And we looked at that like a badge of honor.”
Booty stressed that crunch is supposed to be a thing of the past, but admitted that it could still be going on without his knowledge. He asked employees to trust in Xbox’s internal reporting processes for anonymous reporting and checks and balances.
While Booty is speaking from experience on crunch culture and not trying to justify things, it comes across as passing the buck. These stories of endemic crunch in the studio aren’t in the distant past, they’re from only four years ago, short enough to still be recent institutional memory. It seems cavalier to dismiss crunch as simply something that happened back in old Bethesda, and not under new, Microsoft-owned Bethesda. IMO, Booty’s words minimize the responsibility Xbox and Microsoft might have in taking an honest look at its in-house studios and their ability to fix things.
But there’s also unresolved business around the allegations of a hellishly sexist work environment in upcoming acquisition Activision Blizzard, where anti-union corporate shitheel Bobby Kotick appears secure on his throne, while Xbox’s Phil Spencer promises to recognize any union formed. The Kotaku report also notes complaints in other Xbox acquisitions such as Undead Labs where a “hands-off” approach by Xbox and MS has “allowed dysfunction to fester” even under new ownership.
If Xbox wants to really be about better working culture for its developers and employees, it can’t just sweep away the embarrassments and sins of its acquisitions, it has to acknowledge and make it a point to fix them.