Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga developers say crunch was a ‘soft-spoken blackmail’

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The biggest Lego Star Wars game to date, Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga, took its developer nearly five years to make, a process that included extensive crunch, mismanagement, and high staff turnover, according to a report by Polygon.

The game, which got an April 5 release date today, has been through a tumultuous development since 2017. Several current and former developers from TT Games—at both the Knutsford, UK-based studio and the Wilmslow, UK-based TT Fusion—described a culture where working overtime was effectively mandatory and concerns about the company’s ongoing issues went largely unfixed.

One employee said that overtime hours were “a very soft-spoken blackmail,” and were told things like “‘If people don’t start doing overtime, there’s going to be problems.'”

When the company started in 2005, TT Games presented overtime as voluntary and paid, but that changed in 2010. Department leads at the studios decided whether extra work hours were classified as overtime or “flexitime.” Overtime would result in extra pay or days off, but “flexitime,” which was capped at 40 hours, could be exchanged for late starts and additional holidays. Developers were warned about consequences for not putting in extra work time and that they would be letting down the team, and said this led to many regularly working 80 to 100 hours, six days a week, during crunch periods.

In addition to the long hours, both TT studios were hostile to women, according to Polygon’s sources. Women were subjected to bullying, comments about their appearances, and were paid less than most male employees. In an April 5, 2020 gender pay gap report, women at the company only made up 2.4% of the highest paid jobs and only 8.7% of the employees in the upper middle hourly pay quarter. 

Much of The Skywalker Saga’s development was held back by the decision to use a new game engine. TT Games is known for its multi-platform Lego games that use a proprietary engine, but in order to avoid licensing costs from Unreal Engine, the game was put onto a new, untested one, despite employees’ concerns for its stability and impact on development. Developers said the new engine caused delays in implementing animations and would frequently crash, wiping out hours of work.

When confronted with these complaints near the end of 2017, managing director Tom Stone held a meeting for feedback and, according to employees, didn’t do much to alleviate these problems. Stone told Polygon he had “no reports of bullying,” at the time, and that “to give it balance we had plenty of people, even the same people, say, ‘I absolutely love being here and I love working on Lego games.'”

TT Games employees say The Skywalker Saga was riddled with scope issues, which they cite as a big factor in its long development cycle. Directors asked for new mechanics only to want them changed soon after. Management told developers to “strive for 85” throughout development—referencing the Metacritic score they hoped to hit. The game was delayed three times since its announcement in 2019, a fact that the developers Polygon spoke to said is unsurprising.

TT Games underwent several changes in its management in 2020 and 2021, including the departures of its studio head and head of design. Since the start of 2021, Polygon reports at least 40 employees left TT Games and TT Fusion.

When asked about the company’s issues, TT Games told Polygon it’s “committed to creating a respectful, fair and inclusive workplace for every employee,” and that “there have been many efforts in recent years, with new studio leadership and the support of Warner Bros. Games, to nurture a collaborative culture and work-life balance our employees can be proud of.”

Polygon’s sources say TT Games have decided it won’t use the NTT engine on future projects and will use Unreal Engine instead. They also said that it has paid closer attention to limiting the amount of overtime that its staff can work in the last few months.

A new trailer for The Skywalker Saga was released today, highlighting the redesigned combat system, upgrades, and new Force powers. It seems that all of that came at a significant cost to the lives of its developers. TT Games’ crunch culture stands in contrast to studios like Double Fine and Respawn Entertainment that tout having little to no crunch during development of their games. With more and more studios confronting crunch and developers’ increasing interest in unionizing, hopefully working conditions begin to improve everywhere. 

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