New Documentary ‘Playing Hard’ Shows That Making Games Can Be Hell

The film, now on Netflix, misses the mark by focusing on Ubisoft higher-ups during the development of 'For Honor,' rather than rank-and-file workers.

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Apr 9 2019, 6:39pm

Screengrab: Playing Hard

Two months before the release of Ubisoft’s historical online fighting game For Honor, producer Stéphane Cardin left the project without warning.

Cardin, burned out, fled to a cabin in the woods for what the new documentary Playing Hard—which chronicles the four year development of For Honor, from pitch to launch, and is available to stream on Netflix— generously called “an intensive therapy retreat.”

“On a four-to-five year project, the project is your backdrop, but it becomes your life, your whole way of life,” Cardin says over footage of him staring, exhausted, into a fire. “At a certain point, you lose your bearings.”

In a later scene, back at the office, Cardin faces the For Honor team and explains what happened. “My command center just shut down,” he says. “I woke up and I was not able to think. And I went and said, ‘Go and get help.’ So, I just want to share that with you, just telling you that it’s part of life. I don’t recommend you pass through the hell I pass through.”

It’s a brief but powerful moment in Playing Hard, a drama-packed and necessary look at the toll that making a video game takes on those who do the work. But while the film succeeds in showing the ravages of burn out on even company higher-ups like Cardin, it does a poor job of highlighting rank-and-file employees who no doubt faced the brunt of it.

Working on video games, especially big budget titles such as For Honor, can be stressful, even life-destroying work. After years of workers and their families suffering to make games that millions of people enjoy, employees are finally starting to talk about the benefits of unionizing and a reasonable work-life balance.

A hallmark of exploitative labor in the gaming industry is “crunch.” Crunch refers to a standard and expected period of overtime that typically comes in the last few months of a game’s development. BioWare employees worked overtime to finish Anthem in its final months and corporate called it “Bioware Magic.” To finish Gears of War 4, quality assurance employees—the people who test the game for bugs, a notoriously overworked and underpaid position—worked 12-hour days, sometimes through weekends, for a month.

Crunch isn’t specifically mentioned in Playing Hard, but the signs are on full display: long hours, wavering mental health, and physical deterioration.

The film focuses on big personalities—all higher-ups like Cardin—and it’s mostly For Honor creative director Jason VandenBerghe’s show. The bearded, walking-cane wielding creator is a cracking buzz of pure energy at the start of the development cycle and, later, a pit of depression.

It’s VandenBerghe’s passion that convinces publisher Ubisoft to take a chance on For Honor and let VandenBerghe create a game that he claimed to want to play since he was a child. By the end of For Honor’s development, though, VandenBerghe is depressed and overworked. In one scene, he comes home to briefly speak with his wife and down protein shakes. “That’s lunch,” he says as he wipes the remnants of a Boost drink from his lips.

Cardin and VandenBerghe’s plight is illuminating, relatable to anyone who’s felt overworked, and hard to watch. But it’s a narrow focus on a privileged few within a large, multi-billion dollar company. Hundreds of people worked on From Honor and burn out hit more than just its leadership team. I want to hear the stories of the coders and the quality assurance team.

Throughout Playing Hard, Cardin complains about losing workers. Employees fled the project, never to be replaced, and the team had to cut features in the runup to launch. But the audience never sees those employees. By focusing exclusively on Ubisoft leadership, Playing Hard misses the stories of the rank-and-file employees who worked on the game, and thus missed the bigger picture.

After watching Cardin tell his crew he didn’t wish hell on them after returning from his woodland retreat, I wondered what would have happened if someone on the quality assurance team raised their hand and requested a stress break in a cabin late in a major title’s development cycle. Would they be allowed to go, or simply be out of a job?

According to Ubisoft, any employee can take these liberties when they’re stressed.

“Our culture has been evolving with learnings from all projects and teams,” an Ubisoft spokesperson told me in an email. “Ubisoft Montreal’s HR policies with regards to health, either physical or mental, apply to all employees. We take mental health issues very seriously and offer support through a partner company and insurance plan.”

If any Ubisoft employees would like to weigh in on this perspective, please send me a direct message on Twitter.

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