Mortal Kombat developer accused of brutal crunches, discrimination

Steven R. April 27, 2019

Video game development continues to look like a rough industry to work in.

Another story of unhealthy demands on game development workers has come to the surface, this time surrounding NetherRealm Studios. According to a report from PC Gamer, multiple past and present members of the team have discussed prolonged “crunch” periods during the development of the recent Mortal Kombat and Injustice titles. The stories share a number of similarities with other recent exposés on ugly labor practices in video game development.

“It's been 8 years, and they've made it clear to me that I'm persona non grata there anyway so, f--k it. Working at NetherRealm on Mortal Kombat 9 nearly killed me,” software engineer James Longstreet said. “I didn't sleep more than 4 hours for months. from January to April 2011, I was at work more than half of the time.”

Speaking with PC Gamer, Longstreet discussed how he worked brutal hours in the months before the game’s release. During that stretch he describes working “10 a.m. to at least midnight,” seven days a week. He took just one day off during that stretch, for his birthday.

According to Longstreet, those hours were officially demanded of him. Though other development studios accused of exploiting its workers have allegedly done so through a perceived carrot and stick approach to job security and promotions, Longstreet states his schedule was officially mandated.

Another industry practice discussed was the exploitation of contractors, who are denied the opportunity to receive benefits like health insurance. Independent contracting of talent increases a company’s leverage over labor, giving them the ability to pressure workers into taking excessive hours out of fear of not having their contracts renewed or missing out on a potential opportunity for full-time employment.

With NetherRealm, contractors would be given nine-month contracts with three months off in between. Contractors were strung along for years in this way, kept aboard with hints that a full-time opportunity might be possible after the next contract.

PC Gamer’s report also hints at gender discrimination issues in NetherRealm. Though it does not delve deeply into it, an anonymous source discussed a complaint to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission over issues including harassment, being singled-out, and women not being offered full-time work. Contractor concept artist Beck Hallstedt also discussed women being paid less than men.

NetherRealm now joins a growing list of game development studios to have workers discuss unhealthy demands and toxic cultures in the industry.

Though there have long been reports of these issues, the sudden closure of Telltale Games in 2018 resulted in a number of former employees discussing expectations of working excessive hours and brutal “crunches,” where employees were forced into massive lengths of overtime in order to finalize a game build before launch. This was followed by similar claims towards other studios including Bioware, Epic Games, Riot Games, and Rockstar.

NetherRealm has not yet responded to the accusations.