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The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A video game studio moved to a four-day workweek. It ‘saved us,’ employees say.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)
13 min

On Sept. 16 of last year, management at Blackbird Interactive, the 300-person studio behind “Hardspace: Shipbreaker” and the upcoming strategy game “Homeworld 3,” sent out a survey. The goal was simple but unheard of in the systematically overworked video game industry: to gauge interest in a four-day workweek.

The timing was, to say the least, auspicious. One anonymous respondent described the “Shipbreaker” team as stressed and burned out, explaining that supporting the game’s early access release had taken “a heavy and unexpected toll.”

Today, Blackbird announced it will permanently adopt a Monday-Thursday workweek across all six of its projects. But the journey to get there was not without bumps in the road. Some at the studio worried that in an industry inundated with periods of brutal crunch, removing hours from the week would just necessitate more of it. Others looked at the late stage of development projects like “Shipbreaker” were in and feared the timing of such a change couldn’t have been worse. A three-month long test of the four-day workweek quickly disabused them of these notions. But concerns remain as to whether a four-day workweek can keep overwork at bay — or even be maintained — in an industry where the majority of the workforce is not unionized and is susceptible to sudden shifts brought on by buyouts, layoffs and executive whims.

The “Shipbreaker” team was one of the two teams participating in the four-day workweek test, which ran from Sept. 20, 2021 to Dec. 10, 2021. While the other team, working on a roguelike deck-building game code named “Owl,” was in the early preproduction stages of development, the “Shipbreaker” team was truly in the thick of it — and had been for quite some time. The game, in which players crawl through the guts of derelict spaceships and slice them up for salvage, launched into early access on Steam in 2020. Since then, Shipbreaker’s team had been working to get it across the finish line, maintain its sizable, content-hungry community and live up to the terms of a deal with French publisher Focus Entertainment. According to the survey, the results of which were shared with The Post, some developers were working over 40 hours each week.

Why is the games industry so burdened with crunch? It starts with labor laws.

Blackbird, an independent studio trying to stay aloft in a time of rapid industry consolidation and a growing talent shortage, realized a four-day workweek could kill multiple birds with one stone.

“When people get stressed out and burned out, you can’t really treat it. They need to take a big chunk of time off, and even then, they come back frazzled. We’re looking at how we can prevent this in an ongoing way,” said Blackbird CEO Rob Cunningham. There was also the question of retention: “An independent studio like Blackbird doesn’t benefit from the infinite resources of these mega corporations,” he said. “We have to do what we can to communicate to the talent what’s the upside of coming here.”

Blackbird’s workweek reshuffle comes during a time when workers across all sectors are reevaluating their relationship with their jobs. The covid-born “Great Resignation” has seen millions of Americans quit their jobs, while workers at global companies like Starbucks and Amazon have moved to unionize and improve their workplaces.

The idea of the four-day workweek is not new. Louis Hyman, a historian of work and business at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, explained that the current five-day workweek composed of eight-hour days was born of factory worker strikes in the 19th and 20th centuries, as well as nationwide union strength in the years following World War I. After workers pressured the likes of Henry Ford and, eventually, the United States government to adopt the five-day workweek, there were widespread calls for a four-day workweek. Recently, the concept has resurfaced. Companies as large as Panasonic have implemented versions of it, as have video game studios like “Guardians of the Galaxy” developer Eidos-Montréal and indie studios Vodeo Games and KO_OP. During 2020, “Fortnite” developer Epic instituted a policy of giving employees alternating Fridays off, but shelved that change late last year despite employee uproar, according to a report by Bloomberg.

“In a lot of ways, the belief that the normal job is 9-to-5, Monday through Friday, has been steadily falling apart since the 1970s,” Hyman said, citing the draining nature of modern knowledge jobs, the fragmentation of service work via the gig economy and the need for many to work multiple jobs. “There’s been a big reset with covid in thinking about, ‘What is work? Why do I have to go to the office? And if I don’t have to go to the office, do I have to work five days a week?’ ”

Still, Blackbird employees had concerns going into the four-day workweek test. How would a team already struggling at 40-plus hours per week manage to hit their milestones with eight fewer hours? What would they have to streamline? And would some team members feel only minor ripples from the change, while others dealt with full-blown aftershocks?

“I think immediately my mind went to, ‘We can’t do that,’ ” said Elliot Hudson, game director on “Shipbreaker.” “When it was first proposed to me, I just flat out said, ‘No, it’s not going to work for this team.’ ”

It wasn’t a seamless transition. For some, like “Shipbreaker” Lead Producer Jessica Klyne, the growing pains extended even as far as the six-week mark. She and the team determined that they needed to trim fat from their day-to-day schedules, but acclimating took time and discipline.

“We stopped doing one-hour meetings and even shortened some to ten-minute check-ins,” said Klyne. “We questioned the attendance of everyone in meetings and encouraged all attendees at all levels to question their own attendance. We were ruthless when it came to protecting our team’s time. We had to be.”

Game-specific challenges had to be optimized too. “Normally we’d [be like], ‘Let’s just build a ship and then figure out what’s wrong with it,’ ” Hudson said. “This time, we tried to cast our minds ahead to, ‘What do we think the pain points are going to be that we’ve run into in the past? How do we design the ship to just completely avoid those things?’ ”

Other stumbling blocks included holiday weeks in which workers already would have had a day off.

“It’s an ongoing conversation,” said Blackbird Director of Operations Katie Findlay. “But generally speaking, we’re just communicating that if it’s a holiday Monday, you get a three-day workweek; good for you.”

As the test progressed, it did not take long for workers to find that their workdays and — more importantly — their overall mental health had improved.

“Personally, it makes me feel like I can stay in the industry longer than I thought I could,” said the studio’s creative director, Trey Smith. “There’s a soul tax that comes with shipping every game.”

There were also less obvious, unanticipated benefits. “When you have a day off that you can use to go see a doctor and you don’t have to tell your co-workers, it adds a level of privacy I thought was really nice,” said Leelee Scaldaferri, a 3D artist on “Shipbreaker,” who also noted that running errands during the pandemic on days when stores weren’t crowded alleviated stress.

Eventually, because workers were better rested and happier, they worked more efficiently.

“Not having Friday there anymore made the four days more precious,” said Scaldaferri. “Essentially, in so many words, I didn’t f--- around as much.”

By the time the test wound down, numerous members of the “Shipbreaker” team concurred: The four-day workweek was more than just a success.

“Our team was under huge pressure and on the verge of burnout due to the nature of working from home during a critical period of production, with the added stress of covid on top of that,” said Klyne. “When the trial was over, it was obvious the four-day workweek saved us. I don’t think we could have got to where we are today without it.”

Hudson went so far as to say the “Shipbreaker” team “completely avoided crunch” during the test phase despite his concerns that they’d have to crunch because of it. Findlay cautioned, however, that industry professionals should not think of the four-day workweek as a silver bullet, but rather one of many longer-term solutions to preserve employee health even when inevitable periods of more intense work — say, ahead of a deadline or milestone — do arrive.

“When it comes to those crunch times, we want you to be not already burned out,” Findlay said.

In the end, 100 percent of 51 developers surveyed after the test said they wanted to permanently switch to the four-day workweek, compared to 82 percent who believed a four-day workweek was better than a five-day workweek before the test. Additionally, 91 percent said it improved their work-life balance, 89 percent said the same of wellness, 90 percent believed it will improve retention and 79 percent said it bolstered their ability to complete work.

So, you worked on a video game. You might not appear in the credits.

But the four-day workweek as envisioned by Blackbird isn’t without its structural question marks. As with Saturdays and Sundays, workers are free to use Fridays as they please, whether that means chilling out, doing chores or wrapping up work that previously slipped through the cracks. It falls on leadership to avoid pressuring workers, explicitly or implicitly, into regularly doing the latter.

“One of the key pieces to all of this is that our leadership, whether it’s studio or per team, has to set the example,” said Findlay. “So if your manager or producer is coming in and obviously working on Friday — answering emails and all of that — then me if I’m, like, a junior programmer, I’m going to feel the need to do that as well. … So we’re really doubling down on messaging to our leads to make sure they’re modeling behavior they want to see.”

Data suggests that the test was not entirely successful on this front. Of employees surveyed, 29 percent said they worked 32 hours per week during the final four weeks of the test, while 47 percent said they worked 32-36 hours, 12 percent said they worked 36-40 hours and another 12 percent said they worked more than 40. Speaking with The Post, some leads confessed they’d been working a few hours on Fridays during the test phase — though largely to ensure successive weeks were organized well enough that their subordinates wouldn’t have to sweat coming in on their new Saturday, which was Friday.

“It tends to be mostly the leaders and the directors who are spending that extra time to get ahead on tasks and give enough details to tasks that the people below them don’t need to work that extra time,” said Hudson. “Normally it’d be like, ‘Here, I’ll give you a task and then we can have a conversation about it.’ Now my job is to make sure there’s enough details in that task that we don’t have to have that conversation.”

Blackbird Chief Creative Officer Rory McGuire said company policy states that if anybody decides to come in on Fridays, they must be compensated with another day.

“If anyone is working [on] a Friday more than a few times a year,” said McGuire, “that’s very strong evidence we need to look at our organization to figure out where the process is failing.”

Emma Kinema, a campaign lead at CODE-CWA, the labor union aiding workers at companies like Activision Blizzard, pointed out that even the most ideal version of Blackbird’s four-day workweek arrangement still leaves final say and veto power in the hands of management. She went on to note that Vodeo, the first North American video game studio to successfully unionize in partnership with CODE-CWA, had a four-day workweek before unionizing. Workers at Vodeo unionized in part to protect those sorts of benefits.

“Maybe today the bosses are friendly and have a policy you like, but what if circumstances change or there’s new management, or the company gets bought out or does a reorg?” Kinema said. “When the going gets tough — and eventually for all companies, for all industries, it does — it’s the workers’ interests, the workers’ work-life balances, that are going to be the first things out the window.”

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Saleem Dabbous, studio director at a KO_OP, the worker-owned cooperative developing “Goodbye Volcano High” that also has a four-day workweek, advocated for unionization even at relatively generous companies like Blackbird.

“The only way protections for workers will be placed and maintained is through a redistribution of power toward workers to control their own destiny — especially as business priorities shift, management changes through acquisitions, or management staff turnover can all disrupt pro-worker policies,” Dabbous said.

Blackbird CEO Cunningham told The Post that there’s been “a lot of sniffing around and knocking on the doors” when it comes to other companies trying to buy Blackbird, but currently, the studio’s not selling.

As for unionization, McGuire said that the company “has never opposed unionization at the studio, nor would we,” and pointed to the fact that Shipbreaker’s narrative focuses on “a labor-led unionization effort at a space salvage company.”

For the time being, Blackbird is committed to the four-day workweek and is in the process of transitioning all its teams. Those who participated in the test hope other game studios will take their findings to heart and attempt tests of their own. Hudson, once the four-day workweek’s biggest skeptic, is now an evangelist.

“I know there’s probably going to be a lot of folks in this industry who are ambivalent or even scared to make a change like this,” he said. “Just have faith that your team will make it work in a way that works for them, because that’s exactly what happened to us. … Just give it a shot. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. You can always go back.”