The good news for fans of brick-built sci-fi games is that the oft-delayed Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga is finally coming out on April 5. The bad news, according to a report from Polygon, is the ambitious project spanning all nine Star Wars films is alleged to have led to a whole lot of crunch for the developers at Warner Bros. subsidiary, TT Games.
Five years might seem like plenty of time to work on a video game, but Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga isn’t a normal video game, at least not for the developers at British studio Traveller’s Tales. It’s a massive project, spanning all nine main Star Wars movies and the various spin-offs. The concept sounds exhausting from a development standpoint, and that’s without taking into account the fact that TT Games is basically remaking all the Lego Star Wars titles it’s developed since the franchise started in 2005. Let alone when you take into account how incredibly detailed their regular Lego games are.
According to more than 30 current and former TT Games employees speaking to Polygon over the course of its investigation, the development of The Skywalker Saga has been just as grueling as you’d imagine. When the project began in 2017, at a time when employees and management at the developer were already at odds, workers were promised a longer development timeline to work on the massive game.
Unfortunately, they also had to work with a brand new in-house game engine called NTT, which was unstable and missing important features. Despite an employee push to switch to the Unreal Engine, management wanted to save licensing costs and use NTT. The complications caused by having to develop the game in an unfamiliar and incomplete game engine, say the employees to Polygon, offset any benefit the extended development time provided.
But TT Games’ crunch culture is alleged to have started way before The Skywalker Saga. Polygon spoke to six former employees about their experience working under Jon Burton, who co-founded Traveller’s Tales in 1989, seeing the studio through its transition to TT Games in 2005 and subsequent sale to Warner Bros. in 2007. According to those employees, Burton was known to yell at staff if they tried to leave work on time.
“A big problem was that crunch was premeditated,” says one former employee who worked at the studio under Burton. “It wasn’t an emergency protocol for when things went wrong. Instead, it was a tool in the box for production; projects were planned with crunch periods in the schedule, or even worse, crunch was the schedule. [...] It was a regular occurrence because of the type of games we made: movie tie-ins, and kids’ stocking fillers. They all had deadlines dictated by a holiday event or the release of some film.”
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Burton would not comment on specifics to Polygon, but did clarify that he moved away from the studio in 2013, assuming more of a creative consultant role, and therefore wasn’t involved in the most recent grueling crunch. Just apparently all the others.
We’ve reached out to TT Games but have not heard back at the time of publication.
The report spans nearly two decades of familiar crunch time stories. Employees say working extra hours was expected and that it was difficult to request time off. They were made to feel guilty for letting down the team if they didn’t work more. Vague threats were made. “It was a very soft-spoken blackmail,” one former employee told Polygon. “‘If people don’t start doing overtime, there’s going to be problems.’”
It all leads up to Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga. Announced in 2019, the massive game was originally slated for a late 2020 release, only to be delayed to spring 2021 and then delayed again. Why? Troubles with the NTT game engine. Feature creep, with management requesting new features like a 27-hit combat tree, only to have it removed after observing that focus groups were only mashing a single button while fighting. Then there’s the high turnover, with more than 40 employees leaving TT Games and subsidiary TT Fusion since the start of 2021.
Just this morning, Warner Bros. announced a firm April 5 release date for Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga. There’s a new gameplay trailer and everything. But it’s hard to be excited about the next big Lego video game after reading about how hard developers were pushed to make it happen.