Crunch in Games

So this commentary on some other commentary is making the rounds.

An inline response to “wage-slaves”

Let me first make it clear I’m 100% on the side of less crunch. You’ll probably forget that after reading my comments but, at least try to remember.

So I agree with Rami’s commentary I just wanted to call out a few things

You can’t, which is why you make sure that your employee’s aren’t miserable finishing a game together, because you did stay on schedule, under budget and on time. This situation occurs when your schedule sucked and your budget sucked, and that’s the fault of the entrepreneurs – not the employees.

I’ve never worked on a game where it was the ​fault of the entrepreneurs. For me it’s always been the fault of the team designing a game too large for the given time frame. I’m not denying that other happens just saying it’s not my experience.

My experience is exec/entrepreneurs (or whoever is running the company) says far way from the creative side. They basically say “we want ship a game in 24 months. What should we do?”. The team proposes the game. The team says they can get it done in 24 months. The team make the schedule, the plan, everything. All that upper manage did was ask the team “So you’re saying you can get this done in 24 months with that budget?”. Team “Yes”. Management: “Okay, then do that”. 12-18 months later …. Team: “we fucked up, we didn’t schedule correctly, our design didn’t work and we’re running out of time and money, we’re unwiling to cut scope or features so let’s all crunch”. Nothing to do with “upper” management, everything to do with the team itself.

Note: I’m in no way suggesting crunch is good. I’m only pointing out, at least in my experience, it’s the team itself that’s often the issue, not “upper” management. Or maybe to put it another way, it’s not the owners/entrepreneurs (the ones who get rich). The people responsible are on the team, also just getting paid a wage.

Maybe we need to look more into these issues instead of blaming the “entrepreneurs”.

Great games can be made by giving them everything you’ve got and more, and great studios and developers are made by not burning the fuck out. Turns out great studios and developers make better games, because they have more experience that they can apply because they did not burn the fuck out.

Actually I think if you check all the hits there’s 10x more hits created with crunch than without. Not saying that’s good but I’m pretty sure there’s no data to back up this claim which I’d summarize as “giving people a better quality of life leads to better games”.

This brings up many different issues.

Some people who are passionate about what they do are most happy doing it as much as possible. They might be happiest doing their thing 12 hours a day. Another person might also be passionate about what they do but find they are happiest spending 8 hours a day doing it and 4 hours doing something unrelated. Who’s right? Some people argue you need balance. I’d argue people have different amounts of balance. Just like introverts supposedly lose energy from social situations vs extroverts gain energy from the same situations isn’t it possible some people are happiest pursing their passion for more hours than others?

That’s not in any way meant to condone crunch. It’s rather to say forcing people who want to work more to stop could also be bad. It also leads to various misunderstandings between those who want to spend more time doing this thing and those who need a break. Both might be super passionate but I think most people believe the person spending more hours is more passionate. Notice I said “believe”. I’m not saying they “are” more passionate. I’m saying they believe and are believed to be “more passionate”. Is there a way to reconcile that belief? Is there a way to compensate fairly for those 2 sides? I have no idea but it at least something to consider that it’s a hard topic.

Yet another issue is compensation. Sure everyone wants to be paid more but, some people, most? it isn’t about the money. You could give people a 100% raise and in another couple of months they’d still be unhappy about more than 40 hours a week. My point being it isn’t about compensation. Sure it comes up because some people believe those making the decisions get the bigger compensation. As pointed out above those that’s at least not my experience.

Another related issue, which maybe has finally disappeared? It used to be that there were retail stores like GameStop and Walmart. It also used to be the best time to release a game was November for Christmas shopping. GameStop has limited shelf space. Let’s say they have room for 10 big titles. Meaning they have limited space, a big title gets lots of space. It might a special display of which they only have floor space for a few. It might be a poster of which they only have room to hang 10 posters. It might be a window display which might only have room for 5 of them. It might get 10x the shelf space as a year old game. To get that you have to commit to having your game done 6 to 12 months before you expect it to be on the shelf. Gamestop/Walmart/etc.. have to be negotiated with months in advance to get those spots, long before the game is finished. If you fail they’ll never take your game again because they now have an empty shelf. How many teams actually know their game will be finished 6-12 months from now with no crunch? Most are just guessing. With 12 months still to go they all believe they can do it but when it actually gets 6 months away they can see that there’s no way they are going to hit the deadline and the deadline is HARD/FIXED. There’s no changing it.

Now maybe that no longer exists. People buy games from Steam, the App Store, the Play Store, the various console stores etc, but I’m pretty sure for most AAA console titles that ship on a Blu-ray and where most of the sales come from retail this is still reality. Maybe this will go away but until it does that just adds to the team’s responsibility to plan better. Or maybe to look for new ways to schedule. Get it done by April but ship in November? Naw that would never happen 🙁

In any case, less crunches please. But let’s also look at root causes. Is most crunch caused by upper management? I have no idea, only that it’s not my experience. Is crunch more likely to produce a hit game? I also have no idea. It seems nonsense but I’d be surprised if there was actual data to prove it.

I will say on a positive note I heard a rumor there as almost no crunch for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. If so kudos to the team for good planning. Of course it was a sequel using existing tech but even sequels are known for crunch so if they managed to not crunch maybe they have somethings to teach us.

There’s lots of people who love what they do enough that they actually want to do it 12 hours day. Those people often start/run game companies/teams. At the same time as a friend pointed out

“art” involves a lot of “labor” and teams of tens/hundreds will necessarily involve people who are more “skilled laborers” (in relation to the project) than they are “artists” no slight against them, but if they’re not profit-sharing or otherwise invested, then they’re “laborers” and shouldn’t be overworked or asked to do unpaid overtime etc etc

Hmmm. I’m going to devolve into rambling. I could go back and forth over that. First I 100% agree that on any team larger than like 3 people some people are likely to be just there for a paycheck and have no royalty connection. On the other hand often these skilled laborers are profit-sharing or otherwise but they still don’t want to work overtime.

I’ve nearly always gotten royalties but few projects have ever been a big enough hit to get a large bonus. That made me think maybe I was taking a risk. I was risking months of overtime hoping each project would be a hit. Most of them weren’t. Typical royalty bonuses were between $5k and $15k. But once it was arguably worth it. I got a bonus 2x my yearly salary. So does that mean overworking is okay if there’s a potential for a payout?

That brings up that there are 2 separate issues. Uncompensated overtime and crunch. Uncompensated overtime is bad. If you potentially share in the rewards maybe less bad? But separately, is the argument against overtime at all. Nothing to do with compensation. Just many people don’t want to work overtime period, passionate or not.

  • otikik

    It seems to me that the problem is committing to a fixed schedule/timeline. “Yes, we’ll do this and this and this in 24 months” never works. Software, and its circumstances, change too much. Whoever makes that commitment (be it the entrepreneur or the developer) thinks making software is like making a house, and it is not. It is like bulding a house in a place where gravity changes from time to time, temperature ranges from -100 degres to 300, with a material which behaves sometimes like steel and others like cotton.

    Once you have a team which has done basically the same game 3 or 4 times, then they can begin to estimate the next one, and they will still be off by a bit bec

  • That’s certainly a problem, especially if you have no experience. But, you can try to design around that as well.

    Example you’ve got a story based game. Setup -> Journey -> Resolution where Journey is 15 missions or 15 levels or 15 whatever. So do the step first, do the resolution second. Then do each of the missions/levels in order of most important. If you run out of time, cut out a bunch of those levels. Yes you have to design/write such that those things can be cut but that’s not hard.

    Most teams don’t plan that way. They do part 1, then 2, then 3 in order. When it’s six months till shipping they’ve made the first 50% of the game and it’s in an unshippable state because it requires the last parts. Had they done the beginning and the end first they could cut out much of the middle. I’m sure there are exceptions but most games fit this pattern that you could easily cut out some stuff if you had planned for it.

    Similarly good planning would get the game to shippable state as soon as possible. That means title, options, save, load, IAP system, update system, score, sound, music, all of that stuff in earlier in the schedule. Most teams leave that to the end so the game is unshippable 6 months from completion. So again that points to bad planning.

  • Sam Izzo

    I think it’s great that you wrote this as a comparison point to all the other stuff out there. There are a lot of people decrying crunch – and that’s great, it’s not good for your health! – but a lot of those people are indies who have only ever worked on their own digitally distributed projects that as you say don’t quite have the same time pressures as boxed retail projects. And when working in a big team at a big company it’s also different. But yeah, crunch is still bad!

  • Andrea Di Stefano

    good post, agree 100%. Plus, I have some good memories of a few crunches and I think short *planned* crunches (no more than a few days, appropriately supported by management) can actually foster a strong team dynamic, force you to focus on the essential and make the completion of a milestone that more enjoyable. Like everyone here, I don’t condone it, but I find the extreme approach (full crunch or no crunch at all) very naive.

    I think that Rami confuses “entrepreneurs” and “management”…
    In my opinion, the biggest responsibility falls on management (both on the dev side and on the publishing side) when it blindly trusts a creative/production team and has no plan B in place for when shit hits the fan. At worst, the “trust” can also turn into a sick form of leverage to get the team to crunch. Ultimately, for everyone’s sake, management should be the schedule sheriff (and this should be a job title).