Crunch mode.

So there’s been a lot of furor recently about crunch mode – Mike Capps, Epic CEO stood up at an IGDA meeting and basically said “Screw 40 hour weeks. When I hire people I want people how will, when the chips are down, do 60 hour weeks without complaining”. He then went on to pour oil on the fire by attempting to mollify the statement by explaining how Epic has a 2am moratorium – people have to go home then.

This was followed a few days later by an AP at Epic who, in attempting to clarify things made the statement that Epic actually schedules crunch.

Now the two statements are connected but I want to treat them separately because for me personally they are two different things.

It should also not be forgotten that Mike Capps is on the board of the IGDA and one of their basic platforms is the Quality Of Life (QoL) issues – where developers are made to work overtime and crunch like mad with no choice or remuneration on the other side.

Now I’ve talked before about my feelings on crunch – I consider there to be two types. Freely done overtime where people – either individually or banding together – do overtime to make something better, to put in the polish, to make something better than it would otherwise be. I think this is awesome and this is where great – not just good – games come from. I LOVE this passion and everything that can be done to nurture it should be done (catering in the evening, 24 access to the facility etc).
Then there’s bad crunch which is company mandated and is usually an admission of failure from the planning point of view – either scope control, bad task duration planning or revised publisher requirements. I think this statement alone makes my feelings on the idea of ‘scheduled crunch’ clear. This is a clear failure – scheduling crunch is basically saying “We can’t plan properly and we aren’t even attempting to try” and is, at root, taking time from the developer who is probably under peer pressure to acquiesce.

Now I realize that things happen in video games. Publishers do make sudden demands that weren’t factored into planning, or suddenly an outsourcing house suddenly vanishes, or a project that was planned simply doesn’t work and needs re-writing. We are on the tip of the bleeding edge; of course it’s hard to plan for the unknown. Overruns of time do happen, and having developers who aren’t suddenly going to throw up their hands and say “More than 40 hours? Screw you!” is massively useful and helpful. So in that sense I do believe that the first part of what Mike Capps was saying is something I agree with. I want to work with people who are prepared to put the time in to make something better than good. But I don’t expect it to be company mandated.

Having developers that want to go that extra mile is essential for polish and great games. It just is – 22 years in this business has reinforced that to me many times. However there is this implied idea that crunch = great games, and while I can see that there’s definitely a co-relation, there are also plenty of companies out there crunching like mad and producing lots of crap. It’s entirely possible to crunch and waste everyone’s time. Crunch != polish. Passion + Planning of what you need to do + Talent = polish. And in some cases Passion + Planning + Talent + Crunch = more polish. But if you can’t make something that you know will be good in 40 hours then 60 isn’t going to make any difference.

But companies ‘expecting’ this and treating it as business as usual is also not acceptable. People’s situations change – they might be able to do 60-80 hours at the drop of a hat when they are in their 20′s, but in their 30′s kids come along and commitments happen, and then what? Should they have to move on because that’s the corporate culture?

Well, ultimately, yes, because it’s up to the individual to choose where they work and either accept that culture or not. I applaud Mike Capps for actually getting up and saying what the culture is at Epic. People can make their own decisions as to whether to accept this culture or not because at least they know what it is. The company is what it is, for better or worse – you as an individual can make the choice to go there or not.

I also happen to know that Epic makes everyone’s crunch mode very worthwhile – they actually give a small bonus before crunch starts to make it a bit more palatable (not much comfort for those people who’s relationships it will destroy mind you, but a better gesture than you get from almost any other company). And the end bonuses for being on a successful Epic project are impressive indeed – the company does not shirk back from sharing it’s success which is why they have such a low turnover rate I’m sure.

But the point should be made that in most cases overtime is effectively a loan of time from the employee’s to the employer who may or may not repay it later with bonuses. And lets face it, 95% of the time do not because either the games doesn’t make enough and/or they just don’t see why they should have to.

Expectation of this loan of time from the employees by the company is just wrong. If I, as an employee, were to expect that the company cover my taxes each year and I may or may not pay them back dependent on outside factors, well, they’d never consider it. But they _do_ expect the same from me.

Epic DOES make the crunch worth while but many companies do not. Either way it’s all risk on the employee side. While I definitely believe the choice of that risk should be there for the employee, expectation that they will just accept it is not.

Now there are also a group of individuals making a lot of furor at IGDA meetings about the fact that, as they see it, Mike Capps is basically pissing all over part of the IGDA’s charter – that of QoL. Their point of view is that *any* requirement for overtime, implied or explicit, is wrong and damages the industry. They want a level playing field for everyone regardless. Lots of studies from the turn of the century are trotted out and everyone does a lot of hand wringing.

My thinking here is that while yes, there is some hypocrisy about Mike’s comments and being on the IGDA board. I think even he’d accept that.

But I don’t believe that the IGDA (or anyone else for that matter) should be legislating or judging on what is or is not acceptable. If 20 year olds (or 40 year olds for that matter) want to do 60 hour weeks, who the hell are we to tell them they can’t? It’s a matter for the individual to decide, not a committee.

I have the feeling that those who make the most fuss are those who feel that they *should* be good enough to work at somewhere like Epic but are never going to because they are so engaged in their own social lives. So instead of saying “Ok, I am prepared to make this sacrifice to make great games” they want to level the playing field so they can have their cake and eat it too. Basically alter the reality of the situation to one in their favor so they can regard themselves on the same tier as those at Epic.

Good luck with that. All great works require sacrifice. I believe Epic is just making statements to that effect, and while I definitely don’t think it’s ok to demand that sacrifice up front, I do believe that the environment has to be there that accepts it (and encourages it) if the individual chooses to put that in. I just think that Epic (as others) are looking for people more likely to want to. And there’s nothing wrong in that.

There’s also a group of people who state “well, I can do great work in 40 hours, why can’t everyone else?” – who are incidentally the same kinds of personality who write impenetrable spaghetti code of lots of templates and STL and then sit back and say “What? I can read it, why can’t you?” – who regard the whole thing as management failure.

They are missing the point a little though. Sure, at an individual level people can get their tasks done in 40 hours (Well some can anyway) but in those situations it’s often those kinds of people who would benefit most from the extra 20 hours. If you’ve already got your tasks done in 40 hours, then the extra 20 is pure gravy to produce more stuff or polish the crap out of what you’ve got. At that point it’s not about frantically working all hours just to get the basics done, it’s about truly making the product better and fantastic. Sure, it shouldn’t be expected, but a couple of odd weeks of doing 60 hours instead of 40 should make the product even better. Hiring people who *want* to do that isn’t wrong or bad.

As long as the company in question is upfront about what their expectations are then I see the industry as self regulating. If your company gets a rep for lots of overtime / death marches with little or no back end then that kind of thing soon gets out there – developers love to talk – and it’ll come back to bite you.

I guess ultimately it comes down to this one phrase – “The ends never justify the means” and that seems to be ignored in this case. Because success has come with some crunch doesn’t make crunch something to be mandated / planned for because that’s just transferring the time / money risk to the individual developer, and no amount of “Aren’t you passionate enough?” peer pressure bullshit will cover a destroyed marriage because you had to go to work 80 hours a week for the past 2 months.

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