To Crunch or Not To Crunch

Should game development need crunch time?

For the un-initiated, game development projects *alway* seem to need crunch time towards the end of the project. Crunch time is working late, weekends and generally living at the office for periods at a time.

Crunch time can go from a few weekends at the end of a project to months of what’s called “death march”. Death March is just working constantly with no end in sight. If you are crunching for months just to keep abreast of your tasks, then you are in a death march. Generally those projects in death march don’t end up being any good, because constant work and not time off destroys anyones morale.

Now interestingly enough the reasons for crunch are two fold. Either this is a management / planning problem, where in-sufficient thought was given to actually making the game, in-sufficient thought was given to what was actually being made (both how it was going to be made, or scope), or feature creep (the adding of new features to what was agreed to be made) has occurred.

All of these are bad reasons to ask your employees to work overtime. They represent a failure of management for planning, design acumen and negotiation with publishers. And guess who pays the price with late nights desperately trying to add that new feature that came in late, or build something that is way more than should be required?

Then there’s good crunch. Good crunch is where you sit there, look at a feature or something and think “This could be so much cooler if I spent a bit of extra time on it, before starting the next task”. So you stay late to put in some extra work to make something better.

Now that’s good, and needs to be encouraged. Pouring love into anything always makes it better.

The trouble is that with overtime laws being applied to game development is that while it’s trying to avoid some of the former- employees paying the price for mis-management, it’s also likely to kill the latter.

If you can’t work when the passion moves you, then quite often frustration sets in and the passion dies. If you can’t be with the women you love, what happens? You either pine or you move on.

People say that even with overtime policies in place it’s still a choice – well it is right up till the company gets sued by someone with a good lawyer chasing some overtime payments. Then it’ll get enforced.

It *should* be possible to make good games in a 40 hour week. However we aren’t good at scheduling and we have too many middle managers who are untrained making bad decisions in the middle, plus as an industry we are squeezed by publishers with the cash to do more for less with no time for iteration which is where real polish comes.

There’s also a problem with the implications that overtime can bring in development. Often voluntary overtime is done to build some new feature that someone wants to try out. The trouble with that often that can have un-intended consequences. Changing a tool or adding a new feature can often either invalidate content or bring up a new way of making it, which is great for the game but terrible for the content creators who have to go back and remake stuff.

At the bottom line there is worry about cost vs effort. The end customer doesn’t care about the cost, but burning out your people isn’t right either.

So how does crunch time become something that is just accepted?

The effective guy (Ie the one who stays late) comes out at the end of a project as being the hero. He was obviously passionate and cared and management does tend to notice these things. Lots of emails from some one at 3am has that effect.

So at the start of project 2, he’s promoted. He’s good right? Gets stuff done? etc

The trouble is that often, passion is a blinder to reality. We keep saying that younger people make the great leaps because they don’t know they can’t be done. All good and fair. But the other side of that coin is that often people like this don’t realize what is reasonable to expect. They are prepared to put in a nights work because they care – you aren’t, therefore you don’t care (as much). There’s a complete lack of understanding (often willful) of situations that are different from theirs. Perhaps they have a wife / girlfriend who is understanding about this. You do not – well, that’s your problem isn’t it? If you can’t control her then that’s your problem you aren’t putting in the hours required. Completely missing the point that you shouldn’t have to love the project to the point of devoting every hour from it. Being passionate is great. I will put in extra hours because of it. But I won’t do it because of a culture of peer pressure over it. Putting in extra hours should be my choice, not the standard to which everyone is held.

The peer pressure that results from situations like this is totally outrageous, and it’s where crunch situations come from, and worse, it’s where the expectation that crunch is a required thing for a game to be made comes in. This is where a culture becomes tainted with crunch as a standard comes from.

Now granted, games generally are better for crunch. And we can always point at games and say “Could they be better if that team had crunched harder?”. And the answer will always be yes. It’ll never be no. So what does that tell us? It tells us that if we worked harder the games would be better. Great.

So what does that mean the question really is? What it really is that (for the general case) the amount of time and effort we put into the game over the 8 hours will directly improve it. And thats where the disconnect appears, because as you go up the chain of command that pressure for the game to be all it could be increases by a factor of 2 at each level of management, mainly because the responsibility increases.

I guess it comes down to this. How much is a great game worth to you individually? I should also point out that the response to this of “It’s worth a few hours of my time” is great (and appropriate I think) but can lead down the path to those situations described above. I think tempting people with back ends is good too – this is a compensation culture we are in after all – but again, it can often be a tool to promote cultures of crunch as the norm. Particularly if you’ve had success in the past. It’s a powerful tool to get people to work late most nights when the last game you did made people tens of thousands of dollars, based on their impact on the project eh?

So the real question becomes how do we empower people to make the overtime decisions on their own without them being either pressured into it or tools like back end being abused to force people into it? Also, how do we put processes into place where other people aren’t forced into crunch situations because of the implications of overtime from someone else? (I’ve been particularly guilty of that myself in the past, adding extra stuff and suddenly finding that it’s costing QA people overtime to test it all). I think Agile can help, I think process can help but realistically I think that the bottom line is doing some careful consideration on the part of the person contemplating the overtime of what your extra work will mean down the line before you do it.

At the end of the day a culture of crunch-as-normality comes from the top. Effective management is just hard. And it’s even worse when you are in an un-predictable industry like ours. Judging people by their desire to stay at work as a measure of their ‘passion’ is like judging McDonalds by the number of hamburgers sold. Quantity is no indicator of Quality.

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