It’s 2023, and we’re still talking about crunch in the video game industry.
If you’re to trust social media, lots of self-professed gamers seem to think that crunch is a sign of passion or dedication, that crunching should be an essential component of any successful project.
Of course, these crunch advocates typically know nothing about actual development. They’re aware that crunch exists in game development, and they can associate stories of crunch with some of their most beloved games. Therefore, in their mental shorthand, crunch must equal quality!
Crunch actually indicates failure or incompetence at the management level or above. At some point in the leadership chain, someone failed. That’s what leads to crunch.
Maybe a lead didn’t communicate properly or provide proper oversight. Maybe a producer didn’t properly account for risk or for a publisher demand. Maybe a director decided to chase after something “cool” that they saw in a competitor game. Maybe an executive producer failed to properly assess P&L for an engagement. Maybe the studio enabled a toxic culture, where “no one ever crunches, but we do encourage folks to show their passion for their work by going above and beyond on any of our projects.” (That’s code for “putting in extended hours is mandatory.”) Maybe the project’s vision wasn’t properly vetted by market professionals up front, leading to post-alpha thrash. Maybe the publisher changed the goalposts on the project, so that someone on their side might see a better quarterly result. Maybe someone just fucked up.
All of those issues are management and leadership issues. None of them have anything to do with the individual contributors. Yet, the individual contributors are the ones who suffer most under crunch conditions.
Crunch has the effect of making teams look like they’re busy. If people are grinding at their desks for 12-18 hours a day, they certainly look busy. If you have folks coming in 6-7 days a week, it absolutely looks like you’re seeing velocity increase. And you might see some gains during the first 2 weeks of crunch. That’s truly possible.
But as people start getting exhausted, they start losing velocity. More bugs get introduced. More builds get broken. More people find themselves just staring at their screen, trying to make sense of what they’re looking at. Moods sour, and teams that were once buzzing with collaboration become divided by us-versus-them takes. Very quickly, your apparent velocity gains decrease. In fact, you will likely find that you are even less efficient with crunch. But you certainly look like you’re putting in the work, and that’s what really matters, right? Oddly enough, to some managers, it does, which is a take that is completely disconnected from reality, to put it mildly.
Some people will talk about how studios will offer perks to offset the pain of crunch. I’ve worked places that offered great perks. Perks like on-site gyms with showers, full cafeteria service, laundry service, and unlimited snacks. The flip side to that was that you were expected to remain at the office to “do whatever it takes” in order to make the build get out the door.
Notice that one of the perks isn’t additional pay for this additional labor. Consider that bonuses generally don’t factor into the equation. I only ever saw bonuses while working on Facebook and mobile games, and then that was only in some very specific circumstances on some very specific games. Royalties are, flatly, a fantasy. Out of the 50+ games I’ve worked on, I’ve received royalties exactly twice, and both payouts were under $1000 US. Only one of those royalty payments came from a project on which I crunched.
That’s what we call a bad rate of return, in case you were wondering.
For all that extra effort at the office — for all of that “digging deep” — people start losing their connection to their outside lives. They start missing life events. They disconnect from friends. They see their marriages fall apart. They see their health fall apart. I’ve literally worked with two people over the course of my career who died due to the strain put on their bodies by crunch. Both were younger than 35.
And for what? For a game that will likely be forgotten in a decade? Because, let me tell you, most games are forgotten in a decade. Even really enjoyable games get lost over time. Sure, if I mention a game like “Missile Command” (1980s), “Jet Set Radio” (1990s), or “Viewtiful Joe” (2000s), you might recall it — it might not even be that hard to recall — but those games aren’t a part of the cultural landscape in the way that “Diablo” or “Super Mario Bros.” are. That effect is only getting more pronounced with the ever-increasing volume of games released per year. Last year alone, Steam saw the release of nearly 11,000 games worldwide. This doesn’t even touch the number of console exclusives or mobile games released during that same period.
Most games aren’t an active part of our cultural dialogue. Very few games are. Video games are, fundamentally, ephemeral media.
So why persist with crunch? Why would someone put themselves through this? Why did I put myself through this?
When I was new to the industry, I found that it was exceptionally difficult to get out of the industry into an adjacent career. Most “conventional” companies thought that game development was flaky and undisciplined. They figured that the work was less rigorous and more prone to error, thus anyone working in games was obviously lower quality than other candidates. I only started to see a shift from that prejudice around 2005 or so, around which time game development degrees starting becoming more prevalent and the field started to be seen as “legitimate.”
But that shouldn’t matter, right? I took a job in games, because I wanted to work in games. The heck with those so-called “conventional” jobs. If my game gig sucks, I’ll just find a job at another studio, right?
Yeah, you’d think that. But back when I started, you’d find that several studios had non-compete clauses that would keep you from working at another studio within a 50-mile radius or greater. (These are, thankfully, no longer enforceable in most states of the US.) Once you were in, your options were limited.
Compounding this, lots of game companies knew that you wouldn’t have a lot of options in the industry if you weren’t a “team player.” Studio heads knew or knew of each other. Even now, the industry is pretty tight knit. It was even more so then. People would crunch because they were threatened with retribution if they refused. People would crunch because their livelihood and their career were at stake. Fear is a powerful motivator, and it was used as a lever with great frequency for a long time in this industry.
On top of that, bad managers would perpetuate and communicate bad practices. If we’ve always crunched before, then crunch must be inevitable. In fact, crunch must be how great games are made! Therefore, we’ll incorporate crunch into our schedules. It’s the Circle of Development!
This sort of tech bro groupthink permeates many of our unsustainable practices. (That’s a whole series of articles, potentially.)
So say you wanted to work in an industry that you’d imagined working in when you were younger. You got your big break. You’re going to be a part of a game development team. Your opportunity is finally here! And then, you suddenly find that your schedule has shifted from 40 hours a week to 80-100 hours a week, with little to no notice, with no defined end in sight, and for no additional compensation.
At this point, you’ll see that team members are frustrated. Managers are creating estimates for team members without consulting the team. By the point resentments start bubbling up in Slack, director-level leadership will start giving stern “motivational” talks, letting you know that, if you don’t want to be here, there’s the door. After all, there are a dozen applications sitting on their desk from folks who have the passion that this team needs. And really, we’re giving you the chance of a lifetime to be a part of the team and part of this project. You should be grateful.
The collective pressure and manipulation create an environment that suppresses dissent. This is actually one of the things that makes boot camp work so well and so quickly for so very many enlistees. Boot camp and crunch differ in a very particular way, though. Whereas boot camp is a process intended to break you down in order to make a soldier or a sailor, purpose-built for a given specialty, crunch is simply intended to break you down for someone else’s bottom line.
Why put up with crunch? You shouldn’t. Don’t put up with it.
Crunch is a sign of bad management. I get it, though. People do make mistakes. Let’s say you screw up and you’re going to have to crunch. You should be able to point to that mistake, as well as what you need to do to fix it. If you have clear goals, a clear exit, and clear compensation for your team, you can overcome the immediate negative impact of crunch. If you admit your mistakes, that will also help. Heck, your team may be even more inclined to help, if they know that you know how much you messed up. You’ll still have to deal with the erosion of trust, even in this best of bad cases, but you can overcome that.
In most cases, though, crunch does not have this framework. Instead, crunch is an abusive, manipulative tactic used by the most incurious of managers to enforce an imagined level of performance for the sake of management theater.
I’ve often been asked, “Why have you remained in games?” Simple. First, I still love games. I love making experiences for players. But I also want to be the change I want to see in the world. I’ve believe wholeheartedly that it can be better. One of my primary motivations for moving from design into production was to help make it better for the people I worked with. Because development can be better. Because we can always minimize, if not eliminate crunch, even in the worst of circumstances. And elimination of crunch should always be the goal.
I’ve spent time studying velocity, throughput, estimation strategies, and project organizational techniques. Fundamentally, it comes down to trusting your team, gathering data early, experimenting early, and setting expectations appropriately. Your team will move as fast as they can move, given what they have and what their skills are. As a producer, it’s your job to figure out what that looks like. Within the framework of a normal schedule — whether you’re using ideal days or story points or something else — how can you facilitate more? How can you inspire more? Is more even possible? Do you have skill gaps? Do you understand the assignment? Does your team understand? Do you trust each other? Are you communicating honestly, upward and downward?
If you can develop a holistic view of the project under development, you can see more clearly the road ahead. If you can see the road ahead, you can minimize or eliminate crunch. Crunch is avoidable. Crunch can be a thing of the past. If you work with your team, you can make something amazing while working a normal schedule. Heck, you can even do it in a 4 day, 32 hour week.
I might get more into specifics of how to build a schedule to eliminate crunch and how to deal with pitfalls in a project when they happen. I might also get into managing expectations, both up and down the chain. Whatever is more interesting to the people I know who read this blog.
I just wanted to rant at a bit. Hey, I’m an old man (or, at least, I feel like one). I should be allowed to yell at a cloud here and there.