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Indie Mavens on why Crunch - including indie self-crunch - is a failure of process

Indie Mavens on why Crunch - including indie self-crunch - is a failure of process

There's been a lot of talk in the industry lately around the topic of crunch, mostly from people who are a bit miffed at some things DirectX and WildTangent co-creator Alex St. John had to say on the matter.

It's a controversial topic that everyone who makes games has an opinion on, so we decided to ask our Indie Mavens their thoughts on the topic.

And, as expected, they had plenty to say.

Specificially, we asked:

  • Is there still a place for crunch in game development, or is it time for the industry as a whole to focus more on work-life balance?

 

Kepa Auwae Business / Design RocketCat Games

I'm an independent developer and I've been in crunch for the past year or more.

I'll be sure to focus on that work-life balance thing if I become one of the elite handful of people that can afford to.

I feel hypocritical condemning triple-A crunch when I constantly subject myself to it.

Triple-A crunch seems like a symptom of a greater problem, anyway. The big companies know they can treat their workers poorly, so they do.

Aaron Fothergill Co-founder Strange Flavour

It depends on your definition of crunch.

Is it the "putting in extra hours and effort because you’re enthusiastic about what you’re creating" that I think/hope Peter Molyneux meant by his “Crunch is Good!” article, or the “We only scheduled 50% of the time needed for this part of the project, but the team will work late nights and weekends if we offer them free pizza” version that is a sign of poor management.

I see crunch is part of the equation for the work-life balance as an Indie. It’s something I like to reserve for when it’s useful (i.e. enthusiastic development of something really creative) rather than need (deadlines about to go whooshing by).

But I recognise that if I make a mistake in planning, or exceptional circumstances arise as they have a habit of doing when you’re a developer, then unplanned, just working really hard, crunch may happen.

I’d say a lot of my best creative ideas for my work come from when I’m not actually working.
Aaron Fothergill

Not to say I think it’s a great idea. If it’s not a spontaneous and fun creative event, then it’s either a mistake on my part (as I’m my own management) or something where there are external inputs that I probably won’t work with again.

I’ll go on record as saying Alex St. John’s definition of it in his article falls entirely in the exploitative management category.

If we developers can optimise our code to reduce CPU cycles, create worlds in minimal memory and poly count and generally create the hell out of something to make it a great game, then our management should be skilled enough at their jobs to plan how to use our limited work time properly to get the project done in time and leave us our out-of-work hours to have actual lives that help us come back to the office and be creative.

As a game designer/coder, I’d say a lot of my best creative ideas for my work come from when I’m not actually working. So having the proper work-life balance is critical.

I think the reason we have (bad) crunch is partly from the immaturity of the industry and also the tendency for the AAA companies to churn studios almost as much as it does employees.

If you’re not worried about keeping employees or studios around beyond the current project, you’re not too worried about their long term health, creativity and productivity.

Tom Sennett Game Designer

I've never worked in "the industry", but I'm an indie dev and I have previous experience as a project manager in software development, so take this as you will.

Crunch is the result of poor management, and for any manager to suggest otherwise is dishonest. It happens when management makes commitments of scope and time simultaneously, giving their teams no flexibility should either prove unrealistic.

Crunch is the result of poor management, and for any manager to suggest otherwise is dishonest.
Tom Sennett

If things go south and the response is, "our people aren't working hard enough", you have a pretty trash company culture, and managers who don't know what they're doing.

I might work an 80 hour week if I'm totally in love with a game I'm making, but if I'm counting on it to hit a deadline, it means I f***ed up.

My approach is always to cut down the scope of a project - this is a flexibility I maintain by breaking up my work into the smallest units possible.

I've had games where I sketch out a whole backlog of features to fill up 2 months, then after 2 weeks I realize the game has pretty much gone as far as I want it to, and I just pack it up and ship it.

The key is getting a complete build working, bug-free and fully polished, as soon as absolutely possible, then keeping it that way as you continue to expand the scope. This is what I mean when I say keeping the scope flexible.

This is not even getting into work/life balance stuff and how management takes advantage of people who are "living their passion"... I've never met a designer/programmer/artist who won't work hard if management is working smart.

Matthew Annal MD Nitrome

I wouldn't say we ever really crunch at Nitrome. If something live was broken unexpectedly, we might stay late to make a fix, but not to hit a deadline.

I don't believe that you get the best game you can make if you're not enjoying it, and you can't enjoy it if you're burnt out.

Tanya X. Short Creative Director Kitfox Games

Even when I'm super excited and pumped about something, I am careful not to burn out.
Tanya Short

To me, crunch is overwork that makes you less efficient overall, which statistically tends to be more than 45 hrs per week for longer than 2 weeks in a row.

I believe crunch is a failure of process, INCLUDING indie self-crunch. It trades the long term for the short term.

Even when I'm super excited and pumped about something, I am careful not to burn out - it's very easy to get carried away and work all weekend and then be ineffective for the following week.

I mean, sometimes we make mistakes, but if we pretend crunch is normal or natural we're just being inefficient.

I believe this so strongly that in order to start changing (what I see as) our messed up work culture I created this petition almost a year ago, called Crunch Is Failure.

Kepa Auwae Business / Design RocketCat Games

I have to agree with a lot of this, but I guess my counterpoint is "beggars can't be choosers" in some cases, including mine.

On the triple-A employee abuse part of the topic, I think management would only stop doing this if it somehow very clearly hurt their bottom line.

I don't think public shaming would factor much into it. Could be wrong, but did all those articles about Walmart employee abuse make a difference?

Pavel Ahafonau Co-founder Happymagenta

When I've been working for the world's top corporations, there has basically never have a crunch for me. Probably management was good at planning overall.

Maybe they kept in mind an average person when planning, but I was almost never overloaded. Sometimes it only was like 25% to work tasks, because I was doing my part quite fast.

Then I was telling my manager, hey I've done it already - "Good, don't tell anyone yet!". There was pretty much time for my own things and self-education.

When I work on my own projects, the basic rule is - sleep 8+ hours, and eat on schedule.
Pavel Ahafonau

Colleagues at my office were happy and looked relaxed most of the time. Very rarely there was overwork on weekends, but it was paid at $250 per hour - pretty motivating for a 23 y.o.

That was in a EU country with very, very strict labour laws. For example, almost all shops close at 8pm, Saturdays at 4pm, and are closed on Sundays completely.

However, as far as I know, there were some people who were complaining that there was a crunch at their work in triple-A studios in the same country.

But that info was mostly spread by fired employees, so it might be not really a crunch, but a point of view of an employee that was thrown out of the project, probably for just doing not so much and sitting on the "bench", because an employee that files a complaint can very badly hurt company that really does that.

There is usually a mandatory time counting automation when you need to wave your card over a tracking device. Some people even used to stay at the office for an extra hour for four days, and then they would have 3 free days for the weekend.

But such things were only possible with a permit from managers, as with the overtime itself, otherwise you would quickly get a warning, because it could cause problems with the authorities to the company.

Now, when I work on my own projects, the basic rule is - sleep 8+ hours, as much as your body wants, and eat on schedule.

However, sometimes it's hard to maintain the common schedule of a human being for long. Once you get into the "flow" state for a few days, you are basically become a vampire that can code 2k lines of code consisting of 40k symbols in a day, going to sleep at dawn and arising to five o'clock tea, which is already past the dusk in the winter, so you can see no sun for a while.

That is what may happen when you are alone for a few days and there is no one from your family who can interrupt your "state of flow", when there is neither hunger nor anything besides the task that exists.

Though I can't say it's a crunch, that makes you ineffective, because soon your body adapts to the vampire schedule.

After that, family is the only reason why you want to go back to human life and live in the day. Well, not the only reason - there are very tasty cookies at Marks & Spencer's bakery that you can only buy in the morning =)

In the office of our full-time small indie studio the official rule is to work for 8 working hours and to appear there at 9 am. But some of us have their own schedule, e.g. come at noon and correspondingly leave later.

There is no forcing to work overtime, but people can stay if they want to. And being an indie has its benefits. Soft deadlines and an effective teammates mean that if there is an issue then the fix usually can be done in normal time - there is no need to push.

Molly Heady-Carroll Co-founder & Lead Artist Arcane Circus

I don’t think every aspect of crunch can be rejected, but there are certainly aspects that need to be fixed.

Willingly working extra in order to hit a creative deadline at the expense of your hygiene, social life, sleep and self-care is something that most artists will do in short bursts. It's fine, just not too much.

Unpaid, unwilling, over-time work on the other hand...

Work-life balance is absolutely something corporations should consider. We are not building pyramids, we are hiring artists to make games.

Erik van Wees Co-founder Arcane Circus

To me, crunch should disappear, since it entails having to consistently work extra as an employee at a company over a predetermined amount of time.

Everyone has a certain amount of "juice" to go that extra mile, which is triggered by a strong sense of either intrinsic or extrinsic motivation. Once this "juice" is depleted you need time to recover in order to stay healthy and productive.

I get the sense that some people are getting crunch confused with passion.
Erik van Wees

This is where crunching goes wrong: it is expected that everyone is willing to tap from their "juice" whenever it is asked from them. (To me it is a precious resource that should only be consumed on your own terms.)

On top of that, when everyone does decide to use their "juice", it is assumed that everyone has the same amount of "juice" to be able to last until the project goal is fulfilled.

So people who have already reached their limit during a crunch are then imposed with a difficult choice that can (and probably WILL) affect both their physical as well as their mental wellbeing.

I also get the sense that some people are getting "crunch" confused with "passion". I can see how passion relates to the willingness to crunch, but knowing that "crunching" has become a standardized phenomenon for certain game companies has led to your willingness to crunch be a measurement of how passionate you are:

"If you don't crunch, you're not passionate enough."

Passion should be nurtured, not extracted. I think some people take it for granted, as if passion is some kind of infinite source of energy. Even passion can fade over time when neglected.

Avoiding crunch is not only important to cultivate a healthy and productive working environment but it also allows you to maintain your passion and devotion.

If all the passion is being sucked out of you, then what's left?

Leanne Bayley Developer We Heart Dragons

Crunch - having to work around the clock to meet a deadline - has never had a place in this industry. It is an unwelcome guest at our table.

When it happens because too much was promised in the time allowed, and the expectation is on the staff to put themselves second and the project first, it is not healthy, good for the team or the project, or morally right.

We shouldn't be exploiting the passion developers have for making games into meeting deadlines.
Leanne Bayley

We shouldn't be exploiting the passion developers have for making games into meeting deadlines.

When it comes to work/life balance, it's on the individual to make sure this is in place. It's your employers job to pay you the hours you work and make sure that what they are scheduling is achievable in the time given.

If you want to work late or on a weekend that's up to you, but if you're being asked to do this (formally or otherwise) then something's gone wrong.

As for me as an indie, I work all hours because I want to be making video games.

I have to work around a toddler so my work days are not 9-5, and I have no concept of what a weekend is, or a day off, or a holiday, but that's what I've chosen. As mentioned above, we shouldn't confuse being passionate and therefore wanting to work extra as crunching.

When it comes to how we eradicate mandated crunch from the industry, I don't have a magic solution.

But we can't keep promising big on budgets too small, which means we need to make a revenue from our games, which means people need to understand why they cost so much/at all, which is a bigger problem for another discussion.

Dan Menard CEO Double Stallion

This is a great question. I'm happy that there's a discussion about crunch going on in the industry. Here is what I'll say about crunch:

Early in my career I interned for a triple-A studio. I joined a team full of great people, but the project had been rebooted three times by management without adjusting the final ship date.

Our team leads would inform us of new "rush deadlines" that needed to be met every 2 weeks (alpha, E3 demo, demo for a magazine, etc.) and forced us to work on weekends.

I was exhausted, discouraged, ashamed, and it seemed like it was all for nothing.
Dan Menard

The team was exhausted, and no one had any passion for it. The game shipped on time, but I avoided triple-A after graduating due to that experience.

Years later, when I was shipping my first independent game, I made a huge planning mistake. Our game was too big, we had some serious feature creep.

To ship our game in a reasonable time frame, I had to work 14 hour days for months on end. I pushed the rest of the team to finish up their work and just get it out. Some of my close friends on the team burnt out.

We shipped the game, but it wasn't very well received. I was exhausted, discouraged, ashamed, and it seemed like it was all for nothing.

We had a post-mortem and discussed the experience as a team. I vowed never to push to ship a product like that again. It's unhealthy for everyone on the team - physically and mentally - and it doesn't produce good games.

At Double Stallion, looking back at the three years since we founded, I don't think we've seriously crunched even once.

I can count only 2 weeks where the entire team put in more than 45 hours of work to ship a game, and we have never forced anyone to put in those extra hours. I call that success.

All it takes to avoid crunch is careful planning and an understanding of your own limits. From experience, I know that the extra hours don't make me better, and in the long run I think perma-crunch actually makes a team less productive.

Like Tanya, I believe that crunch is failure.

The other side of the coin is that it is impossible to predict the modifications and issues that will arise as a game is produced. I read an article recently that did a really great job of explaining that conundrum.

It's not a problem we can solve easily. By the time we discover it, it's usually too late. So we do have periods in our production schedules where everyone has to put in a little extra to get a game out the door.

Here is how I've learned to manage that:

  • As a project lead in the company I will never strong-arm an employee into doing more hours than they are paid for.
  • Employees are in full control of when and how they provide extra time (if any). Some people prefer mornings, evenings or weekends, it is their choice.
  • Extra time is recorded, and we check our time sheets at the end of every sprint. If people on the team had to put in extra hours to meet a deadline, we discuss why and what we can do to prevent it in the future.
  • We don't reward or encourage doing overtime in the long run. You can't get ahead by doing extra hours, and you can't use it to demonize co-workers who aren't putting in overtime.
The entire industry would be healthier if the practice of crunch was abolished.
Dan Menard

I think this led to a positive culture and good work-life balance for us at Double Stallion.

Judging by the last IGDA survey, it seems like crunch is still a rampant problem in the industry, and it's something that needs to go away.

The studios relying on crunch are underestimating the true cost of the games they develop and passing the buck onto their employees. This is a horrible way to operate a business.

There will always be uncertainty in software development, and I think any developer can expect to be in a rush maybe 2 weeks every year, but that is a far cry from the systemic perma-crunch which seems to be common in the games industry today.

The entire industry would be healthier if the practice of crunch was abolished.

Travis Ryan Studio Head Dumpling Design

In my experience, crunch was a self-imposed commitment to push the quality of a given product.

Oftentimes a project or publisher simply didn’t have the resource to scope for the essential details, which would often result in a subset of the team - those responsible for quality and delivery - committing to ‘getting it done’.

When you’re in those positions, it’s kind of an unwritten rule, your responsibility, but one that always seemed to reward.

Throughout my time tinkering with games and teams of all shapes and sizes, the common thread is that our industry struggles to quantify the process of ‘finding the fun’.

We’re uncomfortable with the quantifying and allotting time to ’seeing if a thing works’. Often it doesn’t, which seems wasteful, even though the knowledge gained is anything but.

Now we’re a bit older, with families, we run our own studio and tinker relentlessly. Unless there’s a critical date/opportunity, rather than crunch, we tend to take a bit longer - which explains why the Dashy Crashy update isn’t done yet ;)

Sebastian Lindén CEO & Creative Director Qaos Games

A first step for management to stop crunching is to realize that they are crunching.
Sebastian Lindén

For me, crunch has to do with miscommunication between management and developers. It could be lack of project management, but also misinterpretation of the expected.

Whether you’re working with two people or 40 people, I believe the most important factor is honesty.

Often people tend to be disappointed or feelings of crunch when the other side don't even realize that they are pushing boundaries to the negative.

A first step for management to stop crunching is to realize that they are crunching.

Management and developers are equally responsible for communicating their goals, expectations, and expressing optimal conditions to stay on top and keep loving what they're doing.


Deputy Editor

Ric has written for PocketGamer.biz for as long as he can remember, and is now Deputy Editor. He likes trains.

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