The issue of crunch and poor working conditions in the games industry isn't new - it's a long-running topic.
But it's once again stirred a lot of debate recently through inside stories at Telltale Games and recent comments surrounding 100-hour work weeks at Rockstar. There are also in-depth reports, such as this one from Kotaku, with numerous members of Rockstar staff about how they feel working on the biggest games under pressure.
In general, some in the industry say crunch should be avoided completely and pin the blame at poor planning. Others in the past have said that it’s often-times inevitable at points, but the issue is how staff are compensated and how long the period of overworking runs for.
While many public examples around crunch concern the triple-A console and PC sector, it's a big issue for the mobile sector too.
So we asked our Mobile Mavens:
- What are your thoughts on ‘crunch’ in the games industry and what can be done to tackle it that’s fair to staff?
- Do you have any experiences you’d be willing to share about the effects of poor working conditions?
Crunch is definitely as prevalent in mobile as core. It’s a common complaint on MZ’s Glassdoor, for example, and it’s known in the industry that long hours are expected there and other high-profile mobile studios.
I worked at a studio where crunch was praised by the founders as noble and bonus-worthy. That ideology filtered down and I was close to a team that had an inexperienced lead and about six people.
The game was shaping up poorly but rather than kill it the founders stepped in and asked everyone for “commitment”. The team locked themselves in a room, ramped up work and in sacrificing their health and personal relationships got the game out the door.
It was in soft launch maybe a month, then killed. The lead, who never wanted to be a lead, was fired and everyone else scattered to other projects.
The team locked themselves in a room, ramped up work and in sacrificing their health and personal relationships got the game out the door.Will Luton
Around half the team quit in the next few months, some who remained became so disillusioned and toxic that they were fired. Many left games completely.
Yet the founders clung to the idea that their crunch showed passion and loyalty, because it’s what they believed in: The masculine ideal of blood and sweat. And this is where crunch comes from, people’s egos creating a combination of over-ambition and ignorance to anyone’s well-being and long-term impact.
In reality, there’s a bunch of studies that prove crunch just does not work. Even in the short-term. The Games Outcomes Project showed a negative correlation between outcomes (poor sales, low Metacritic etcetera) and forced crunch. Plus as hours increase, output eventually drops and staff retention plummets.
Personally, I think even 40 hours is too many hours for people work: It doesn’t fit with family life and it leaves most feeling exhausted.
My thinking is that if I ever found another studio it will be either four day weeks or 6.5 hour days. My reasoning is that input hours don’t directly correlate with usable output as Parkinson’s law dictates (any task will take as long as it’s deadline).
Crunch is fucking illegal. In Germany the CEO can go to jail for that. Blood, tears and sweat is bullshit. If anyone says that this is just part of the deal should do the 'walk of shame' [Game of Thrones reference].
A team is only effective and productive if they do not have the fear that they'll get divorced, are getting sick, need a sabatical or a timeout after each project. No free pizza, free beers are worth the pain of crunch!
Yes, crunch is caused by bad planning, bad controlling and bad behaviours of the stakeholders. The issue is of course also fixed deadlines to release a title (holiday season incoming, movie release, financial results for traded companies, etcetera).
Btw if anyone needs a job in a non-crunching company just contact me. We have many open positions.
I strongly believe that crunch is unacceptable in 100 per cent of situations. If the game is delayed then it’s the responsibility of the management to sort that out, not the team.
Companies have a duty of care and whether or not team members think or say they are okay with it, the company should not allow them to do it.
Anyone who allows or supports crunch should not be responsible for a team in my opinion.
A 20-year veteran of video games and online space, Harry is European CEO of Marvelous AQL, a Japanese developer and publisher of social, mobile and console games, known for console games like No More Heroes and Harvest Moon, but now highly successful in the free-to-play mobile and web space in Japan and Asia.
A games programmer before joining Sony’s early PlayStation team in 1994, he then founded developer Pure Entertainment, which IPO’d and launched a free-to-play online gaming service way back in 1999.
He was also a director of pioneering motion gaming startup In2Games, which was sold to a US group in 2008.
Along the way, he’s been a corporate VP, troubleshooter, and non-exec to a variety of companies and investors in and around the games sector.
Not only is crunch demotivating for teams, it's unproductive for everyone - but particularly programmers.
Any programmer who's crunched for more than a week or two quickly loses productivity and problems that you spend hours failing to solve in the early hours can often be solved in minutes after a good night's sleep.
Any programmer who's crunched for more than a week or two quickly loses productivity.Harry Holmwood
Of course, occasions might arise when a bit of 'above and beyond' is appreciated - last minute bugs before mastering, or a critical issue on a live game might need people to work for a short time outside of normal hours.
But I despair when I hear of teams having mandated crunch as a standard part of the project. These kinds of things smack of executives who've never actually developed software demanding 'something must be done, pull out all the stops' and people down the chain having to take action they know won't actually help.
To those execs, I suggest getting yourselves copies of 'Peopleware' and 'The Mythical Man Month' and learning something about how development works.
The latter was written 43 years ago and still holds true. There's really no excuse for not having learned these lessons already.
I will join the others in stating that crunch is both unnecessary and mostly counter-productive.
Only the most mindless routine work can be done faster by working very long hours. And that's not a good description of game development.
Time is a poor measure of value in many game development or game design roles. It's a bit better at measuring art or content heavy tasks, but fundamentally a lot of work does not equal smart work.
When time becomes the main factor of people showing their value it becomes unsustainable.Tom Kinniburgh
I think that when running a company you want people to be in the office together for around 7 hours a day, anything else is up to the willingness of the team. Teams need a clear vision to execute on but don't need to be told how to execute it.
As a studio, time pressure always puts pressure on teams to release, but if you get to the situation Will mentioned then either the team wasn't clear on the vision or management didn't help the team enough to execute.
When time becomes the main factor of people showing their value it becomes unsustainable. Free-to-play especially favours thought and research and analysis over hitting release dates and good studios know this.
Great games take years to make. Think about the long-term.
This is a complex subject. On one hand, forced crunch time for long periods of time, especially for employees that have no control over the decisions being made that affect their workload, is very disheartening.
The worst feeling in the world is when you are starting to make some progress on a large task and then a decision comes out of nowhere to change direction or add something new. It’s no fun being Sisyphus.
On the other hand though, what do you do if you are running out of budget and your game is not fun? You have to make changes and you have to try and get the game completed on time.
Project management is a favourite area of blame for crunch time but I find that overly simplistic..Dave Castelnuovo
What if you are a business owner/developer? Are you going to limit your own work hours to less than 40 hours a week when you have your family’s savings tied up in your game? It’s easy to say that crunch time is not okay when you see abuses like at Telltale, but there is more to it than that.
Project management is a favourite area of blame for crunch time but I find that overly simplistic.
At Telltale, abusive crunch time was the result of bad business decisions. I’m sure project management did all it could to keep up with the needs of the business, but at the business level they took on way too much work than they could possibly handle.
I’ve also seen bad technology and bad design lead to unnecessary crunch time. When you have sloppy code, you create two bugs for every bug you squash.
For bad design, the project’s game designers just might not be capable of delivering the fun or maybe the artists on the project aren’t right for the game’s vision, leading to iteration hell.
These types of issues are hard to manage around. Even for great teams, you might be trying to build an experience that hasn’t been seen before. Innovation is hard to estimate and therefore hard to manage.
Me personally, 60 hours per week is my sweet spot. Admittedly, I’m a bit of a workaholic, really passionate about what I do and like to work hard on cool things.
I would much rather be on a project I believe in and working crazy hours than on any 40-hour a week project where I punch out at 5pm every day.
"What do you do if you are running out of budget and your game is not fun?"
Definitely don’t crunch. You’ll make it worse!
If you’ve got to the end of production and only just worked out your game sucks then it won’t get fixed.
Tony’s career has covered the whole spectrum from AAA console to handheld, mobile and flash titles, working on huge franchises such as Grand Theft Auto, Red Dead Redemption, and Call of Duty.
In 2015 he founded Ant Workshop to develop his own titles and to offer his experience as a design consultant.
Every one of the examples you’ve given sounds like someone high up the chain greenlit full production and committed to a budget and schedule before they knew what game they were actually making.
Reginaldo started his career in games 16 years ago when he founded Jynx Playware – a pioneer in online multiplayer games in Brazil. In 2010 he took the lead of Glu Mobile’s studio in Sao Paulo where he released Blood and Glory, first and only Glu’s title to date to secure a 5 stars rating.
Reginaldo moved to Berlin in 2012 for a brief passage at Wooga and later on at Aeria Games, where he learned the game business from the publishing side. Last fall Reginaldo realised Germany was not cold enough and moved to Finland to be Head of Production for Rovio Stars.
Free-to-play development is a marathon, not a sprint.
Under specific circumstances, though, crunch can be positive. If it is short, rare and comes from the team, the feeling of accomplishment and the brother-in-arms bonding it promotes is beneficial.
Apart from that, crunch is normally a terrible idea.