Crunch

(Source: “frustration” by Eric on flickr)

As usual, I’ll be predicting a dichotomous response based on the title alone. And this one is a big one.

To the laymen (-women, -people), who have no idea what this is, enjoy your candy bars and exercise routines. for the rest of us (especially us in the game industry with horror stories) crunch is working a longer and harder to get a game out on time. That description is accurate but really doesn’t capture the true feel of crunch or the deep problems associated with that act and the workplace.

No matter the field, if you’re working on big projects then crunch feels inevitable. Games often require years of work, 100’s of employees and 1000’s of man (woman, people) hours. Even if you’re a small team, or even especially if you’re a small team, “crunch” is often needed. Crunch separated from its many issues isn’t a bad thing by itself. However what can happen is that crunch-time or overtime can be overdone and abused.

My would-be ludum dare entry in progress

This past weekend I participated in Ludum Dare 42. I was making a VR game that had a deceptively simple premise. The theme of the jam was “running out of space” so I wanted to make a puzzle game where you made it to your goal by erasing sections of space (and therefore the objects in that space) to remove obstacles int eh way of your goal. Everything was trucking along until I ran into technical problems with voxels and saving level data… yadda yadda yadda… boring technical mumbo-jumbo and I didn’t finish the game for the jam.

I mention this because last week when I talked about jams, I talked about how they could serve as a metaphor for game development. Finding these jam-ending bugs in my game and thinking about that reminded me of the great pitfalls in game development that come into place when discussing crunch. Part of the reason this article came out later than it usually does is that I went over my schedule to work on the game. I ended up working on it for all of Sunday and most of Monday which through my entire schedule off. I thought that working for longer on the game would give me more time and make the game better. The only thing that happened was I became more tired working on a fundamentally flawed system. I fell into the trap of sinking cost into particular facets instead of scaling back my time to ship a game with minimal harm on myself.

Now a weekend of all-nighters isn’t exactly harm but “crunch” is usually never a one-time affair in studios. Many times in the industry crunching once will be enough to justify doing it again because they were able to meet a deadline because of this. This then makes it okay to do it more and more until ambitious project decisions are solved with overtime instead of better planning. However, giving up sleep, breaks and other means to unwind from work doesn’t simply yield more work at an increased personal cost. It yields subpar work. And if not subpar, it definitely isn’t as good as when you were more awake, alert, and focused working regular hours. You still pay the price of overworking while sacrificing the quality of the work you’re doing.
For these reasons and the fact that lots of developers have experienced crunch for little to no overtime pay, in terrible conditions or have simply crunched for too long on several projects, there is a growing movement to stop crunch completely and even groups working for a widespread unionization of game development to address this and other industry issues.

For me, I’m still trying to make a way for myself professionally in this industry. I’m passionate and ready to work on what this field gives me next but not at the cost of my health and well-being. And I’ve only come to this understanding by researching and listening to industry wisdom because when it comes down to it; people who make games are very passionate. It can be very hard to tell passionate people when to stop — especially in a market a lot of people want to be in. Sometimes that’s good. Other times, it’s necessary.

Author’s Note: Sorry for the relatively short and weirdly scheduled articles this past while. As you know I’m doing almost literally ALL the jams this month and development of Chroma is starting to ramp up a bit after PixelPop. That being said. Thanks to everyone sticking around and reading these. You few people mean a lot and you looking at and sharing these mean the world to me.

Thank you (OvO)