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Crunch: It's All Your Fault
by Benjamin Quintero on 04/09/14 05:24:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutraís community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Crunch does not exist.  Crunch is the name of a particular exercise that helps define your abdomen.  In the landscape of the workforce, crunch is less a word and more of an institution.  We crunch because it is the personification of what we've been told our entire lives; if we work hard enough, anything is possible.

In the world of entertainment, this idealism is at it's peak.  For every scriptwriter who has 2 jobs bussing tables at restaurants where film makers are known to mingle, and every game tester who is waiting for the day they get noticed by someone on the development team; it's all the same.  There is an undeniable passion that most people share in the entertainment space, and that passion is rarely rivaled by those yet untainted by it's reality.  Some might argue that the endless hours and thankless work of a failed or unreleased project was the nail in the coffin for them, and others may say that they are just too old to feel that absurdly illogical jubilation over the unattainable goal of shipping the perfect game.  Whatever the reason, we all lose the fire in our gut to spend every waking hour, and some sleeping hours, at or under our desk.  The real story is what happens next...

What happens when your passion is gone, when all you can think about is your family and what they must be doing right now?  Does it mean that you aren't worthy of being part of the industry that you helped succeed?  You may not be one of the famous gaming gods who graced the cover of a magazine somewhere, but surely you did your part.  So why do you feel so guilty, and why does it feel like your co-workers aren't exactly helping the situation?

When crunch happens, and it doesn't stop, the burnout is sure to follow.  But we don't really think about the burnout; do we?  There is too much at stake as each person on the team takes the world on their shoulders.  If everyone isn't working to their fullest potential (translated to some ratio of a 24 hour clock) then clearly that is the point of failure.  Who wants to be the weakest link in that tightly wound up chain?  If it breaks, it's all your fault.

I'll admit that in my younger days I've watched people walking out the door at 6pm and thought lesser of them.  It was before I had a family, before I considered life to be more than my work, when my measure of success was the lines of code I checked in.  I couldn't help myself.  It was the company culture that I had been absorbed into, the mantra I had been told my entire life, the quotes I read on every billboard, and the sentiment of every manager who asked more of me.  If everyone and everything around me is saying that hard work will bring me greater opportunity and better fortunes then why would I stop?  Those people who clocked out "early" were simply the ones who have given up the dream...  They deserved whatever was coming to them, right?  Probably a stern talking to by the boss, or perhaps a gentle warning that there are others who are hungry to move up in the gladiator ranks.  When the passion is gone and the tanks run empty, what use is that person to reaching my dream.  This game has to ship, it has to be a success...  My future depends on it.

The thing is, when this kind of mentality is shared by your entire team or even your entire company then there is no escape.  Crunching is very much like being bullied, but the very mutter of the word bully means so much more to people than crunch.  Crunching after all is a symbolism of strength, strong will, passion, and drive to be better than the rest.  Bullying is the use of force, threat, or coercion to abuse, intimidate, or aggressively impose domination over others.  If you think about it, that sounds a whole lot like what we do to ourselves and to others everytime we look down at our peers for choosing a life outside of work.

We may not resort to fisticuffs to subdue our peers but not standing up for them when management is disiplining people for refusing to come in on Saturday is just as bad.  Standing by while others on your team do everything they can to convince their co-workers to stay late, or complaining to your boss that a co-worker is not putting in 60 hours weeks like you are is being part of the problem.  Blaming management is not the solution, they are often counted on one hand.  Many managers can simply be a reflection of the teams culture or lack of defiance against bad choices.  Blame yourself, it's all your fault.

One person does not break down an institution.  That is a deep seeded culture that is brought on by a lifetime of targeted messaging and the misguided angst of passionate and creative people.  It takes a village to enforce the realization that working hard isn't the same as working long.

Okay... The elephant in the room is here.  It is easy to simply tell others not to crunch.  I know just as well and perhaps even more than others that the business of making games is a strong factor is why we crunch.  We all get paid to create something amazing and that money comes from somewhere.  What to do about this is perhaps an even harder lesson than what to do about crunching...  Not every baby makes it.  Some dreams are meant to die, some business are meant to close, sometimes we don't always get it right.  And if the only way to make it succeed is to destroy everything and the lives of those around you while you nurture a culture of jelousy and rivalry then was it really worth it?  If your answer is yes then the game's success is not your glory to be had.  It's all your fault.

Success is not always about finishing; it's about how many people are left to share it with when you are done.  When you look around your office, how many people have been there with you from the beginning.  Why did they leave?  Could you have stopped it?  Were you and your "passion" part of the problem?  If your answer is yes, it's all your fault.

 


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Comments


Ian Richard
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I'm actually not at fault... well not entirely. I started to speak out against it the morning I walked in after 3 hours of sleep and saw that our programming lead had fallen asleep at his desk while compiling a build. Within a couple of days the owner of the company came in to motivate us by telling us that we just had to "Give a little more".

I highly doubt he meant it in the way my overworked brain took it... but I did speak up. I asked "What the hell else can these people give? I haven't had a full nights sleep in days, these guys haven't seen their families and Phil over there hasn't left the office in 3 days? What more can they possibly give?"
My own experiences sucked... but I didn't have a family counting on me.

I made myself a promise that if I ever return to that industry I'll be in a position to fix it. I'll never be "Just a programmer" again. I've spent the last few years studying efficiency, psychology, and testing new methods to improve my own productivity. I've gotten pretty **** good.

Now... to find a company to hire me.

Greg Scheel
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Start your own, you won't regret it.

Ian Richard
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I did... but I miss the (usually) regular paychecks. I'm good at making games but terrible at marketing and art. I'd rather be surrounded by people who can compensate for my own weaknesses.

Besides, I want to make my difference INSIDE the industry. The scale of indy games are too small for people to accept them as "proof" of low-overtime productions.

To get the rest of the industry to notice, you'll need success on a big name AAA title.

Daniel Pang
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Nah.

Crunch exists because we care about the product and at the end of the day we want to do the best job possible.

There is no way that's a bad thing. There is no company in the world that wants to hire people who don't care about the product and the job they're doing. The problem is when that passion is exploited for increasingly punishing work hours, because rationally if the people who care about the product crunch, they'll equate people who don't crunch with people who don't care about the product.

And as far as the higher tiers of management is concerned, it's not a problem, because if you burn out there are a million kids out there just as passionate as you are who are willing to do the job. It's simple supply/demand. When the supply of kids who grew up playing Final Fantasy VII or other megahits with stars in their eyes want to go work in games with a rose-tinted view of what game development is like drops off, you'll see companies work harder to retain their staff.

It's the same way we blow our nose on tissues. They're disposable, because we think there'll always be more tissues. If there were a massive tissue shortage you bet your ass nobody'd sneeze into one as quickly.

G Irish
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The thing is, good people are not disposable or replaceable. Exceptional people are even more valuable. They're often the difference between success and failure.

When talented, experienced people leave a studio there is a high cost to the studio's capabilities. Even if you find someone who is equally talented it will take them months to integrate and get up to speed. And that's assuming you didn't have to waste months finding a new person. In real terms that can hurt or cripple a good team. A major rule of business success is to limit turnover of great employees, not because you can't hire someone else, but because it costs A LOT of money. Gaming companies don't seem to understand that.

Simple fact of the matter is that teams make the game. If your company keeps burning people out and thinks they can replace veteran team members with fresh meat from college they are absolute fools. That's why there are so many studios repeating the same dumb mistakes in the industry and failing in the same dumb ways. Then the suits wonder why all of these games with AAA budgets go down in flames.

Lastly, because of the perception that joining the game industry is committing to poor work life balance for less pay, a lot of brilliant people never join the industry. That industry ends up being poorer for it.

Amir Barak
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"Crunch exists because we care about the product"
You're funny (also delusional)... Crunch exists because someone who couldn't give a f*** about you and your product wants to make money...
(in a corporate environment).

On a personal level crunch happens when we are immature (myself included), the quicker we realize the real-life cost of crunching and over-working the better we become as people and developers.


Clinton Keith
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It's why we use the phrase death march: to define crunch that's imposed and extended. I've crunched working on things I cared about with the team and enjoyed every minute of it. I've never enjoyed a death march.

Ultimately though, Benjamin is correct. It is our fault to accept working in these conditions.

Kelly Kleider
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It used to called being "in the zone" or "zoning out". You would be so into something that you didn't realize that hours had passed. I don't think crunch has ever meant that.

Jorge Gonzalez
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This is the thing i feel the most guilty of, when i zone out is really hard for me to go back to the real world and stop thinking about x or y problem that needs to be solved or z aspect that could be improved; so far my fiancee is the one who has helped me come back to earth, but it's kinda hard when you are so inlove with what you are doing and/or you are a workaholic.

Now death march is something i've only experienced in my previous life as a database developer and is not something i'meager to go back to

Michael Joseph
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I think people still underestimate the physical toll crunch has on the body. Magnify this for each vice or character flaw you have (bad diet full of caffeine & sugar and little fruits and vegetables, sedentary lifestyle, alcohol use, tobacco use, type-a personality, etc)

Sitting indoors in front of a PC for 8 hours a day 5+ days a week is bad enough. Increasing that by 25-100% a week is just asking for it...

Just because exploiting twenty-somethings is easy doesn't make it right.

Asking your employees to crunch is asking them to shed months and years off their lives. If you're going to ask that of them, not only should you be informing them all of the health risks, you should be giving them hazard pay or they should be co-owners and have a share of the profits. Not doing this makes you a bad person in my book.


P.S And I'm highly skeptical about the references to "passion." With young developers I think it's more a case of a seduction than a passion. These people are starting to form a new sense of personal identity by embarking on a new career (often their first careers) and it is this sense of undergoing a sort of rite of passage or induction into a special class of society that drives them more than passion for some mundane product they've been assigned to work on.

p.s.s. Gamasutra or somebody should sponsor an anonymous game developer health survey. Ask people to list how many work hours a week they averaged for each year working in the industry. Age when started. Height and weight. Rate their diets and physical activity for each year. Health issues if any listed by year of diagnosis. Really you could go hog wild on such a survey... it could be dozens of pages long.

Next you'll see employee contracts absolving them of health risks associated with the job.

Dave Hoskins
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The guys in suits want to see that everyone is working right up to the last minute. Even if your hard work is left on a bosses office desk for the rest of the week, at least you lost the entire weekend for no reason, yay!
Most people are bad at judging timelines and underestimate how much they have left to do, but the trouble with finishing early is that you get more shit, I mean work, thrown at you from the lazy bastards in the team!! ;)

Tanya X Short
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When I started my new 4-person studio (Kitfox Games) a year ago, I decided quality of life was worth fighting for. Possibly because I got my start at a Norwegian studio (Funcom) and spent time living in Norway, I've never felt that pushing people to death-march was morally excusable.

A year later, we've launched our first game and our only "crunch" were 3 weeks of everyone working till 8pm. Two of us tend towards working an hour or two of overtime, but it's always optional/self-inflicted. None of us have kids, but I think we're still well set-up to mature as a company. :) I've been trying to figure out how to write an article similar to this without just fill-on bragging... maybe I can just save it for the post-mortem.

Sarah Imrisek
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The International Game Developers Association is conducting a survey right now that asks questions about some of these issues. Not sure what they intend to do with the results. Reading between the lines a little makes me think they're sensing out whether we want to unionize?? Anyway, if you want to give your two cents, this is as good a place as any.

http://www.research.net/s/IGDA-DSS2014

Russell Watson
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Every proponent of crunch I have met can be put into one of two categories: individuals who have/do little outside of games/work ( and probably chasing perceived prestige ) or individuals who stand to gain financially from your work ( usually managers ). Worst of all if they could fit both. In fact one manager I have worked for told me that simply 'getting paid' should be enough to warrant crunching.

Michael Thornberg
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EDIT: Decided to stay off this topic. But in short: I think developers (the employees) should try to resist overtime as much as possible. Some (unfortunately) do make a habit of using overtime as *normal* time.

Jason Bentley
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Peopleware

"Jerry Weinberg has an answer of sorts: He suggests that we don't work overtime so much as a way to get the work done on time as a way to shield ourselves from blame when the work inevitably doesn't get done on time."

I'll keep repeating this till it stops being 100% true of the games industry

Judy Tyrer
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Voluntary crunch that you do because you really want to get this last feature polished or that art work up one more notch is one thing. I have no problem with voluntary crunch.

All team crunch, however, is an abomination. I was once assigned mandatory crunch when my work was caught up and there was no need for me to be there (networking). I was told the entire team must be there and if I was caught up then I should use that time to get ahead. Here I was, managing my time well, and punished for a schedule over which I had zero control.

Yes, you do need to have the entire team in high gear for a major release. It doesn't have to require overtime. It just means you're focused and working at maximum productive levels instead of normal productive levels.

Then, again, the game industry seems to think we are all actually robots who can run full out full time. It doesn't work that way. Sprint for 3 weeks. Sprint again. Keep on sprinting! There's no marathon here? What is downtime but wasted time.

Yeah, I have a whole development process in the works designed specifically to address this. We are using it to build our game and we will launch both simultaneously. Keep an eye out.

Ian Richard
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I had one of those moments. I hadn't had a day off in 2 weeks and I was sick as a dog. I work my butt off to finish everything on my plate so that I can sleep off the illness over the weekend.

I'm told... "I need you to come in on Saturday just in case we finish this new design". For some stupid reason I did as they asked.

I spend all day polishing working code and playing PSP while waiting for their design to finish. They didn't finish so they said "We need you to come in tomorrow in case we finish." This is where it get's crazy... I said "No. I'm sick. If you finish the design call me."

The design didn't finish Sunday and I had a great day's rest. Monday, I was less sick and better equip to handle the new design when it finished on Thursday.

I'm willing to put in overtime. I'm even willing to put in overtime when something goes wrong and someone else needs help. But overtime should be refused for times when it's NEEDED.

I look forward to ANY process to address these issues. I love this industry and I hope one day it'll love us back.

Amir Barak
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Crunch is such a negative term I'm surprised no one has realized that game development is actually a service and started calling it Free-2-Dev...

David Dougher
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Frankly I'm appalled at the lack of courage shown by the people who fill the game industry. I read as dev's talk about it being "ok" to crunch for a month or two, especially if you do it on your own, to solve a problem.

Let's cut the BS. CRUNCH IS NEVER GOOD! It is bad for your health, it LOWERS your productivity and it lowers the quality of your game. No one wants to admit it. You are like a bunch of drug addicts claiming you can quit any time you want to. A company that wants a profit, that does not care if you even survive to the end of the project tells you that they need you to work extra, for nothing. If you do it, you reinforce it. You tell them, "Yeah, I'm a worthless crumb that you can push around on the plate until you dump me for some other crumb that can be pushed further."

Have any of you considered that management factors in the amount of crunch time they can get out of you into your salaries?

I worked as a consultant for decades and I've often been asked to work "extra" hours to get a project done. I always told them the same thing. "I have no problem with working extra hours - I just raise my rate for those extra hours." I only have to say it once. I never get asked to work "extra" again without some offer of real compensation. And my regular consulting rate went up every year with no complaints. I never got fired, I never got told my work wasn't up to par. All those guilt trips are in your head. I got respect for saying no.

If you are doing a good job a smart company doesn't want to lose you. But if you are stupid enough to let them push you into thinking your labor is worth nothing then you get what you deserve.

Your self esteem goes down every time you tell yourself that you should crunch for any reason. You are telling yourself that you are not worth the salary you are being paid. Are you so talentless that getting fired for doing what is right means your career is over? I doubt it.

So, are you being paid what you are worth? If you are, then don't fall for the trap of holding back the good of the "team". Do you best. Work reasonable hours. And say "No" when asked to crunch. Make management do their job. They are supposed to plan the development, budget the correct amount of time for the project. It's their problem, you giving them your time for free is not a solution. It's an invitation to make the same mistake again, because it cost them NOTHING.

Management is not stupid. If they see you will not work ridiculous hours right from the beginning of the project they will adjust. They will cut features earlier. They will not add features late to the game. They will bring in extra people earlier if necessary.

Every hour you work for free, crunching, is one hour of your life you will NEVER get back. Don't spend it proving to yourself and the world that it had no value.


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