Crunch: It's All Your Fault
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.