[In this Gamasutra opinion piece, Spark Unlimited co-founder Dave Prout approaches the oft-discussed topic of crunch from a different angle as he searches for the root cause. "When a team is already in production without a compelling, fun gameplay experience, it's in trouble," he says.]
Before I begin my descent into what some might call an untimely piece, given the economy, let me start by saying this article is not about quality of life. Enough has been written on that aspect of crunch: the colorful legal history, the unhappy spouses, and PR debacles. In spite of this, the practice remains embraced to lesser or greater degrees by the vast majority of the industry.
For the purposes of this article, I'm defining "crunch" as "compulsory unpaid overtime". Time voluntarily given from passion and enthusiasm is not compulsory, and working hard on games we love is not a crime. I'm talking about the practice and reliance upon mandatory sustained overtime, working 80+ hour weeks for a month or more, with little or no weekend time.
Productions which employ crunch have deeper problems lurking in the darkness, which are far more damaging to our industry, and imperil its future.
I'll endeavor to touch on some of these, home in on their root cause, and present some solutions which can improve our course by making our games more fun, reducing budget overages, improving our forecasting, retaining our brain trust, and of course, reducing crunch -- all to the end of making our industry stronger in the short- and long-term.
While espousers of crunch often equate it with creative passion -- a necessary duty, a sacrifice shouldered in the realization of a nascent gaming opus -- I grow increasingly skeptical.
Any project, enshrined in the pregnancy of its own importance, is able to distort the realities of its true value to the world, skew the definition of success for team members, and inflate the supposed creative caliber of team leadership. Not all games are game-changers.
Nor is crunch correlated with hit titles. Now, crunch is certainly used by highly successful studios, but it's also employed on three-month-production shovelware. Crunch might help a sucky game suck a little bit less, but really... said game will still suck. Put another way, crunch doesn't make a game not suck.
But despite the arguments against it, crunch certainly continues to happen. So what causes it?
I suspect that many production-line developers intuitively grasp some core indicators: the production didn't get serious enough, fast enough. There was too much feature-creep. Early turnover killed the momentum. Gameplay wasn't proven until too late.
Crunch happens to the most well-intentioned of us. Having been a production artist as well as a project manager, crunch has certainly happened on my watch, and I can honestly say that in the back of my mind, just knowing the crunch option exists is a warm comfort in the unpredictable hell that game development can sometimes be. When the creative lead is saying "it'll be done when it's done" and the brass are saying "this quarter is your last chance", crunch is a relieving fallback for a project manager, and to consider life without it seems tantamount to assuring project failure.
However, I have to confess, the practice itself feels like something of a cover-up. Death-marches are rarely forecasted, and the overtime they feed off of isn't tracked. Instead, crunch is heralded by its implementers as the price of entry into our truly amazing industry. Common practice or not, one cannot make good faith assurances to an investor regarding budget and date targets, if said assurances are dependent upon significant, but unknown, quantities of free labor.
I posit this: if you hear of a studio that is on a death march, it's a good bet the project leadership doesn't know what it's doing, because it doesn't know what it's making. It doesn't know what it's making because the gameplay experience hasn't matured into demonstrable, compelling fun. And if it hasn't achieved fun, then it entered production too soon, and the leadership is investing blindly in the project.
Investing blindly in the project means lots of money wasted developing lackluster features that never even succeeded on paper. Bad ideas make it in, cuts are handled sloppily, and the project's costs balloon to try to contain a project spiraling out of control.
In the end, the game isn't as good as it might have been. It cost far more than it should have. The team is burned out (and facing probable layoffs). The project leads are probably considering leaving the industry. The investors feel burned by the project's performance and look for other places to spend their money.
For the game and the studio, it's a lose-lose-lose. For the game industry, these projects are mortal wounds that have devastating and lasting effects.
Let's back up to the root cause of all of this. When a team is already in production without a compelling, fun gameplay experience, it's in trouble. Crunch is a symptom of the root cause of premature production; by resolving premature production, the need for crunch will massively diminish.
In film and television, if an early treatment was suddenly plunged into full production, it would be considered a catastrophic failure of the development process. In the game industry, when a fledgling creative vision is suddenly staffed with talent, it's considered ensuring success. This is a fundamental fallacy in our thinking.
An unproven creative vision is not helped by prematurely burdening it with a production team, which waits around for something to do. When that happens, creative development slows as the preproduction team is forced to manage the production team. The new voices second-guess the direction before it's had a chance to mature. The larger team's burn rate makes executives anxious. Pressure to produce demonstrable results draws political boundaries. The creative vision holders are pushed to compromise, and development becomes reactive, rather than proactive.
In reactive development, crunch comes quite naturally. At this very moment, there are productions for which this situation is a true fact. Is it any wonder why we, as an industry, still employ crunch?