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Capps Defends Epic Quality Of Life: 'My Guys Ask To Crunch'
Capps Defends Epic Quality Of Life: 'My Guys Ask To Crunch'
April 23, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander

April 23, 2009 | By Leigh Alexander
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    36 comments
More: Console/PC



Epic Games president Michael Capps is speaking out at length in an ongoing industry quality of life debate sparked by comments he recently made at the IGDA Leadership Forum.

Outspoken design veteran and Manifesto Games CEO Greg Costikyan recently took Capps -- whom he implies is a "management dickhead" -- to task for stating that working beyond the 40-hour week was part of "corporate culture" and expected at Epic.

"The notion that a f*cking board member of the IGDA should defend (and indeed, within his own studio, foster) such exploitative practices is offensive on the face of it, and has caused a considerable kerfluffle within the organization," Costikyan wrote on his Play This Thing blog.

It's since been a topic of heated discussion on IGDA forums and among the development community. The issue was further complicated, according to Costikyan, by comments from IGDA chair emeritus Jen MacLean that the organization, which represents the interests of game developers, "doesn't exist to 'dictate' to anyone what hours they should work."

Now Capps is speaking at length to consumer weblog Joystiq, explaining the comments that sparked the "kerfluffle" and the context in which they were made.

"We haven't really dove in to the forum discussions because there haven't seemed to be a lot of folks there who really want to discuss facts," Capps says.

"Honestly, I'm not sure which of the various things that got everybody so upset. I think the main one was that if someone walks into the door and says, 'I refuse to ever work past 5pm, I'll never work more that 40 hours a week and you can't make me', they're probably not a fit for us," he says.

He likened the issue to a journalist who dictates rigid hours during E3 coverage, or an obstetrician setting a fixed working window for when he's available to deliver babies. "I mean, our average number of work hours is what, 49, 50 in the U.S.? So to have someone walk in and say they refuse to ever crunch for an E3 demo, it's kind of silly," says Capps. "It just shows that they're probably not passionate about what they do. That's very different from saying that we force people to work hard all the time."

Capps says the working policy at Epic restrains employees from working past 2:00 AM -- "The rule I have the most trouble here with these guys is kicking them out at 2. That's the one that pisses folks off," he says. "It's not the 8 hours a day, it's the 2 AM and I'm still working and I'm on a 'I've got a bug by the tail and I want to finish it.' And we'll have someone going around banging on doors, kicking everybody out because they need to go home."

The Epic Games executive says that Gears of War 2 required approximately 12-hour days, five days a week for "maybe" six weeks during crunch -- but that outside of such situations, it's "dangerous" to enforce or even permit long working hours during normal points in the development cycle. "There's no way you could work someone 12 hour days, 250 work days a year because they just, they'll break down. It's crazy," he says.

Capps says the staff of Epic is particularly passionate about the work they do, especially working on the Unreal Engine, and that in part working outside conventional hours is an elective process for a happy staff. "My guys ask to crunch," he says.

"These guys get to work on games they really want to make," says Capps. "There's no dog product here at Epic, right? You work on the engine and your code is seen by thousands of programmers and it affects hundreds of games all over the world. That's awesome."

Financial incentives also play a role, Capps adds -- he tells Joystiq that "the average person here made more on bonuses than they did in salary for Gears 2. And we've only seen royalties for 2008. We haven't even seen this year's royalties. Gears 2 is still selling strong."

The proof is in the numbers, Capps says, and Epic sees turnover rates that are "shockingly below" industry standards -- "In 2006, our voluntary turnover rate was 1.3 percent. In 2007, it [was] 1.1 percent. In 2008 it was 1.03 percent...we basically have one voluntary departure a year, or something like that."

The exec concedes, however, that many other studios may use Epic's working practices out-of-context as an example of what they should and should not do.

He recalls being confronted by someone after the panel who worried his own management team would "point to what [Epic does] and say, 'Oh, see? Crunching is okay because they're doing it.' Then that company would not be treating their employees the same way and would not be making a product based on passion rather than schedule and that sort of thing."

"Using what we said as an example to mistreat people -- That was kind of a scary thought," says Capps. "So, I definitely am trying to be a little bit more cautious about saying how we do things here and trying to caveat it a lot," he admits.

Capps added, later in the interview, that he understood why the industry had a potential problem: "There've been people who've had a really bad experiences and we've heard the stories, the EA spouse horror stories about folks being worked way too hard and never getting any time for their families, that sort of thing. Our guys vote on how they want to crunch and last time they chose having weekends off, so you could spend a whole weekend with their family and recharge. Other times, they've chosen six days a week, but fewer hours, you know that sort of thing."

"And hearing some of the horror stories, that's just frightening. How do you work someone a 100 hours a week and get anything useful out them. It doesn't even make sense, right? So, I get it. I get why people are scared and upset and worried about abusive employment. I understand that."

The full interview with Epic's Mike Capps is currently available at Joystiq.


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Comments


Rocket Man
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No surprises there, we all know the kind of comments you get when you ask Capps, Rein or CliffyB.

Rocket Man
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BTW, that's another place then where Epic shouldn't be. First the PCGA and now the IGDA. What's next?

Seth Burnette
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I was trying to see his point but he lost me when the immediacy of crunch time was compared to delivering babies. I hope that wasn't serious.



Is he trying to force the ire away from the head honchos and onto the "passionate" employees who set a precedent by staying until 2am? There will always be workers like that, but if you focus on having a crew in which that is considered the norm then you will perpetually have 20-something single guys making your product. I guess that works though if all your titles are typified by frat-bros with giant ZBrushed guns and armor.

Mark Sivak
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I don't really get why everyone hates on crunch. It is part of life in almost every industry and activity. As a college student did you not take long hours to finish a paper or study for finals? The project based nature of the industry lends itself to periods like this. Sure some companies can over do it but overall I just see crunch as part of the nature of the beast.

Roberto Alfonso
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Overworking in the IT world is common. We have spent many nights here polishing builds, debugging and adding/removing features with a timeline hours ahead. Fortunately we have a few freedoms (if you work till late, the company pays transport home, if you work overnight, you don't go to work on the next day, etc).



Of course, we have different priorities. A gamer can wait a week for a patch that solves a connection issue or balances the game, but a physician cannot wait an hour if the program is not warning about drug contraindications that can be lethal.

Maurício Gomes
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What people on the forum were asking Mr. Capps (myself included) was a EXPLANATION of your statements, since you was a board member, we expected the board to do it.



But you did nothing, and Jen showed up and said shit, obviously this resulted in a shitstorm.



Now you say that we do not wanted to discuss... I see, I see... The reason for the flamewar became the flamewar itself... Totally logical.

Adam Bishop
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His figures are completely wonky. The average workweek in the U.S. has hovered around 33-34 hours since the beginning of the 1990s. Even going back as far as 1968, the highest figure was about 38.5 hours. (ftp://ftp.bls.gov/pub/suppl/empsit.ceseeb2.txt)

Alan Youngblood
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Firstly, let me address Dr. Capps personally since we've met a time or two. Mike, last we talked you were speaking at a local IGDA meeting and made a comment about talking to you and other professionals in the audience about getting an industry job if you were looking for said job. Well I was, now I'm back to making that job rather than looking for it (Starting up my own company). I would like to go ahead and close that action item with a thanks, but no thanks. We differ enough in ideology that I'm not sure that would be a good networking opportunity for either of us anymore.



Also, because I've met you and would not like to think of you as "a management dickhead" please do yourself a favor and swallow your pride, take one for the team and ask for help to fix what clearly is a problem. As a modern-day abolitionist(mainly for elimination of human trafficking and such things) I find it hard to sit by and watch what is going on that looks like...well I'm not going to throw around the word slavery because it's harsh and unfitting for this situation. You pay your employees, and you pay them well. They choose to work for you (for reasons I'm yet to understand). Let's call it exploitation like a lot of the other media do. Either way it is ethically unsound and it needs to be fixed. I'm not abandoning hope in you or Epic as partners in our industry. Don't make me.



-----------

Ok now that I've addressed Dr. Capps personally I feel there's a need to speak to developers and workers in the industry and worldwide, really.



1)Health matters. Always. If you think I'm lying, I dare you to try to exercise, eat healthier, stress less, spend balanced time at work, play, with family or friends. If you don't see an improvement in everything from your disposition, to your workflow, to your happiness, please find me. I believe in this so much I'd likely offer you something as valuable as say, my car for consolation.

2)Work smarter not harder. It's a little cliched, but for good reason. Cause people need to listen to that advice. If you could get the same work done in less time and then have time to enjoy video games, music, family, films, whatever else brings you joy in life, which would you choose? It's a simple yes or no question, don't jerk me around.

3)As an industry we need to get together to solve this and other QoL issues. It's not an "us vs. them" thing. It's more like a "we the people" thing. Management, "dickheads" or not, are a necessary part of getting our jobs done. We as developers can do our job better by praising what management folks do right and giving them constructive feedback on things that need changing. I do not claim to have all the answers. I'm still young and there's still many thing that others may know way better than I ever will. I do know one thing: division will fail us. Join together, start the conversations and keep them going, even if it doesn't appear to be solving anything. Together we will resolve this.

Bob McIntyre
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Adam, I agree with you and pretty much everybody else in principle, but are those figures relevant? Is this the "goods-producing" column? I notice that there are categories like "mining" and "logging" in that table. I'm not sure if we're looking at the right lines of work here. Can you clarify?

Adam Bishop
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I was looking at the overall private sector figure, which seemed to be what Mr. Capps was talking about. Looking at the sub-categories, game production might be considered "Information", which is about 36.5 hours per week. It might, as you say, be "goods producing", which is a fair bit higher at 40 hours a week, but other than mining there is no industry that's even close to the 50 hour work week that Mr. Capps cites. His figure is a good 30-40% higher than the reality, which I think is a pretty huge over-estimation.

Rodan Mistiff
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First off I would love to say that Mike Capps, bless his heart, is full of shit.



If your teams are working 12 hour days then the problem isn't your guys not working hard enough, it's the planning and scope of the project. Take the publisher release date constraints off your team and see how many hours they work a day.



I have personally met Mike and he has a convoluted picture of how the industry is. He doesn't even think the industry lays people off. Epic is a great company, but I personally will never work there because while I know when I need to stay late, I would never work for a company where management doesn't practice what they preach. I can probably say without a doubt it's only the team that stays late, management goes home and enjoys a life. Mike has allowed me to realize the IGDA doesn't have developers in their best interest and I just canceled my membership.

Rodan Mistiff
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Also crunching is not an excuse for poor planning. The last three games I produced, albeit small, had 0, count them 0 crunch hours because failing to plan is the same as planning to fail. If you are expecting crunch you are expecting your team isn't capable of sticking within the structured time frame that your producers have set down. That in and of itself is unacceptable. Epic is not a company that follows publisher directive and has set end dates. Milestones may need to be met, but I assure you that proper planning can create a realistic look at what your team can do. Secondly if your team is crunching then maybe you are under-staffing. The police in my area make more in OT than they do in salray and it's not because they want to work the OT. It's because they are under-staffed.



So form your comments I can deduce 2 thing. 1. Epic's production team fails to produce an acceptable schedule that the team can do or 2. Epic is under-staffing. I am guessing that it probably all has to do with making the bottom line look good and saving money so management can take home a nice bonus check. Of course not many companies share royalties with their employees so they may want to work.

Bob Stevens
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He comes across as much more reasonable here, but I think he still makes two large mistakes. The first is equating "time spent at work" with passion. I'm sure it's not that simplistic for them, but that's how it comes across.



The second is this belief that somehow games require crunch to be good. All this "creative teams require crunch" stuff is total bullshit. That said, his comments about Gears 2 crunch were enlightening. It was shorter than my crunch in 2008... on a project that bombed at retail. So all of this "Epic is a terrible place to work" stuff is off base, but it's still very concerning that they don't view crunch as a failure.

Rodan Mistiff
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Can someone from Epic please post whether or not it's true that you made more bonus money than salary? Someone from the actual team. Maybe an Assistant Producer or Junior Programmer can step up and let us know.

Bob McIntyre
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I'd much rather hear from a junior person than anyone with "producer" in their title. But even if it is true, who cares? It doesn't change anything. If they have that much extra money, they should be hiring more people, not overworking the ones they have.

Bob Stevens
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Adam, I don't think that table is necessarily a good source of info. Though it's quite interesting, the highest rate of pay I saw was nowhere near game industry salaries. If we figure $60k average for a programmer at 40 hours a week, it was $10/hr shy.



I'm not sure work week length is really relevant here. If the argument is that the opposite of "crunching" is everyone working 40 hour weeks... well, that's not necessarily true.

Adam Bishop
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Well the table averages out salaries over entire categories of employment, there isn't any one category just for programmers. The "information" sector average is over $50 000 per year, which is actually quite high (it's nearly double the median income in the U.S.). Anyway, the point I was making is that the suggestion that the *average* American works 50 hours a week is not even close to being true.

Eric Scharf
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We, the people of the games industry, have our own Earth Day, as it were, and it just happens to be every day. We have the opportunity, every day, to enhance the infrastructure of our companies, plan our projects better, and, in turn, remove many of the job stability limitations and performance roadblocks placed on us and our products. Every day that we delay such achievable and necessary improvements is just one more day that we prevent our “world” of game development from moving forward as a leading industry, and moving away from its history as a step-child off-shoot of children’s toys.



"Games Industry Day Is Every Day" - http://www.emscharf.com/blogosphere/genuinearticle/genuinearticle
_2009/genuinearticle_2009_0017.htm.

Aaron Eastburn
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"During crunch time we definitely pick it up. I don't think we have stats but I know we were on 12 hour days, five days a week for Gears 2 for, I don't know, maybe six weeks. Something like that. "



"... And then two months before we ship it – a month and a half – it's a fucking sprint and everybody goes. And we let them go. You know, that's the time we pull off the chains and everybody runs as fast as they can. We push hard. We leave it all on the field. And then it's done. By that time, we know when it's shipping so we've got a fixed end date in mind and so everybody knows "I can work this hard for a month, month-and-a-half, because I know I'm gonna get a break after that. You know, I'm gonna take a week off and then it will be slow after that and we'll work on DLC or bug reports or whatever else."



Two things about this struck me. The first is they only get A WEEK OFF after they worked an equivalent of an extra 3 weeks? This is assuming it was only 6 weeks of crunch at 60 hours a week? The second thing is, I would be more convinced by his argument if there weren't videos on youtube showing around 15 glitches.

You might want to make sure your product has only a couple of minor glitches before you make statements like, "I don't want to see all of the work moving out of the United States because this is the place where you've not allowed to crunch. Epic would move to Canada if we were told that crunch is illegal and you can never work someone more than 40 hours a week, because our products would not be as good.". That statement rings a bit hollow when you can attack through walls!

Marc Miles
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Bob McIntyre hit the nail on the head to make this whole thing moot. Hire more of the right people to get the job done. Law firms need to do the same, their crunch time is all the time.



Sometimes you cant afford to do that, and if you cant afford it to begin with set realistic schedules and expectations for completion/gold release. Sure, maybe 1 week of crunch, but 6 weeks of 12 hours? WTF!

Meredith Katz
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"Epic would move to Canada if we were told that crunch is illegal and you can never work someone more than 40 hours a week, because our products would not be as good."



Strangely enough, Epic, Canada also has laws on maximum work hours allowed AND maximum overtime allowed...

Sean Parton
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@Meredith Katz: I lol in your general direction. At least in BC (where I live and work), there is no maximum work hours or maximum overtime for this kind of industry.



Ah, the joys of being salaried...

Anton Maslennikov
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I completely agree with many of the comments here today. Bad crunch times are usually the result of inadequate and inappropriate prior planning. Certainly there are situations that fall outside of the norm (you cannot plan for everything), but a studio with bad crunch times tells me more about their management/publisher than it does about the team (much in the same way that a person's obesity tells me about their lifestyle)



In order for the industry to move forward issues like this really need to be addressed. I once sat through a GDC round table where HR represtnatives brainstormed ways to 'encorage' employees to stay late on weekdays. Crunch happens, but when it is planned for and not properly compensated it is absolutely unacceptable.

Mark Harris
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The provocative part of his original statement had very little to do with crunch by itself, it was the fact that they actively plan crunch into their schedule.



Crunch can happen, sometimes even in the most well-planned projects, but putting "crunch time" on the schedule from the get-go is just plain ridiculous.



There is no way to spin that, or to justify it, end of story.

Duncan McPherson
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@Sivak:

Really? I was gainfully employed in other industries prior to games and the "crunch" times I experienced in those fields _paled_ in comparison to crunch in the game industry.



I'm talking diverse fields, no less, like working for a butchering facility, working for a book publisher in marketing and promotions, and working for a newspaper in the composition department.



Even in the military (yep, I did that too), I didn't experience crunch like I have in games.



(back to more of the general audience)

Now, when those other fields -required- extra hours, there was typically a good reason for it. The fact is, most crunching in games is due to the inability of those managing the project to manage and schedule effectively. I say that as a manager. For every month of -truly beneficial- crunch time, I've spent three months of ineffectual crunch prompted because someone made a mistake when planning.



Sure, you'll get guys who want to work 80 hours a week. Some of them won't even burn out. They'll make up some tiny percentile of all possible workers. Do you want to build a business based on that? Hey, be my guest. Your hiring pool of potential long-term employees will be comparatively small, and your end product -- no matter how many marketing dollars you might spend -- is not guaranteed to be AAA for that extra effort. Still, if it works for you, go for it.



Meanwhile, I'll be over here turning out other successful titles while -not- burning out my team or myself.

Guy Riessen
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After 12 years in videogame development as an environmental artist, now looking from the outside, in, it is one of the most mismanaged industries--or rather not mismanaged, but managed by unbelievably greedy execs who are more than eager to viciously exploit their employee pool. Too often the employees are duped into thinking that it is "for the game" when really what they're doing is paying their quality of life "capital" to line the pockets of their company heads as well as those of the publishers. You might even be promied royalties, but behind the scenes deals for things like exclusive releases will cut your royalty possibilities and yet still richly line the pockets of greed driven scavengers at the top.



Oh I still have to work crunch times on occasion--but in the unionized movie industry, I get paid for it...a lot. It's amazing how much better things get planned when breaking that plan and needing people to work overtime cuts into the company, and therefore the exec's profits.

Mark Harris
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There is a current feature here at Gamasutra that pulls together the top ten problems identified in post-mortems, and every single one boils down to a lack of adequate project management.



I'm not the least bit surprised.

Joel Bitar
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So what is epic doing right in how they manage to keep people aboard during such crunchy conditions?



My guess is that they crunch as much as any other place, except games that are okay and sell well comes out in the end so employees can live with it. Crunching on a bad game to get it up to mediocre standards sucks so bad, I'm sure a bunch of you knows what I'm talking about.

Taure Anthony
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there are some great comments on here.......a wealth of info inside this games industry

Meredith Katz
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@Sean - Haha, I'm in BC too! I was thinking more contract hires in that case rather than salaried. Though doesn't BC still have that "no excessive hours" clause or something? /tangent

Sean Parton
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@Meredith Katz: Not that I know of, though it's nothing my less-than-a-year-in-this-industry's ass is going to cause a stir about.



Even if BC does have a no excessive hours clause, I believe software development where at least 80% of your work is used is exempt, which pretty much takes out anyone in games development.

Bob Stevens
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"So what is epic doing right in how they manage to keep people aboard during such crunchy conditions?"



- Only six weeks of crunch on a project (that's a relatively small number).

- Double your income with bonuses.



The take-home here isn't that Mike Capps works his employees to death, because it doesn't sound like he does. The take-home, for me, is that Mike Capps looks at the above two points and goes "yeah, sweet!", but doesn't think these two points are attainable:



- Zero weeks of crunch on a project.

- Double your income with bonuses.



That should always be the goal. It's total BS to tie crunch positively to the final quality of the game. I read that interview and what I hear is "Gears 2 was not anywhere close to shipping quality six weeks out." That's what it means when the development team is going "why aren't we crunching yet?" It means they're afraid the game won't be finished on time. With that understanding, you're gonna sit there and tell us that crunch makes better games? Fix the first 22 months of your development process and maybe the last six weeks won't be a mess.

Sean Parton
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@Bob Stevens: Huh? You actually think that there would be that much in bonuses to give out if more time was spent paying people to work on the game? When did money start growing on trees? I seem to have missed the memo.



The money has to come from somewhere. Those bonuses would be far less if the company had to spend an extra month and a half to keep everyone employed. Probably still significant, but nowhere near double their income.



What I take away from this is that the employees are willing to spend extra hours at work to get more money, instead of spending less and getting less. That's a lifestyle choice, as far as I'm concerned.

Joseph Day
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The point I read that I feel needs capitulating is that if some of those bonuses went to additional personnel(probably 1 to counter a 6 week crunch), then there wouldn't have been a crunch... and there would have still been a significant bonus at the end of the project (since profits evidently were enough to cover current wages more than TWICE). There's working extra time for extra money as a lifestyle choice... and then there's working extra time for extra money 'cause someone fed you a bunch of bullshit... and you somehow opened your mouth and let them shovel heaping spoonfuls it in; 'cause it supposedly tastes similar to a "dream job".



Crunching does not make a better game... man-months does. Crunching is an inefficient method to fill in the man-month deviation from the initially proposed pitch to the feature-creep-ridden, publisher-changing-minds(and getting their way), producers-incapable-of-negotiating, insufficiently-measured-milestone shit-hole that the latter half of commercial game development becomes. "Crunch time" never "just happens". Perhaps if projects had trained project managers that knew how to measure and sustain progress then man-month predictions would have real bearing on a projects success. Training and improvement is what the IGDA is for; not for some meat-puppet to spout out (paraphrased... not an actual quote :) ) "all is well... crunching is good for games... get back to work and like it 'cause our guys did."



Also, planning on crunch is secretly saying "sorry guys, we screwed up and the publisher weaseled in an extra set of features we didn't have time for; and instead of cutting into our profits, we're sticking it to you, cause... well... you're weak willed keyboard monkeys and pixel jockeys that are easily manipulated and won't fight back because we have the 'dream job' banana. Thanks for your cooperation."



Crunch = someone screwed up, ultimately management.

Christopher Plummer
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I hate Crunch with a passion, but I feel like it is not being represented fairly so I felt the need to share a point in its defense.



In a competitive creative industry where you only get to ship a game once every 2 years if you are lucky, such as ours, even the best Project Managers get screwed by Crunch. Why? Because if they do their job right and keep the team on schedule, or better yet ahead of schedule, then everyone starts fighting to introduce features that previously got cut or have become necessary to compete with games that were released in the 2-3 years while this game was in development.



IMO, the only thing that can save a team from crunch, in addition to good management/plan of attack, is a good game and controlled ambitions. Focusing on a quality experience instead of outdoing the competition could do wonders for QoL in our industry.

Joseph Day
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Hear, hear! Christopher. I had the good fortune of working as Art Lead on a team that had a Project Manager that was able to shunt the feature creep when we were ahead of schedule. Art was done and we were able to put the artists on other, more profitable projects. Designers wanted to add more, but we were, on the business side of things, at-or-over the man-month bid, so we said "no". Conversely, in the end, designers had to crunch some 'cause of features they crusaded required more of their time. If good PMs keep their head on straight and stick to the plan(if it is a good plan) then companies can thrive, ship what is expected of them, and still have a decent bottom-line.



I have also seen others actually plan on crunch at the project's inception. That's bad. I don't lead well on those projects, especially if I find that fact out.



...2-3 year dev cycle? Wow. We usually get 9-12 months.


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