Addressing a topic that has frequently hit the headlines recently, Next Level Games CEO Douglas Tronsgard used his GDC Canada lecture in Vancouver on Tuesday to explain how his studio was formed with the principle of making games without crunching -- and how it eventually succeeded.
Next Level, best known for the two Mario Strikers games and the upcoming Punch-Out!!, was formed by several Black Box veterans who were looking for a less intense mentality toward work.
"Black Box was a great game company, but crunch was the norm there," Tronsgard explained. "I was completely burnt out. I was a producer on a team and I knew I was pretty well done. But I love this industry and I knew this is where I want to be, and I knew something that had to be done."
The goal for Next Level, as he put it, was to "work reasonable hours, and stay in business."
"We were not successful for the first year -- not even close," he added "We crunched, we were in entrepreneurial mode. We did what we had to do."
But after a couple years, particularly going into the second Mario Strikers game, the studio started to get on track with its founding principle. Both that title as well as Punch-Out!! were developed crunch-free.
Still, Tronsgard distinguished between crunch and overtime: "Crunch is sustained overtime. Overtime sometimes happens; I do it myself sometimes. The difference is it's not mandated. But crunch is sustained over a long period of time -- a week or two or more. I've heard of companies who are in crunch mode for an entire project, which I don't understand."
"But crunch can happen any time during a project," he said, to knowing nods from the assembled developers.
Why Crunch Happens
On the reasons for crunch, Tronsgard said, "Number one is mismanagement, when what you're supposed to do takes longer than you expected."
But beyond specific instances, he said the problem is endemic: "In effect, it's that it's not a well-managed industry. It's a sign that this is an industry that needs more maturity."
On a more basic level, crunch can occur simply because somebody makes a mistake. "We've had crunch a couple times in the last six years, and the majority of that is that we just made an error," said Tronsgard -- a feature doesn't work as expected, for example. Similarly, feature creep can cause crunch.
More worrisome is when crunch is a result of operating philosophy. "Behind closed doors, you'll have the leadership of the company saying, 'Great.' Grind 'em. We can hire more kids," Tronsgard said. Sometimes it's less intentional. "They'll think, 'Well, the only way to make games is with crunch.'"
"Not only is that not true, it's ineffective and inefficient," argued Tronsgard.
Tronsgard demonstrated a graph showing research of a productivity curve over the course of a day; productivity peaks a few hours through an 8-hour day, and has a relatively natural curve until the end, at which point it decreases to zero productivity and actually falls into negative productivity once too many overtime hours have been reached.
Interestingly, there is a similar curve for long-term productivity when crunching. For a certain crunch length, there is indeed a productivity boost. The CEO's perspective, according to Tronsgard, is: "The cost to me is the same, and I get increased productivity."
Immediately after that period, productivity drops, and with a sustained crunch, it becomes negative to the point that employees are being less productive than they would be on a 40-hour week.
The problem is that teams suffer decreased productivity after crunching. Taking a post-crunch vacation allows the team to come back to work and bounce back to prior levels of productivity -- but that is only actually effective if the vacation is of sufficient length, at which point total productivity loss begins to outweigh the gains of crunch in the first place.
Furthermore, the crunch cycle over an even longer term leads to burnout, which ends up having a total aggregate negative effect on productivity and frequently drives developers to leave the industry entirely.
"If you're a manager, you just accept that -- and we as an industry have just accepted this," said Tronsgard. Employees get burned out and disengaged over time, and incoming talent replaces them.
But that ignores research that finds firms with higher employee engagement -- that is, employees' personal investment into the company's projects and goals -- have a higher earnings per share, Tronsgard pointed out. And the number one driver of employee engagement is senior management being genuinely interested in employee well-being.
"We focus on employee engagement because it makes business sense," he said. "Companies with low employee engagement actually lose money on average. This isn't some fluffy, floaty HR thing. This is good business."
Tronsgard stressed the importance of management interacting with employees and maintaining an open atmosphere -- but warned that employees will immediately tell if that interest is false or token.
Other Benefits of Crunch Avoidance
On a more anecdotal level, Tronsgard also explained that, when crunching was removed, there was a clear trend of employees generating more ideas for the projects independently on their own time, which led to a significant boost in general creativity on the team.
"We work in a creative art form. You must give it time. You must allow creativity to flourish." It's still important to maintain cash flow and speak the language of business, "but we all know it's a creative industry, and you have to focus on that."
Furthermore, with the games industry being as relatively small as it is, frequent crunching can damage a studio's reputation among the community.
That can work both ways with the publisher though. "This gets a little tricky, because sometimes the publisher doesn't agree with me," said Tronsgard. More often than not, however, the benefits of the stronger reputation will outweigh that: "We charge more than other developers, and that's because we have a reputation."
In response to an attendee's question, Tronsgard admitted that maintaining those principles when dealing with publishers is indeed difficult. "There's only one source of financing in this industry right now, and that's publishers, so they have the power," he said. "To this day I've never signed a contract that's fair. Are they okay? Sure, they're good enough. But they're not fair."
He noted that Nintendo in particular initially "didn't trust" the studio's claims about its crunchless process, mainly because of the Japanese mentality of working 60- to 80-hour weeks. But Next Level held its ground, and when the studio delivered its project on time and on budget, it ended up working with Nintendo again.
How to Avoid Crunch
"Unfortunately, it's very difficult" to avoid crunch, said Tronsgard. "We're still learning this every day. We're honest with ourselves when we make mistakes. When we see any evidence of crunch, we don't say, 'Oh well, that's inevitable.' It's a management issue, and it's our job to fix it."
In that vein, proper project management is crucial. "We know a lot more about the games we make today than we ever did in the past," said Tronsgard. "Some of [the project managers] aren't even game people, they're project management people." Tronsgard himself originally worked in the financial industry alongside Next Level's current general manager.
Studios must also manage publisher expectations. "The old days of the developer hiding things from the publisher are over. Get the publisher in your office if you can. That will help you avoid issues in the future."
Above all, studios have an intentional culture of avoiding crunch. "You're condoning it by not addressing it," said Tronsgard. "Make sure people in the workplace know...what you're trying to do."
For studios that do find themselves in crunch mode, Tronsgard offered four key instructions: communicate, be honest, have a plan, and recharge.
That is, management must not attempt to gloss over the issue and pretend the team isn't crunching ("Don't worry, everything's fine! We'll just work a little harder."). Employees must be confidently assured that lessons will be learned and the company will do its best to avoid such situations in the future.
Finally, after the crunch, the team must be given time off to recharge -- enough time that they will return to work at full productivity, or long-term burnout will be exacerbated.
Tronsgard closed out with some recollections of conversations with other managers inside and outside of the game industry, who simply didn't believe him when he claimed his studio completed two projects with no crunch periods.
"Well, you can't make a game without crunch. That's just how it works," one manager responded.
"That's not true at all," Tronsgard concluded. "Not only is it bad business in the long run, but [no crunch] can be done. We've done it. The productivity gains from having that intentional culture makes up for it, and we can create competitive products in the marketplace by using these systems. It can work, it does work, and it's here today."