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A Closer Look at Crunch
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A Closer Look at Crunch

February 16, 2010 Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

Right-Sized Production. "Right-sizing" is a concept borrowed from Lean development, and it essentially goes like this: design the composition of the early development team around pulling small increments of fun factor onto the screen, at regular intervals. It's important to design the team around the increments -- not the other way around. For example, building a team by hiring four members of each discipline is arbitrary; but hiring a system designer and gameplay designer, an art generalist, and a gameplay engineer and AI engineer can be a terrific rapid prototyping team.

As mentioned above, the first place for this right-sized prototyping team to focus is the fun factor. Wherever the original idea came from -- a character or story, a business concept, an imagined scenario -- work must begin immediately to realize the moment-to-moment game experience. Consider the implementation to be disposable -- you're after the realization of the idea, not an ideal tech design. Making this a rule will free up engineers to contribute to the realization of the vision (and hacks are perfectly acceptable).

A core element of playable gameplay, in prototyped form, can save hundreds of thousands, even millions, of production dollars over its document-based counterpart.

"Fun" has never proven itself in document form. If it's not on the screen, it's just an idea. What is on the screen should speak for itself. Allow nothing to distract the team from prototyping their ideas.

This sometimes includes the conception of the idea itself -- it's critical to put theories to the test and learn empirically from those tests. Don't ruminate and noodle for days and weeks on theories. Even setting a time limit for experimentation can help tighten these iterations. Test them, and see if they're fun.

While many techniques have been discussed surrounding rapid prototyping, the purpose for it often gets forgotten. Fun factor is difficult to glean from cardboard mockups or sandboxes. Test ideas on the destination platform, or as close as possible to it; for example, if you haven't gotten approval yet to get Unreal on a 360 Dev Kit, use a 360 controller on a PC using the UDK.

Nothing should distract from proving out the core gameplay -- not the game story, not the technology, not the art direction. None of these things are the core value the gamer is looking for.

Maintaining focus on the fun is the greatest benefit of a right-sized prototyping team. Keeping costs low is an added benefit. When right-sizing is used properly, quality will improve and costs will decrease compared to a typical paperwork-and-meetings-driven pre-production. By defining the fun early, production can truly be about executing on the proven direction. All three of these benefits reduce the need for crunch.

Ensuring Success

Employing all of these tools -- Fun Risk, Cost Transparency, Early User Testing, and Right-Sized Production, gives excellent control and visibility to project leadership, and provides a means to avoid the runaway costs which lead to crunch.

There are some consistent practices that I've seen employed over the years which are common to successful teams:

  • Very early on, identify the aspects of your idea that you expect will make it a compelling game experience. Get a sense for how important each one is to the game. Work hard to define them at the paper stage. They should be in plain English, free of marketing-speak, and easy enough for your grandmother to understand.
  • Set a time budget for creative experimentation and iteration. Force yourself to commit at regular intervals.
  • Embrace no-frills rapid prototyping to prove out the hoped-for player experience, and iterate like hell.
  • Start user testing early. Kill poorly performing ideas quickly.
  • Regard the fun factor as the number one risk, and design your pre-production around mitigating that risk. (Tech is never the primary risk. Neither are the visuals.)
  • Embrace cost transparency from the beginning of pre-production, and use its data to aid creative decision-making.
  • Measure overtime and assign a cost to it, even if it's purely symbolic. Tracking it will illuminate waste in your production.
  • Build in regular work evaluations and course corrections to your development methodology.

Breaking the Cycle

I believe that our industry's reliance upon compulsory unpaid overtime will end in the coming years, one way or another.

Though this piece has revolved around the root cause of early designs being thrust prematurely into production, it wouldn't be complete without mentioning the human toll that compulsory overtime has taken on every colleague I know. Crunch destroys our health, marriages, personal relationships, and relationships with our kids. The old incentives which were used to retain talent -- promises of future riches and power -- have proven empty for all but a lucky few.

The year 2009 was the most tumultuous for our industry since 1985. Letting entire teams go at Gold Master has become an accepted practice; these days it often doesn't even make the gaming news. Publishers -- not just developers -- closed their doors. The old incentives don't hold much water anymore.

This industry-wide loss of trust in these incentives bodes poorly for the practice of crunch; the talent is the wiser. As employment stability declines, so do developers' loyalty to specific studios. In its place, association with successful projects is more important to landing the next gig.

The proposals I've outlined here are intended to help us transition to what's coming. By remembering that fun is our core product, and employing proven ways to streamline its creation, our games can be more fun, budgets can shrink, street dates can stick, talent can stay, and overtime will once again be spent primarily through passionate creativity.

[Photos by Joseph Nicolia and Tim Patterson, used under Creative Commons license.]

Article Start Previous Page 3 of 3

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