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Crunch is a regrettable fact of life in our industry. Until someone solves it, how do we deal with it?
In debates on crunch we tend to argue about whether or not there are certain circumstances when it is acceptable—“good” versus “bad” crunch—and what should be done by the industry at large to curtail the “bad” kind. I agree it would be great if the industry changed from the top down: Generally speaking, leaders could stand to take more responsibility to help improve conditions and make game development a welcoming and sustainable career. But change of this kind is likely to be slow and piecemeal in coming. There are a huge number of studios all over the world run by people with sharply differing ideas about how to go about it—too many for them to all agree and make changes unanimously.
This means that even though there’s reason to believe things are improving, there’s still a good chance of encountering a “bad” crunch in your career, and the longer your career the greater the likelihood you’ve experienced one (or many). “If you don’t like it, leave” is a favorite refrain of bad bosses and internet commenters everywhere, but due to various factors this is sometimes not possible—if, for example, not doing so would imperil your job and you’d be unable to quickly find another.
So if you’ve joined the industry recently and are going through your first real crunch, or if you are considering getting into games but are wary of the crunch-time horror stories you’ve heard, here are some thoughts about how crunch occurs in the first place and how to survive it if you find yourself in it.
All types and sizes of teams can crunch; there’s no specific type that’s immune. It happens at big developers and small indies, it happens to fresh-faced recruits and to experienced veterans. Often we imagine an evil, cigar-chomping man at the top who orders his teams to crunch in order to maximize the labor per dollar he expends, and sometimes that’s absolutely what happens. You can only try to avoid this kind of boss.
But crunch can occur organically too, without specific orders from the management. For example: A small subset of the team begins to stay late to churn through their remaining work before an important milestone. The studio management sees this and, trying to be helpful, begins ordering food in the evenings. This reinforces that it’s crunch time, and more people begin to stay late. The people who still leave at a normal time begin to get side-eye from the people who stay—why aren’t you putting in your dues like we are?, is the implication. Soon the whole studio is crunching. They’ve basically shamed each other into it.
"A crunch might start out 'good'—a fun time with coworkers socializing over dinner and sharing a round of Mario Kart as the latest build is compiled."
Even solo developers may feel they can’t back down from a promise made to clients or fans and crunch themselves. This can be especially dangerous because people working on their own can feel like they only have themselves to blame for this situation: They underestimated the work, they aren’t smart enough, they should have known better. Without coworkers or teammates to provide support, a crunching solo developer can quickly enter a bad space.
When industry leaders talk about “good” crunch, they usually mean voluntary situations where the team is highly motivated, making something they believe is great, and collectively willing to put in extra effort to make the end product that much more amazing. Hopefully it also means that workers feel fairly compensated for their overtime, whether that’s through overtime pay, a bonus plan, profit sharing, or equity. Conversely, a “bad” crunch is mandatory, has no end in sight, and does not inspire enthusiasm or investment. The bad crunch situation can quickly sour into a vague sense of being doomed, strife with other team members, and psychological damage that spills over into workers’ personal lives.
Importantly, these emotional tenors can shift over time. A crunch might start out “good”—a fun time with coworkers socializing over dinner and sharing a round of Mario Kart as the latest build is compiled. But several setbacks later, that same project might transform into a miserable death march where few people talk, food is shoveled into bodies without being tasted, and team members silently loathe each other and the world.
You may or may not agree with these loose definitions. As a developer, it’s up to you to decide what “good” or “bad” crunch means to you as you build the career you want. The reasons, rewards, and outcomes of crunching (or not crunching) can vary greatly from one situation to the next, so they are worth considering in detail.
We could define a hypothetical worker’s attitude toward crunch on a spectrum between two end points. On one end of the scale you’d have someone so fanatically dedicated and so ignorant of power dynamics and finance that they’re totally fine with crunching away forever into oblivion for no good reason. At the other end, there might be someone who refuses to work one second over the clock, even when the small team they’ve been part of for years is creating something magical and is very close to the goal. Neither of those extremes is wrong per se, though the first might strike others as a fool and the second as an asshole.
The vast majority of cases are, of course, somewhere in between. In practice, what usually happens is that you have a job at a game studio and there are good things and bad things about it. You respect your boss in some ways, but not in others. There are incredible things in the game you’re working on, but other parts of it disappoint you. Some of the people at your studio are inspiration and you feel lucky to work with them, and then there are those you wish would never attempt to speak to you.
"If you work with a team where there’s an implication, unspoken or otherwise, that 'we’ll all be rich!' once the game ships, do yourself a favor and try to forget it."
In other words you feel some amount of pride in your work; you believe that what you are doing is of artistic importance in some ways. You are not a credulous wide-eyed zealot, but you aren’t completely rotted through with cynicism either (one hopes). So the arguments for and against putting in extra labor will depend on your unique situation.
You may decide that promised compensation in the future (such as a ship bonus or profit sharing) will make up for unpaid overtime in the present. That’s fine, but be aware that these compensation schemes can be somewhat tricky to understand and, by their very nature, impossible to accurately predict. The amounts are often calculated in mysterious ways that you will never follow completely, especially in large companies. You’ll be expected to take it and be satisfied with it as a token of the company’s appreciation. A bonus can be nice, surely, but it is difficult to know beforehand if it will make an unhappy journey worth it in the end.
If hours worked without monetary compensation is a non-starter for you, the standard trade-off is to forgo participation in any bonus plan (and, often, health benefits) and work at an hourly rate for every hour you work. This can be an appropriate arrangement if you are worried about the potentially exploitative nature of being salaried and overtime-exempt. Unfortunately, hourly contractors are also frequently thought of as second-class citizens in the studio hierarchy.
The logic behind reserving perks like health benefits and bonuses for salaried employees is, as far as I understand it, based on the idea that you ostensibly care more about the final product if you’re willing to put in whatever hours are necessary on your fixed salary. You have some “skin in the game,” as businesspeople like to say. I don’t know if I actually buy the notion that it cleanly translates like that; I’ve worked with plenty of hourly contractors who seemed to care far more about the final product than some of the salaried employees did.
No matter how your compensation is structured, if you work with a team where there’s an implication, unspoken or otherwise, that “we’ll all be rich!” once the game ships, do yourself a favor and try to forget it. Motivating yourself solely for a big payout that may or may not happen is just not a good strategy. If you find yourself thinking, “I just have to put up with this bullshit for a little while longer and then I’ll have it made,” you’re already in some amount of danger. Which is not to say the expectation of riches is guaranteed to be wrong. It might work out great for you! However, the chance that you will make enough to materially change the circumstances of your life is just that: a chance. It’s a lottery ticket with odds that are impossible to calculate precisely, so treat it like one. No matter how lucky you are, if you only ever enjoy the lottery when you win, you will have a bad time the vast majority of times you play.
When you’re just starting out in game development, it’s natural to want to prove that you have what it takes to succeed. The pressure is on you to perform, especially if you’re lucky enough to find yourself at a famous, well-respected studio working on a big game franchise. You don’t want to let your team down. You’re irrationally afraid of displeasing your boss. You may even believe that the people in charge know what they’re doing.
Some leaders specifically seek out young entry-level workers who, they believe, are less likely to be in a relationship or have a family (do note that asking about a candidate’s family and marital status in an interview is against the law). They believe this will make it more likely the workers will remain at the office all day and night.
"Working in games is hopefully something you see yourself doing for a while, and if your sole experience developing them is a series of tough crunches, you won’t have a sense of how games could be made any other way."
Whether or not a willingness to annihilate oneself for the company is really a desirable trait, factors like these do make it easy for someone at the beginning of their career to fall into crunching hard right away. I don’t want to discount the desire to see things through even in a bad situation; I understand the motivation to get a big-name title under your belt right off the bat. But working in games is hopefully something you see yourself doing for a while, and if your sole experience developing them is a series of tough crunches, you won’t have a sense of how games could be made any other way. You might think, “This is just how games are made,” and work yourself into a wreck.
Just as is the case with financial motivation, getting the credit and experience at the end is great, but be careful if it becomes the sole reason you are sticking around.
You are a human being. You don’t work with a group of people day in, day out without developing some sense of camaraderie. Even if the product is not something you are particularly excited for and compensation is not really as much as you think you are worth, you may decide you don’t want to leave your teammates to suffer by themselves. You crunch with them to show your support. If you’re clear-eyed about why you’re there, this is a perfectly valid choice.
This situation reminds me of an old cliché of war movies: The company of soldiers goes on the difficult and dangerous mission not because they believe in the grand cause or because they respect the commanding officer (they absolutely don’t), but because they are loyal to each other. They have each other’s backs; they’re all in it together.
Canny leaders know they can sometimes exploit these feelings to their advantage, though, so keep that in mind.
Crunching takes a physical toll, so it’s a good idea to learn the signals your body sends when it’s not doing well. The standard workplace advice applies: Take breaks. Stretch and breathe. Get some exercise. Try to get enough sleep. Try not to gutbomb yourself with oil-soaked crunch food too many nights in a row. And so on.
Crunching can also take a mental toll. It’s not always easy to acknowledge when there’s a problem here. Perhaps it’s been months and you feel like there’s no point to anything, or you repeatedly fantasize about murdering your coworkers, or you regularly drink too much just to deal with all the crap. What are the little phrases you mumble to yourself over and over?
You may increasingly rely on your relationship for emotional support. It makes sense; that’s part of what relationships are for. But if your partnership is too lopsided for too long, it will become burdensome, unfair, and ultimately unsustainable. Many of your coworkers will be sympathetic to your messing up your personal life because of games (the odds are depressingly decent they’ve done it too). But don’t let them imply it’s a required rite of passage.
"Don’t make the mistake of being too stoic. Be willing to accept professional guidance even if the problem doesn’t seem overly dire."
Seek out resources. They’re there for you! Don’t shortchange yourself out of getting support from a professional. One of the side effects of today’s boom in confessional writing is that many of the standout pieces tend to be about extremes. You may believe that in comparison to the stories you’ve read, your own problem is not so bad, so maybe you should suck it up and deal with it like the pro you are. You know you’ll survive these things; you’re not stupid. You think: Once the game ships, everything will be okay again. I just need to bear with it for the time being.
Don’t make the mistake of being too stoic in this way. All it really does is push the problem into the future. Be willing to accept professional guidance even if the problem doesn’t seem overly dire. Let me illustrate with a physical metaphor (it’s far from perfect, but I hope it gets the idea across): Breaking your leg is far worse than spraining your ankle. A broken bone usually means an emergency room visit and months of recovery. On the other hand, with a minor sprain you might be okay not going to the doctor at all. You’ll limp around for six weeks with painful swelling, but it will eventually go away on its own. Probably.
Despite this, everyone knows that if you do sprain your ankle, going to the doctor is a prudent, logical course of action. Nobody you want as a friend would say, “What, are you such a baby you can’t handle a sprained ankle on your own?” The doctor can’t reach into your body and fix the sprain, of course, but it makes a difference to get the injury bandaged professionally, to have medication to make the symptoms easier to bear, and to have instructions on how to care for yourself while you heal.
So if the mental health analogue to a “broken leg” is an obvious, dramatic, bottom-hitting breakdown, don’t assume you should just leave things alone even if all you have is a “sprained ankle.” Sure, your therapist or psychiatrist or meditation teacher won’t be able to reach into your brain and fix things for you. But like the doctor and the sprain, they can help ensure you are on the right path.
After a bad crunch is over, the first thing many teams say to themselves is, “We’ll do it better next time.” I appreciate that sentiment; I think trying to improve is absolutely necessary. However as an individual I would temper my expectations. In my own experience, when a team crunches badly to finish a game, chances are high they will crunch almost as badly on the next game as well—no matter how much time and effort is spent on “fixing the process” during the year(s) in between. I don’t think this is the result of malicious intent. It’s more that collective team habits are difficult to change. Shipping a game via epic crunch is one of those reflexive, muscle-memory things that teams tend to develop.
You will also likely get some time off. Take it and enjoy it! But a post-ship vacation in which you mostly stare at a wall blankly—which is very easy to do after crunch—isn’t as helpful as it could be. A stretch of free time on its own is not something that will magically repair you. If you drove a car at top speed until the oil pan billowed smoke, the belts got brittle and frayed, and the tire treads wore away, just leaving it alone for a while afterwards to cool down isn’t enough to get it ready to ride again. Take some active steps to heal up in the ways that work for you. It could be doing something to remind yourself why you got into games in the first place, or it could be doing something totally unrelated to games. Vegetate a little bit if you want to as well, but don’t only do that.
If you have a career making games, it’s likely you’ll experience crunch at some point. In some cases your management will make it mandatory, but in others it will be up to you to decide if the circumstances warrant putting in that extra work—whether it’s because you want to support your teammates, believe you are making something truly great, or are working for some kind of promised reward at the end. If you do crunch, go in aware of the benefits your employer receives from your extra hard work and consider if the benefit to you is commensurate.
Long periods of crunch can make it easy to fall into poor mental and physical health, which can damage both you and the people around you. Pay attention to yourself and listen to the feedback of others. If you find that you’re habitually performing harmful behaviors, it’s important to recognize this and do something about it, even if it doesn’t seem all that bad in comparison to the stories you’ve heard.
It’s a tricky thing to balance working on projects you want to, with people you like, using a process that you enjoy, and with fair compensation on top of it all. The real world is far from ideal and it’s not always possible to find employment that fulfills even one of those parameters. But if you can survive your crunch time by being aware of what you’re getting into and staying on top of your physical and mental health, you will live to game develop another day.
Matthew S. Burns has crunched away on franchises like Halo, Call of Duty, and Destiny. He is a writer and game developer in Seattle. Follow him at @mrwasteland and see his other work at Magical Wasteland.