Crunch Time Is Wrong, But Gee This Game Is Fun!

GameSpot’s Andrew McMillen has an article up on the working conditions of game developers and why gamers should care. but unfortunately is misses its topic on a few levels and fails on its most important point – making gamers care.

Man doing sit ups in a totally non-homoerotic pose.

The typical game developer during a period of crunching.

The first issue with the article are the games used to showcase extensive crunch times (“crunch” being the term for long work hours within game development, typically towards the end of projects or when major deadlines loom). Although the crunches on The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth, Red Dead Redemption and LA Noire are now infamous, the article itself notes that it resulted on highly regarded titles that scored and sold well. If you are going to point out how crunch might be a problem, ending that bit with the equivalent of “… but the games turned out awesome and sold lots” kind of undermines your discussion.

The second issue is getting studios to comment on how they don’t crunch and then say how great they are to work at. This kind of public self-assessment doesn’t work. No studio is going to publicly state that they crunch for extended periods and have a hard time in retaining staff; nope, they’ll say how the studio is like a family and how developers who love their jobs create great games. (The studio may indeed be like a family, but it may be a family where Dad turns up drunk early in the morning to scream at the kids for not having finished their huge list of chores.)

It also doesn’t help that the organisations selected for the “we don’t crunch” examples were Ninja Kiwi (‘Free Online Games‘ according to their site), Relentless Software (quiz game developer, most known for its Buzz! quiz games), thatgamecompany (who develop things that are less games and more proof of concepts / tech demos) and Next Level Games (who’s Captain America: Super Soldier received luke warm reviews while the studio itself has a very chequered quality to its titles and is Wii focused). The very examples of studios that don’t crunch aren’t even in the same league as the glowing list of AAA studios that do.

Unfortunately one of the unintended messages in this article seems to be “you don’t have to crunch, but don’t expect to make real games if you don’t”.

T=Machine Shields Up and Holding

Before Adam Martin crash tackles me through the Internet, crunch is an ugly thing. Especially when you aren’t high enough up the chain to actually enjoy the fruits of that labour since you’ll probably be “refocused” (with a pink slip) at the end of the project.

Some bosses don't fire people well.

"Thanks for all those extra hours knocking out those really odd bugs, James. Here's your junior-level bonus. Try not to cry on your way out."

There are plenty of evidence that crunch in no way helps the studios or workers who engage in it. RealTime Worlds put their staff through heavy crunch only to close shortly after APB launched, and Kaos Studios allegedly worked extensive crunch on Homefront only for THQ to shut the studio down a few months after a lukewarm reception to the title. Team Bondi, the key studio behind LA Noire, has now closed while Rockstar San Diego, key studio behind Red Dead Redemption, let go a “significant” number of employees following that title’s launch.

Crunch burns people out and drives them from the industry. It is a failure of management planning and of employee engagement. It shouldn’t be a salve to fix development problems, yet increasingly appears to be taking on that role.

It’s also something that gamers don’t meaningfully care about.

The Ugly Truth: Gamers Don’t Care

McMillen attempted in the article to show gamers why we should care if game studios crunch their staff. The arguments were with less crunch we’d see:

  1. fewer crappy games
  2. lower burn out among game developers
  3. better industry retention of talent

I’d be willing to debate the “fewer crappy games” outcome, since although undue employee stress can have negative outcomes on outputs, even well planned and thought out projects can turn out mediocrity. Every game title would probably improve from extra time to tweak and fix niggling bugs, but would that be a substantive improvement? Would removing crunch create better titles or just longer development times for the same output? It isn’t a straightforward fix to just remove crunch and games get better; other factors would need to change as well for the overall quality of AAA titles to improve.

Plus, let’s go back to the crunch list: LA Noire. The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth. Red Dead Redemption. All crunched staff, but all reviewed well and sold well. It’s hard to see the negativity of crunch in these games when you have a controller / mouse in hand.

It's your daughter's princess party!

Gamers don't care that you missed your daughter's princess party, but they do care that the PC UI is a poorly reworked version of the console UI.

Points 2 and 3 mean little to most gamers. The developers that gamers get to know on a name basis – the John Carmack’s, the Hideo Kojima’s, the Will Wright’s, the Cliffy B’s – generally don’t disappear (although Wright has apparently retired). They certainly don’t complain about game development stress or crunch time. And they don’t have to. They’ve got a studio of people working on a game for them. For many, these are the ‘face’ of games development: big name devs who have their own studio, or studio associated with them. Individual coders, animators, producers… these people disappear in the crowd.

And it is an issue for the industry, given that the International Game Developers Association estimates that the average game developer career is 5 years (and that was a few years ago, in better economic times) – so perhaps one, maybe two titles. That’s not necessarily a lot of time to build up skills and experience before heading to the relative stability of programming accounting software.

But again, for gamers, it is almost like these people don’t exist. Of if they do exist (hi, theoretical developers!) then the attitude is that they should be thankful to be working in gaming and not complain about the hours.

Even gaming media has shown this particular bias, with the example of The Escapist’s Andy Chalk talking about those Kaos crunch allegations: “I don’t claim to be an expert in such matters but for an awful lot of people, working ten hours a day with an occasional Saturday thrown into the mix isn’t crunchy at all, it’s a normal work week. […] I’m inclined to think that [Kaos Studios General Manager David] Votypka’s advice that the put-out employee take a look around at what other people are doing is right on the money.”

For developers to get players to actually care about crunch, they’d need to get gamers to feel strongly about the issue and to make a stand against it by not buying games that include heavy crunch allegations. But this won’t work because:

  1. Gamers don’t really care if a title saw development staff spending 120 hours a week working on it if it turns out fun. Because that’s what gamers want – fun games. There’d probably be few gamers who would be pro-crunch, but nearly all are actively morally disengaged with the issue. Sorry you had to work so hard, but have you seen LA Noire’s review scores? It was all worth it!
  2. Campaigning for players not to buy your game is a very quick way to leave the gaming industry, escorted out either by the publisher’s security or by debt collectors.

Would fewer gamers have bought (say) LA Noire if the allegations of extended crunch had appeared before the game launched? Probably not. Much like buying clothes made in sweatshops, people are against the idea of mistreating workers, but still go out to buy the products released from such industries in huge numbers.

The Seven Percent Solution

So how does the video games industry get over its addiction to crunch, particularly at the AAA level? If there’s a TL; DR take-out from this article, it should be, “Don’t look to gamers to take a stand against crunch because we don’t care as long as we get a good game out of it.”

Someone having their head stepped on... LIKE A BOSS!

"Great news, everyone. From now on, no more crunch time! We will be now working under the 'completely voluntary feel free to go home at 5pm while everyone around you fixes your mistakes and tries to keep us alive as a company' planning system."

The removal / reduction of crunch would take industry-wide discipline and a clear mandate that extended crunch periods weren’t acceptable, perhaps by some organisation who might be interested in the welfare of game developers of all stripes.  But on top of that it requires training courses in project planning / management that eliminates / minimises crunch and would require both publishers and studios to get on board and work to stop the practice.

But that’s a lot of hard work. Given there are plenty of people clamouring to get into the video games industry, so there are always workers willing to crunch (initially, at least) and  thus far the link between “crunch” and “bad game that didn’t make a profit” isn’t easily demonstrable, I suspect there will be plenty more crunch-related stories appearing for years to come.

(Sidenote: it’s telling to me that the largest ‘outcry’ against crunch came against  EA in the EA Spouse controversy in 2004, which led to lawsuits against EA and seems to include the development of The Lord of the Rings: The Battle for Middle-Earth. The two other titles listed for over-crunching of LA Noire and Red Dead Redemption from Rockstar Games.

EA is a big publisher who is a common target for criticism from gamers, studios and the media. Rockstar Games is the popular (to gamers) studio behind the Grand Theft Auto titles, among others. It’s easy for gamers to get outraged at the behaviour of a company they already feel negatively about than one they like.)

2 thoughts on “Crunch Time Is Wrong, But Gee This Game Is Fun!

  1. Pingback: EA BioWare Cancels Christmas, New Year… | Vicarious Existence

  2. Pingback: McNamara On LA Noire Development: “No-One Died Making It” | Vicarious Existence

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