This week we’re talking about this article from Alex St. John: Game developers must avoid the “wage-slave” attitude, which itself is a response to Why “crunch time” is still a problem in the video game industry. I have a lot of problems with the second article as well, but if I try to argue with both of them at once while they argue with each other, it will be chaos.
For context, Alex St. John is co-creator of the DirectX family of API's at Microsoft and founder of WildTangent Inc., so this isn’t just some whelp game journalist saying provocative things for links. This is an industry veteran who – even if I disagree with him on a few points – has a lot of experience and knows what he’s talking about when it comes to running a business and developing software.
The article isn’t long and you should read the whole thing, but if you insist on me distilling it down to a few bullet-points then:
- Game development isn’t physically demanding, therefore complaints about crunch times are just whining.
- Working long hours is normal in the tech industry, therefore crunch mode in game development is nothing special.
- Complete imbeciles have made millions in this industry as indies, therefore it shouldn’t be a problem to quit AAA development and go on to success.
The internet is often bad at coping with these arguments in the format of:
A, therefore B.
Game development isn’t physically demanding, therefore you shouldn’t complain about crunch mode.
Your average internet commenter reads this and thinks, “I disagree strongly with B, so I must dedicate all of my energies to refuting A!
But the problem here isn’t A. The problem is the “therefore“. This is an article where all of St. John’s examples of A are reasonable, and I anticipate a lot of people are going to waste their time and energy assaulting good advice rather than flawed conclusions.
Before I get into this, I should make it clear that when I rail against “crunch”, I’m actually talking about long term crunch. Short-term crunch is a perfectly reasonable policy. You generally have a long-running marketing campaign building up to a release date. Regular project scheduling is fiendishly difficult, and game development is moreso, which means you often need a big push at the end to make sure the team hits the required dateThere are real costs to letting a game slip. Once the television spots have been paid for, you need to make sure the product will be on the shelves for the buying public..
Retailers get busy at Christmas, construction workers are busy in the spring, confectioners are overworked before major holidays, and game developers need to do a big push as the scheduled release date gets close. If you need six weeks of long days to hit your planned Christmas release, that’s all part of the business. What I object to are the development houses where 60+ hour work weeks are just part of standard day-to-day operations.
So let’s talk about St. John’s points:
Alex St. John is right: Gamedev isn’t physically demanding. It’s just office work, which means under normal circumstances it won’t destroy your knees, damage your lungs, expose you to dangerous chemicals, break your bones, give you frostbite, or even put callouses on your hands.
Arguing against crunch mode on the basis of personal discomfort is a mug’s game, because there’s always someone out there who gets paid less to do something more unpleasant. But this doesn’t mean crunch mode is a good idea.
The problem is that anything is hard if you spend 70% of your waking hours doing it. If your job was hanging out on the beach drinking piña colada for 80 hours a week, then sooner or later you’ll start whining that you would love to sit on some grass, that you’d like to have less sand in your shorts, that you’d rather be punched in the face than drink another piña colada, and that you really, really want to spend some time with your family or friends.
The problem isn’t the physical challenge. It’s the time, and the staggering personal opportunity cost. Your daughter is never going to take her first steps again, say her first words again, or any of the other milestones we use to mark the road of parenthood. There’s always another videogame to make, but there’s not always a kid to raise, a spouse to love, or friends to hang out with. Missing out on that stuff is the real cost of eternal crunch mode, and no review score or game credit can ever offset it.
Again, St. John is right. This happens all the time in startups. It’s normal for people to put in huge hours when launching a company. I did that myself during the dot-com bubble. The difference is that – like doctors working brutal internships – this is a temporary arrangement, and it’s tolerated because of the large rewards being offered in the future. If I spend a couple of years working 60+ hour weeks at this sexy new tech startup, then I’m probably doing it because I’m being offered stock options that will allow me to retire at 40Assuming the company doesn’t fold. Which most do. But that’s all part of the gamble.. Or maybe I’m here because getting in on the ground floor will put me in a good position to ascend to management when the company grows. And even if that doesn’t work out, someday this company will grow beyond our team of half-dozen engineers and we won’t need to work all these hours.
There is no such future for AAA game developers. When you’re done crunching on this game, you’ll be shoved along to crunch on the next game. And the next one. Forever. This isn’t some hungry, understaffed startup trying to bring a new idea to life. This is a billion-dollar corporation, and this crunch mode is just a normal part of their rumbling conveyor belt.
If you’re working at some exhausting 60+ hour development house and you hate it, then this really is good advice. And by “go indie” I mean, “Take a sane non-game job that pays the bills, and work on your indie dream on the weekends.”
While the original article points out that complete morons have gotten rich making terrible games, I’ll point out that those instances are the exception rather than the rule. We’ve seen idiots get rich and we’ve seen brilliant games struggle to pay for their own development. All we’ve proven is that there’s a large random factor involved in success, which means you probably shouldn’t assume you’re going to be the next Notch just because you’ve got more knowledge than the guy who made Flappy Bird.
Look, my game is doing really well by indie standards, but it isn’t remotely going to pay my bills. I depend on my Patreon, freelance work, and my wife’s job. Being an indie developer is like moving to Hollywood to be a star. For every one that strikes it rich, there are ten thousand that go broke and fade into obscurity. Go full-time indie if you like, but make sure you understand the risks first.
In any case, not everyone can “go indie”. You need a broad skillset to pull that off. You might be the most brilliant coder in the world, but if that’s your only skill then you’re screwed. You need to understand game systems. You need to be able to produce art. You need to have a head for marketing and self-promotion. You’re the ultimate startup: Every single position in the company is filled by one person. Even if you’re part of a little 5-person team, most of you will need to do more than one job.
But the “shut up and go indie” attitude people throw around misses the root of the problem. Right now the supply of prospective game developers far exceeds the demand. That’s the real cause of this mess. If there was a labor shortage, companies would be working hard to retain the talent they have. But as it stands, for every thirty-something who gets disgusted and leaves the industry, there are a half dozen eager beavers, fresh out of Gamedev college with dreams of greatness and a crushing load of student loans they need to start paying offThe larger problem of taking out massive student debt to pay for a degree with low market value is a problem beyond the scope of this article, this website, and this author.. Companies can just feed feed these kids into the meatgrinder forever. They will never run out.
Which is why we need to keep this conversation going. We need people to air this dirty laundry when they quit the industry. We need to know which studios and publishers are the worst offenders. Hopefully, this mess will warn off a few kids and they’ll look to other careers, or at least other employers.
Let me end this with a point of my own:
Perma-Crunch is the Policy of Simpletons and Sociopaths
Eternal crunch mode involves massive cost (to employees) in return for a minuscule benefit to the employer. Anyone running perma-crunch has basically decided that morale, loyalty, and enthusiasm have no value. Which would be bad enough if the job was digging ditches, but this is a creative endeavor where those things are precious.
Sure, a short pushHow many weeks comprises a “short” push is another discussion entirely. For now, let’s just agree that we’re talking about about a temporary increase in work hours. at the end of a project is reasonable. You can even crunch for a few months without losing morale as long as you’ve got a really juicy carrot hanging in front of you while you go. (Like stock options, time off, or a promotion.) Maybe a small number of heroes (like future doctors) can crunch for a couple of years. It’s a lot more tolerable if there’s some end in sight.
But burnout is a real thing, and it impacts creative jobs particularly hard. Any project manager worth more than his office chair will know this. People are not machines, and you can’t double their output by doubling the hours you spend running them. As hours climb, stress levels go up. People fight. You get office drama, which will hurt the output of people even if they’re not personally burned out yet. Productivity goes way down. Quality of output goes down. Learning goes down. In the end you’ve got a force of angry, squabbling, disloyal whiners who can’t give you their best work, and for all that trouble you’re not really finishing your game much faster.
Prolonged crunch is bad for employees, bad for the company, and bad for the quality of the games. It’s a stupid, short-sighted policy that should be mocked and derided at every opportunity. Even if this mocking doesn’t change the mind of the idiots running the show, maybe we can steer a few kids away from this circus of cruelty and incompetence.
Which is to say: Alex St. John’s advice to go indie (or leaving the industry entirely) is probably good life advice if you’re miserable. But this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep complaining when we see development teams being run poorly, and it certainly doesn’t mean people should be grateful just because they landed a job where they will be treated like disposable, interchangeable cogs. Asking companies to stop being so needlessly destructive is a reasonable thing to do. And even if they don’t listen (and let’s be realistic, it would take a massive change in corporate values and culture for them to listen) it’s still good to tell these crunch-mode horror stories so the next generation of prospective game developers can make informed career decisions.
Keep telling your stories. Prolonged, unremunerated crunch mode is ugly, harmful, and short-sighted. It’s not a badge of honor. It’s not an opportunity. It’s a pointless waste of human potential and every manager that advocates it should be shunned as a callous idiot, unworthy of their position or our respect.
 There are real costs to letting a game slip. Once the television spots have been paid for, you need to make sure the product will be on the shelves for the buying public.
 Assuming the company doesn’t fold. Which most do. But that’s all part of the gamble.
 The larger problem of taking out massive student debt to pay for a degree with low market value is a problem beyond the scope of this article, this website, and this author.
 How many weeks comprises a “short” push is another discussion entirely. For now, let’s just agree that we’re talking about about a temporary increase in work hours.
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