My column this week will be a bit of a re-run for those of you who have been around long enough to remember the last time I brought up crunch mode in video game development. On one hand, it feels silly to cover the same topic again and again. On the other hand, it’s even more silly that this is still a problem after all these years. The news doesn’t stop covering a natural disaster just because it’s day 3 and everyone knows about it. They cover it until the destruction ends and the mess is cleaned upActually, they probably stop covering it when people stop watching, but you know what I mean..
Some people take the hardline stance that “crunch should never happen”, and I just can’t get behind that idea. It’s built on the premise that since all mistakes are avoidable, you can avoid all mistakes. This is clearly not the case. As an engineer, I’m much more comfortable with designing systems with a bit of fault tolerance than designing systems that are perfect as long as nothing ever goes wrong.
This is a world of finite resources, bedeviled by selfish jackasses, subject to entropy, and filled with unpredictability. Jerks will cause problems, misfortune will strike, people will make mistakes, and equipment will fail. You can insist that all game budgets should be mapped out perfectly and then sufficiently padded, but this ignores the way that creative projects will expand to consume available resources. If feature creep is a problem when schedules are tight, then how much worse will it be when everyone has lots of “extra” time?
Saying teams should never crunch is like saying that airbags are a waste of money because accidents shouldn’t happen in the first place. The pursuit of an unattainable ideal will prevent you from building a robust system.
So how would I handle this?
Since You Asked…
If I was the president of videogames, I’d put a hard cap on crunch of 6 weeks. Sure, that number is fairly arbitrary, but I think that’s right around the point where people start to burn out and you’re doing more harm than good. If a game needs more than 6 weeks of crunch to hit its ship date, then you can’t save the ship date with crunch because the team will burn out before they get there.
Someone has just entered my lavish executive office at Ginormous Videogame Funtime Superconglomerate Inc. and interrupted my nap with news that Shoot Guy 7It took me a long time to persuade them to not name it “Shoo7 Guy”. is behind schedule. For now let’s assume that the delay isn’t caused by misfortune. The team didn’t lose any equipment, data, or key leaders. The publisher (me) didn’t throw them any last-minute curve-balls like “Oh, we also want this game to run on the Wii U and support mutiplayer and also have mobile integration, and no I can’t give you more money for that.” They weren’t forced to do any last-minute changes to the design to adapt to changes in the marketLike maybe the Battle Royale fad is over, or everyone realized their protagonist just happens to look like a hated character in a terrible movie that just came out.. I didn’t cut their budget or steal a chunk of their team for a pet project. We’re going to assume that this game had a more or less normal development cycle but it’s behind schedule anyway.
Are we just hearing about this delay at the last minute? Hopefully not. If a AAA game is behind schedule, then you should know about it many months ahead of time. At that point I’d have to make a call to either move the ship date and allocate more money, or leave everything the same and tell the project manager to cut features and content until the scope fits the budget. The latter isn’t nice, but if this is a cookie-cutter game in a crowded genre, then throwing good money after bad is not a good idea. I have other studios to worry about.
Once the game has shipped, the important thing is to identify what went wrong with the process. This is fundamentally a management problem, and that’s where you need to start looking for clues.
Why was this game late? Was the project manager way too optimistic with their scheduling? Were they allowing too much feature creep? Was the PM bad at keeping the team on-task? Did they keep changing the design?
Assuming this isn’t my fault, then we have a PM who has messed up. Maybe this is a good PM that made a few mistakes, and if I give them another chance they could mature into a talented leader. Or maybe this is someone who was really good at game design / programming and pushed for a promotion they couldn’t handle. Maybe they need to take a step down to their previous job and I should give the leadership position to someone else. Changing leaders is disruptive to a team, but leaving an incompetent leader in place is actively destructive.
Right here, at this moment, is where someone in my position needs an intimate understanding of the industry in general and software development in particular. This is a hard call to make. It requires both technical knowledge and people skills to figure out what needs to be done. Maybe the problem isn’t the leader, but the process the team is using to schedule the job and hit milestones. I need to either replace the project manager, or replace the process. To do the latter, I’d have to use the decades of management experience I ought to have and the lessons I’ve learned from our other more successful studios. “Oh, I see your problem. You didn’t know how to budget for all of those character models because you’d never modeled and animated centaurs before. Over at GopherGames, those folks create a few test assets in pre-production, and use that experience to inform their estimates rather than just taking a wild-ass guess.”
That’s how I’d handle it, anyway. I wouldn’t avoid prolonged crunch just because I’m a nice guy, I’d avoid it because its ultimately destructive and won’t give me what I want, which is a profitable game released on time and a healthy studio ready to make another one.
Why Not Just Pay People?
Rather than adopt an inflexible zero-tolerance policy towards crunch, why not just reward people for their sacrifice? In a 2 year project, paying people double their standard pay for 6 weeks of crunch is only a 5% increase in your labor budget.
According to conventional wisdom, the following things are true:
- Labor is usually your biggest expense in a tech company.
- On top of that expense, you have costs like equipment, facilities, bandwidth, legal fees, middleware licenses, etc. This number is significant, but typically smaller than the first.
- In videogames, AAA projects frequently spend as much on marketing as they do on everything else, which means this figure is as large as the other two combined.
You can take those facts and plug your own numbers into them, but it’s clear that paying people an extra 6 weeks worth of money can’t be more than 1% or 2% of the total budget for the game. Assuming you’re trying to retain talented professionalsBecause finding replacements is costly and training new hires is costly AND time-consuming. then a “thanks for the crunch time” bonus is a no-brainer. You need to give those people a reason to stick around. Mistreating your creative talent over stupid rounding-error sized chunks of money is nuts.
Just pay them. It’s not even a big deal.
Barring that, give people a few weeks of paid time off once the game shipsObviously you need a few people to stick around for bug fixing, support, etc. But the bulk of the creative staff can go home.. The longer the crunch, the longer the break. Actually, this last one is probably healthier. After 6 weeks of crunch, everyone needs time to recharge.
Or you could split the difference and give the team a little of each. Again, this isn’t that big of an expense in the grand scheme of things.
I don’t claim that Andrew Wilson‘s job is easy. Taking responsibility for tens of thousands of people is difficult, and you’re often faced with tough questions with no easy answers. But I can’t believe he’s trying to do that job with so little (apparent) knowledge of how the process works.
I forgot to add the most important point, which is that it would be up the executive (in our hypothetical example, that would be me) to create the desired culture. You have to let people know it’s okay to go home on time. If left to their own devices, they will crunch on their own. The publisher / studio dynamic is inherently alienating because it’s hard to maintain trust at a distance like that. No matter how nice I am as an executive, I can’t have a casual rapport with all of my dozens of studios. If the project gets behind schedule, the project manager might get nervous about their job, and start pushing people to work longer hours. If crunch isn’t actively discouraged, a team is fully capable of destroying themselves and the project with overwork.
The only way to prevent that is to make it clear that this is not what you want. Like I keep saying: Tone at the top. If I make it clear that I want good morale and a healthy work environment, then the studio heads and project managers below me will try to do that. If I insist that they hit the ship date at any cost, then their leadership style will follow that mindset.
Go home. See your family. Then come back tomorrow and give us your best work. Everybody wins.
 Actually, they probably stop covering it when people stop watching, but you know what I mean.
 It took me a long time to persuade them to not name it “Shoo7 Guy”.
 Like maybe the Battle Royale fad is over, or everyone realized their protagonist just happens to look like a hated character in a terrible movie that just came out.
 Because finding replacements is costly and training new hires is costly AND time-consuming.
 Obviously you need a few people to stick around for bug fixing, support, etc. But the bulk of the creative staff can go home.
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