Sep 092012

I’ve been very quiet the past couple of months or so as some of you (hopefully) may have noticed. Truth be told, I’ve been working harder than a fat man’s arteries. The project I’ve been working on entered “crunch” after numerous years in development, and my life descended into a series of 80+ hour weeks in a heavily air-conditioned building, fuelled with crappy coffee, bad takeaway food and a permanent state of semi-exhaustion.

As a Producer, “crunch” is that period where the Gods lay down a seemingly impossible challenge which requires you to don you tin hat, dive into the trenches, ignore all work-time related laws, crush the artistic aspirations of your nearest and dearest, and push yourself and those around you as hard as possible without actually breaking anyone (though this does happen from time-to-time). All in the name of driving a burning train wreck across the line in time for your release date. It’s essentially what separates the “shippers” from the people who are just there for the 9 to 5.

Choo Choo!

Choo Choo!

In a sick, perverse kind of way I’m one of those who enjoys crunch periods (for the first 6 or so weeks anyhow). There’s something intoxicating about facing the seemingly impossible as a collective and all pushing in one direction without any distractions. You learn an awful lot about yourself and your colleagues when you’re working 20 hour days…

Still, it isn’t healthy and as for the industry as a whole it is a problem. You can’t reasonably expect people (particularly those with kids and  responsibilities) to work 80+ hour weeks. Even for those without a family life, the impact on your personal life can be pretty horrific. It’s a young person’s game; having been through a number of crunch periods I can’t see myself putting those kind of hours in when I’m well into my 40s.

So what can we do about it? Over the years I’ve heard people say things like “Crunch can be completely avoided” or “you shouldn’t need to crunch”. When talking about AAA projects, this is at best disingenuous and the speaker is being “creative” with their definition of crunch, at worst it’s a delusion, or the speaker is trying to convince you to spend thousands sending staff on a project management course.

On “AAA” projects some crunch is almost always inevitable for any of the following reasons:

  • What you’re doing has usually never been done before – Even if it’s a sequel, there will usually be components which to a lesser or greater extent are new, either to the team or industry as whole. It’s next to impossible to accurately estimate how it long it’ll take to do something which you’ve never done before. Anyone who can accurately tell me how long it’ll take them to perform an unknown task a year down the line should probably quit the games industry and go on tour with Uri Geller.
  •  High-end software development is by its very nature chaotic and unpredictable – You can have the best Technical Director in the world on your project, but they still won’t know where all the difficulties are going to be in a year’s time. This is especially true on AAA games as they will typically try and push the hardware as much as possible, often with “unintended consequences”.
  • Games get “signed off” for development before a final design is available (waiting for a final design is a waste of time as the requirements will change based on development and play testing). If you don’t know what it is you’re building, how the hell can you plan it?
  • Economic pressure:

Dev: “We need 10 million and 2 years to develop the game!”

Publisher: “We’ll give you a packet of skittles, £500, a copy of Razzle, two tickets to Cats and you’ve got a year”

Dev: “OK.”

 Often deals are signed which are unrealistic from the outset. This can be because the dev (and/or publisher) is short of money, unrealistic expectations or the worst some cases, macho posturing on behalf of someone at the developer.

  •  Commercial Pressure:

Publisher: “HOLY CRAP! Game X has underperformed by 100 million and we need to hit our quarterly targets! GO TELL THE DEV THAT GAME Y HAS TO BE IN 6 MONTHS EARLIER THAN PLANNED!”

 You get the picture…

If a game with any kind of technical or creative ambition is being built and there’s money involved, then some “crunch” is almost always inevitable. By extension, the only developers who can get away without “crunching” are those with endless pots of cash (I don’t know any of these), developers working with very basic designs/tech, those who are work on reskins of existing games, or those who only develop basic expansions and extensions to a well-established games.

If you want to make awesome games, you’ll probably have to crunch. Whether or not you have the appetite for it is another matter. As far as I’m concerned, it was all worth it. We were on-time, the game is online and available for all of you to play.