Archive for October, 2013

A typical crunch story

Posted in Industry Rants on October 31st, 2013 by MrCranky

Following on from my previous two posts about why crunch happens, the last of my crunch posts (for a while at least) focuses on the developer, and why crunch happens even when projects are started with the best of intentions.

For most developers, the underlying business reality is that the deadlines are fixed, the budget has little room to grow, and the scope is broadly fixed when the title is green-lit. The only axis with any real wiggle room is quality, but dropping your title’s quality will hurt sales, and even if it doesn’t cost you this time, your next contract will suffer because you let the quality bar slip. But it’s that inability to shift any of the parameters which is the reason why crunch is so common in our industry. Starting off with an unrealistic schedule is what causes crunch. Failing to respond to external or internal factors that have increased the project cost, either by shifting the deadline, cutting scope or increasing the budget causes crunch. If a team is closing in on a deadline they can’t make, and the developers can’t shift the deadline or cut scope, then of course they’re going to try crunch, ineffectual as it is. They’re stuck. Why? Because the entire thing was unrealistic in the first place.

Most big games seem to involve crunch in some way (whether they turn out good or bad). But we all know, management included, that crunch is something to be avoided. At some point, the management and/or the team, voluntarily or not, decide that crunch is the least bad of all their available options. Given how bad crunch can be, and how many bad experiences we’ve all had, I don’t believe that smart, capable people would make that decision for no good reason. So I want to explore that reasoning, and perhaps bring it out into the open.

I’d like to posit an example that I’ve seen a few times, obviously it’s not the only case. The developer is mid-way through their project. Two weeks from a big milestone, the time for what needs to go in doesn’t fit into two weeks. Publisher won’t budge on dates or features, and there’s no more people to put on it. But maybe it’s only three weeks worth of work. So the team does 60 hour weeks, but they still don’t quite get it all done. But they were close enough that the publisher accepts it, and the work still left to do (lets say a couple of days) gets rolled over, because you’ve claimed to deliver it, right? You can’t get it cut later, the work still needs done. But hey, only two weeks of crunch is productive, right? And it felt productive – you got 2 and 3/4 weeks done in the space of two. And the crunch is ‘done’. Only now you’ve just cut two days out of your budget for the next milestone. And even if you hadn’t the next milestone was actually a week over budget as well.

Chain a few of those milestones together, and not only have you been alternating between fortnights of crunch and 40 hour weeks, but your actual feature set / quality is lagging behind the milestone list, and the publisher and their QA team know it. For milestone one the decision seemed obvious – it was only an extra week of work, and you pretty much nailed that. For milestone two, well, you knew there had to be a bit of knock-on when you slipped the first milestone a little. Third and fourth? Now the publisher is on your back, and things are getting awkward. Now it’s not “we need to somehow get an extra week’s work done to make this the game we want it to be,” it’s “we need to get an extra fortnight’s work done just to avoid the publisher canning us for breach of contract.” They’re running just to stay upright.

At that point, the management are sitting there with a pretty rubbish choice. If they do crunch, well then perhaps those work-time studies were right, and the team will actually get less than 40 hours done in a 60 hour week. But if they don’t crunch, then they know they’re going to fail. The milestone won’t be hit, the bills won’t be paid, and it all goes south really fast. The only hope they have is that the studies were wrong, that their team is at the top end of that bell curve, and that they can still be more productive than normal even though they’re pushing harder. But the fact is, they don’t really know. There’s no control group to compare themselves against, there’s no equivalent game being made without crunch. So they crunch and hope, while they try to dig their way out by other means (pleading with the publisher for more leeway, slashing the quality bar below where they’re happy with it, stealing resources from other projects / teams).

Thing is, the alternative: no crunch, and hope that by not crunching you actually do more already assumes that you’re so far down the road of crunch that even with >100% effort you’re doing <100% actual work. And most teams aren’t prepared to admit that. Not the managers, the teams. They know that the shit is hitting the fan, and they want to bail the team out, they don’t want to be the ones saying “actually guys, I was zoned out for a whole bunch of last week and maybe did 30 hours of actual work in my 60.” They see their bosses sitting in the meeting rooms with the publisher with all serious looks on their faces, and a lot of them (usually the younger ones who haven’t been through the wringer quite as often) feel guilty that they couldn’t be more effective, that they’re struggling after a few long hard weeks.

Worse, if the managers did say “no crunch, and we’ll do better work,” they’d have to admit to the publishers that they’ve been barely able to hit the milestones they agreed on, making them look like a poor developer. Because even if the publishers aren’t aware of the crunch before, you’ve got to explain why crunching now isn’t even an option. Now if there’s been shifting milestones or external factors that can be argued around a bit, but fundamentally the developer is having to admit to the publisher that they’re not good enough at development to deliver on what they’ve promised, for whatever reason. That’s a bitter pill, and not one that most developers want to swallow.

Again I think it’s stemming from the harsh financial conditions and unfounded optimism: the budget is fixed low due to market expectations, but the feature set / quality bar doesn’t shift; the developers agree to the optimistic assessment because it’s sign this gig or go hungry. Then everybody loses. The team gets burnt out, the developer loses money and their team, the publisher gets a shit game if they get a game at all, and the customer gets delays on their game and a poorer experience. It just isn’t as simple as those who’ve been burnt by crunch saying “it simply never works.” Long term we know that’s true. Even short term it’s not great. That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, or that sometimes it doesn’t need to happen.

But just because I understand the reasoning, doesn’t mean I agree with it. Management shouldn’t be burying their heads in the sand. They should be honest about their teams situation and performance, and they need to know that the very real costs of crunch on the staff aren’t something they can just ignore. If workers aren’t shouting against crunch, management are all too likely to forget that it’s not just the productivity on the game that matters, but the well-being of their staff and team, up to that deadline and beyond it. We absolutely should not be accepting the word of management teams that are conflating crunch with ‘passion’, and suggesting that crunch is a natural, positive part of game development. It’s not. Mandated crunch indicates a severe, uncorrected failure from somewhere along the line. Maybe it was the planning, maybe it was the publisher, maybe it was the team, maybe a combination of all three. But it’s always a failure.

The real cost of making games

Posted in Industry Rants on October 24th, 2013 by MrCranky

The last time I talked about inaccurate estimating, and the dangerous road publishers and developers are heading down by lying to themselves and each other about the real cost involved in making their games. To me, the arguments about crunch and contingency are looking in the wrong place. They’re a symptom, not the root problem in themselves. Crunch happens, because there aren’t any tenable options left to the developer that is mid way through a title, and has a fixed deadline to hit. To appreciate why it’s the only option left, you have to step back a bit.

Most developers are pitching for business from publishers. A few get their finance from a non-publisher entity, but the relationship is effectively the same. Publisher-owned studios are in much the same situation, it’s just that the pitch and negotiation stage isn’t between two distinct businesses, but between units in the same business; so the negotiation is less antagonistic, but the basic relationship is the same. One side provides the finance, and gets the revenue/profits from selling the game; the other provides the game for some cost. The financier is buying a title that it can sell on for a profit. The console market has moved to a place where to make a profit, you have to hit a certain level of quality and have a game of a certain level of scope. So there is a minimum viable product for the financier, and an effective market size that means it’s not cost-effective to make a title unless it costs little enough that it can make its costs back. Most titles cost is proportional to the number of man-months involved, so shifting a deadline out doesn’t really save any money, quite the opposite – the developer staff need paid more for that extra time. So generally, the deadline is fixed.

It’s with that price in mind the only variable left gets decided: scope. How big a game will it be? How complicated? Will it break new ground, or go with a safe mechanic or style that the developer is confident of delivering for the budget? Here’s where the problem comes: how big does it need to be to make its money back? I think we’ve got to face the very real possibility that the effective cost of making the games the console market expects outstrips the likely revenue you’ll get from those titles. If it does, the difference has to come from somewhere.

From the developer’s point of view, it is hard to get a publisher to sign on to what you think is a reasonable price for making the game they’d like. Of course they want more for less; their margins have been squeezed to the bone as it is. But if you have a team of staff waiting to make a game, the cost of refusing to make a game because the publisher is only prepared to pay 80 or 90% of what you think it will actually take to make their game may be that you fold altogether. At least if you take the 80% deal you can argue the scope down later, or find some other way of making it work.

That’s where the trouble kicks in. If your company is bidding low to get financing, then making up the difference through crunch (which is effectively asking the employees to subsidise the project cost through ‘free’ labour), then it’s screwed. But the alternatives aren’t much better for the company, although they’re clearly better for the staff:

  1. Don’t make the game at all. Company has no business, shuts. Financiers get no games, can’t make a profit.
  2. Make a smaller game. Market rejects it due to unrealistic expectations, financiers lose out, next title doesn’t get funded, company shuts.
  3. Bid low and try to make the game for less than it costs, through crunch. Company and financiers do okay on this title. Staff get burnt out, next title costs even more to deliver (through reduced efficiency/quality), repeat this choice scenario again but with worse numbers to start with.
  4. Bid low and manage to raise the price later. Company does okay, but financier loses out when revenue doesn’t match cost. Next title doesn’t get funded, company shuts.
  5. Bid realistically, financier knows the numbers don’t work. Company loses out, shuts. Financier either gets no games, or finds some company willing to choose scenario 3.

You can probably see why companies choose option 3, even when they know what the consequences are. Because it’s the least-bad option available to them. And they can persuade themselves that this time will be different, this time they’ll work smarter, and they’ll hit those lower costs without crunching, because they’re good at what they do. When that works out, everyone’s happy. When it doesn’t, there are lots of factors they can blame. NB: “Bid realistically” here means hiring great planners, and adopting a sensible, reactive planning approach like I described last time. A company can be bidding low without even realising it, but that doesn’t make their situation any better.

When the fundamentals of it are that it costs that particular developer more to make that particular game than they thought, that’s a business doomed to extinction. Crunch is a side issue, one of many symptoms, of which the root cause is denial about how much it actually costs to make the games we are building. The only way out is to make different games, maybe in different markets, which actually cost less to make than they take in revenue. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe the console games business is eminently viable. But the reality of difficult financial conditions and the developer’s strategy for dealing with that is the core problem underlying crunch. Railing against crunch is going to do little to help us, if we don’t address the underlying business conditions that cause the unrealistic expectations in the first place.

Crunch vs. Contingency

Posted in Industry Rants on October 17th, 2013 by MrCranky

So the PlayStation 4 and XBox One are soon to be released, launching us into another console generation. This time around, it’s not just me that is cynical about the prospects for the ‘traditional’ games industry. The ecosystem of games has been changed irrevocably by the advent of smartphones, tablets, and a resurgence from PC gaming. It’s no longer a given that there is a niche for console gaming large enough to support the costs of developing those games. But I’ve certainly been wrong before, and I don’t want to call console gaming dead before its time.

Recently, in response to this article on crunch, I found myself  coming at this tired old debate from another angle. Many in the industry, generally not management types, are frustrated by the management’s inability to put in sufficient contingency, resulting in an almost inevitable period of crunch, where the developers put in overtime far over and above their expected working hours, to try and get the title out  for its fixed deadline. Typically, when the ‘more contingency’ argument is rolled out, it is countered with “game development is hard, and unpredictable,” and “you can’t schedule for ‘fun’.” The counter-counter argument to that is typically that other software industries deal with equally unpredictable factors, and they don’t have to crunch in quite as pathological a way as we do. The core of these arguments is really this niggling underlying sense that crunch is a natural consequence of not being quite good enough at making games, and that’s problematic.

Thing is, being bad at making games is a cause of crunch. But not because the people making the games are bad at what they do. Because part of making games is estimating how long it will take (and correspondingly how much it will cost) to make the game, given the team you have. Not an ideal team, not the team you’d like to have, the team you have actually got. Planning is hard. Some game-devs, usually the ones who’ve not had to make a plan for any sort of sizable project, think that all that is needed is ‘more contingency.’ This is waved around as if it was really simply to do, and that the management / planners are not doing it deliberately so that crunch is required, because crunch is cheap, and contingency isn’t. But anyone that has to make a plan, and more importantly anyone that has to sell a plan to the game’s financiers, knows that simply whacking on a bigger and bigger percentage figure for contingency doesn’t work. It is admitting that you don’t know how things are going to go, and trying to pick a single large fudge factor that insulates you against bidding too high or too low. We almost never make the same game twice; previous games aren’t much help at predicting how long future games will take. You can break things down to estimable components, but the way those components interact, in ways which may or may not work, which may or may not be fun, is what turns a project from under-budget to over-budget.

That’s not to say we can’t get a lot closer than we do, with better planning. Game-devs in my experience are almost always hopelessly optimistic, even though project after project teaches them that requirements do change, designs do change, and that a sizeable software project invariably has nuances that couldn’t reasonably be predicted at the start. Fundamentally though, there are two changes that need to happen before we’ll stop seeing regular, mandated crunch.

Firstly, we need to accept that the scope, design and timetable for the development is flexible. Trying to nail down the plan up front is foolish and naive. Either the developer does stick to the plan, and the game is crippled because it didn’t respond to the practically inevitable changes that were needed to make it the game it should have been; or the developer diverges from the plan, and either the publisher has to pick up the cost (from the deadline slipping) or the developer does (either by paying for more development time, or by burning out their staff with crunch). As the development continues, the plan should become more and more clear, but it won’t be clear up front. A good developer, and the publisher/financier that is bankrolling the development, will be continually re-assessing the plan as to what is feasible, and what is desired. The publisher will always be pushing for more for less money, and the developer will be pushing for less, but it needs to be accepted that the ‘plan’ is a continually shifting thing, that is going to end up being a comprimise, negotiated by both sides.

Secondly, both the financier/publisher and developer need to be honest about how much it actually costs to make the games that are being made. Hiding the real development cost of a title by burying it in crunch is effectively passing off some of the cost of development onto the staff, and that is fundamentally bad for all concerned. But more importantly, it’s leading both developer and publisher down the road to bankruptcy, from sticking their heads in the sand. More on that next time.

NASCAR: Redline

Posted in Games on October 10th, 2013 by MrCranky

Finally! The fruits of our labour since November last year have made it to the app store, and soon enough the Android marketplace. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you:-

NASCAR: Redline

I’ve shown screenshots there that give you a sense of how great the Eutechnyx art team got the cars and tracks looking, but at its core this is more about the tactics and strategy of real NASCAR racing than it is about twitch driving skills. Not to diminish the thrill of watching the lovely 3D segments where you see your driver slipping through the tiniest of gaps or avoiding a big pile-up, but the off-track decisions play as much a part in your final position as the driving. When to pit, how far you can stretch your tire wear, choosing the right parts for the track you’re racing on, you need to get all those things right to come out on top. For the real NASCAR fans they’ll love competing against their favourite drivers, on all the real NASCAR tracks, to really feel like they’re part of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

I had a great time working with the team at Eutechnyx to help build this title, so it’s a real thrill to finally see it out there on the app store making NASCAR fans happy. As for me, I’ve been taking a well-earned break, to try and get the constant thrum of highly tuned engine noise out of my head. 🙂


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