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.