A typical crunch story

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.

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Last modified: May 28 2017.