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Crunch or die? I don't think so.

The news off Team Bondi's drastic crunch practices and toxic development culture came off as quite shocking, but this is not the first nor the last incident of that kind. Can the games industry get over crunch? A few thoughts and rants on the matter.

Dominik Gotojuch

June 28, 2011

6 Min Read

Offer you cannot refuse
After L.A. Noire was released a few weeks back, there was some stir in regards to Team Bondi not crediting many developers that were involved with the game, but left before it was finished. This was of course a terrible conduct, but what got me thinking was the huge number of people who went through Team Bondi and then left. Sure, this happens with big projects that have a long development time, but still it was rather worrying. Reasons behind this turnover were revealed yesterday by 11 whistle blowers. It turns out that Team Bondi was turned into a sweat shop, operating for prolonged periods of time under terrible working conditions, including a never ending crunch, abusive studio director and a toxic culture that left you no choice but to adapt to these horrid conditions or leave.

Surprisingly enough, Team Bondi's Brendan McNamara did not try to defend the studio by denying the accusations or softening the blow in any way. On the contrary - he embraced them and claimed that you cannot make triple-A games without working under such conditions and that he demanded from his team no more than he did from himself. The most scary thing about this mess is that many game developers share McNamara's views on the matter and consider crunch and pushing beyond the limits of a development team a natural thing for the industry. The usual explanation is that working in the games industry is not a 9-5 job and sacrifices should be made, as working there is a great privilege few enjoy, so instead of whining about not seeing your loved ones anymore, just shut up and code more (or do more art etc.). To "sweeten" this deal, the privilege part is also used to argue for lower wages in comparison to some other jobs (not always the case, but worth mentioning).

Crunch time I do agree that games industry requires a different commitment than your usual jobs and that due to the nature of the industry, which is continuously deadline driven (missing an Autumn release date may be a death sentence for a studio), crunching and overtime are unavoidable at some points. However, in my opinion, more crunch is not a sign of commitment, but rather a sign of bad organisation, planning and production process. This can be minimised and that should be the common practice, not the other way round. I have seen effective production at Lionhead Studios and even with an under two year rush to develop Fable III, the working conditions were fantastic and crunch kept at a minimum, whilst any extra time spent at the studio was rewarded with a variety of incentives (free dinners, massages, increased pay for coming in on the weekends etc.). I have also had the chance to engage with people who were not as lucky, as I was at Lionhead, and were forced to work in non-stop 12h workday crunch, including Saturdays, for over a year and planning to spend another 6 months working like that. The worst part about it was that the person discussing the matter with me was enormously proud of the fact. He actually tried to convince me that people at Lionhead don't know squat about making games, since good games can only be made their blood, sweat and tears way. I was quite sure his next  suggestion would be to renounce my life, family and worldly possessions, shave my hair and become a coder-monk, dedicated to the games realm, as it would increase productivity (and cheap labour never hurts). Of course, I distanced myself from that studio and also all other major Polish game development companies, as it seems most of them share that philosophy to a certain degree.

Some may argue that if it was not for crunch game X would not be finished or released on time and the studio responsible for it would be closed down. Subsequently, all employees of the said studio would find themselves without a job. Hence, crunch is a good thing, a life saver and possibly one hope for salvation. Fair enough if it was minimal - game development is a highly unpredictable process and plenty of things can go wrong, extending the development time and forcing teams to do overtime. But if this reaches the limit of absurd with crunch going on for the entire or a substantial portion of the project, then clearly there is something wrong with the studio and it is unlikely to be a lazy team. The major issue in the games industry seems to be the attitude towards individual developers. They seem to be treated like expandable peons, rather than valuable contributors and co-authors of the game. Their time (overtime) and skills (underpaid or not paid for overtime) are not respected. This I cannot understand, since well treated and happy workers are more productive and not willing to leave their jobs. Plus, studios often seem to go against everything that was established throughout the years of software project management studies (have they even read Fred Brooks?) and labour management experiences (Ernst Abbe, Sidney Chapman, Henry Ford) in other engineering industries, which have long ago abandoned crunch practices, as they were deemed ineffective, counter-productive and costly in the long run.

Fred Brooks
What is worst however, is that this climate is settling down, with new generations of developers accepting that and even defending this model. I was actually laughed at when trying to discuss this as a negative phenomenon with a mixture of hobbyist and professional game developers. This is indeed a dangerous trend, as it is not likely that games industry will have any form of trade union to represent the joint interests of developers anytime soon (studios are obviously opposed, but developers themselves are not very keen of this form of representation).

There is very little room for optimism here, but I am putting my hopes into the continuing expansion of small indie or semi-indie teams, which operate differently from the established giants. This might just be the wind of change for the stale aspects of the industry work culture.

Some extra details about the Team Bondi mess can be found in develop magazine. Also, if you are interested in crunch and why it is a bad practice, be sure to take a look at the following articles:

Why crunch doesn't work
The Crunch Mode Paradox: Turning Superstars Average
The Death March - The problem of crunch time in game development

Thanks for reading and till next time!

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