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Crunch Culture, Management and Mental Health

I wrote this response and discussed a recent crunch I set myself on and the lessons I learned. A cross post from my portfolio blog

So recently there was an article written by Alex St. John; who is known for being a big contributor to DirectX and a co-founder of Wild Tangent Inc. The article is a response to the recent problem that developers the world over have been talking discussing, which is the rampant spread of crunch culture within the games industry and how said culture can prove highly problematic to the employees that work within it. Indie developer Rami Ismail rapidly responded with some great words of wisdom and I highly recommend you read. Being that this article also enraged me, I felt compelled to write a response in a similar way to Rami. So without further adieu, here's my response to Alex St. John's remarks on crunch culture.


I'm a young millennial who has a passion to make awesome games like the rest of them. I grew up on the games of the old Nintendo days which to this day continue to inspire me to create and explore all of the possibilities of meaningful human interactions within in constructed virtual worlds. After committing to wanting to be a game designer during my years in high school, I started researching what types of skills were needed to get into this illustrious industry only to come up blank on multiple occasions. Talking to developers back keyed me in to the war stories most older developers had about the horrific hours spent in crunch and the results that it has on their family members and loved ones. These same sentiments about crunch culture along with the need to prepare yourself to weather this rather unfair storm from a newbie perspective has been beaten into new and hopeful developers again and again. The entire purpose of the developer satisfaction survey is to put scientific data behind this large conversation on the dangers of crunch culture as well as model any other trends that may arise in this industry as the result of different practices. The conversation about quality of life in the games industry has been going on since the EA spouse days in 2004.


Apparently people can even “burn out” working too hard to make … video games…. --Alex St. John

Let me tell you a little something about "burning out while making video games." I'll start by introducing you to this hospital bracelet!

 

I have a couple more like them lying around my apartment somewhere. These little bracelets all have crunch related stories behind them. Let me tell you my most recent one. There was a large crunch to make an arbitrary deadline that our team had set so that we could move our project along--standard stuff! Our programming team was able to meet this deadline pretty fast, because they had a team of five people who were able to take large chunks of a specific task and write the code for it pretty quickly. My team--the design team--only had two people counting myself. The other designer had a day job in the tech industry working on voice recognition software and they went into crunch time which required much more of their focus than our project. So really it was just me. In one month I had to:

  • Design and implement an up-gradable weapons system that allows the player to intuitive upgrade their weapon by collecting experience drops from enemies.
    • Which involved:
      • Creating the weapons code based on a tool that my friend and lead programmer had created.
      • Re-creating the bullets of our game so that they fit this new weapon system.
      • Re-balancing the weapons system so that the player can still feel challenged when they play the game while still having the feeling of mowing through hordes of enemies.
  • Completely redo the first level of the game.
    • Which involved:
      • Replacing all of the enemies in our layout.
      • Upgrading the enemies to use the current tools created by the programming team.
        • Which involved re-writing a fuck-ton of code.
      • Coding and implementing an event based system based on the design specs I gave the programmers using the resulting tools they created to aid in that process.
  • Rewrite the AI code for the first boss.
    • Which involved:
      • At least two weeks of rapid enemy design to get something functional (two weeks I didn't have).
      • Rewriting the code to match the new design using the tools that the programming team made.
  • Coordinating the creation and implementation of all the audio.
    • Which involved:
      • Meeting at different times with the audio team and critiquing their work and giving them meaningful suggestion in order to get back the desired results fo the game.
      • Checking in repeatedly with with programming team to make sure the integration of the audio tools was going smoothly (something that they have thankfully taken care of themselves!)

From an indie perspective, to have to do all of this in a single month or so while working a 9-to-5, 40-hour-a-week job is pretty insane. Did I do it? Well yes and no. In order to maintain steady progress I spent most of my days working from 6am t0 2:30pm on my full time job. Afterwards, I would to go to a nearby library to work an additional 4-6 hours on the project each day. I got most of the tasks on the list done! However, during that time I had neglected my own health in order to spend more time working on the project. This meant long nights of coding and designing. This ultimately lead to the resulting depression reaching absurd levels of low. With my health deteriorating, my team mates begging me to take a break--along with my characteristic stubbornness to listen--and the stress of keeping a full time job, I ended up in a hospital due to a mental meltdown. During that stay in the hospital I had the surreal realization that I had been at that exact hospital 2 years prior for the exact same reason caused by the exact same scenario!

Do you want to know what's messed up about this whole scenario? I did this to myself! I did this to myself thrice! Why?! "Because I pursue making games as a vocation out of sheer passion." The result--which coincidentally falls inline with one of the main causes for crunch culture--was that it showed a serious flaw in my management style and in my working style. Something that I'm now working on correcting in the future by having a team of people rather than just myself and another designer to carry the all of this burden.

The huge lesson I learned--and what Kate Edwards mentions in the article you referenced--is that whether you're a game developer, an artist, a designer, a painter, or even a co-founder at a large company, your mental health is important. It's more important than the job itself I'd argue! You could have the same level of passion and innovation as many of the leading industry professionals, it doesn't mean anything when you're loved ones, team mates and supervisors end up constantly worrying about you due to your passion flaring and your health taking a nosedive. It doesn't mean anything when previously mentioned loved ones and coworkers have to bare witness to you crunching yourself or being crunched into complete oblivion. It especially doesn't mean anything when you're sitting in a hospital bed for the umpteenth time because you fainted during a work session at your full time job, or became extremely depressed because of the lack of care you've shown yourself as a creator. Without the proper systems in place to combat this type of stuff in the AAA space, instances like this can happen, newcomers to the industry will continue to hear of the development horror stories that their peers and faced as a result of the terrible working conditions and management styles and gamers end up with lackluster products. Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric is a textbook example of this. The game had a number of bugs and was reportedly not even finished! Fan videos talk about the terrible conditions the team faced during the development of the game itself which included crunching for years and layoffs of staff. As a result of this, Sonic Boom: Rise of Lyric didn't do as well on the market, to put it lightly. Like Rami, I recommend against anyone actually taking the words in your article seriously. It not only insults the hard work that Kate Edwards and the IGDA have done in order to document this rising problem among your peers and subordinates, but it shows a level of ignorance that at this point is legendary.

Game developers of the world, make awesome games and let your passion drive you! However please take care of yourselves! Your mental health is important to the quality of your games and I want to play awesome games and meet awesome people!

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