[This post is my current perception of Crunch Time in the Games Industry. Not actually having worked in the biz yet I understand that I've a lot to learn, but I believe its important for industry members to see what potential graduates think of production.]
'Crunch time' is defined as a critical period of time during which it is necessary to work hard and fast. In the games industry this period of time is common at the end of a game's development cycle, sometimes even earlier such as halfway through.
Depending on the production methodology (there are a range of different development frameworks which may be used), the size of the development company/team and the demand from the publisher can all alter at what point 'crunch time' sets in. Already a common assumption has been hinted here, which is that crunch time is unavoidable.
Many games industry professionals seem to assume crunch time is inevitable but evidence points to the youth and inexperience of the games industry itself indicating it is more of 'a phase' the industry needs to grow out of rather than an obligatory part of production. "There's a bottom-line reason most industries gave up crunch mode over 75 years ago: It's the single most expensive way there is to get the work done" (Evan Robinson).
Evidence also shows that there is an unremitting reluctance to tackle the severity of crunch time for reasons such as: lack of protection for employees, manipulation of employees' high passion for their jobs and a demand to meet unmoveable deadlines. "The main worry I have is that the industry still doesn't seem to grasp the true scale of the long term effects" (A. Smith, Proper Games).
The background of crunch time...
Firstly, gauging the mood of the games industry has indicated that crunch time has built up a dreaded reputation. The reasons for this fear are that there have been high profile cases within the games industry where employees have had to work for days longer than 10 hours, weeks longer than 5 days (sometimes not even having weekends) and have any holiday requests refused outright. The vast majority of overtime listed was entirely unpaid.
It might be a fair assumption that more working hours gets more work done but research was done to find out at what point employees become counter-productive. "At 60 hours per week, the loss of productivity caused by working longer hours overwhelms the extra hours worked within a couple of months" (Evan Robinson).
It didn't take long scouring the cyber-sewers of the internet to find the much fabled Electronic Arts and Rockstar spouses articles. The article (former) is written by a wife of an EA employee voicing her concern about her husband's working conditions. In it details how staff were so stressed that spending more time on the project was becoming detrimental to the game's completion."The team is rapidly beginning to introduce as many flaws as they are removing" (EA-spouse, 2004).
There is no doubting this as genuine evidence and certainly the severity of the crunch time detailed in the article. Albeit this case was one of the most severe, it displays how little people actually voice their thoughts of crunch time even though responses to the article throughout the internet agree that it is a major problem within the games industry.
Causes of crunch time and its 'necessity'...
If people accept the current state of production the way it is then it will always be an absolute necessity. Crunch time has its reputation for a reason, there is a precedent set by nearly everyone within the production of a game that it is unavoidable. This precedent is set because of employees' previous experience (frequency of crunch time in previous projects) and a chronic unwillingness to tackle the problem due to fear of losing their job (games industry workers are renowned for enjoying their jobs despite high stress).
"Getting a job in the game business is not easy" (Simeon Peebler, 2007), it is always moving and needing new ideas, it is still a young industry and hasn't 'found its feet' yet and because of the competition for job vacancies; once an employee has gained a full time job within the industry he/she is afraid to lose it, as well as that employees in the games industry are renowned for loving their jobs. It is the exploitation of this passion that seems to be one of the most unsettling themes of crunch time.
Games industry workers, when people start assuming that crunch time is inevitable then it always will be. That pattern will not change until employees, governing bodies such as IGDA (International Games Developers Association) and developers voice their thoughts strongly calling for a genuine need for change.
Publishers strong demand for a return on their investment sees them push developers harder for products on time. Although when saying a product must be on time for the publisher, it means that at some point of the pre-production stage a producer has agreed between the publisher and the developer when a game must be completed by. This agreement also puts some blame at the feet of the producer if the schedule is flawed.
Another reason for crunch time's severity is feature creep. This is when design alterations are made out with the original game design and it in effect adds to the length of production. Adding more game features adds more time. This is a common concern voiced by employees; "crunch results from bad planning earlier in the project" (Kevin Hassal).
It is also important to highlight the fact that crunch time can be caused by simple pipeline problems, if a developer is using a new engine then employees will need to learn how to use it, importing an asset into another piece of software may not work correctly or even solving difficult bugs can all add time to production and thus increasing the chance for crunch time.
"When a team is already in production without a compelling, fun gameplay experience, it's in trouble" (Spark Unlimited co-founder Dave Prout). This quote highlights a common problem faced by developers, if the initial design is poor then the game will be poor. When a game is in production there is no certainty it will be a success financially or critically, sometimes developers realise halfway through production that their game is not fun, and this spells almost certainty for feature creep as the developer spirals into a desperate bid to rescue the project.
Stopping crunch time and the producer's influence...
Unfortunately once crunch time sets in it is near impossible to get out of, it can be eased but once it starts it can't be fully stopped. Currently there are two main ways to solve crunch time
One is to simply effectively schedule the project from the beginning or to throw more resources at the project; such as hiring more staff or outsourcing part of the project to 3rd party developer. All this costs more money, and depending on the relationship the developer has with the producer it defines whether the publisher will provide financial help to the developer. Sometimes the developer will have to cover the costs that have arisen outside of the publisher's agreement.
If they can't afford to do this then the project is likely to fold unless external financial help can be gained. It is important to point out here that developers can often agree to deadlines that can't be met (thus in effect agreeing crunch time before development has even begun) to ensure the developer has a future.
Ironically, if both parties agree to a schedule and the developer fails to complete the project then its reputation can be damaged which can lead to the publisher refusing to use that particular developer again.
A producer agrees a range of aspects prior to a game's development, such as creating and maintaining schedules and budgets, ensuring timely delivery of milestones (which he/she has likely agreed) and acting as a liaison between development staff and the publisher. Agreeing a schedule that is realistic is a producer's most critical concern, if the schedule is accurate from day one then the more severe crunch time is avoidable.
Crunch time is not a necessity of video game development but is certainly perceived that it is, crunch time ceases to be 'crunch time' when its severity is nullified, thus it can't be a necessity if it can be avoided. Other industries stopped their respective crunch decades ago when it was realised how it doesn't help production at all, it is time the games industry learned to shed its harmful affiliation with crunch time so managers can plan more accurately and employees can work without the fear of it arriving later in production.
It is clear that employees' work diminishes in quality and certainly in speed when hours are vastly increased and their sleeping patterns are disrupted. Currently, as a producer crunch time can be avoided with careful and accurate planning but without public pressure to do so the current cycle of its inevitability will continue.