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Crunchy and Delicious

A sort-of love letter to crunch time.

Crunch time has been on my mind lately. Evidently I'm not the only one, as displayed by this excellent Gamasutra article against the practice. But, I will take a stand firmly in favor of crunch time, and explain why it is delicious as well as nutritious.

But first, please allow me to set the stage... our studio has been crunching now for the past 6 weeks, and it ends tomorrow!  Understandably, that's why it's been on my mind. I can't wait. Summer is teasing Pittsburgh with it's whispered delights, and we are about to go wide with our beta program in preparation for the upcoming school year. These are exciting times, and it's been the crunch that makes them all the more sweet!


 Captain Crunch as Uncle Sam


Why nutritious? Well, that's obvious from the studio's perspective. We are small, fewer than 15 devs plus some support staff in the form of customer care, quality assurance, etc. While only production folks have been required to work for ten hours a day, that's still a major win in the man-hours column, with over 900 hours of additional time spent on the product! That's 22.5 extra weeks of polish. 

Now, I understand the "bad management" argument (some might say I resemble that remark.) For those of you who are not familiar with it, the line of reasoning goes something like this... "if the project was well managed, you wouldn't need crunch time."  I don't agree.

Management competence aside, who would not want an extra 22.5 weeks of polish on any product? Also, having been around the block a few times, I've seen both poorly and immaculately managed projects require, or at least benefit from, crunch time. At the end of a project, time compresses.

Just like a garage of any size will end up full of junk, and the most gargantuan hard drive will eventually need to be backed up, there's always room for more polish! Most of us do not have Blizzard's godlike status and the luxury of "shipping it when it's ready."

So what about delicious? For those of you who know me or have read the odd blog here and there, it may seem contradictory to come out in praise of crunch time for someone who abhors corporate dehumanization. Indeed.

Crunchtime, how do I love thee? Let me bullet-point the ways:

  •  It's the playoffs -- if a project were a basketball season, and the team were a... well, team, then crunch time is the playoffs. It's what you live for, where the ultimate rewards and tests are to be found. You get bruised, you find out what you are made of.  You work all season for it, and you plan your energy around that championship. 
  • It' a warzone -- it's been said that soldiers don't ultimately fight for their country, or their ideals, or even because they are told to. No, they fight for the guy next to them in the foxhole when it really comes down to it. I'm a pacifist, but this makes sense on a certain level, and I've seen it in action. A crunch team is a team that comes together for each other... ideally.
  • It's closure -- in a world of uncertainty, blurry lines, and seemingly endless iteration, crunch time is something tangible and final. When it's done, you can tell the difference! Colors seem brighter, food tastes better, and games are fun to play again.
All this assumes that the process has been managed well! The team needs to know what to expect: When's the deadline? How long will crunch last? How many hours am I expected to work? Is that light at the end of the tunnel a train?
Try to keep it humane. Ten to twelve hours a day is what I call "normal," so I don't ask anything of the team that I won't and don't do myself. Weekends are only on the table as an option of last resort, though people tend to work through the weekend from home as needed based on progress toward their weekly goals.
Same thing for late nights and all-nighters -- unless there is a truly desperate need, don't go there. Also, if your team doesn't get along well to begin with, then none of the "foxhole" gains will mean anything. 
Some will complain that what I describe here is Crunch Lite. Yeah, it is. I think that diminishing returns will indeed wipe out any gains made from too many extra hours. People need to recuperate, and crunching should be sustainable to work well. Weekends are important, usually one day is used up decompressing and the second for laundry and life.

Finally, game studios tend to foster the kind of creative and light-hearted workplace that many folks in entertainment industries enjoy. I've heard it described as the barely-controlled chaos of an adult kindergarten.
Hopefully, this helps people bond, like each other, and want to come to work each day. But there needs to be a time to grow up, a time where every single person on the team pulls weight, works for the greater good, and knows that we are dead serious about our customers having fun. 
Tomorrow morning I get to declare an end to crunch time, and will update our Captain Crunch poster to something new and, one hopes, clever. But I will do so with the great satisfaction of knowing we made it to the final round, grew closer as a team, and delivered something great to our students. Someday, these will be the times we look back on and tell stories about; the ones we savor. Mmmmm, delicious!

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