Game Developer Deep Dives are an ongoing series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren’t really that simple at all.
Earlier installments cover topics such as the player-centric approach helped Dead Cells evolve into a full IP, how the makers of Let's! Revolution! prototyped their way into a better Minesweeper, and why the developers of Thronefall are making strategy games for people who don't have time for the genre.
In this edition, Behavior Interactive senior producer Julien Tolszczuk-Jalbert and senior creative director Ashley Pannell explain why avoiding crunch is a value that has to start at the management level.
Hi, we're senior producer Julien Tolszczuk-Jalbert and senior creative director Ashley Pannell at Behavior Interactive. Our studio is no stranger to making complex games. Our guiding purpose is to reimagine what games can do and bring those ideas to life, all while respecting Behaviour’s cornerstone no-crunch policy. This was the case for both Dead by Daylight and our latest release, Meet Your Maker, and their respective new content releases. Here is a look at how we do it.
Meet Your Maker is the first of its kind in many ways. It's really two games in one—an action-oriented first-person shooter experience alongside a fully realized builder game. As such, its development produced inherent challenges in terms of budgeting and production, both of which required their own creative approaches while staying true to Behaviour’s standards and our commitment to no crunch.
Evaluating the real costs of delivering such a unique two-fold experience was something we knew required some flexibility to ensure the intention and spirit of the game remained present in the released product. We adjusted along the way while optimizing where possible to ensure we produced the best possible version of the game, all within a reasonable investment in relation to potential revenue projections. Initiatives were put in place at almost every milestone to produce market research reports, as well as organized playtests and focus groups. All of this allowed us to hone the direction of Meet Your Maker and how best to identify and communicate with our soon-to-be audience and iterate on the game based on their feedback.
The development of Meet Your Maker followed a mostly traditional milestone structure, from prototype milestones to pre-production, a first playable build when we moved to Unreal engine, vertical slice, pre-alpha, alpha, pre-beta, beta, and so on. We established a well-oiled roadmap process to prioritize features, sprint planning, and stakeholder reviews for each feature and content element that is expected to be released. Every lead and director, along with some developers, are involved in reviewing all elements one by one to ensure every aspect of the feature meets quality standards and the experience itself meets expectations and design intentions. The Dreadshore Sector, which was recently released on time at the end of June 2023, was developed in parallel to core development for the game’s release, so it followed a similar but less structured format, given Sectors are a combination of multiple gameplay and cosmetic elements that are individually reviewed. However, the Sector’s release, along with all its components, did have its own key dates to ensure alignment with the roadmap.
The best-laid plans...
Given the inherent complexity of the game’s systematic nature, being an asynchronous, asymmetrical experience that involves user-generated content (and all that entails), there were instances of features taking significantly longer than expected. We made sure to understand why our estimates were off, so we could make the necessary adjustments moving forward. In those instances, we made the call to redistribute resources and make concessions on lower-priority features to maintain the quality of the core experience. One feature in particular, the replay system, was the bane of all others as it kept producing new issues whenever something else was being done. In the end, we are happy we maintained it; it is a core feature that the community loves. There was also a point where we had to migrate the engine and establish cooperative play, which hadn’t previously been done. With the number of systems inter-dependencies required to support cooperative asynchronous and asymmetrical gameplay in combination with a replay system, we had to revisit our timeline to account for the sheer complexity of the endeavor and set it up in a way that would be sustainable for the future as well.
We have different teams assigned to our games, so they do not directly affect one another from a production standpoint. We plan our roadmaps months and years ahead of time, and as development progresses, we ensure that decisions are made in a timeframe that enables us to be flexible and pivot when necessary to avoid crunch. We’ll make the necessary decisions to deliver a quality product while preserving our core values at Behaviour, and sometimes, this means making the harder decisions and adjusting our planning and expectations to better reflect the realities of development and of a live service game like Meet Your Maker.
Almost everyone has experienced some level of crunch at some point or another in the industry, but not everyone has the same level of tolerance for it or willingness to endure it. Crunch is a sneaky thing; it can seem inapparent at first, but over time, mental and physical exhaustion creep up on you. So does the accumulated stress, not just in the work environment, but also in how it can affect your life at home and your general social interactions and quality of life. Crunch is often presented as a “temporary” concept, though unfortunately, it is often much more part of the culture than anything else; it’s hidden in plain sight. Risks of burnout, depression, and a diminished sense of worth and appreciation are all elements that can be the result of crunch culture.
Fundamental to the development of Meet Your Maker is its respect for Behaviour’s no-crunch policy. We’ve learned that the best way to avoid crunch is to ensure the philosophy behind this commitment is both well-understood and actively supported by all levels of management. If everyone is aligned on not crossing that line, then targets are inherently more realistic, timeframes are more achievable, expectations are better set, targets are within reach of our teams, and productive decision-making conversations can take place.
This brings us to another key facet of Meet Your Maker: its bottom-up development approach, where devs’ input and perspectives are valued in the decision-making process. This approach is critical to determining what is realistic and achievable and allows us to establish targets and, ultimately, avoid crunch, which, if we’re honest, is just a way to make up for poor planning and misgauged realities. Truly addressing crunch means addressing the structural and cultural issues that lie beneath.
Under this bottom-up approach, the project’s leaders present the intentions from a direction standpoint and establish high-level estimates for the work involved, which are then revisited by the devs to help update our planning and adjust targets and expectations to reflect the realities of development. This consideration resulted in difficult decisions to delay certain aspects of features to ensure we hit our intended milestone targets and avoided crunch.
Our bottom-up approach also reflects our fundamental belief that good ideas can come from anyone, not just a single discipline. It promotes a spirit of mutual respect, where constructive feedback is welcomed even if it comes from outside your expertise. We’ve found this strongly reinforced the willingness to share and contribute, which promoted a healthy collaborative spirit within the team, not to mention better engagement.
Over the years, we’ve developed best practices when it comes to estimating the work involved in developing games, whether by including a reasonable amount of buffer time to account for vacations or the level of risk involved in developing systems that we’ve never tackled before or are considered more complex. We’ve developed expertise in high-level scoping of our projects very early on and fine-tuning those scopes as the game evolves, from validating assumptions to understanding the intricacies and complexities tied to its systems and so on. By setting realistic timeframes to work with, and a mentality that promotes future-proofing, efficiency, and iterative development, we can better set expectations when it comes to milestones, minimizing the risks of missing our targets and having to resort to crunch.
Thank you for reading!