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Good Crunch, Bad Crunch

As an industry we need to stop pretending that crunch isn’t a problem, but we also shouldn’t pretend that it’s ever going to fully go away. Good Crunch is productive and feels great, but most of the time it's Bad Crunch, and we must stop it.

Over the last few months there’s been a lot of discussion about working conditions/crunch in the gaming industry, and I have some Thoughts about it. One interesting point from the Kotaku report on Rockstar and other articles is that different workers react very differently to the exact same conditions. Some feel creatively energized and passionately engaged, others experience serious and life-harming depression. Sometimes it’s Good Crunch, sometimes it’s Bad Crunch, and it depends both on the situation and the individual.

I don’t believe in strict 40 hour weeks at game studios because I believe in the power of Good Crunch. Collaborative creative projects are extremely hard to schedule correctly, mainly because creativity is so hard to schedule. I’m a programmer, so my work tends to alternate between simpler maintenance work and intense creative tasks like building new systems or solving hard problems. When I’m doing something complicated it’s much easier for me to work in large blocks of time at once, so working 10 hours a day can be 50% more productive than working 8 hours. And, sometimes those 10 hours feel pretty damn great.

There’s a reason that Game Jams usually have crazy hours, and it’s not because of cynical efforts to prepare developers for future industrial exploitation. People volunteer to crunch for 2 days to deliver a game no one will play because it feels good. The curiosity and learning parts of our brain are fully engaged and working at full speed. We have full control over a world of our making, and that kind of feeling is very hard to achieve in life (well, without being an unethical asshole). You can reach the same type of Flow as playing a hard game, but with the added chance to create something truly meaningful and impactful. This feeling is probably why most of us got into the game industry, and it’s literally one of the highlights of my life. So, I don’t want anyone to take this potential away from me or anyone else, even if it’s theoretically better for the industry. Crunch sounds great so far, what’s the issue?

Well, this only works if you have autonomy and control over what’s going on. On one end of the spectrum the Houser brothers at Rockstar has essentially unlimited control, they can literally decide the fate of hundreds of people because they want black bars on the cut scenes. On the other end, the typical QA analyst has very little control over the game or their own employment, and is largely at the mercy of corporate overlords. Everyone else in the game industry is somewhere in the middle, and I’ve had pretty strong autonomy so far so have often experienced Good Crunch. But, why would two developers with the same task load feel so differently about crunch?

It turns out actually having control isn’t what matters, it’s the perception of control. Many people overestimate how much control they have over the world, while anxious folk like me tend to underestimate it. As long as you agree with the creative direction of a game, or in the vision of the leaders, you feel like you’re the one in charge. When you’re “in tune” with the creative direction of a project, you’re working long hours because you care so much about the project. If you’re out of sync, you’re working so hard because the executives said something crazy and production didn’t do their job. Or, most often, it’s a bit of both. Generally, if workers don’t feel like they have enough buy in to a project, then expecting crunch from them is unethical and will cause significant human misery. And that’s what I mean by Bad Crunch.

One huge factor that drives loss of control is conflict with other responsibilities. Kids straight out of college are happy to work 60 hour weeks because they don’t have much else going on and crave the creative high. But once you have other responsibilities you can’t be happy “choosing” to work overtime, because you’re sacrificing too much of the rest of your life. Or, because entry-level QA analysts are generally not paid a living wage (due mostly to an oversupply of labor), it’s not “optional” to work overtime when your company makes it key to advancement. Or, if you have any disabilities (even a “minor” one) it can be impossible to maintain crunch hours without causing yourself permanent harm, no matter how excited you are. Personally, my anxiety means that working too hard for too long can really throw my life out of whack. This is not some rare thing, there’s a reason so many people burn out of the industry.

Let’s say that someone is willing to crunch, is able to do so without harm, and is creatively invested. They can still feel profoundly unsatisfied due to lack of autonomy over schedule and tasking. This arises because it’s impossible to schedule a collaborate creative project where everyone has the exact same amount of work every week, because of the complicated dependencies between tasks. The best way to deal with this is to schedule less than 40 hours per week for vital tasks and leave a buffer for other tasks. That way if an individual worker finishes their critical tasks early or on time, they can indulge their personal passion and raise the quality bar or improve some other aspect of the game. With a talented dev staff this will lead to high quality games and motivated development teams.

But, it’s much more common to schedule for 40 hours of tasks assuming everything works perfectly. Of course nothing ever works perfectly, so when you haven’t finished your critical tasks after 40 hours, you’re forced by social obligation to work 20 more hours to get everything done, and then if you’re passionate you may work even more to reach your internal quality bar. If you’re behind schedule because you estimated time poorly or you decided to spend extra time on quality, working the extra hours is bearable. But, if you’re behind because the producers ignored your estimates and were forced into an optimistic schedule by higher ups, you feel angry and bitter about it. I don’t blame most line producers because they generally don’t have much control over delivery dates or feature sets, it’s usually a more systematic issue.

Why are games usually behind schedule and over budget? It’s the same reason most government projects are: there’s no strong incentive to schedule realistically. When getting funding from an external publisher, or allocating resources for an internal project, projects with an optimistic budget/schedule will beat out projects with realistic ones. From the perspective of executives this makes sense: Why would you back the plan that sounds worse on paper? As long as a creative lead or producer doesn’t get labelled as a failure (switching companies usually resets this), unrealistic optimism is going to win out. This incentive gets picked up on by other producers (either consciously or not) and that optimism bleeds into the rest of the schedule. This manifests differently depending on the organization, but the result is the same.

Good Crunch is when you feel like you’re in control and are not causing yourself harm. Executives and lead creative types get to feel this way most of the time because of their degree of control and tendency to be extremely career focused. But for everyone else it’s only Good Crunch if it’s short in duration, flexible in schedule, and focused on something they feel creatively invested in. For the average worker this generally happens at Game Jams, on small teams, when starting a new project, or when close to delivering a game or major feature. But for other, very productive workers, there is no such thing as Good Crunch because of other restrictions/responsibilities in their lives. Honestly, I don’t think most executives/leads are deliberately harming their workers, but they are generally not willing/able to see things from the individual worker’s perspective because it is so different then theirs. But, cultivating a culture of forced crunch makes those workers choose between continued employment and mental/physical wellbeing, and harms companies and individuals alike. Even if they’re not doing it deliberately (and some are), they’re harming individuals without any cause or justification.

As an industry we need to stop pretending that crunch isn’t a problem, but we also shouldn’t pretend that it’s ever going to fully go away. The economic incentives for it are very strong, and trying to stop motivated workers from crunching will fail because it feels too good in the moment. But as an industry we must give workers as much control over the process as possible. Pushing QA to crunch is always wrong because they do not have the creative control or social power to handle it properly. Scheduling for perfection creates destructive tension between developers and production and creates wasted work. Allowing severe crunch for months on end is guaranteed to substantially harm workers no matter how passionate they are. It is unethical to perpetuate these practices, and those of us with clout in the industry must do what we can to improve it, for the health of the entire industry and everyone who works in it.
 

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