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The Crunch Question

A long time ago in an apparently failed interview for a Halo 2 producer spot I was asked by the leads "What would you do to reduce crunch?" then by the studio management "What would you do to make the team work harder?" I think I have a better answer now.

So once upon a time I produced a little known but BAFTA winning music game called Frequency for Sony. My ego was soaring, but my studio was closing. I entered the duldrums of the unemployed but was confident I could land a coveted producer spot on a AAA franchise. Man was I wrong. But this post isn't going to be about my apparently terrible interviewing skills but about one single interview question, that I've had more time and experience to think about.

When I was called up to Redmond, the Halo team had just gotten through a year of crunch, like 7 days a week, 12 to 16 hours a day, or so I was told by the leads I interviewed with first. They all asked me what I would do reduce crunch for the sequel. For them, clearly, the producer's job was to fine tune the machine to avoid people getting chewed up by the cogs.

Then I sat down with a manager, evidently one who hadn't seen my resume before that day, and after asking the obvious dick question, "Why do you think you could do this job?" he asked, "What would you do to make the team work harder?" I kid you not.

So was this a sign of a dysfunctional team or some kind of trick question where they compare notes afterward. If it were the latter, I clearly failed the test because I wasn't even allowed to finish the day's interviews. So of course, it haunted me. This was the big "what if" in my career, considering how well the Halo franchise did. On the other hand, it may have been a dysfunctional team, considering the fact that they were replacing the Halo 1 producer.

Dysfunctional or not, they produced some brilliant games. Clearly they did something right. The question I have to ask is, "Was it worth it?" They'll probably say yes and continue to crunch their teams thinking it necessary for success. Let's all thank them for their dedication. We all benefited.

Yet I asked this question again when I crunched as a designer on a game that wasn't a hit. Will people thank me for how hard I worked? I think not. Then in games I produced where we didn't crunch but we still made our date, I asked "What if we did more? Did I settle?"

There's the rub. Does crunching make a game better? Or is it just what it takes to make a game on time? Teams can work just as hard on a failure, or get extension upon extension and still ship a shit game. In fact, studies have shown the productivity of a team goes steadily down after a week or more of crunching. So evidence would indicate that crunching does not make a better game.

So why do we do it? Some would say it's a symptom of a failure of management. Iteration-itus, poor planning, scope creep, meandering vision, etc. That's probably what I said to get booted off the Microsoft campus that day. More idealistic people would say it's because of the passion of the team who wants to make the best game possible despite a deadline. But making a guy crunch doesn't make him passionate. He's got to want to work, and doing what you love makes the work much easier. From my own experience, it did not feel like crunch as long as I was having fun. Unfortunately it's also been my experience that not everyone feels the same way nor works as hard as I do. Why not? Isn't this the best fucking job in the world? I'd always said that a player would never know how hard you worked, but they can tell if you were having fun making it. The joy will come through in the design.

So what would be my answer today to the first question, "What would I do to reduce crunch?" It would be the same answer I'd now give for the second question "What would I do to make a team work harder?" It would simply be, "Inspire them to have fun, of course."

 

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