Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

30 October, 2009

What is crunch?
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 6:54 PM

Crunch time is a big issue in the industry. It was one of first things I blogged about.

Surprisingly, nearly five years later, we still have crunch time. Okay, maybe not to the same degree in this case. :)

So, why does the industry have crunch time?

I’ve recently been working on a small project and wanted to try to get something playable by the end of the month. Of course, I’m writing this out, so either it’s going really well or not so well. (Hint: the latter.) But, I noticed that I was putting in a bit of “crunch” to get things closer to the goal.

I think crunch time is the result of two things:

1. Game development requires a lot of clever thinking. We often try to push the envelope, and that requires a level of creativity not found in many other fields. So, we have to plan things out, and when it comes to implementation we spend time thinking of ways to do things.

2. Deadlines.

I noticed that much “crunch” was mostly just implementing things without as much careful consideration as I had been putting in previously. Whereas I had been trying to consider the better way to tackle a problem, this week I was just getting things into the system. Some of those things had to be changed later, but at least they were in.

Many game developers are introverts. This means that we like to sit around and over-think things. It often takes an extrovert screaming “CHARGE” and running toward the enemy to get us out of our endless contemplation. One way to force that situation upon ourselves is to push up against a deadline.

The question here is: will the benefit of getting my work done before the deadline be greater than the problems caused by just doing the work without necessarily considering the optimal solution? In larger companies, the deadline is set due to financial considerations, so missing the deadline can have negative consequences in monetary terms. It’s a lot harder to judge how much a less completely implemented feature is going to cost.

As I point out in that early article I linked before, there’s good crunch and bad crunch. This mostly depends on your motivation. If your motivation is internal, meaning you want to do a good job and meet the deadline for personal reasons, it can be good. If your motivation is external, an arbitrary deadline (even if you set it yourself) dictating your actions, then it’s not so good.

In this case, the crunch has been good for me. It’s gotten me to do some work that I keep putting off. It’s also pushed some of my personal plans forward. Once the project comes together a bit more I’ll share with everyone on here.

What do you think? Is crunch unavoidable? Or would game development just go on forever without meaning?

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  1. Crunch is avoidable, but it takes discipline, planning, management buy-in, and the strength to make cuts early, rather than when things are starting to go awry. I have been mostly crunch-free in my time at EA.

    Comment by Rob Basler — 30 October, 2009 @ 8:06 PM

  2. I hate crunch time. It seems to result largely from the expectations of the publisher being felt by the developer as a project milestone draws nearer. The developer who wants to get paid and then pays the dev team from this money forces the employees to work long hours in order to complete the deliverables (game features) by the agreed upon time.

    The problem is that endless crunch time is unsustainable and decreases moral and productivity in the long run.

    The key is to scope projects out as best as you can. Always under-promise and over-deliver :)

    Comment by Wolfshead — 30 October, 2009 @ 11:52 PM

  3. The key, imho, is how long does the crunch time last. A month or two of crunch time is fine and possibly even very healthy and productive. More than that all at once is “EA-wife” territory.

    I think if you go 1-2 months of crunch time without finishing the game or task, you need to leave crunch time and just pretend you are back in normal development mode. Then hope after another month or two you can maybe try that crunch time again and actually finish. :)

    Comment by Muckbeast — 31 October, 2009 @ 2:17 AM

  4. This article could be expanded to include all software development and not just the gaming industry and still ring very true. My career has seen me at three very different companies (in terms of size, structure, development methodology, and sector) and none of them have been even remotely crunch-free.

    Customer deadlines are the main source of crunch in my experience, which are analogous to a publisher with a set-in-stone ship date, I suppose.

    We often try to push the envelope, and that requires a level of creativity not found in many other fields.

    The jobs that demand this are the fun ones. My current job has me sitting on the bleeding edge of technology solving problems that have likely not been tackled before. I work in a very unique industry, however. Always a blast.

    Comment by Andrew — 31 October, 2009 @ 5:34 AM

  5. I like your definition of good and bad crunch. In my case it’s self imposed and comes when I’ve been spending too much time doing the fun stuff while pushing back the inevitable. But then I don’t care as I see the progress done by crunch which plays for my personal motivation. It only means I’m getting closer to my goal.

    However, from the feedback I received from someone working back on Assassin’s Creed at Ubisoft, crunch was the part where he wished he was working somewhere else. The project/team is so big that I guess you don’t feel as involved in what you’re doing compared to something you have decided to take on yourself for no other reason than personal challenge.

    “we like to sit around and over-think things”

    That’s exactly me. That’s when it’s useful to have a split personality :) “yes boss, I’ll stop writing on this blog and get back to work”.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 31 October, 2009 @ 7:20 AM

  6. I think if you go 1-2 months of crunch time without finishing the game or task, you need to leave crunch time and just pretend you are back in normal development mode.

    I attended a presentation at GDC Canada ’09 by Douglas Tronsguard of Next Level Games. It is unfortunate the article linked doesn’t contain the graphs, because they show in a shocking manner that this sort of thinking is exactly incorrect. What happens with crunch is that the recovery period needs to match the amount of crunch time, or lowered productivity will continue indefinitely, until the rest is given. And that productivity can be significantly lower than a normal employee. So if you have your employees work an extra 60 hours, you need to give them 60 hours off. There is no net productivity gain for crunch. All of this research was done in the early 1900′s, so we’ve known this for a while.

    I think Psychchild’s two arguments as to why there is crunch time above are nonsense. (Sorry.)

    Game developers are smart people with deadlines. Are they really any smarter than creative people in other industries (car design comes to mind) where they do creative things on a deadline? I don’t think so. I think that as an industry, we’re just crap at project management. And we don’t generally get paid for overtime.

    If you need an external force to get you moving towards the finish line get a project management tool that tracks your tasks (JIRA/Hansoft/Project/Excel.) Use it daily. That burn-down graph will tell you WAY in advance if you’re going to hit your target. There’s your motivation.

    There is no good crunch. If your motivation is internal, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to lower your own productivity long term if you don’t take an equivalent break afterwards.

    My worst week I worked 106 hours. I learned from that.

    Comment by Rob Basler — 31 October, 2009 @ 4:20 PM

  7. There is no good crunch. If your motivation is internal, it doesn’t change the fact that you’re going to lower your own productivity long term if you don’t take an equivalent break afterwards.

    For some it’s true. As for myself, I can only disagree with this. Having those times helps me moving to the next milestone. Call me crazy but that’s how it works. Begin slowly to make sure everything is where it needs to be and then comes a time where something need to happen. There comes crunch time.

    Of course, if you still don’t know where you’re heading once you hit crunch time, I agree, it’s bad. You shoot in every direction and gets nowhere. However, my crunch time is planned. No decision is taken during this time. My goal, get the satisfaction of hitting that milestone. Once it’s done, tomorrow’s another day.

    I know about productivity curves but I guess that when you work for your own goals there’s something “more” driving you. You don’t work for a salary but because you like it and it’s your passion. When you’re doing crunch time because it’s part of your “job description” and you need that paycheck at the end of the week, I guess it might be different (note the quotes around job description).

    I’m kinda getting tired of hearing about how the “game industry” is so hard. Nobody gets pulled there into this at gun point yet I hear so much complaints about this. When you’re not enjoying your job you should think of doing it differently. That’s where I think I’m linking to Brian when he’s saying “there’s a reason I don’t go get a “real” job in the industry”…

    Ten years ago I would have probably been able to get an entry job in that “industry” and right now I would be able to complain about crunch time. Not having done that I guess it gives me another point of view on that crunch time. Yes, I have that day job and puts another 40 hours of work on top of that every week. Been doing so for over 2 years now. Am I going nuts? My wife seems to not think so because, yes you guessed it, I’m not doing it for the paycheck.

    Comment by Dave Toulouse — 31 October, 2009 @ 8:17 PM

  8. The Scotty Method for crunch times:

    Exaggerate signigicantly but believably, the time effort etc a project will take.

    Finish it in under the time required, so that you look like a miracle worker.

    When you don’t have the control of the time frame. Work your arse off otherwise.

    Crunches/deadlines really depend alot on the office work ethic, positive work environment, the expectations of management, and budgetary limitations.

    Its recipe for success or for disaster depending on the ingredients.

    Comment by Storm Revenant — 1 November, 2009 @ 2:39 AM

  9. Rob Basler wrote:
    I think Psychchild’s two arguments as to why there is crunch time above are nonsense. (Sorry.)

    No need to be sorry. If I didn’t want disagreement, I’d turn off comments or turn on 100% moderation and only approve the ones that agree with me.

    Let me say this up front: I complately agree that the industry does need to get better at project management. I was on one project where we had an actual project manager, not just the producer expected to do that work, and that was one of best working environments I was in. It took a while for them to understand how an MMO was different than a traditional game when it came to development, but once we got over that hurdle it went well.

    However, I don’t agree that developing games is similar to designing cars. First, designing cars relies on the well-established field of Engineering, and it’s easier to tell if a car design is going to run than to see if a game design is going to be fun. As I’ve said many times before, “there is no unit test for ‘fun’!” Some of the creative elements are more like writing. You definitely can experience “designer’s block”, and sometimes it takes a lot of re-writing to get a passage to read like you want. Part of being a professional is knowing how to deal with these blocks, however, but soldiering through a block doesn’t mean you’re producing your best work.

    I know there’s good crunch and bad crunch because I’ve seen both personally. I worked long hours on Meridian 59 for several years after we acquired the rights at Near Death Studios, Inc. I think it was the right thing to do at the time since it was building my own business. Writers often say the same thing, where they’ll write for hours per day for several days, even ignoring basic things like eating or sleeping while they’re “in the zone” or “hearing their muse” or whatever you want to call it. Stopping when you’re on a streak hurts the process. Most entrepreneurs also feel the same way because they have a passion for their companies so they’re willing to put in the effort. But, when some manager tells you that you should put in over twice the “standard” hours in order to make the company’s bottom line, that sucks. Of course, they don’t say it that way, but they put it in terms of “being a team player”.

    Most of the research from the early part of the 20th century concerning long hours and the detriment to productivity have to deal with rote factory work, not highly creative work. Of course, a lot of managers would prefer to turn unpredictable creative work into more predictable factory-type work, so perhaps that research should play a larger part in game companies. But, when you’re building your own company or doing what Dave is doing and building your own game on your own terms, long hours don’t feel like a drag and you don’t necessarily wear yourself out. I think few people really get to experience that, however. So, as I said, we really do need better project management in a vast majority of the cases.

    Comment by Psychochild — 1 November, 2009 @ 2:52 AM

  10. For the most part, the “fun” in a game doesn’t come from the programmers. It comes from the design and the playtesting. If you are a designer/programmer, then absolutely the “fun” is a big part of what you do. But for a good portion of the programmers in the industry, they’re implementing an audio system, or a menu system or some new 3D rendering feature or fixing bugs. Once the feature design is done, and you’ve finished the technical design work of how you’re going to implement the feature, the implementation itself for the most part isn’t that creative (unless you run into something you didn’t plan for.)

    While the research studies were about factory work, I think it applies doubly to knowledge workers. Our work is difficult, and tiring, and we can only stay in the zone for a limited time. I have worked with a lot of programmers, and I have seen a lot of games, web browsing and chatting by the coffee station as the day goes on. I think as an employer you might do better to hire 2 programmers for 4 hours a day rather than 1 programmer for 8.

    Being an entrepreneur you’re doing something you’re passionate about, and I understand that (ran my own company for 16 years.) You get all the benefit of those long hours. Nobody is exploiting you. So it is hard to call it crunch, that said, burnout is still a hard reality for entrepreneurs.

    Once you have kids, it comes into pretty sharp focus. You need to make the time to watch them grow up. It doesn’t take away your passion for the project, but it makes you want to do it smarter.

    Comment by Rob Basler — 1 November, 2009 @ 12:26 PM

  11. One more comment, if you’re an entrepreneur and you have employees and you’re working more than a standard week on a regular basis, you are being a bad leader. Leaders lead by example.

    Comment by Rob Basler — 1 November, 2009 @ 12:48 PM

  12. When it comes to programming, that’s something I know a bit about. I highly recommend that you all read some brief introduction to the concepts of Extreme Programming. Psychologically, the ideas in Extreme Programming are meant to put you into that mental state of “crunch time”, but not the crazy hours (which kill productivity).

    One of the key ideas of Extreme Programming is that implementation tasks never have more than a three-week horizon. Never. Project planners can look out further than that, but implementations, no. Managers love to ratchet up the pressure by announcing impossible schedules, they need to buy in to not doing this on the three-week timescale.

    Another aspect is that you are always doing something rather than sitting around thinking about “what would be cool”. Doing something, but always the “simplest thing that might possibly work”. Not worrying about whether it’s going to be a “keeper”. This stimulates ideas a lot more than meditation does. And seeing something tangible helps too.

    Comment by Toldain — 1 November, 2009 @ 3:52 PM

  13. @Rob Basler: You quoted part of my comment and said “they show in a shocking manner that this sort of thinking is exactly incorrect.”

    Then you followed that by essentially saying exactly what I had written:

    “What happens with crunch is that the recovery period needs to match the amount of crunch time, or lowered productivity will continue indefinitely, until the rest is given.”

    There is most certainly good crunch. No amount of project management software works to get everyone on the same page and focused like a laser beam on finishing a task.

    Comment by Muckbeast — 2 November, 2009 @ 2:28 AM

  14. @Rob Basler: You quoted part of my comment and said “they show in a shocking manner that this sort of thinking is exactly incorrect.”

    Then you followed that by essentially saying exactly what I had written:

    Sorry I wasn’t clear. You said that after crunch, you go back to normal development mode. What I said is that after crunch, you have to take time off from work equivalent to the extra time spent crunching to recover. If you go straight from crunch to normal development hours, you will continue to have lowered productivity until you take time off to rest.

    Comment by Rob Basler — 2 November, 2009 @ 2:54 AM

  15. Hmm, my perspective on crunch is quite different and it is a bit complicated. In short I think it goes something like this:

    Crunchtime is commonly a side effect of what happens when publishers want to share less of the potential revenue from a title with the development studio.

    This originates from how game projects are sold to publishers. Since the publisher aims at several titles per year they begin production of maybe 10 titles funded with too little money to see completion. As the different titles begin to run out of money the publisher looks at all 10 titles and determine which of the titles to back with more investment. The other titles which get no further investment either are canned or gets rushed out the door as specified by the contract and get what they deserve on the market.

    The one most promising title which receive further investment do so at the expensive of the studio owners. The studio owners have failed to deliver the final product as specified within the contract and the publisher is forced to back the production with additional money. This is practically done by the studio owners giving away more of the potential future profit to the publisher. The publisher can keep this going until 100% of the potential future profit is given over to the publisher. The studio owners will however try to keep as much of the profit as possible and goes into knee-jerk mode where they try to out-work the publishers strategy by pushing the development team into crunch mode.

    The publisher knows this is harmful to the productivity but the cost is taken by the studio which accelerates the process of giving the publisher the full value of the product.

    Through this process the publisher can practically cherry pick the most attractive IP’s which development studios create, at a point in time where the IP has an optimal market value.

    Studios that understand this and avoid the process get no publisher funding. Publishers are not interested in investing in projects which have a realistic production schedule.

    There are however some exceptions:
    – The publisher owns the studio
    – The “publisher” is Venture Capital

    Well, this whole story is entirely hypothetical. Considering Brian’s background I guess this hypothesis can be quickly invalidated by better insight into the gaming industry and business.

    Comment by oskar — 2 November, 2009 @ 7:09 AM

  16. Crunch is what you get before the cereal gets mushy in the milk. You just don’t get sustained crunch.

    I’m VP of R&D at a medical products firm, and this is something I come up against too. I think “good crunch” is crunch that is infrequent, that is carefully managed and minimized, and that is repaid adequately with rest. Nobody likes crunch and nobody wants to live that way for long. “Bad crunch” is institutionalized crunch, crunch that’s expected and part of the culture. I don’t work that way and won’t ask anyone else to either.

    Comment by foolsage — 2 November, 2009 @ 11:04 AM

  17. oskar wrote:
    Hmm, my perspective on crunch is quite different and it is a bit complicated.

    You’re close, but not quite. It is often based on how publishers treat studios, but that’s not the only reason. 3DO developed and published its own games, but all the teams I was on had crunch time. One of the last projects I was on was almost purely crunch, and it’s where I definitely saw the “bad crunch”.

    It’s almost entirely about money. I speculate that the origins of crunch came from people who were passionate about games and wanted to spend more than the normal 40 hours per week. Just like a writer who furiously tries to get all the words down on the page, I think a lot of game developers worked hard to get all their cool ideas into games. Some manager saw this and thought, “instead of working 40 hours per week, I can have them work 80 hours for 10% of the project and we can release games faster!” Eventually it became institutionalized and managers just put crunch in the schedule to as part of the routine. I know this is exactly what 3DO did when they expected a full game to be completed in 6 months (instead of the usual 12-18 months at the time). Our managers told us that it would be easier if we started working longer hours earlier.

    I think that although EA got in trouble for trying to institutionalize crunch, crunch is more likely to happen at developers today instead of with publishers. The milestone system for paying for specific deliverables is partially to blame; developers who (are forced to) promise an aggressive schedule need to crunch to meet those deadlines or they don’t get the money needed to make payroll and stay open. So, they rally the troops and get people to work long hours for the good of the company. This can be a gray area between good and bad crunch, since it’s partially forced, but could be internal motivation to keep your job at a cool developer who might have that runaway success next time around when they can pitch their own project.

    In the end, I don’t think that working over 40 hours per week is automatically bad. You have to look at why it’s happening, and make judgments based on each situation. That said, I think most crunch is the bad kind, where people are just taking advantage of over-eager college kids and willing to burn them out for a profit. Better project management, as mentioned previously, will improve that situation.

    Comment by Psychochild — 2 November, 2009 @ 8:23 PM

  18. Fighting Fire With Fire

    [...] smarter, not harder or longer, as Mike Darga might say, and it’s perhaps the notion of “good crunch” as Brian “Psychochild” Green might say. (Please correct me on that as necessary, either of you… I’m interpreting a [...]

    Pingback by Tish Tosh Tesh — 10 December, 2009 @ 5:56 AM

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