Alex Birlo on August 13, 2019
What is Crunch? In the video game industry, this term refers to times when developers are working extra and overtime hours to reach milestones in the production process of a game or to manage to hit that very important release window stated by the higher management.
Crunch often entails unpaid weekends and overtime, 14 hours per working day for months to get features rolled out for live service games or to reach the planned milestones in time for a major release game.
Some advocate that Crunch is necessary. That the players expect better and bigger games from developers every year, that the community is ruthless in their critique of the projects coming out from the bigger developers.
But as we saw lately in the industry, the situation gets so bad that despite the awful 12-14 hours working days and all the crunch, we still get games like “Fallout 76” and “Anthem” coming out at the set date, even if they are not finished. And the publishers later are trying to come up with excuses just in order to not mention the words ‘unsuccessful crunch’ and ‘unrealistic scheduling’.
I took a look at yet another interesting paper published by the lovely people from the Chalmers University of Gothenburg, Sweden. About the whole topic of crunch and will be mentioning their findings in this article (the name and a link to where I found the full paper will be at the bottom in the sources section).
There are several types of crunch identified by the study:
Continuous Crunch – this is a type of crunch that is continued throughout most of the development process until the game is complete. It is caused mainly by unreasonable scheduling that was done in the planning phase, without the consideration of how long the actual implementation of features is going to take.
Mini Crunch – sounds like a new shape for potato chips, but actually, it is when the developers themselves conduct a one-two nights of overtime to be sure that their features are finished up to the milestone point.
Final Crunch – this one lasts for the last several weeks or months to ensure that the game comes on time or that it is up to a certain quality standard (i.e. has no bugs etc.).
Delusional Crunch – it is when the developers at the studio do not notice that they are indeed crunching, but think they are in the moment and have inspiration that they have to bring to life while it is there. I agree with how the study mentions this as a show of culture in this particular industry.
Video games are being made by talented and highly inspired enthusiasts of their own products. They love making games and understand that hardships are unavoidable. But when even these people start reporting health and mental issues due to a workload or schedule forced upon them by the management, that is when you understand that it must be REALLY brutal.
Is the industry riddled with incompetent planning and scheduling or is it just a product of past budget cuts that were made on purpose?
Let’s think logically: crunch is overtime work; overtime work happens when deadlines are not being made. From here we have two possible reasons for this overtime work – one reason that the deadlines are not being made in time is that the workforce at the studio is incompetent; the second one is that the scheduling did not take into account that the scope of the features planned for the game is going to take more time and effort to be made.
Both of the two options are possible, but also both are possible to avoid. I also think that – especially in the video game industry – it is less of the former and more of the latter.
This industry is not the first to ever face incompetent workers – then you replace them, improve the hiring practices of the HR department, attract bigger professionals. And with the hundreds of workers the bigger publishers in the industry layoff at the end of each game’s development cycle “they do not keep those they do not need”.
This industry is not the first to ever face unrealistic scheduling – then you include more people from the development studio in the scheduling phase of the project. They share insight into how long it might take to achieve certain goals and help adjust the schedule. Turns out it will take too long for the shareholders’ taste? Then cut out features and simplify the concept.
You can never get quality and time all in one. Quality – takes time; shorter time spans – bring fewer features and scope to the game. It is one or the other and people in high management positions know this, if they wouldn’t they would not be at those positions (at least most of them).
The above said brings me to my hypothesis: once upon a time, someone very evil implemented crunch as a period in the development cycle that is to be expected, to cut costs and please his or her “corporate overlords”.
Because look at it this way, there is no way in hell that a world-renowned studio’s devs would become SO incompetent as to release something like Mass Effect Andromeda, and think it is OK, overnight.
Which brings us to think that the scheduling of a project is to be blamed for us having crunch in the first place.
One of the first things we were taught on the basic Project Management courses at the faculty is that scheduling is paramount. This type of “crunch” should be accounted for, in emergency cases, but not expected if you want to guaranty to your investor a successful project execution. Whereas in the case of big development studios, in the video game industry, crunch had become a fixed part of any project plan, which violates these basic project management rules.
You cannot expect good things to always come from these close calls you have when finishing games in the last second before release.
Crunch Time: The Reasons and Effects of Unpaid Overtime in the Games Industry; Henrik Edholm, Mikaela Lidström, Jan-Philipp Steghöfer: https://gup.ub.gu.se/file/206740
Why are game studios run like sweat shops? The human toll of ‘crunch time’: https://www.digitaltrends.com/gaming/how-crunch-affects-game-developers/
Crunch time: It’s all fun and video games until you’re being pressured into working for free: https://www.theregister.co.uk/2019/08/12/video_games_sector_slammed_for_long_hours_and_bullying_culture/
How Video Game Industry Unionization Would Happen: https://variety.com/2018/gaming/features/video-game-industry-union-unionization-1203091114/
Game Workers Unite official website: https://www.gameworkersunite.org/