Jeff On Games: Thoughts on Crunch Part 1

Crunch has been coming up in the news again, mostly because of the Team Bondai issues. ¬†As a disclaimer, I have never gone through what anyone would call a “death march,” which is what Team Bondai had to deal with. I’ve had to do crunch, but never on a huge magnitude, which I’ll get to. I’m also going to take what some would say is a “controversial” stance on crunch. Here’s the not controversial part: crunch is always bad, never required, and always avoidable, and a team should do everything it can to avoid it. But it’s not always that simple.

Types of Crunch

The thing is, there are lots of types of crunch. And they’re all different, and affect the team in different ways, and on different levels. In my mind, there are three major types:

  1. Self-imposed crunch: This is the crunch that some people in the game industry do on their own accord. They stay late every night because they want to. They want to get that one last thing in, they want to polish the hell out of whatever, or get that one last boss battle in. This is a personal choice, and there’s really not much you can do about it. However, it should be clear to other team members that this type of behavior is not condoned or required. Don’t reward them for this behavior. Otherwise you get into the second type of crunch.
  2. Team de-facto crunch: This is where the team “decides on its own” that it’s going to crunch, when the culture necessitates it, or when management does nothing to stop it. When too many people start self-imposing crunch, other people at the team will start to look down on those that “aren’t working as hard,” and peer pressure will cause them to stay later, or work longer. This is particularly true in companies with lots of younger workers who are not only particularly vulnerable to this type or peer pressure (they really want to impress their superiors) and also believe that this is just the way the game industry is. If this bubbles up to management, there becomes this situation where long hours are expected, and people that don’t do them are considered less valuable employees. Don’t let this happen. As a manager, it is your job to make sure self-imposed crunch is seen as an anomaly, and to do your best to keep people from doing it.
  3. Mandatory Crunch: Just what it sounds like. Management, for some reason, requires longer hours. This is the most common form of crunch we hear about, and the worst. To producers / managers out there, just because you do the same hours does not make mandatory crunch okay. Actually, nothing really makes mandatory crunch okay. There are no excuses here. Mandatory crunch is always a failure somewhere down the pipe.

The first two types of crunch are cultural and occur at all studios, but can be mitigated once you recognize the warning signs.

In addition there are three levels of crunch:

  1. Mitigated crunch: The increase in hours is not huge, maybe 10 extra hours of work during the week, the length is known and can be planned for.
  2. Long crunch: The increase in hours is high. Working 60 to 80 hours during a week with no break. The length can still be known, but may be a long way off.
  3. Death march: The increase in hours is high, and there is no end in sight, or the end is repeatedly pushed back.

A Mandatory Death March is the worst type of crunch, and when we talk about “crunch” we’re usually talking about mandatory long crunch or mandatory death march. There are no excuses for them

In part 2, I’ll take a look at the causes of crunch to figure out if crunch is avoidable.

[For more insights from Jeff, stop by his blog at JeffOnGames.com and follow him on Twitter at @FuzzyBinary]