Jeff On Games: Thoughts on Crunch Part 2

In this post, I’ll look at what causes management to enforce mandatory crunch.  Everyone looks at crunch as solely a failure of management. I think there are a lot more factors to it than that. Here, in my mind are the general causes of crunch.

  1. Company Policy: This is the Epic model. There are no important deadlines coming up, there’s nothing that’s actually requiring crunch, but the company has decided to require everyone always work 60 to 80 hour weeks. Not okay. There is no excuse for this other than management being completely inept. It affects work quality and general quality of life. Don’t do it.
  2. Bad Information: This is what happened to Team Bondai. They were constantly told (and believed) that the game was almost finished. In such cases, many team members, believing the end is in sight, will do self-imposed crunch, which eventually will lead to de-facto crunch. In addition, this is where a death march starts, and tends to never end.
  3. Bad Planning: This is the most common cause of crunch, and management gets rightly blamed for it all the time. But there are two types of bad planning:
    1. Bad Low Level Planning: Even the best management team can make a mistake, because they can only make decisions based on what they’re told by the people below them. If what they’re told is wrong, their planning will be wrong. So, if you’re at the low level, don’t fudge your numbers. Tell management the truth so they can make the right decisions.
    2. Bad High Level Planning: Even with all the right information, managers, especially bad managers, will plan incorrectly.
  4. Shifting Requirements: Even with good planning and good information, games are a highly creative and highly iterative product, and when something’s not working or isn’t fun, it has to be changed. Unlike other industries where you can work “to spec”, the “spec” of a game is frequently fluid, which makes planning for the long term almost impossible. This, unlike the other causes, isn’t anyone’s fault, per-se, since a team can come to the mutual decision that something needs to be reworked, but it’s something that frequently gets ignored while doing planning
  5. Deadline: When all is said and done, this is the real cause of crunch. When a deadline is involved any amount of error in planning or requirements hits a head when the deadline looms. Some studios are in a position where the deadline can be pushed, but not all, especially when dealing with a multi-game publisher that has to allocate resources at various times (QA, marketing, operations, etc) to make sure the game launches without a hitch, so they can move on to the next one. In these situations, moving the deadline is impossible. 

The Myths: Crunch is a Given and Crunch is Always Avoidable

Both of the above statements are wrong. If the causes of crunch are listed above, avoiding crunch is as simple as avoiding those mistakes. Don’t make crunch company policy, always give your employees all the information, plan well at all levels, have a solid design document, and don’t have a hard deadline. Simple. But, if any of those slip, you have to make a hard decision: cut features, cut polish, or crunch.

If your company has a lot of experience or a lot of leeway, you can always avoid crunch. However, if you’re a start-up working for a publisher, on a hard launch deadline, under contract, and you want to make the best game possible, chances are someone, and it’s not necessarily management, is going to make a mistake, and that mistake is going to cause some amount of crunch.

Was it avoidable? Yes, probably at some point it was, and yes someone made a mistake somewhere. Crunch is always a failure somewhere down the line. But at some point in the project, it will become obvious that some amount of crunch will be needed. The next step is to mitigate it.

In the final part, I’ll look at ways a company can mitigate crunch, if it becomes a necessity.

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

One Comment

  1. Very interesting stuff! Thanks for the good read.

    (by the way, I assume you mean Team Bondi, not Team Bondai)

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