Crunch! The word has a fun ring to it, doesn’t it? “Crunch!”. It’s the sound you hear when you tuck into your favourite cereal. It’s what you do when you’re trying to flatten your stomach. It’s the feeling you have when you crash into a tree when skiing and break both of your legs. All fantastic fun. “Crunch!” However, if you’ve worked in the gaming industry you’ll absolutely hate the word.
So what is crunch?
Crunch, or more correctly “Crunch time”, in HR terms, is temporarily boosting productivity by pushing human capital beyond what would be considered a normal or standard level of work. Crunch time is mostly notably used in the tech sector, but is particularly prevalent in video game development and especially among multi-million dollar game projects commissioned by the larger game development studios. And when it comes to the gaming industry Crunch time is what the Japanese prisoner of war camps used to call “speedo”.
In the case of gaming, it involves driving employees way above and beyond the normal working cycle, pushing them to extremes, and trying to squeeze out the maximum productivity humanly possible, typically in order to meet a project deadline. And when I say humanly possible that isn’t just hyperbole. Sleeping in the office, staying away from families for days on end, working for upwards of 14 hours at a time, 7 days a week, are a feature of crunch. People have even put in 20 hours at time, limiting their own toilet and lunch breaks. There are stories of people losing 10% of their body weight, even having memory loss and anxiety attacks. In one rather alarming instance, a man subjected to a protracted period of crunch became so unwell he was unable to step out of his car.
Pushing people beyond their limits like this is not only ruinous to your employee relations but actually dangerous to their physical and mental health. The consequences of working too long without breaks or having too much pressure are very well known, hence the reason many countries legislate against such practices. Furthermore, prolonged and difficult working conditions like this invariably result in a loss of productivity. An exhausted, stressed, and anxious employee isn’t able to give their best, especially if they work in a field where creativity matters so much.
Of course, a sudden and intensive workload or a lot of need for overtime can occur in any industry and indeed frequently do. An unexpected new product might need to be developed and rushed to market as fast as possible, a product might need to be recalled, a new contract that a company just can’t afford to pass up might need to be fulfilled quickly, or the tigers all escaping from the local zoo can all create a situation where everyone in their relevant industry is called back to work immediately and asked to give their tears, sweat, and in the case of the tigers literal blood to deal with it. But that isn’t what’s happening in video games. Crunch isn’t an occasional event but a major aspect and common practice of working in game development, with as many as 76% of games companies subjecting their employees to it. It has become endemic in the industry. It isn’t done as a result of a sudden and necessary shock to a business, but as a routine cost cutting measure, and is done due to elements not only foreseeable but actually planned in advance.
A major factor in Crunch is the economic structure of the game industry and particularly the way games are marketed. Very often in the gaming industry large marketing campaigns are launched well in advance of a games release, while the game is still under development, in order to boost first day sales. Any software bugs, feature creep, late additions or other problems to the project results in extra workload, which has be squeezed to the allotted time before release. Another problem the industry faces is that the video games market, which is saturated with daily releases of new, increasingly prettier and more bombastic products, is fiercely competitive. Games themselves, perhaps counter-intuitively for a digital product, have incredibly short shelf lives as superior and more advanced games are released on a daily basis. Because of this games routinely go on sale merely weeks after release, and hard copies of games often get traded in or resold after just a few days, all of which makes attempts to increase the price-point for video games very difficult.
This has led to a situation were gaming is an industry characterized by products which are often either massive commercial successes or dramatic financial failures. Consequently the companies making the games have become exceedingly risk-averse, and will sometimes go beyond what some would consider ethical in order to squeeze what profits they can out of success and minimize the losses of failure. For the reasons already given passing these costs and risks onto the consumer is very difficult, so unfortunately the workforce of the gaming industry are feeling brunt of this. But they shouldn’t. There are solutions to the pressures this industry places upon itself. Crunch time represents the failure of this industry to properly look after its employees as well as effectively utilize the benefits of human resource assets.
So what can the game industry do to put an end to or at least put reasonable limits on crunch time? The first thing is to embark on a major cultural shift in how they treat their workforce. Major developers praising crunch and pushing their employees beyond their limits is not acceptable. Focusing on the end product without giving thought to how that product is created is simply unethical whatever the industry. If other studios can create successful games with out the need for crunch it obviously doesn’t have to be the industry norm. Fortunately, this looks like it is already happening to some extent. A combination of the consumer base finding out about crunch, an explosion of independent game developers creating small studios of their own and working on their own pace, and the increase in “early access” model of development where games are not given a firm release date but are sold during development and worked on continuously, thus removing the pressures of a deadline, are conspiring to make the industry a somewhat happier place to be.
Game users being more ethical in their choices, as well as talented developers having the choice of working in studios without such horrendous working conditions, is effecting the viability of crunch. But cultural upheavals don’t happen overnight in large companies, let alone entire industries, especially when the culture has been developed and entrenched over many years and is led by the top echelons of management. In many cases a complete overhaul of the company, unless there is a merger or takeover, isn’t possible. Therefore what can be done in the short term to alleviate the issue for those working in game development?
Project managers and modular managers of a game project need to understand the benefits of proper planning, scheduling and collaboration between different areas of the project. This might seem difficult in technology, where setbacks occur often and there is general unpredictably, but it need not be so as long as proper contingency plans are in place and ongoing communication is happening. The key here is agile planning.
Every project will go through various phases, from concept to completion. Each stage will require a different level of resources and frequently even a different skill-set, meaning a new employee. So the project director needs a strategic plan with the following questions addressed. How does the projected timeline look? Can you deploy sufficient resources at each stage? Do you have the right people with the right skills available at each stage? Recruitment can take time, so HR must be consulted well in advance of a new phase of a project to ensure human capital is available as required. And if a delay seems possible, HR should again be informed and the resource plan reviewed. Working through a project for a few years, and piling up all the labour-hours during the final phases is simply poor management.
Another issue that invites crunch is development creep and silo working. Various teams working on the same project sometimes change their ideas, designs, or features without consulting other departments, which sets up natural disarray as the elements they produce no longer work together properly. This is the result of poor communication and a lack of shared vision. HR should be the hub of a company workforce, and should be in constant contact with managers of each module, checking in on how they feel about the progress their department is making as well as checking in with employees. These chats are a great tool which HR should be utilizing for the benefit of organization. They can be used to not only see if the shared vision is actually shared by all, but also to foster and encourage collaboration between departments and make sure there is proper communication between teams. It is particularly vital, in a creative project, that communication is not just top-down, as it is difficult for employees to share the vision of the project lead if they can’t contribute in the discussions.
Lastly, employees must be encouraged to approach HR and ask for help if they feel they’re being overworked. In many countries there is a requirement for rest breaks and adequate time away from work. HR must ensure that these are adhered to, not only for legal compliance but for the health and well-being of the workforce. If people are leaving, HR should be speaking to them to understand why and making sure any concerns, whether crunch related or not, are addressed.
Another major change that could take much of the pressure off the workforce is to change the way games are marketed. The fanfare and fireworks around a distant release date, which creates the spectre of a looming cliff edge, is completely unnecessary and sometimes creates an oppressively high pressure atmosphere around the development of a game. At the very least only fix a release date with the full consent of the workforce and only when the project looks like it is nearing completion. As of the date of the blog entry there is game on Valve Corporation’s ‘Steam’ sales client, called “After the Dawn”, featuring details of what the game will contain as well as a few screen shots. This game has a release date of June 2022. Unfortunately this out of the remit of the HR department, so we can only help address this by hitting the marketing manager with a stick until they get it.
The gaming industry has, for a long time now, been a place where employees are thought of as units of production as opposed to the most valuable asset a business can possibly have. But game development is a creative endeavour, and most of the people who go into game development do so as much for their desire to create games as they do for their desire to earn a pay-check. The passion and imagination they bring isn’t merely valuable, but is what makes game development possible. This passion and drive to create is simply being abused. The attitude game development companies have towards their employees must change, for the sake of both the industry itself and the well-being of the people who work in it.