Crunch Culture Is Never Just About Individual Choice


#1

Terrifyingly long hours might be the norm in the games industry, but that doesn't mean that they're inevitable.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/kzznee/crunch-culture-is-never-just-about-individual-choice

Cuphead Devs' Pain Being Put First
#2

Crunch time is essentially the “overtime” problem for videogames. For anyone who has taken a basic management course this is essentially an outcome of poor management decisions regarding scheduling. Every business with a management professional has a plan for how many people are needed and how much time is required. This is not a secret or difficult but it does place responsibility.

I used to work at a large aerospace manufacturing plant that was millions of dollars over budget targets because managers decided that it would be cheaper to hire less people early in the project then have them work overtime to cover shortfalls. This was to save money on hiring, training and benefits. By the end of the project the shortfalls were causing so much overtime wage surcharges just to keep to schedule some employees were making almost double their yearly salary. When I left my project managers were scrambling to cover production shortfalls with no overtime and no new employment.

Short term this behavior looks great for managers. They are saving costs on employee benefits and wages which looks great at first. Those managers then try to leave the unit before it catches up to them. They look golden for doing so much under normal budget projections. Whoever is left behind gets a disaster to clean up.

It also means employees are EXPECTED to work far more than the hours they were contracted to work. Somehow the culture starts to value people who work more than required instead of AS required. Don’t want to put in those extra hours? Now you’re let go because you didn’t do more than asked.

This type of behavior is killing our job economy. No one will invest in new employees. No one pays people for reasonable work as contracted. Employees are constantly expected to do the work of two or more people for no additional pay.

Crunch is a failure at best and a con at worst. The people who lose the most are those at the bottom or the customers who buy your products.


#3

I just came across Tale Worlds explanation for why they don’t have a release date for Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord at Gamescom. If anyone needs an example of what a medium-sized studio that doesn’t crunch looks like…perhaps this is it?


Cuphead Devs' Pain Being Put First
#4

Yeah, as someone who also worked in aerospace manufacturing, crunch is a failure of planning and management, and any project manager who thinks that crunch is a “natural” part of development is exploiting their team. I think it happens more in video games because software is more likely to suffer from feature creep (whereas in manufacturing it’s more due to design quality), but at the root is the failure to properly scope the project–which may not actually be the fault of anybody actually working on the project.

To take an example from manufacturing: at the outset, the project is given a cost that takes into consideration an estimate of engineering hours, which is is added to the other development costs and submitted to whoever is giving go-ahead. At this point, the “customer” indicates that they can either a) go somewhere else to get it done for cheaper or b) go somewhere else to get it done faster, and project management grants some sort of concession on either price or delivery date, without actually figuring out where the cost reductions or development efficiency will come from. Thus the idea that crunch is “natural”, as accountability from management is hard to come by–everybody is thankful for whatever steps were taken to get the project go-ahead, so nobody wants to ask questions.

Thankfully, with Steam and other digital delivery services, the necessity of negotiating with retail for prime shelf space has been reduced, which gives a bit of leeway in hitting that street date. But project budgets are still around, and there’s fixed costs for all sorts of non-engineering staff, like QA, so the temptation to crunch will still persist.


#5

I’m so happy to see people with actual engineering project experience talking on this thread. The defensive posturing in the games industry just looks pathetic to anyone who has properly scoped a project. A little extra work in the planning stages can save a lot of grief in the long term.

It’s funny because I had a question on Waypoint Radio read about a similar subject many months ago. Austin’s response at the time was that video games are a unique intersection of art and cutting edge technology such that it is difficult to figure out how long it will take to make a game. Even then I felt the answer gave the industry too much slack, but the recent Polygon article really drives that point home.


#6

I think the worst part about this whole debate relating to crunch is that the EA Spouse blog post went up more than ten years ago and basically nothing has changed. There was a Idle Thumbs interview with Amy Hennig and she basically recalls working 80 hour workweeks on the Uncharted games. I also don’t see it getting any better as gamers expect more from games and technology as time goes on as well.


#7

I feel a bit awkward about beating a living horse, but I think this is much more related to investors extracting as much profit as possible by finding creative ways to devalue labor than the actual expectation of gamers (though “expectations of gamers” as a thing could be considered a creative way for investors to devalue labor).


#8

I wish this had been a bit longer, @ckunzelman. Felt like you were setting up for a second part talking about people making games without crunching or killing themselves, or some other kind of “and let’s…!”

Anyway, I think that just means it’s a good article. Here I am, after all.

So, I work in genomics IT and I’m in “~executive management~”, for whatever that’s worth, after many years of being a developer of various stripes. We have to design things and deliver them just like everyone else, and there is definitely a creative element to our design work as well as the obvious technical complexity. At this point in my life/career, if a project is fully fucked up and a deadline is approaching, I will put myself in crunch mode, because it’s fully on me, but I absolutely do not think it is reasonable or fair to ask (or even allow, to be honest) staff to do this. It’s on me because I have, like the posters above wrote, ended up with a planning failure. It’s not like software actually is going to surprise you at the last minute with not being done. You know, 50% through a project, that you’re going to have a problem. And there is ALWAYS someone who knows. Every day. There is someone who will have enough visibility to see “oh, we’re not going to make it”. You find more people, you cut the scope, or you move the date. That’s it. It’s not rocket science.

We have to start helping educate new workers that you can just walk away from someone asking you to do crunch. I know I fell prey to it when I was new, and even now being management there are people coming out of university who don’t believe me when I say they should say no to things like this! We have an inhumane culture around this, in wider society. The truth is, whoever is asking you to crunch is the one who fucked up.


#9

I just wanted to pop in here and thank the writer and the website at large for writing this. I read the original post and was enormously offput by it. I fully agree with everything Cameron Kunzelman said, and am deeply appreciative of this being put out there to counterbalance that original, honestly pretty gross, piece.


#10

– SALT WARNING –
Yeah, I’ve heard a couple throw-away responses about the game industry on the podcast, and been disappointed every time. What’s frustrating is Waypoint staff feel comfortable spending an entire episode on conjecture about a particular sexual harasser, but don’t seem to give very much consideration to the labor practices of a $100B industry.

(Let me first state that I am emphatically not a “class-first” Brocialist–I don’t take a No True Socialist stance that imagines sex, gender and race as subsidiaries of the True Struggle, each of these struggles are equally as important as class, intersectional AF, all the way bay-bee.)

To a certain extent, I understand both why Waypoint needed to address the actions of a peer in journalism, and why they don’t want to fill the podcast with depressing Issues every episode. I probably wouldn’t want to listen to that podcast if they did… However, hand-waving away the problems of the games industry with “it’s art!” ignores the successful unionization of many aspects of the film industry, as well as entire classes of workers, like waitstaff, who have had their wages legislatively truncated in order to keep a particular culinary business model from going under.


#11

As someone who works in the animation industry (on films and TV) I do see the idea behind what Austin was saying. For us a project is being created on new iterations of technology every time. You can plan on what things normally take and how you expect the production to go, but the different influxes of people and different ways of using the technology throw some uncertainty into the mix.

Good planning and management can get around delays. Get extra people in, push around deadlines or try to tackle the problem itself. But sometimes everything breaks down to the point that you have to hit a certain date with the people you’ve got, and a way to do that is crunch. It’s bad, and any company worth their salt will be apologetic about asking it of people instead of demanding.

But I do have sympathy that no system is perfect, no plan is airtight and shit happens. There might be enough institutional knowledge in other fields to make this extremely rare, but that’s not the case in animation and I expect it’s more volatile in games.

If I remember your question correctly, wasn’t it about delays and how games so often didn’t hit projected release dates? I expect the Waypointers would be more forgiving of that and just say “it’s complicated” than they would if the discussion was actually focused on crunch.


#12

You’re right that my question wasn’t exactly the same one as the crunch discussion, but I do think that the culture of delays and crunch being the norm rather than the exception in games is still indicative of poor project execution.


#13

I appreciate the kind words – I didn’t intend to allude to a second half, but I’m glad that this has people thinking even more about these issues. I feel uncomfortable prescribing an “and lets…,” because it obviously demands a response from organized labor, and a ~1k piece just doesn’t have the space to do that kind of longform work. Ian Williams has been doing that kind of work for a while, though, and I’d suggest chasing down his various pieces from the past few years for a closer look here.

This thread is good.


#14

I’ve just reread this article after a tweet by @jayplaysthings about Blizzard’s work culture went around; in the replies, she linked back to this piece, which I do feel is a really rock-solid assessment of why we can’t just view crunch (whether to rush to fill in a gap in the production schedule or as part of the day-to-day management of a perpetual game like Overwatch) as an individual choice. De-individualising the experience of crunch is an important step in understanding it systemically, and I think Kunzelman’s article does a great job of pushing us towards that perspective.