What It's Like To Crunch On A Video Game

What It's Like To Crunch On A Video Game

It's hard to understand what really goes into game development until you've heard the stories first-hand. For a long time now, we've been covering the cruel world of video game developer layoff cycles, but there's another element of game development that has become a horrifying standard: crunch time.

Often, while approaching a milestone goal or the end of a project, game developers are forced to work extended hours and weekends for weeks or months on end just to get everything finished. This "crunch" has become sort of an industry standard. Everyone who's worked in game development has his or her own war story about crunch time, and they're all horrible.

Over the weekend, veteran game designer Brett Douville shared his own story of video game crunch. Douville, who has worked for Bethesda and LucasArts, wrote about the scary effects that working way too many hours had on his body, and called for everyone to be a bit more sympathetic while writing and talking about games.

With Douville's permission, I've republished his entire post here. It's worth reading.

This week I watched the 19th episode of the Double Fine documentary, "Last Call", and I had a real moment of recognition (and concern) when I saw Senior Gameplay Programmer and friend Anna Kipnis miss two weeks of work.
It brought to mind my own scariest contact with crunch. It was on Jedi Starfighter, my second game at LucasArts, the first where I was a lead programmer. We had been told by the company that the game had to come out in the fiscal year, which ended March 31st of 2002; the company had nothing definitive on the slate for the year, and having just finishedStarfighter, they wanted to take that investment and put out another game using the engine. I led a team of programmers mostly new to the project, since the other two senior programmers were investigating some new tech and we had had a lot of turnover due to the dotcom boom. I had one more junior programmer who stayed on from Starfighter, one new hire for graphics and collision stuff, one for gameplay from our tools department, and a shared resource who maintained and improved the low-level graphics library we had in-house for the PS2.
Due to business reasons, this meant Jedi Starfighter had to be done in about eleven months. We had a story which involved a bad guy who tactically deployed remote probes to destroy infrastructure. I don't really remember too much about the details, but it was an uncomfortable mode of destruction once 9/11 happened. And so we did what we could to change the story without impacting the mission structure too much -- helpfully, half of the game revolved around Nym getting his base back after he fled it in the original game.
What also happened as a result of 9/11 was the departure of that one programmer who had stayed on from Starfighter. He had known people who worked in those towers, and just needed a break from making video games for a while. I didn't blame him in the least; he gave us the standard notice, we tried to tie off any obvious loose ends, and he moved on.
I did what seemed reasonable to me at the time -- I absorbed that programmer's work into my own schedule. It had taken me a long time to fill the other roles on the team, and I didn't think I could find someone to do what this programmer did in that time.
I took a 40 hour a week job and turned it into an 80 hour a week job, about five months from sending it off to manufacturing. Not really thinking about how a month or two from then, my 40 hour a week job would have turned into an 80 hour a week job all on its own.
All of this led to the specific moment I wanted to talk about. In February, as we were preparing for our first submission to Sony, I wasn't feeling so hot. It was the middle of the afternoon, and my stomach was all queasy, and I needed a little air. Intending to get some saltine crackers, I drove to the Safeway a couple of miles away, parked, opened the door... and couldn't stand up.
I had no strength in my body.
I sat in that car for nearly an hour, not really knowing what to do, and knowing that every minute was precious as we tried to get that game out the door. That's right, the first thing I thought of in my predicament was that I was hurting the game -- not, "oh shit, am I having a heart attack," which would have been a rational thing to consider, but "oh, I hope this doesn't hurt cert." I didn't have a phone; I was late on the mobile phone train, didn't get one until 2005. I just sat there with the window open.
Eventually my strength returned. I got my saltines and some ginger ale and got back in the car and went back to work. I never did go in for a checkup. I still don't actually know what happened to me that day.
I thought of this when I watched the latest episode of the Double Fine Adventure series; I hadn't thought of that day in the Safeway parking lot for years. We push ourselves so hard some times, because we feel the responsibility to support our team, or because we feel that not doing so will impact the company, or because we love what we're doing enough to make sacrifices for it, or because management dangles a carrot of a higher bonus, or because we feel trapped. There are a million reasons, none of them better or worse than any other. It's hard to make games, and some of its costs never show up on a balance sheet. My story is far from unique; I shared this one because it was my own.
Why mention any of this? Well, I don't know, I guess I just want people to be kind. It's easy to put on an angry face and say a thing sucks and let me tell you why it sucks and throw a pile of snark at the wall to see what sticks. It's hard to remember that these "products" are complicated endeavours requiring myriad talents, and that those talents come from people who tried to pour a little bit of themselves into it at sometimes significant cost. I'm not saying, "Don't serve your audience" -- if you're a reviewer, you should do, and you should explore your reactions, and if those reactions are negative, it's your responsibility to be honest about them. But maybe just go that extra bit to be kind, if you can, to start from a position of kindness. To save all that bile for things that are truly deserving of your rancor, and make that bile stand for something because it isn't the default. To be as generous as you can be especially to those things which try to push the medium in new directions, where the cost is maybe even higher to individuals because the returns are likely to be lower, and thus capital isn't interested. To remember that that thing you want to savage was made by people.
*EDIT*: Now that I've had my coffee, I might also point out another reason for a bit more kindness -- typically these reviews are coming *ta-da* right after creative folks have been through the absolute worst. They have poured in all their energy, and their reserves are low, their defences are down, and *that's* exactly when they get hit with the snark. It can be dispiriting -- I mostly avoid reading stuff about games I've worked on, but I didn't used to. Right after JSF shipped there was a review in a big magazine that was particularly unkind to something that I had worked on, and that has stuck with me way more than the memory of nearly collapsing from exhaustion ever has. It doesn't sting any more or anything, but I can't think of the game without thinking of that comment; and that's likely because of how worn out and raw I was when I read it.

Picture: Game Dev Story


Comments

    A game is going to get the same amount of criticism if it was made in 5 minutes or 5 years. As soon as reviews are adjusted based on the environment that it was made in, the entire system dies. Reviewers aren't there to be kind, they are there to review a product which is deemed worthy enough to be sold for money. The developers feelings usually are and should be the furthest from their mind.

      I agree that the development process of a game and review score of a game should be totally mutually exclusive. Perhaps then the bigger issue is that many developers still aren't able to make games in an environment where the completed product wholly speaks for itself and elements of business and work-life balance don't become a part of the defense of the quality of a title. EA Spouse happened in 2004 and that was arguably the beginning of crunch moving from being looked at as legendary folk tales to a questionable practice, and yet over a decade later it's still a problem that keeps coming up.

      The episode of the Double Fine Adventure documentary that Brett mentions was incredibly depressing to watch. I've enjoyed watching the documentary all the way through but episodes like "Last Call" continue to make me question working in the game development industry. One of DF's animators Ray Crook even says in the video with a hint of disdain "it's just a video game".

      I agree with that. You can't give consideration for the environment in which a game was developed when giving a review score and recommendation.

      You can, however, not be a total jerk. Sometimes reviews are overly harsh, whether for comedic purposes or just because the reviewer really dislikes a game.

      They're free to present their information however they like, but it does suck as a developer to read something along the lines of "this developer sucks, their game sucks, only a total moron would do xyz". Especially when you're completely burnt out and destroyed from trying to push a game out the door by a company mandated ship date.

      Now, it's entirely possible that a game does suck. Lord knows I've worked on a game or two that, if you were being generous, you could say were not worth full retail price. A reviewer needs to inform their audience about this. But it would be nice if they respected the people who made the game and didn't just dump on them.

      The developers usually know everything that's wrong with their game, and if it were their choice they'd spend the time fixing it all. Unfortunately they rarely get that chance. It's just a group of people doing the best they can under the circumstances.

    We should ramp our criticism of other industries to meet the standards of video game journalism / reviews - That being said, some devs need to be put on the spot (Molyneux) because criticism is there to drive improvement and advancement and its not acceptable although it is being passable in todays marketplace of freemium and day-1-DLC where the end product is a shell to hold all the extra add-ons sold on the side (Evolve). Critics (and consumers) will criticise the products, Designers (and developers) need to criticise the development process that allows this pressure to build up to this point.

    The really weird thing about crunch is that it's an awful lot of fun. At least at first. You kind of know the damage it's doing to yourself and your family, and whenever anyone asks you'll tell them that it's terrible, but there is a certain high you get from knuckling down and putting your all into something.

    There's the camaraderie of the team pulling together and working against incredible odds, there's the feeling of being some kind of superhuman programming master pushing out code at an incredible pace, there's the fact that once you reach crunch the base systems are all in place and everything new you add has a major, appreciable impact on the game.

    You may look back later and regret it, but there's something really addictive about crunch.

    The crunch is not unique to game development. I coded all night a couple of weeks ago to hit a deadline on an incredibly boring internal corporate project.

    Crunch = poor management. It's depressing that some developers defend it.

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