How Blizzard Developers Manage Crunch

Since our deep dive into the culture of crunch underpinning Red Dead Redemption 2, and how ingratiated it is throughout the industry, developers have been a little more open about the human cost of making games.

At Blizzcon this year, I took the opportunity to ask multiple Blizzard developers on how their attitude towards crunch, and how they manage it within their own teams.

First, some caveats. All of these interviews took place as part of discussions to promote upcoming content or releases for upcoming games. All interviews – as is the case with every Blizzcon, and almost every interview granted to press at a convention – took place under the guidance of a press handler. Only once was I asked to move the conversation on, but even if that hadn’t been the case, it’s safe to assume that the conditions aren’t that conducive to revealing the full picture.

Blizzard developers are no stranger to crunch. Four years ago, veteran Blizzard producers Chris Sigaty and Samwise Didier told me that one of the best aspects of Heroes of the Storm was that “there are weekends”. “Quality of life is better, we are crunching much less than we ever did,” Sigaty said.

So if that’s what things were like for Team 1 – the internal name for the Blizzard unit working on StarCraft 2, Heroes of the Storm, the Warcraft RTS games, and The Lost Vikings – what are things like now? I asked each of the developers below how the workload was managed within each of their own teams. Here’s what they had to say.

Overwatch: Bill Warnecke (lead software engineer) and Michael Chu (lead writer)

Bill Warnecke: I think our production does a pretty great job; I’m a lead engineer, you’re a lead writer, so in conjunction with leads getting together with the production team to understand our goals, what do we want to do with Overwatch and figuring out what effort it takes is the process really we go through. If you rewind back three years, when we shipped the game, I don’t think we really knew a lot of how often do we want to release an update. Stuff like the seasonal events, they hadn’t happened yet. So we didn’t know the pace of content or how things were going to go, so we just talked. “We have these heroes or these maps, plan times for about when we want to release those.” And just be smart with our conversations and discussions, and realistic expectations.

From my experience on Overwatch, I feel like we’ve done a really, really good job on that balance. I have a life outside of work, and I want to strike that balance, so I’ve been happy that it’s been very important to that leadership to have that balance.

Michael Chu: I try not to let myself use writer’s block as an excuse too much. But speaking for myself, I work very closely with my producer and she does a very amazing job of peering into the crystal ball of the future. We’ve also worked together a long time, so she knows how my days go, how things kind of work, and she’s very realistic. I’ll always tell her, “I think I can get this done.” And she’ll be like, “Let’s just pad that a little bit.” So she’s very good about making sure that my schedule is nice and smooth. So I can focus on something and then I’m ahead of schedule, and again, I just work very closely with her.

Warnecke: Speaking plainly, Overwatch is not a sprint. The first three years that we’ve been through, this isn’t, take everything we have or have ever had and get it out as fast as possible. We want our development team – it’s important to us – it’s the start. We build worlds, not one game. If we burn ourselves out, or we set unrealistic expectations, we won’t be able to hit the goals we really have – which is to bring Overwatch to the same level of World of Warcraft or Starcraft. I think that guiding mentality has helped us keep in check.

Diablo Immortal: Richie Marella (lead artist), Matthew Berger (senior game designer)

Richie Marella: I have a check balance on my own; it’s called my wife. She won’t let me go too crazy with work, she won’t let me do it all the time because it’s so fun.

Matthew Berger: You know when you ask me when a game’s coming out, and I tell you we don’t have a date for it yet or it’s not ready? That is a reflection of how seriously we take our work-life balance and how seriously we take our games. We give ourselves the time to make the best game possible while still maintaining a good work-life balance for our employees.

One of the unsung heroes in game development are producers. It’s the production team’s job to see where we are with the schedule, see where we’re tracking, and see if things need to push further out, or if things need to change or if things need to be cut or whatever. They’re really responsible for that. And in Blizzard our production team, they’re just top notch.

They’re always kind of gaming, ‘This is where we’re at, this is where we need to go, what are we doing for this?’ So that we do as little over time as possible, you know and usually towards the end you’re trying to kind of put in the finishing touches and things like that happen, but it is, I’d say a place I’m very happy to work at. … My institutional memory goes back seven years, and in the seven years I’ve been [at Blizzard], [crunch] hasn’t been a problem.

World of Warcraft Battle for Azeroth: Tina Wang (senior 3D artist), Jeremy Feasel (senior game designer)

Jeremy Feasel: Management wise, we have a directive to limit crunch as much as possible. We strongly believe that having employees that are fresh and spending their time wisely production wise is the best way to run a game team. We work very hard with our producers to make sure what we’re doing is within the time frame and the scope that we have.

We have production meetings multiple times per week to look at that, and scope things out as appropriate. We keep people at Blizzard for 20, 25 years because they’re happy working at Blizzard. And we’re a family.

Tina Wang: We have managers, like my manager will come and say ‘Hey, you need to go home.’ Even if I’m staying [back] half an hour, they’ll say, ‘Hey, you should go home.’ And just like in eight hours. People will walk around, at least my team, like, ‘Hey make sure you’re not staying late.’

We want to encourage that healthy culture. And also with people working standard days, it makes it more easy to scope the size of the project. I don’t want to get too much into production details, because that’s boring.

Kotaku Australia: It’s interesting because a lot of the discussion has come up about whether it’s actually possible with these blockbuster games to keep things within a time frame. One, because of the nature of game development: you go to do things, things break. And then two, because so much of it has become a rusted on idea, and you even suggested, some amount is necessary. People try to limit it, but that’s not zero, is it?

Feasel: I wouldn’t say I suggested that. To scope a thing correctly, ideally, no amount is necessary if you hit all of your targets.

Wang: We see it as a rusted on idea.

Kotaku Australia: So you mentioned retention, is that perhaps the best way to people to think about this – to make retention, or the management of this a KPI, is that the best future way to tackle this across the industry to make sure that people aren’t burning out and leaving the industry altogether?

Feasel: I don’t think we can speak for other companies in our industry, but I think it is definitely the best thing for solid, polished Blizzard games.

Warcraft 3 Reforged: Tim Morten (production director)

Tim Morten: One of the nicest things about Classic Games as a group is that we’re filled with a lot of veterans. Veterans of the industry have had experiences on past projects that just inform how they structure their work today. So collectively, all of us, we’re at a point in our careers where work-life balance is very important to us.

So we’re very collaborative and trying to structure the work in a way that we’re not setting ourselves to have crazy deadlines, we’re not setting ourselves up to get overloaded. I actually think it’s one of the wonderful things about Classic as a group, we have the benefit of all of that experience.

Kotaku Australia: Is having that more open conversation – Warcraft 3: Reforged is just 2019 – is that also a more effective way of looking after people, making sure you’re not trying to break your neck to get to a deadline?

Morten: Definitely part of the thought process in being more open about the date, rather than being this day or this month, does create a lot of uncertainty between here and there. There’s still work for us to do, as we get closer that certainty gets better and better. Right now, we feel good that 2019 is a reasonable target, and as we get further along with the project we’ll have a better sense of exactly where [in] 2019.

Kotaku Australia: For clarity, is part of that management of looking after people – how many hours, those sorts of things – is that codified or built in to management or executive? Or is it more of an unspoken thing, a human-to-human, look after this person sort of situation?

It’s a bit of both. We definitely care after each other, so that human part matters. But as project managers, we get asked to make sure we aren’t overburdening a team. There’s a cost to that, both in terms of human impact but in terms of real cost – people start making mistakes if they work too long. There’s good benefits to maintaining work-life balance. So there’s encouragement from above, and encouragement from each other.

Hearthstone: Ben Thompson (creative director), Cat Morgan (software engineer)

Ben Thompson: That’s always been a very serious topic for the Hearthstone team specifically. As you say, we’re one of the newest teams [in Blizzard], we’ve still been doing what we’ve been doing for 10 years so we’ve had a lot of time to figure out and stay set with what works for us.

What works for us is we’re a family here, and we have families at home. Making sure that that work-life balance is one that’s maintained, we definitely understand and respect that people do their best work, their most creative work, work that they want to come into day in and day out, when their home life is kept in balance as well. We have serious discussions all the time with people: ‘You’re really putting in some hours, it’s time to go home, take a break, go play some games yourself.’ Go do something – in my case, my dogs – other people, their kids, and just really enjoy that good balance.

Cat Morgan: We always try to make sure we have enough resources, whether it be a feature or a live issue, we always want to make sure that people are supported in the work that they are doing and aren’t being burnt out. So we are very conscious of that work-life balance; even I will see my co-worker or friend late, and I’ll say ‘Hey, head home, what are you doing.’ And he’ll say, ‘I’m just finishing something up.’ So we want to make sure everyone is still enjoying their time, and heading home to see their home and family and whatever they have.

Kotaku Australia: Are people actively stopped from working at home, or if you see them back too often, do managers actively say, ‘Get out of here, don’t eat lunch at your desk’ or something like that? Are there limits on that? Because those are the little ways people end up working [overtime].

Thompson: As creative director for the team, I have said that, yes. I’ve said, yes, we’re going to grab lunch, it’s time to go. Get them away from the desk, as you say. There’s been many time when I’ve been headed out, I’m getting people to come home as well, just get away from their desk and take a break. So I’ve just told people it’s time, we’re good to go, we’re all going to be here tomorrow.

Morgan: And I’ve been told too. I’m in my own headspace, in an engineering problem just really deep into it and someone’s like, ‘Alright, y’know, you should head home and think about it, come back.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah you’re right.’ So I think it isn’t in an harmful or a mean – you can’t do this kind of way – but just making sure everyone’s taken care of.

The author travelled to Blizzcon as a guest of Blizzard.


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