Crunch can be, vaguely, defined as times in a game's development where those working on said game must work much longer than the expected hours in order to finish some aspect of the game ... or perhaps finish the game itself.
The word conjures images of dead-eyed developers sleeping under their desks, having worked multiple 20 hour days with little to no break. It is universally seen as a bad thing within the industry, and as a failure of planning or empathy on the part of management.
Peter Molyneux, who famously over-promises features and emotions when describing his projects, was recently asked what business practices we should change in gaming, and he used the opportunity to praise crunch.
"I mean, one of the things — and this is quite a controversial point. I am a great believer in crunch," he said. "I think we did have a spell in this industry of us trying to say, 'Oh, we condemn crunch.'"
"But crunch is energy, and that's what you need, is you need that energy in people and you do need to all come together" he continued. "There's this wonderful thing that happens to human beings when they're faced with the impossible, which is that they often bring their best foot forward and that's what you need. So I wouldn't get rid of that stuff." The rest of the interview is interesting and insightful, and you should read it, but ...
What the hell?
We have no definition for crunch
"Crunch is a ridiculous concept to address with broad strokes, or with any expectation of multilateral comprehension," Keith Fuller told me when I asked for him to respond to Molyneux's quote. "No one has the same idea when they hear the word. It's different for everyone. For that reason I don't care to focus on it. It's a distraction from what's truly important."
Keith Fuller shipped 12 AAA titles as a programmer, design manager and producer before starting his own company, Fuller Game Production.
"For some it's unthinkable to work after 5 p.m., much less on a weekend," he said. "Then you've got people from Kaos who went seven days a week for months. Is only one of them crunch?"
The Kaos situation took place during the development of Homefront, when the then-publisher’s executive vice president of Core Games, Danny Bilson, tweeted the following:
At Kaos studios in NY sitting with a team that's finaling on 7 day weeks for a couple of months. Talk about that"thousand yard stare".— Danny Bilson (@DannyBilson) January 12, 2011
The issue is this was posted on Kaos' webpage, and it seemed to suggest a very different work environment:
While game development — like any entertainment business — is a profession that lives on deadlines and overtime, Kaos places a high premium on our employees coming to work refreshed, relaxed, and ready to make industry-leading games. Key to that is our deployment of Scrum and Agile methodologies, our commitment to an 8-hour workday, and our refusal to burn out our employees. While we may not be able to eliminate overtime and crunch completely, we’re constantly evolving our business to better meet the needs of both the project and the long-term health and happiness of our workforce.
You can read our feature about the reality of Homefront's development if you're curious about how much bullshit is contained in that statement.
"The last year of working on Homefront was a scarring, miserable experience for many of the people working on it, and even at the time, many of them felt their labor was being wasted through mismanagement," our reporting states. "They were the ones getting chewed out by Danny Bilson, hectored by Dave Votypka and publicly humiliated by David Broadhurst. Then they would swallow their pride and put in another 90 hour week."
Homefront was ultimately released. Neither Kaos nor its publisher, THQ, are still in business.
So, crunch is terrible?
Crunch is a lot of things, and as a reporter and critic I've seen both sides of it. I've talked to clear-eyed indie teams who say they are crunching to get a game out in a week while doing press to make sure it's not ignored. They're working nearly around the clock because they're invested, and have things they need to get done. It's a temporary situation as they scramble to make the best game possible in the time they have available.
I've also shared drinks with developers and watched as they responded to questions about projects as if they had been slapped. You hear stories about years missed from the lives of children and broken marriages. All to ship a licensed game that, ultimately, may not even be a financial success.
No one likes working long hours, but when doing so in service of a game not even the team believes in anymore? That's where the real damage is done to your soul.
But the reality is that crunch can happen in even the best-managed teams and it doesn't always have to be terrible. It's a subject with so many moving parts and variables it's impossible to discuss as a single monolithic issue.
You hear stories about years missed from the lives of children and broken marriages
"Working overtime for short periods is a tactic that can accomplish wonders. I hope that's what Mr. Molyneux is picturing," Fuller explained. "Particularly — and this is critical — when chosen by the team, it's viable to put in extra hours in a controlled setting with a fixed time limit."
He's already outlined a few things that can make crunch not only tolerable, but beneficial to products. It has to be done in a limited time frame, with the permission of the team.
If there is a feature or change that the developers agree would help the game, and it would take a week or so of very long days to accomplish? It's very possible everyone agrees to pitch in, work late and improve the game. At the end of that time period work returns back to normal, the team can get some rest, and that energy that Molyneux spoke of helped make the game better. It's not the worst thing, it's possible this situation takes place on even well-managed games.
But crunch, outside of those very narrow situations, can be devastating.
"But endless anecdotal experience combined with scientific research indicates that human performance simply breaks down when overwork and sleep debt creep in," Fuller said. "And this happens within a few weeks in most cases. When I worked on the Call of Duty franchise as a studio developer I saw technical geniuses with 15+ years of experience making obviously incorrect, hugely wasteful decisions because they were only getting three hours of sleep every 30 hours."
"There's no universal solution, but the critical point is to understand the problem: making games is really, really hard. And unpredictable," Fuller continued. "Setting a drop dead ship date weeks or months out and expecting to hit quality and budget and schedule is thoroughly unreasonable. Paying for it with the currency of developers' lives is unconscionable."
And that's why so many of us react to the idea of crunch with such immediate disdain and loathing. An enthusiastic team of developers all agreeing to work longer for a short time to improve a game that they care about is one thing, and it can in fact be powerful. It shows commitment and passion, all the things spoken of so highly in the values statements of studios.
The reality is that crunch is often, if not mostly, used as a way to avoid delays or asking the publisher for more money It's a practice that is sometimes incorrectly seen as "free" by the people calling the shots. It's just the time, health and family of a developer, right?
And those items don't appear on a balance sheet, even if we know they lead to worse games in the form of dramatically decreased productivity and judgment. After seeing the results of brutal crunches, or being a part of one, it's hard to hear the nuance in what Molyneux is saying.