Crunch – getting a Ryse out of game developers since the early 1990s

#RyseFacts – a simple hash-tag and something that was probably intended as a well meant marketing tool, created a buzz around the Xbone launch title Ryse, developed by Crytek over the last 2 days.

Last night the following tweet was published by an official Ryse account with the #RyseFacts hashtag:



A bit of a twitter storm followed, mostly by game developers, and even Gamasutra picked up the story. It probably turned out as a bit of a marketing disaster for Crytek. Following up on the Warface story from last week, not something Crytek really needed.

But to me the tweet is not really the issue. To me this does not come as a surprise. I expected Ryse to require crunch. It is a next gen console launch title, they have a set deadline and they have to deliver. I have been in games long enough to know that this kind of commitment to a specific date almost always ends in crunch. In fact I have not worked on a single project in my career that did not involve some kind of crunch at some point.

And this is where the real issue lies. The fact that crunch is still seen as a valid tool to deliver a good product on time and on budget (within reason anyway), when research and literally more than a hundred years of experience have shown that crunch almost always results in higher cost and lowered product quality.

Don’t believe me? Read this. There is science behind it, there is research behind it. There is a reason most countries have laws in place regulating working hours between 36 and 40 hours and why most companies have no problem complying with them.

Human beings are not machines. We need sleep, we need food and we need a certain level of social interaction and relaxation to function at our best. This goes from mundane mechanical tasks all the way to creative tasks. If we are not rested, if we don’t have a good work/life balance, we human beings will not perform at our best. Errors will creep in and research shows that after a certain level of crunch the number of errors starts to outweigh the benefit of theoretical extra productivity.

This is not to say that all overtime is bad. Quite the contrary! Individuals putting in a little extra from time to time because they are motivated, they have passion and they want to create the best possible product they can, will deliver above and beyond. A concentrated push by an entire team for a short time, in order to hit a deadline or milestone target, can work wonders and can yield great result.

But it is prolonged overtime, or crunch, enforced in order to meet (often arbitrary) deadlines which yields little to no result, other than lowered motivation, disgruntled employees, high illness rates and high staff turnover.

This is even truer if the enforced crunch is due to piss poor project planning and project management, which seems to be the case most of the time in the games industry. Core mechanics changing, art direction change, narrative change – all these things require massive re-works and this is done on the backs of the grunts on the ground. Management in many studios and publishers still see crunch as a valid way of running a project. “We can get this done in a year. We just need to crunch the last 6 months” essentially means: “We would really need 18 months to do it.” But this can’t be sold to a publisher. This can’t be sold to an investor. The excuse for delay and crunch often comes down to “It’s a creative industry, change is inevitable.”

But if it is inevitable, then surely it CAN be planned for. If we KNOW (based on 30 years of experience) that every project undergoes change and incurs some throw-away work, then planning and budgeting needs to take that into account. Crunch cannot be a solution; crunch cannot be a tool that is used from day one of planning a project.  And, as was the case with Crytek’s tweet, crunch is certainly not something to be proud of. Essentially it is an admittance to weak project management and planning, not a testament to the commitment of a team.

But the biggest issue of all is really that I don’t see this changing anytime soon. Every time there is an article about crunch developers across the world complain about how bad it is and that it must stop. But we developers don’t count. The only way it can stop is if studios and publishers realize it’s not working.

The issue here is though that it is the customers who determine that. But the sad truth is, customers don’t care. As I posted earlier this week, customers don’t care if their consoles are made by slave labour, so why should they care if those who make their games have to work 60 hours a week? All they care about is the game.

So they go out and buy the game, reviewers give it an 80+ and the developer and publisher says “Hey! Crunch worked! We got an 80+ game and we are selling millions! No need to change anything!” And this is how it has been since the 1990s. There are exceptions of course, some studios who avoid crunch, some studios who pay overtime (and thus ensure they limit the overtime worked, in order to keep the budget down), but every time a game which saw crunch in its development, ships and does well, the people in charge feel vindicated.

They feel like the planned and executed the project well. People having to go to hospital, people getting divorced, people burning out, that’s not an issue. All those things are forgotten when the game ships and does well, when it is reviewed well and generates money. There are even some developers who forget the hardships and even wear the crunch badge with a sense of pride.

If you ask any developer before games like Bioshock Infinite or GTA V shipped, they probably would have told you the crunch was horrendous. The hours were insane and it was probably down to poor planning and execution. Many of these developers have and will leave those studios that force them to crunch insane hours. But there are many more young developers waiting in the wings, eager to join the industry and happy to be exploited. Because we all have to pay our dues and crunch is a normal part of the industry.

More than once have I heard friends of mine, working on some high profile projects, say “On the one hand I hope the game does well, I need it on my CV, but on the other hand I hope it fails miserably so that management finally learns that crunch does not work.”

Studios and publishers need to wise up. They need to realize that they get better work, more consistent work, out of developers who are happy. Those happy developers often put in extra effort without having to be asked, because they take pride in what they do.

Developers need to wise up and stand up. “This far and no further” needs to be our motto whenever crunch is enforced, particularly when it is because poor management caused issues in the first place. We need to Ryse up together when working conditions threaten the health of the work environment and the quality of life for those involved. We need to Ryse up when crunch creates more damage than it aims to fix.

And it would be nice to see gamers actually let stories of enforced crunch and horrible working conditions influence which products they buy. But I guess that is just wishful thinking.

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