With the arrival of 2020 and console makers poised to release the next generation of hardware, there has never been a more exciting time for video game development.
It’s an exciting time for project management as well, considering that as the anticipated scope of games increase, the management of money, time, materials, and human resources becomes increasingly important.
With the ongoing reporting of issues of ‘crunch time’ in the industry, it seems human talent is the resource most often squeezed for the extra effort required to release these ambitious titles. It doesn’t have to be that way. Ubisoft, for example, was an industry role model in the development of the best-selling Assassin’s Creed Odyssey (2018) which, despite being impressive in scale, did not make use of excessive working hours (Batchelor, 2018).
In this research paper, I explain the phenomenon of ‘crunch’ or ‘crunch time’, report on and analyze historical cases of its occurrence in the video game industry, and provide an answer to the question of whether video game developers can completely nullify it or preemptively mitigate its potential impact to ensure the long-term success and overall health of their teams.
Crunch or Overworking?
The definition of crunch is not clear-cut. It is a subjective term which means different things to different people. The CEO of Ubisoft might tell you that all of these definitions are equally important in order to effectively ensure a company and its sub-teams operate efficiently. For the purpose of the definition provided in this paper, I will resort to the experience of producers and project managers who are actively involved in the holistic, front-line management and scheduling of their respective teams. This perspective provides a rough aggregation of all of the subjective experiences of individual developers. As well, these hierarchically superior positions are often occupied by experienced individuals who have spent a significant amount of time in the industry in a variety of capacities. However, these definitions do not discount the experiences described in a later section of the paper under the subheading Deep and Insidious Roots. Instead, they serve as a counterpoint and modality for understanding.
Grant Shonkwiler (2019), a veteran producer from Epic Games, states that making the distinction between ‘crunching’ and ‘overworking’ is of utmost importance. He defines crunch as “working more than 40 hours a week, for at most two weeks, voluntarily… [and overworking as] working more than 40 hours a week, for more than two weeks, voluntarily or asked to” (Shonkwiler, 2019, para. 3).
Keith Fuller (2019), a leadership consultant with 11 years of AAA development experience, notes the importance of the subjectivity of the term crunch. He states that “[f]or some people [crunch] means working half an hour past 5 PM, one day a year… [and] some people don't think much of 80 hours of work a week” (Fuller, 2019, para. 3).
Tami Sigmund (2019), lead producer at Zynga with 12 years of experience in the video game industry, feels that she has crunched less than others. She defines it as the “times where I’d put in a bunch of extra time out of my own free will” (Sigmund, 2019, para. 2). She makes a distinction between this and “mandatory crunch… [which involves] unmovable submission deadlines that could make or break our game launch” (Sigmund, 2019, para. 2).
Let’s now draw some conclusions from the opinions of Shonkwiler, Fuller and Sigmund.
Crunch is the attempt to complete an excessive workload beyond one’s reasonable parameters of mental and physical wellbeing. This definition stands regardless of whether one defines crunch as being voluntary or involuntary work. The voluntary vs. involuntary debate– or for Shonkwiler, crunch vs. overworking – merely exposes the fact there are two underlying issues at hand: poor leadership and team management, and a systemic industry culture of personal investment and passion which, when mismanaged by both the individual and/or the leadership, leads to a toxic environment. With the above definition in mind, one can also conclude that crunch isn’t specific to certain points of the development timeline. Instead, it can happen at any time as the result of the individual developer’s proclivity and desire to work.
Fuller’s statement that “[f]or some people [crunch] means working half an hour past 5 PM, one day a year” (Fuller, 2019, para. 3) is particularly interesting. While I’m quite certain this is an exaggeration, Fuller’s point is that, to an extent, some overtime work – here incorrectly classified as ‘crunch’ – is inevitable in game development.
Shamus Young also advocates for the necessity of what he calls ‘temporary, limited crunch’ which involves short-term sprints at the end of a project in order to meet the release deadline (Young, 2019). He compares this to farmers working longer days during harvest, and retail workers clocking overtime around Christmas. He says in game development, it’s “understood as a natural byproduct of living in an imperfect world where ambitions are at odds with available resources.” (Young, 2019, para. 13).
The Complexity of Immaterial Labour
To understand why overtime might be inevitable, one will require a fundamental understanding of the complexities involved in the development of a video game intended for the mass market – typically classified as a ‘triple-A’ or ‘AAA’ title. There are four core stages to the process (Exhibit 1). Pre-production involves conceptual ideation and approval, while project managers plan and document the development schedule, budget, and allocate the required resources. Prototyping involves programming the game engine and game mechanics, while designers sketch and model characters and environments. Production involves the implementation of the game element prototypes into the game engine. Testers play the game while noting gameplay problems which require repairs or improvement. The ‘release’ is the final stage. It involves the publisher making the game available for mass consumption.
As a quick aside, it is also important to note that ever since the rapid advancement of internet capabilities during the 2000s the post-release update has become commonplace. Many games are developed with a whole branch of employees working under the title of ‘live operations’ or ‘live ops’ (Exhibit 1). Live ops, the fifth stage of video game development, has emerged in tandem with the market for games-as-a-service in which players expect constant engagement through new content released periodically. This constant supervision is akin to parenting. No responsible parent would release their baby into the wild to fend for itself. Unfortunately, the rise of games-as-a-service, and the associated indefinite cycle between production and release, signals the end of any sense of finality for developers.
Exhibit 1: Video Game Development Process
Shamus Young (2019) and Chris Pruett (2006) believe that a key contributing factor to crunch is the difficulty of scheduling. For example, Electronic Arts Vancouver is the developer of the best-selling FIFA soccer franchise. Each year there is a new release with updated teams and mechanics. A core struggle they face is the amount of work required to be fulfilled within that time span. Now consider a company which has to predict their deadline, and has to stick to it due to the costly marketing campaign which rolls out precisely one year in advance of the launch date in order to build awareness and excitement. This company has to compete with complete uncertainty of their scope on top of not having an established product like FIFA. As an experienced programmer, Young (2019) also notes that the cyclical nature of hardware updates causes cyclical software issues in new game developments. As hardware matures, these slow-downs occur less frequently as developers build more functional tools.
Immaterial labour refers to “inventive work…in which information and communication play an essential role in each stage of the process of production” (Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter, 2005, para. 13). This type of work resides at the opposite end of the spectrum compared to the highly repetitive, reproductive work required in warehouse, manufacturing and construction jobs. Each time a team sets out to develop a game, they must first translate imaginary concepts and accurately communicate them to others. This enables the creation of some end-vision to collectively work towards through combined individual contributions. The unique challenges that present themselves will be unlike any challenges encountered previously. There is no rule book. Therefore, teams must impose constraints on themselves - often in the form of deadlines.
Deep and Insidious Roots
In 2004, the first reports of crunch began to appear. The first to receive widespread media attention was an anonymous letter posted to an online journal. The letter is from the Electronic Arts (EA) Spouse, and titled EA: The Human Story. In the letter (EA Spouse, 2004), the disgruntled spouse recounts how their partner experienced somewhat ‘reasonable’ crunch in the form of eight hour shifts, six days a week, immediately after being hired. The producers of the game claimed that this crunch period was being utilized to mitigate massive crunch closer to the project deadline. The EA Spouse then recounts how, despite the project being on schedule, the crunch stretched on for weeks and mandatory working hours were gradually increased to an astounding final average of eighty-five hours per week. Complaints were ignored and mistakes began piling up which simply added to the workload. The nail in the coffin was that, during this time, employees received no overtime pay, no compensation time, and no additional vacation leave.
One might consider that this article was from 2004, and assume that ‘the industry has evolved since then.’ One might even suggest that this is an ‘isolated incident’ or ‘lacking credibility’ given it’s informal and anonymous reporting via a somewhat unofficial blog webpage. Unfortunately, the reports have continued unabated ever since the EA Spouse shared their story.
A particularly poignant example from 2010 was a letter posted to the Gamasutra Blog penned by an anonymous collective called the ‘Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees.’ The following is an excerpt from this letter:
Recently…there have been physical manifestations caused by stress . [S]ymptoms…will…only worsen if no change to improve conditions take place and managers continue with their dishonesty of deadlines. There are understandably times when crunching…is needed and extended working time is expected. However; as with all systems , there must always be an effort for balance. Ergo, where there are times of acceleration, there are other times of deceleration in order to recuperate. This is not being practiced though, and instead of valued employees, a sentiment grows that they have lost not only the sense of being valued but turned into machines as they are slowly robbed of their humanity. (Rockstar Spouse, 2010, para. 3)
This quote, and especially the final sentence, presents an interesting dichotomy relative to the earlier quote from Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter regarding immaterial labour and the associated creative and inventive freedoms which accompany it. It is also of note that the EA Spouse letter from 2004 rallied EA employees to file lawsuits against the company which culminated in multimillion dollar settlements. A programmer from Electronic Arts Los Angeles stated in his 2006 lawsuit that he and fellow workers were essentially part of an assembly line with little to no authority and agency over their own work (Surette, 2006).
To conclude this section, it is important that I establish my belief that there is no such thing as ‘reasonable’ crunch. I believe that language is important, and that the casual use of the term to describe occasional overtime work only serves to dilute its value and legitimate impact on real people’s lives.
Internal Sources of Crunch
Earlier in this paper we observed the complex nature of game development. This undoubtedly contributes to some temporary overtime shifts in the late stages of production. I also found several authors who identified a source of crunch which they feel often goes overlooked – the developers themselves! Tanya Short (2016) takes the stance that while there is worker exploitation in the industry, it doesn’t explain away the prevalence of voluntary ‘crunch’.
Seeking to impress customers is a source of crunch (Marchand, 2019; Milner, 2018; Short, 2016). There are a multitude of ways for developers to engage with the individuals who play their games. If a game falls below expectations, reviews can be scathing – it is an extremely vocal community. This fear of disappointing the audience leads developers to do everything in their power to ensure that doesn’t happen. This often involves long working hours.
There is evidence to show that camaraderie is established between individuals who face adversity together (Milner, 2018; Short, 2016). It is the equivalent to hazing of any form, which, prior to 2016 was prevalent at Queen’s University during frosh-week – and continues to persist (albeit slightly more tame) with the engineer’s ‘grease pole’ event. Crunch enables similar bonds to form; if everyone else is crunching, are you really going to have the resolve to not crunch as well? (Milner, 2018).
Tanya Short (2016) mentions a few other reasons why crunch is comforting and thus continues to persist. First, there is an initial honeymoon phase at the start of a new game. During this phase, a developer will have a variety of problems to work on at any one time. Therefore, they can switch from using their creative brain to their technical brain if they feel creatively ‘drained’. This leads to overwork, and ‘sets the standard’ for the number of hours logged for the remainder of the project. Second, she notes that most developers are perfectionists. Despite the fact that games are an abstract art form through which each end customer will have a unique experience, there is comfort to be had in making continual adjustments in order to ‘make it a little bit better’. Finally, she makes the point that crunch is naturally occurring in the industry. Once a developer has a few AAA titles under their belt, they may reflect on the fact that crunch was required each time. This leads to the belief that there simply isn’t any other way to make a great game. This belief eventually evolves into a superiority complex which we observed in the quotes from industry veterans who state that crunch is inevitable.
The ultimate goal of any video game development is to release a product that the end user finds fun. Agile development follows the agile manifesto which prioritizes operational components, interaction between workers, communication with stakeholders, and adaptability in response to uncertainty. The application to video game development involves creating “a [game] in small steps and incrementally add[ing] features that satisfy the customer in the fastest and most economical way” (Keith, 2010, pg. 22). Using agile, the game is always in a playable state. This allows for constant review, fixing of bugs, and brainstorming features for the next iteration. It ensures that the team works in unison, so that all the game elements are being simultaneously constructed and updated as needed. All of this serves to distribute the typical pre-release deadline crunch evenly across each iteration.
Agile shifts the responsibility for communicating small changes to the individual making the change. For example, typical corporate hierarchies within AAA companies may require a programmer who is making a change to communicate that to a level designer via a project leader. This can be slow, especially when many changes are being made. Using agile, the high-level decisions remain with the leadership, but inter-departmental communication is encouraged for minor changes. This reduces slow-down, confusion, and the need for crunch.
Typically, there are fixed milestones which the publisher requires the developer to meet. These deadlines place pressure on the developer and leadership to demand crunch. Agile principles encourage increased trust and communication between the publisher and developer. Outside of the game development industry many contracts “follow the time and materials form, which is where the client pays for the cost of the last iteration” (Keith, 2010, pg. 28). The publishing client has to trust the developer is spending the money wisely, and the developer has to trust the publisher won’t unexpectedly renege on the contract. This form of contract would greatly reduce the amount of crunch observed in the game development industry by enabling increased flexibility of deadlines. Keith (2010) believes that widespread adoption in North America is only possible if collaborative efforts are made between developers and publishers in the industry.
A good producer is the admiral of the fleet - confident in their abilities to lead complex projects and large teams, and in their colleague’s abilities as artists, programmers, and designers. They have a fundamental understanding of their interdependencies yet how each is unique in terms of potential issues that may arise and the amount of time required to produce a certain quantity and quality of work.
They are attuned to their team’s needs, current work status, motivation and level of commitment. They know when to manage constraints, provide a morale boost or information to a team member, and when to let the professional do their job.
Keith Fuller (2017) raises the point that a producer has to shoulder the responsibility to advise an individual with the proclivity to overwork to go home with everyone else. Setting the standard will have a ripple effect through the rest of the team. As noted by Milner (2018), the decision to crunch often happens without a direct order from a producer. It quietly begins as people start to stay at their desks later and later. Other workers feel a shared responsibility to work late with their colleagues. A producer needs to be strict and address this behavior immediately before it becomes normalized.
A good producer knows how to utilize constraints as an opportunity for creativity and innovation. Once the game’s release is set and deliverables defined, they can choose to be inventive with coaching techniques and delegation of tasks to maximize the utilization of resources and minimize the amount of crunch. They understand that despite forward progress, time must be left to rectify bugs and ensure the acceptance criteria of project stakeholders are met.
A good producer has business acumen and understands player expectations. But, their vision of the end-product is not rigid - they are adaptable and encourage co-workers to be creative and make suggestions for improvements while ensuring there is enough float to change directions or implement these new features without delaying other work packages.
Keith Fuller states that producers “who set the tone and enforce the unwritten policies either by volition or failure to correct them, need to be vocal in their valuation of people over deadlines” (Fuller, 2017, para. 31). A good producer shows their colleagues the way – they lead by example. This means leaving at reasonable times and taking days off in order to be fresh and ready to work.
Unions deliver improved wages, benefits, and job security. In March of 2018, a grassroots movement called Game Workers Unite began to form. According to their website, the primary goal of the organization is to “build the foundations for mass game industry unionization… by prioritizing workers on a local scale” (Game Workers Unite, n.d.). The core tenets of the group include, empowering workers, reducing worker exploitation, and improved distribution of power. They believe the best mechanism for this is “open community dialog among workers” (Game Workers Unite, n.d.).
Peter Nowak feels otherwise. He states that “unionization is a terrible idea that ignores the naturally occurring, self-correcting solution already under way” (Nowak, 2013, para. 4). According to Nowak, this solution is independent, or ‘indie,’ video game development. He uses various Canadian studios which have found success, like Hinterland in Victoria, BC and Capybara Games located in Toronto, to prove his point. However, these studios have made extensive use of generous financing via the Canadian Media Fund and the Ontario Media Development Corporation. Therefore, I believe that unionization remains a viable and important solution which would reduce the utilization of crunch time in countries which can’t provide support through grants for developers who are attempting to forge a path outside of of the AAA corporations.
Crunch is a complex issue that is worth solving and worth talking about. The impact on workers is evident. The science shows that overworking or ‘crunching’ results in poor work and reduced productivity. Current workers and reporters on issues of crunch need to continue to be specific about the hardships they are facing, and they need to be honest about the progressive efforts of the companies they work for. Misreporting a reasonable amount of overtime work as ‘crunch’ will not benefit workers who are actually faced with legitimately harmful environments. Solutions are abundant, and the fact that workers are beginning to discuss their hardships more openly is promising.
Another promising sign comes from the International Game Developers Association’s (IGDA) most recent Developer Satisfaction Survey (DSS) from 2019. The beginning of cultural change is evident in the report that there has been a “10% increase in the representation of female developers seen previously” (Weststar et al., 2019, pg. 4). Perhaps a reduction of the male-dominated culture could help moderate the competitive work environment which can lead to excessive crunch. Even more promising is the report that “rates [of crunch] were lower than the 2017 DSS: 41% said that their job involves crunch time (compared to 51% in 2017), and another 35% reported working long or extended hours that they do not refer to as crunch (compared to 44% in 2017)” (Weststar et al., 2019, pg. 25).
It might not be reasonable to suggest that games are made in the complete absence of crunch. There will be times when team consensus dictates that a short-term sprint takes place. However, if we want to see a true revolution in the video game industry, producers need to ensure that those times are the exception, not the rule.
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Dyer-Witheford, N., & de Peuter, G. (2005). A Playful Multitude? Mobilising and Counter-Mobilising Immaterial Game Labour. Fibreculture Journal, 5.
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Shonkwiler, G. (2019, August 29). Avoiding crunch in live ops game dev with producer Grant Shonkwiler. (A. Wawro, Interviewer) Retrieved from https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AlexWawro/20190829/349236/QA_Avoiding_crunch_in_live_ops_game_dev_with_producer_Grant_Shonkwiler.php
Short, T. (2016, October 28). The Curious Appeal of Crunch. Retrieved from https://www.vice.com/en_us/article/yvwnqk/the-curious-appeal-of-crunch
Sigmund, T. (2019, August 29). Avoiding crunch in live games with Zynga lead producer Tami Sigmund. (A. Wawro, Interviewer) Retrieved from https://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/AlexWawro/20190829/349241/QA_Avoiding_crunch_in_live_games_with_Zynga_lead_producer_Tami_Sigmund.php
Surette, T. (2006, April 26). EA settles OT dispute, disgruntled "spouse" outed. Retrieved from https://www.gamespot.com/articles/ea-settles-ot-dispute-disgruntled-spouse-outed/1100-6148369/
Weststar, J., Kwan, E., & Kumar, S. (2019). Developer Satisfaction Survey 2019: Summary Report (pp. 1–38). International Game Developers Association.
Young, S. (2019, May 28). Crunch is Proof that Video Game Executives Don't Understand Video Games. Retrieved from https://www.escapistmagazine.com/v2/crunch-is-proof-that-video-game-executives-dont-understand-video-games/