Crunch Culture in the Game Industry
A lot of people have been talking about crunch culture in the game industry from a moral angle. I wanna take a more utilitarian angle. My background: been in the game biz since ’96, worked everything from 2D kid games to AAA open world. I’ve done the 100 hour work week.
My past 15 years have been at ArenaNet where we evolved an anti-crunch culture. Mid-sized studio with lots of sub teams, so it’s not 100%, but the difference between my previous experience (and that of my friends at virtually every other studio) and here is huge.
I tweeted that fact the other day and got an interesting range of responses, which I’d like to now parse through the lens of incentives and systems. If that sounds abstract, it will become clear as I go. I’m going to bucket the replies I got into the following categories…
1: This is why your games suck and your studio is unknown.
2: Your studio has other problems [so your opinion about crunch culture is wrong?]
3: Crunch is good because it demonstrates passion and produces ground-breaking games.
4: Your hair is dumb. Also shut up.
I’m going to go down the list. 1:“This is why your games suck and your studio is unknown.” The implicit claim here is that if ANet followed the broader industry crunch culture our games would be better/fewer bugs/more popular.
I have no desire to argue about the quality of Anet games or my work. I’m lucky in that most of the games I’ve worked on have been 90+ metacritic and won awards, but that’s entirely beside any points I have about crunch culture. I’m only speaking from my observations.
There are a couple other factors one should consider when evaluating a studio’s games. First, what market are they making games for? A big market that gets a lot of press? Like an FPS, or is it an inscrutable ascii dungeon slog? The popular recognition will be constrained by that
Other factors influencing the quality of your game/studio: Experience, Tech, Publishers, Market timing, Marketing, Budgets, Talent acquisition/retention, Management, Morale. The list goes on and on. Saying that Crunch is the determining factor in quality is unsupportable.
2nd on the list: “Your studio has other problems.” [so your opinion about crunch culture is wrong?] This is such a glaring example of a red herring or whataboutism I hope it’s unnecessary to address. Every human and their endeavors/institutions have flaws. Sorry ‘bout that. (This is not to say that the problems we have aren't important. I don't want to sweep anything under the rug. I'm just saying they are a separate issue from crunch culture.)
3rd retort: “Crunch is good because it demonstrates passion and produces ground-breaking games.” I can’t deny that most ground-breaking and excellent games had crunch time in their creation process. However, it’s also true that almost ALL games had crunch time.
This is where I want to get into systems and incentives, and lil’ bit of psychology. First, I’ve seen that those who haven’t done crunch fundamentally misunderstand what motivates it. I will first, admit that when I was doing my 100/weeks, passion WAS often a component. BUT…There are other things at play. The more team members choose to sacrifice their health, sanity, and future for a game, the more it becomes mandatory for everyone at that studio, then the whole industry. And now, to compete in the market you have to be a bad father/husband/wife/mother/fur parent. etc.
IF this guaranteed quality ground-breaking games then you might have a case for promoting crunch at the expense of the rest of your life. But it doesn't. I want to tell you about my experiences with why that's the case. We have finite energy, exhaustion manifests in numerous ways.
Here’s just a few of the mistakes I’ve committed and/or witnessed during crunch time.
1.Poor communication between departments. I can’t overemphasize how much this is one of the biggest factors in the final quality of a game. The overhead of communication is one of the first things a tired brain will jettison.
The 2nd sin of crunch exhaustion: Loss of perspective. No time to step back and look at the big picture and make appropriate scope or direction pivot decisions. Inertia is the only design impetus. Reversion to the mean occurs. Ever wonder way so many games are samey?
3rd effect of crunch: Tuning is terrible because exhaustion changes your brain chemicals, response rate, patience, etc. I don’t care how passionate you are about your game; being exhausted has huge repercussions to its quality. I’d love to hear more examples from other devs.
These are things crunch does to a specific game. Now I wanna talk about systemic issues it causes for the artform itself. Being able/willing to give all your waking hours to a project is much easier for young people. Easier for young single people. Nothing against them. But…perspective is important for all artforms. The wider array of perspectives you have, the greater your opportunity for tapping new markets, speaking to more people, discovering innovative techniques and pulling influence from novel places.
Young single game developers are GREAT. You know what’s MORE great? Them PLUS older experienced devs. Them plus as many other variations of human that exist. Guess what crunch culture creates? MASSIVE barriers to entry for any non-young singles. Massive incentives to LEAVE the industry. Pretending that crunch culture has no downstream effects for the business or the artform is incredibly myopic. It’s leaving both money and cultural cachet on the table. We’re needlessly stagnating our commercial and artistic progress by clinging to this outdated norm.
None of this is meant as moral opprobrium towards studios (ie: almost all of them) that engage in crunch. Nor is it a denouncement of EVER using crunch. It’s meant to clarify the PRICE that crunch inflicts that is generally swept under the rug.
And finally I need to address retort #4: “Your hair is dumb. Also shut up.”
You’re right. I look ridiculous. And I guess you’re right that this makes everything I just wrote invalid. Sorry for wasting everyone’s time.