by Leon Rosenshein

Captain Crunch

This morning I ran across an article on crunch time in the game development industry. As many of you know, I’ve been doing the development thing for a while now. And much of the early years was gaming. Mostly flight simulations, but also other simulations and general gaming. And I can tell you from first hand experience and countless discussions with peers at other companies that crunch time is real. And yes, it’s not just the last 18 months of a 12 month project. There’s always pressure. It just reaches ridiculous levels as the end-game approaches.

There are lots of reasons for it. The biggest two though, don’t apply any more. Back in the day games were sold in boxes, in retail stores. And what you sold was what people played. For years. No downloadable content. No user generated content. No patches or bug fixes. Just what was in the box. So you had to get enough in the box to make people happy. So the pressure to “make it work” at the end was high.

Another sign of the times was that about 50% of sales happened in the 4 weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. And most of those sales were of the hot new games. Which meant that you box had to be on the shelves by Black Friday. Getting on the shelves before Christmas was so important that when we shipped Falcon 4 in England we put a person on a plane from San Francisco to NY to London (on the Concorde) to pick up a few hours of manufacturing time. If you missed the season your game was sunk. By next year it was dated and no one cared. So slipping the schedule by 3 weeks wasn’t an option from a business perspective.

Things are different now. Patches are expected. DLC is expected. Back then it was 4 or 5 developers and 1 artist. Now it’s 50+ artists and world builders and 10 developers using a game engine. Multiplayer has gone from turn based play by mail to split screen to MMORPG. Development and ad budgets have gone up by orders of magnitude.

But apparently some things haven’t changed. Crunch time is still around. Talk of unionization is still around. Burnout is still around. And lots of fresh new faces who want to get into gaming show up every year. Which, in my opinion, is the reason nothing changes. As long as there’s a steady stream of developers showing up to make the games there’s not a lot of incentive for things to change. And that makes me sad.

Because we know better. The constraints have changed. Boxes on shelves are no longer the driving force. Dates are still important, but much less so. And we know a lot more about the development process. We have better ways to get from idea to product that take into account the knowns, the known unknowns, and the unknown unknowns.

I’m not in the game industry any more. In large part because I wanted to get away from crunch time. Things are much better now. Work/Life balance is better. And I think the work is better too. Sure, for any given week I can get more things done by crunching, but over the longer development period a slower, steadier pace gives better results.

Bringing this back to the article I was talking about, I believe it to be an accurate depiction of the current state of affairs. Because I’m pretty sure I was living it before the author was born. I think there’s a better way. And I’ve been talking about it here for almost 2 years.