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 Mark of the Ninja  creator: Innovation no excuse for crunch
Mark of the Ninja creator: Innovation no excuse for crunch
March 25, 2013 | By Simon Parkin

Jamie Cheng, founder of Klei Entertainment, creator of the XBLA games Shank and Mark of the Ninja had strong words for any game maker who might claim that working extensive overtime is an intrinsic part of making 'art'.

Speaking at a GDC talk in San Fransisco today, Cheng said: "I find it disingenuous when game developers claim that the reason they work a whole load of overtime is because they are trying to do something new. To hide behind Ďartí as a shield for poor process is wrong. You will screw with future developments by taking this approach."

Indeed, while producing mediocre games is a quick way to sink a company, "employing an unsustainable development style will suffocate one over the long term," said Cheng.

He explained that, following a difficult development process during the creation of one of the company's earlier titles, Shank , he made a promise to himself that he would never put himself or his team through crunch again. "I realised that not only do we need to build great games but we also need to find a way to do this without ruining our lives in the process," he said.

Kleiís founder said that, "while there is no template to making games, there are theories we can use." He argued that the greatest waste of time in game development is when teams expend energy on building the wrong thing. He likened the process to a team chopping down trees in a forest. Teams need someone to climb to the top of a tree and check whether you're in the right forest. "Often we don't want to cut work we've already done, even if it's wrong, due to the sunk cost."

Cheng encouraged developers to focus their energy on figuring out whether they are in the wrong forest as soon as possible, else risk building upon bad assumptions. "The key to this is to create a theory, test the theory, learn from failure, make adjustments and repeat," he said. "Many talks examine how you need to be able to cut features from your game to make the development more manageable. The way in which you know what to cut is through a solid theory that youíve tested your assumptions on."

This process proved successful for Klei, who built Mark of the Ninja in 16 months with minimal overtime for the team. "Creating processes that allow us to create art is the key to successful game development," he concluded. "When you have good processes you are more free to think about new things because you are not just flailing around not knowing where you are headed."

For Gamasutra's full GDC 2013 event coverage this week, check out the official GDC 2013 event page.

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Jorge Garcia Celorio
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Great comment and insight by Cheng. I have noticed that there's been a considerable increase in articles regarding the negative impact of crunch time. My question is--how come the industry starts to realize this under a "systematic" lens after 40 years of videogame production? When making art and developing projects, the best ideas and implementations come when the team feels motivated and fresh. I'm extremely glad that independent studios are sharing positive notions about development processes.

Stefan Maton
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Hi Jorge,

I think that this is starting now because this generation of managers is actually the generation which has already suffered from this. They have been at least 15 years in business and they know what developers have gone through.

Also, there's a bigger awareness of "youngsters" in regards to this issue. They have been "alerted" by the increasing number of reports and complaints by developers and how they are/have been treated.

I've been working in and outside the gaming industry. And call it luck, but I rarely to never encountered such stressfull situations as I encountered in the gaming industry. The planning is more careful and the discussions are more targetted risk management. And rarely they have to cope with a problem called "fun".

James Yee
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Honestly I think crunch is a failure of management and expectations. Basically marketing/management forces folks to release something before it's time or give an artificial deadline and then people have to scramble to keep up. :(

Which I find is funny because it's kind of the opposite/same as working for NASA/Government. We constantly have new "improvements" and "fixes" as well as whole new "systems" that are "coming" but then we never hear from them again. Then seemingly at the last random moment they seem to slap something together and we have to figure out how to make it work. :|

Mike Ferguson
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After having worked at a company that required at least 80 hours of crunch time in the last two weeks of every single 2 month milestone (and is no longer in operation), I can vouch that he is 100% correct about the negative effects and that the practice as a whole is completely unnecessary with a properly managed team and product.

I will never ever work for another company that requires mandatory overtime and neither should anyone else. It is simply a bad management practice left over from the bad old days of game development.

I will occasionally work extra hours because I have pride in my work and want to make sure the product is the best it can be, not because it is required. The difference there is vast.

Mandatory crunch is a sign that your project managers cannot control scope or you are working for a bad company. In either case, get out before it causes you undue stress or health issues. Life is too short to shorten it even further over a game.

Mikael Segedi
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The Game industry is completely retarded. This is the basics of working in any project. Test every feature from start to avoid wasting money and time. I learned this the first year of my Game Design studies. I honestly lost the whole respect for the industry when I started working for it. A lot of Leading people in the industry don't have a clue how to lead a team. Shame on you

By the way great article. Glad their are people out their that know what they are doing.

Chris Proctor
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Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite both receiving critical acclaim supports crunch in the eyes of the games industry. This is a problem.