Avoiding Crunch Mode: How Studios Can Beat Burnout
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Crunch mode — working long days and nights to meet a deadline — has been a signature of game development since a 16-bit ping-pong ball bounced between two paddles. Lately, however, it seems every couple of years another game studio is thrust into the spotlight over crunch malpractice and backlash. Working with games studios during my career, I’ve seen the impact of crunch on development teams and it’s not pretty. Fortunately, I’ve also seen more studios working on ways to address it, which I’ll share below.
Side Effects of Crunch
First, let’s look at the troubling side effects of crunch mode — whether you’re a developer, producer, or studio head. There’s the human and ethical aspect. Job burnout brings stress, fatigue, sadness, vulnerability to illness, and potential alcohol or substance abuse. Great games get to market in spite of – not because of – crunch. We should prevent this from happening in the first place by addressing the root causes.
Why Crunch Happens
There are probably numerous interrelated root causes. In my estimation, they are a combination of business model, passion, studio culture, planning methods, tradition, and even type of work. These elements layer together and create a perfect storm.
The game development industry, historically, has heavy holiday deadlines. We are seeing major shifts in how games are shipped and developed (the rise of gaming as a service, for example). But the typical studio model, the Gold Master model, still figures largely into how games are made. Unfortunately, overtime in those last weeks or months is how teams meet deadlines. Also, game developers have a great passion for what they do in general and can be very willing to work overtime. Then there is the issue of “work invisibility”: while a construction worker would not be expected to work 100 hours in a week, it is not always obvious when knowledge workers – like game developers – are at their desks crazy long hours.
Further, development studios want publishers to see how well they are keeping to their deadlines. And it becomes a habit, a tradition, the new normal.
Inadequate Project Planning
In a recent discussion, an executive producer said that project management is often considered a dirty word in game development. Few enter the game development industry to manage timelines and scope. The result is that, for many, there can be a lack of proficiency in project management. Teams crunch because they scope in more work than time allows or because they underestimated the work involved. It takes solid project planning and management to get to the finish line sustainably.
So, how might game studios resolve, reduce, or address the root causes above? What follows is my top list of practical solutions, based on observing what some of the games studios I’ve worked with have done over the years.
Stop studio sleepovers. Formal studio policies — like making sure that team members physically leave the studio at the end of the day and take proper breaks — give concrete weight to an important priority: that the long-term health and well-being of the staff is more important than meeting a date.
Speed up the move toward continuous development. The gaming-as-a-service (GaaS) is not only providing better revenue streams for studios, but it is also ensuring games can be continuously improved. Even if a game is not released using the freemium model, this approach to building a game — shipping a minimum viable product (MVP) that is then improved continuously — distributes the pressure to deliver across a timeframe that can more easily support it. In contrast, the traditional Gold Master model puts all that pressure on a single epic milestone. The sooner teams move toward continuous development, the better.
Have rock-solid project management. Good project managers and producers know that “delivering according to plan” is not the goal. The goal, rather, is to “produce a game that delivers on its vision.” Even for studios primarily using Agile ways of working, it takes true skill to balance scope, velocity, team size, costs, quality, backlogs, and all the other pillars of project management. Having the best tools and skills to handle this helps to keep teams from over-committing. It also lets them focus on what’s important: adding maximum fun to the game.
Break down big releases. Instead of limiting planning to what’s at the end of the road, studios can look at the next immediate step. When there is one major release, break it down to smaller releases. A typical example is to release on a fixed cadence with a fixed number of sprints per release. By fixing time in smaller, more manageable chunks, teams learn early on how to accurately scope down work for each minor release.
Clarify what doesn’t need to be done. Teams need to have a lot of autonomy over how they do their work. Otherwise, you risk interrupting creativity and breaking flow. Still, it’s important to ensure that their work contributes to the vision of the game. So, in addition to clarifying the vision and goal —and what needs to be done before a release, it is good practice to also clarify what does not have to be done. Every game has areas that do not need more polish.
Bringing It All Together
Yes, crunch mode is ingrained in the tradition of game development. Sure, there are times when workload heightens and the only way to bring it down is to add a few extra hours to your week. But will studios that enforce crunch survive in the long run? Instead, a studio should be a place the team loves coming to, one they happily leave at the end of each day knowing they delivered the best work they could. That not only sounds like a great employer, but it sounds like one that will also be successful, too.