As more gaming brands look to eliminate crunching, we’re exploring the causes and consequences of crunch time in games development and how to prevent it.
Crunching isn’t a new concept in games development. For decades, high-profile games have been tarnished by reports of excessively long work hours, unpaid overtime, and ‘stress casualties’.
Some of these ‘crunch games’ - like Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, Fortnite, and Fallout 4 - have gone on to critical acclaim and commercial success. Others - such as Overkill’s The Walking Dead and Bioware’s Anthem - have failed to deliver.
If crunching in games development doesn’t guarantee good results, why does it continue to be a prevailing trait in games development?
According to the IGDA, crunch had been decreasing year on year. But their 2021 Developer Satisfaction Survey has found it’s on the rise, causing them to call for decisive leadership to control and reverse this detrimental trend.
Just as DEI policies are necessary to protect our talent, so are anti-crunch policies, particularly when we are seeing record profits. We must come together to improve our industry and ensure it is supportive of the wonderful creatives who fuel it. Change from the top is necessary to implement many of these improvements.
Wondering what the big deal is? You might have internalized the crunch culture. Many developers enter the gaming industry knowing it has a reputation for terrible work-life balance - but accept it as a fair price for following their passion.
However, crunching has damaging consequences for game quality, developers’ health, and brands’ reputation - and both sector insiders and the gaming community are beginning to push back against crunch culture.
If you want happier developers producing better games, here’s what you need to know about the causes and consequences of crunching.
Crunching is a period of elevated workload where developers work significant overtime to deliver a game on schedule. Crunch time typically happens before a game’s launch or other major milestone.
Crunch is distinguished from typical overtime by its intensity and duration. During crunch, games developers can work 60 to 80 hours a week - and that can continue for weeks and months. In the most extreme cases, years.
The Washington Post describes crunching in games development as ‘endless and uncompensated overtime’, capturing the two key features of crunch that make it feel particularly exploitative. Not only is crunch time uncapped, but it is also often unpaid.
Research from the University of Gothenberg identified four types of games development crunching.
Whilst research from the University of Oregon describes another type of crunch - the ‘good crunch’.
‘Good crunch’ is often used to justify crunch in developers that aren’t willing to address a toxic work culture. Something the academics describe as creating ‘cruel optimism [that] perpetuates unsustainable labor practices.’
In their 2021 Developer Satisfaction Survey, the International Games Developer Association found more developers complaining about crunch than in previous years.
While the game industry has overall done well during the COVID-19 pandemic, we saw nearly double the number of developers reporting they had crunched recently. This sudden loss of progress compared to the past trend of crunch decreasing year over year is likely caused by inefficiencies and delays caused by work from home and mental health challenges caused by the pandemic.
Across all respondents:
Among those who experienced crunch, 58% of employees, 64% of freelancers, and 63% of the self-employed had crunched more than twice in the past two years. This figure is higher than the 2019 DSS where about 35% of respondents engaged in crunch.
During crunch or periods of long hours
Of those crunching, some received incentives and additional payments. However
There is a range of causes of crunching in game development. These can be internal - such as cultural issues and poor management - and external - such as client demands and immovable deadlines. Since the first step to addressing and eliminating crunch culture is to understand why it happens, here are nine common causes of crunching in games development.
Developers often face fixed deadlines. Games need to be ready by a certain date - for example, having a demo ready in time to preview to the press at a major game industry convention, or launching to tie in with a film franchise or capture holiday season shoppers.
Other times, studios are hired by other companies - such as EA or Nintendo - to make the game. As part of the contract, the studio will have milestone deadlines where certain deliverables are due. Failure to meet those milestones breaks the contract and can result in the publisher withholding some payment.
In this context, faced with potentially dire financial and commercial consequences if they miss a deadline, studios use crunching to deliver.
‘Rigid contracts introduce what’s called the iron triangle in project management, where you have a set budget, scope, and schedule, and the development team has to deliver within those parameters. Typically the work hours are the most flexible piece in that triangle’ explains Johanna Weststar, co-founder of the IGDA’s Quality of Life research group and an associate professor specializing in labor relations at Western University in London, Ontario.
‘No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do. No one on that team is interested in producing an inferior product. My heart bleeds for this team precisely BECAUSE they are brilliant, talented individuals out to create something great.’ EA: The Human Story
All games dev studios are motivated by creating the best game they can. They want to go to market with an enjoyable product that is going to delight players and deliver commercial and critical success. So when a game is nearing delivery - but the beta is getting bad feedback or experiencing bugs - they may use crunch to correct it.
However, even crunching can’t stop delays when a game gets stuck in development hell. And in some sectors of the gaming community, passions run particularly high. Disappointed fans can be vocal and vitriolic if studios announce a delay to highly anticipated games. When Cyberpunk 2077 was delayed, senior games designer Andrzej Zawadaki used Twitter to ask fans to stop sending death threats to their developers.
These gaming community expectations can deter brands from seeking extensions to deadlines, preferring to crunch rather than face trial-by-Twitter and other trolls.
The highly competitive, deadline-driven culture in gaming is hard to change. The combination of industry standards, corporate practices, and peer influence makes long hours a norm.
The gaming industry thrives on a predominantly young male workforce with fewer personal commitments - typically a highly driven workforce, passionate about their job and ambitious to progress their career. As a result, they may be happier to work long hours than other demographics - especially if they see peers putting in long hours too. ‘Employee passion can lead companies to exploit those who give it 110%’ says one Reddit contributor.
In some studios, there’s a lot of internal pressure to crunch. Various CEOs of triple-A studios have come under criticism for publicly normalizing the use of crunches to get projects over the line on time. For example, in 2018, Rockstar’s cofounder, Dan Houser, had to quickly clarify his statement that Red Dead Redemption 2 had taken 100-hour weeks to create following an outcry about working conditions at the developer.
In this high-pressure culture, crunching can be hard to say no to.
‘The idea of “optional crunch” is nonsense,’ says Mike Bithell to Gaming Bible. ‘Bosses will say “If you’re passionate and you care about the team, you’ll stick around. If you want that promotion you’ll pull the extra hours.” So let’s call it what it is. It’s mandatory crunch.’
In the same interview, Eline Muijres of Mi’Pu’Mi Games concurs, saying ‘A lot of studios “ask” their employees to crunch but the employee is rarely in a position to say no without repercussions’.
According to The Washington Post, crunch has endured for so long in the games industry simply because it’s legal. In the US - some states excluded - computer professionals earning a certain salary or higher are exempt from overtime laws. This permits companies to not pay developers for any extra hours in the office. So when a problem arises, the easiest and cheapest solution is to crunch.
In some areas, unions are emerging to challenge the crunch culture. In the UK, for example, IWGB Game Workers represents and advocates for game workers’ rights including an ‘end to institutionalized practice of excessive/unpaid overtime’.
New monetization strategies in gaming have also seen a shift in crunching. When games were boxed products, crunch was confined to the run-up to release in stores.
Now, games are distributed electronically and can be updated regularly to add more value to players. They can also use microtransactions to monetize games further - such as buying level-ups or customizing avatars.
As such, new content is commercially highly desirable. This means crunching can become a more regular occurrence - shifting from ‘final crunch’ to ‘continual crunch’. Instead of being ‘overtime’, long hours become ‘all the time’.
In games development, project changes are frequent and disruptive. Reasons can include changes to game design, mercurial management, client demands, creative differences, ego clashes, and bad feedback from beta testing.
Feature creep can be a major cause of crunching because it involves adding new features that weren’t in the original project scope. One designer, quoted in University of Gothenberg research, said ‘It’s quite common that you add features too late in the process which will add to a lot of redoing, bug fixing, and so on.’
Other games get to testing and get negative feedback that needs to be urgently addressed. ‘Sometimes [games need] a really big design change. Maybe the game wasn’t fun and they needed to change the way a feature or maybe even an entire system works,’ explains Jason W. Bay in Games Industry Career Guide’s podcast episode on game developer work-life balance.
Managerial issues, ineffective techniques, poor time management, and planning problems are common causes of crunch. Having an unclear or excessive scope at the beginning of the project can doom a project team to months of late nights and compensatory pizzas they struggle to make up time.
Schedules can be hard to forecast in games development. Workflows and teams are complex, projects can be contingent on third-party deliverables, and creative processes aren’t always predictable. As a result, a development team can easily miscalculate the time a milestone will take to deliver.
Poor project planning methodology, a lack of adequate project and resource planning tools, and a failure to conduct retrospectives can limit a studio’s ability to forecast schedules accurately.
However, some studios are also guilty of agreeing to schedules they know in advance are unrealistic, safe in the knowledge they can require staff to crunch to meet them.
‘It kind of feels as though it is expected, it is built into the schedule that there will be periods of crunch where people are doing 50 to 60 hours allowing them to get maybe an extra man-day, two or three man-days out of everyone per week or per month,’ says one developer interviewed by University of Gothenberg researchers.
Closely linked to poor project planning and time management is resource management. Resource management is the process of scheduling, monitoring, and managing staff to deliver the best outcomes - for your project and your people. Ideally, your team shouldn’t be scheduled higher than 80% capacity.
Two of the major consequences of crunching are employee burnout and the detrimental effect this has on outputs. Resource management is about managing their time so that they’re not exhausted and overutilized - and can bring A-game creativity and coding to your project. It also creates contingency time dealing with unforeseen circumstances without it derailing your entire project plan.
Better planning means fewer delays and less crunching. This results in a happier workforce and higher-quality outputs. Which, in turn, delights the gaming community while protecting your resources and reputation.
Even the best-laid plans can be derailed by unexpected forces. You may lose a key resource to a sickness bug, or perhaps your whole team will succumb. Or perhaps a key player resigns, leaving you with a lengthy recruitment process to replace them.
If your project plan is already based on achieving more than 100% from your development team, the disruption is hard to absorb without crunch time.
Whilst you can’t plan for the unexpected, you can build time into your project plan to deal with it.
‘[The industry needs] better production plans with more leeway and buffers to absorb unexpected problems. Every plan should have buffers for sickness and vacation,’ Eline Muijres, Producer at Mi’Pu’Mi Games, talking to Gaming Bible.
Now you know the causes, what about the consequences of crunching? Numerous studies highlight significant negative effects of crunch in the gaming industry - from poor quality products and stressed out staff, to reputational damage and recruitment issues. Here are three damaging consequences of crunching you’re going to want to avoid.
Crunching can lead to physical, emotional, and personal pressures that undermine your developers’ ability to deliver great work - and put your production schedule at high risk. Burnout is known to reduce productivity and increase time off work. And, left unchecked, it results in high voluntary turnover in professional service firms. All of which is bad news for your business.
BioWare is a name that has become synonymous with crunching and the term ‘stress casualties’. In an article for Kotaku.com Jason Schreier, author of Blood, Sweat, and Pixels, quotes a BioWare employee who says ‘a stress casualty at BioWare means someone had such a mental breakdown from the stress they’re just gone for one to three months. Some come back, some don’t.’
Burnout isn’t new in the games development sector. In 2015, Clint Hocking, creative director on Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory blogged about working 80-hour weeks for most of the game’s two-year development cycle, stating it gave him memory loss and ‘brain damage’.
It’s clear from these sector horror stories that can have a devastating effect on employee health.
Not only is that a significant ethical concern for an employer, it is also massively disruptive to production. That casualty is likely to have been working at a lower capacity for a significant period of time - and then their resource is lost to the business entirely for an unknown duration.
Furthermore, there is an impact on the remaining team, who will be affected by the loss of their colleague emotionally and practically, potentially picking up the extra work themselves. This can start a domino of further casualties.
Aside from the ethical issues around burnout and exploiting the goodwill of an eager workforce, crunching can seriously undermine product quality too.
‘Crunch ultimately results in slower and worse game production. You’re going to have a better experience of games if the industry treats its staff better.’ Mike Bithell
Some of the well-documented outcomes of burnout include reduced mental acuity, difficulties making decisions, and a higher propensity to make mistakes. As a result, creating a game using crunching can be counter-productive. You’re working hard to resolve bugs and deliver quality, but using people in the worst possible state to achieve that goal.
According to the University of Gothenburg:
‘Crunch time itself can contribute to late deliveries and low-quality software, making it a vicious cycle. Sleep deprivation can significantly reduce developers’ ability to make rational design decisions and produce high-quality software. Working between 60 and 90 hours per week also has a grave effect on the employee’s personal relationships and mental health. These reasons should be incentives for the industry to want to change this practice.’
The now-famous blog post, EA: The Human Story, highlights the futility of challenging crunch culture back in 2014 - as well as the cycle of exhaustion and errors it creates.
‘The current mandatory hours are 9am to 10pm - seven days a week - with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30pm). This averages out to an eighty-five hour work week. Complaints that these once more extended hours - combined with the team's existing fatigue - would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.’
More recently, the poor performance of BioWare’s Anthem has been laid at the feet of a culture that requires ‘lengthy crunch hours and lots of exhaustion’. One developer observed ‘I’ve never heard of people needing to take time off because they were so stressed out. But then that kind of spread like wildfire throughout the team.’
The public is beginning to realize and reject the impact of culture in games development. For every Twitter troll threatening developers for delays, there are others sending support. There’s a growing appreciation that good work takes time, and delaying release can result in better games and higher working standards in the sector.
Mike Bithell says this sort of community movement sends a message to publishers, which can have a very real impact in developers’ lives.
‘People want to avoid the bad PR of getting a story out there in the press about crunch. Big developers have come under fire for that and we’ve seen them change their approach to these problems as a result.’
It isn’t just your brand with the public and gaming community that can become tarnished by crunching. Your brand as an employer can suffer too, making it harder to replace the staff you lose to voluntary turnover.
A trawl of Reddit or other community boards quickly reveals a workforce ready to turn their back on employers that crunch. If you think your developers are all quietly knuckling down - or even enjoying the challenge - think again.
‘You don’t have to put up with it. Just leave. It’s incredibly expensive to replace someone and that’s the only way the managers will learn their lesson… When the studio got *****, I spent zero time trying to change it and all my time trying to find a better gig,’ says one Reddit user.
Savvy studios know they’re only as good as the people they have and are taking action to boost their brand with candidates. Eidos and Young Horses were two studios reported to be implementing a four-day working week last year. This is in line with broader trends towards better work-life balance following global talent disruption during ‘The Great Resignation’. Large studios could be advised to follow suit.
While many in the sector accept crunching as a depressing inevitability, it doesn’t have to be.
The simplest solution is to reject crunching as an option and look for other ways to relieve pressure in the final stages of game development. For example, extending project deadlines or reducing the scope of game deliverables. But you should also take steps to mitigate against getting to crunch point in the first place.
Academics and sector experts agree that poor management can be a major cause of crunching. Using appropriate tools and techniques for project and resource management can reduce the likelihood you’ll need to crunch - in all but exceptional circumstances .
‘This is a solvable problem,’ says Mike Bithell, speaking to Gaming Bible. ‘We can manage our teams better, we can add contingency and time budget to avoid crunch, and prepare for unforeseen circumstances.’
If you’re reading this article, we’ll assume you’re already on the noble quest to quash crunch culture at your studio. So let’s look at some actionable tips to help you - focusing on project planning, project management, and resource management best practices for games development.
The easiest way to prevent crunching is to reject it entirely. When you commit to a culture where you can’t resort to crunching, you’ll have more of an incentive to find ways to prevent it.
You’ll have to commit to operational efficiency and project controls to address the different causes of crunch - like poor management, feature creep, and capricious (and costly) design changes. Whilst this isn’t easy, it’s worthwhile.
Better project and resource management can reduce costs and delays, and get the highest ROI from your investment in staff. Plus, preventing burnout can deliver better game outcomes and reduce costs associated with stressed-out staff. And having a reputation as a crunch-free zone may help attract and retain talent, as more games dev workers reject the notion of compulsory, unpaid overtime.
By planning and managing projects more effectively, you should find that the need to crunch is greatly reduced. However, you may still need to take action to mitigate against crunching if your project plans are derailed by the unexpected.
In the ‘triple constraint’ of project management - budget, scope, and schedule - work hours are the most flexible thing to move. Especially when there’s no financial cost associated. When you commit to eliminating crunching, you need to decide which other part of that triangle you’re willing to move instead.
There’s an old saying that you can deliver services fast, cheap, and well - but only ever two of the three. Decide where your studio can compromise if needed. For example, extending project deadlines, moving milestones, reducing the scope of game deliverables, or bringing in additional staff. More on this later.
Capacity is the amount of work you can expect to deliver with the resources and hours available to you. You can’t plan a project or prevent crunch without understanding this essential metric.
If you’re regularly relying on crunching, it may be a sign that you overestimate the capacity of your team. This results in them being overutilized, overstretched, and under pressure. Learning how to forecast capacity accurately will help you
Ideally, you should aim to schedule work to a maximum of 80% capacity. This leaves 20% of your team’s time free for dealing with essentials - like emails or meetings - as well as the unexpected.
Capacity management is a delicate balancing act and one that’s hard to achieve when you’re manually crunching numbers in a dynamic environment.
With Runn, you can see real-time capacity and utilization at a glance - to understand team and individual capacity.
This might seem basic but it’s important to understand how to plan a project properly. Project management isn’t something we’re taught at school, so it’s often a skills gap that businesses need to address.
You’ll need to
These steps will ensure your project plan is realistic and achievable - without the need for crunching. It will also ensure you optimize your resources to achieve the best utilization and ROI, to protect your profit margins.
Within your project plan and schedule, remember to leave a buffer for the unexpected - like a staff member is sick or a contingent part of the project is delayed. Otherwise, your best-laid plan will be easy to derail.
In Runn, you create projects intuitively and easily. Add milestones, create tasks, view and schedule resources, and assign tasks to them. See how your project decisions impact capacity, utilization, and budget to test different scenarios and formulate the optimum plan.
You’ll be more likely to create an accurate budget and timetable for your project if you use past data to inform your forecasts.
This can simply involve looking at how long similar past projects took, what resources they required, and using that information to work out roughly how long your new project might take. (There’s a risk that you haven’t been collecting this data in the past. We recommend you start collecting it now.)
You might have more detailed data available. For example, tracking projected-vs-actual project schedules and spend. This data can help you understand where your forecasting has been inaccurate and surface some of the causes, so you can improve both your predictions and project management in future.
In Runn, you can see previous project data - including projected-vs-actual time and spend - in your dashboard.
The main benefit of a realistic and accurate project plan is that it makes projects easier to monitor and manage. With a clear critical path - the sequence of essential activities that need to happen for a project to be completed - and a clear timeline, you can quickly see if things are going wrong. And this means you can quickly take action to correct things.
For example, if you see that a key deliverable in the critical path has been delayed, you might reassign key resources to other tasks rather than have them waiting for the deliverable to materialize. Or if you can see that a particular task is taking longer than expected, you can bring in more resources to help or reduce the scope of that task to prevent it from running over schedule.
Over the course of a project, unchecked issues and disruption can snowball, cumulatively causing delays, and resulting in grueling final crunches. A more dynamic approach to monitoring and management throughout the project helps prevent this.
So what if your project does come up against a major issue? For example, the client wants to introduce an expected new feature. Or a headstrong stakeholder decides they simply don’t like how things are developing. How do you decide whether you can accommodate the change?
With a change request process and with scenario planning.
A change request process will protect you against capricious decision-making. It is simply a formal, centralized process that assesses change requests on their merits. Requests are then either accepted, deferred, or rejected. Accepted changes are prioritized and scheduled accordingly. It ensures that decisions are well thought through, their cost-benefit assessed, and their impact is understood BEFORE you commit to them.
As part of the change request process, you can perform scenario planning. Scenario planning is an unbiased and data-informed way to make project decisions.
You can model different scenarios and immediately understand the impact on essential metrics like capacity, utilization, and budget. From here, you’re in a much better position to plan any additional work or to push back against it.
In Runn, it’s easy to model different scenarios. Simply set up a ‘tentative project’ and adjust the parameters - dates, deadlines, resources - to work out the best way forward. Once it’s agreed, simply toggle it over to a ‘firm’ project and get to work!
Effective resource management is about optimizing how you use your resources for maximum ROI. It’s about using the right people on the right tasks at the right time - to get the best project outcomes and the biggest bang for your buck.
Games development uses a highly skilled and multidisciplinary team. You call on staff with different skills and seniority at different stages of development. Savvy project managers will use resource management to match the best available resources to the tasks in your critical path.
In crunch terms, resource management means you’re not waiting around for someone to become available because you can find someone equivalent who’s available now. Or if something unexpected crops you, you can easily surface capacity with a relevant resource to take that on. It all helps prevent work from piling up and delays from becoming problematic.
To manage resources effectively, you need:
As you may have already guessed, Runn software provides all this and more.
Remember the ‘triple constraint’ we keep talking about? That three-way shootout between time, cost, and deliverables where something has to give? Do you ask to extend the game deadline? Do you throw more people at the project?
Resource management is where you can start making those decisions confidently, based on data and real-time modeling.
There are two main resource management techniques that games developers need to know: resource leveling and resource smoothing. Both are used to relieve project conflicts by adjusting project parameters. This minimizes overutilization, capacity issues, resource clashes, and crunching.
According to the Project Management Body of Knowledge from the Project Management Institute:
In Runn, its simple to model how these two techniques can help relieve project problems. You can easily see capacity, utilization, and availability - now and over the next week, month or quarter.
Color-coded charts make it easy to spot potential crunch points where there will be more demand than capacity for particular individuals, teams, or types of resource (e.g., Java developers). This can inform your next steps - whether that’s recruiting more C++ pros permanently, bringing in a quick-fix contractor for a week or so, or reviewing the schedule to make it more realistic.
Whichever route you choose, you know it will mean better project outcomes as staff are less stretched, less stressed, and more able to focus, create and collaborate effectively.
With so much at stake commercially - and a prevailing culture to correct - it’s understandable that some software brands are still struggling to strike the work-life balance for employees.
However, the evidence shows that crunching doesn’t result in better products. In some cases, it actually undermines quality. Which is why many game developers are looking for ways to avoid crunching in future.
It’s important to remember that crunching doesn’t happen in ALL studios. In developer communities, there are plenty of gaming professionals encouraging new entrants to the industry, stating that they’ve never experienced crunching or that the problem has been overblown in the media.
However - with a growing number of respondents to IGDA’s DSS survey reporting that they’ve had to crunch - the sector needs to recommit to better work-life balance, more sustainable practices, and fair employment conditions for its dedicated workforce. Run can help.
We hope you’ve found this guide to crunching in games development helpful. At Runn - like everyone - we love to game.
But we don’t want anyone to suffer for the sake of our enjoyment. That’s why we’re on a mission to bring better working practices to the games industry.
We’re working with several studios to improve their project and resource management - and would love to work with you too.
Let’s make gaming fun for EVERYONE by eliminating crunching, one perfectly planned project at a time.
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