Sunday, August 16, 2015

Can crunch ever be fixed in the games industry?

Crunch and the long term view

One of the puzzling attitudes I've seen in the games industry is companies talking about focusing on long term success, yet not taking a firm position against crunch. This doesn't make much sense to me. The only coherent argument in support of crunch I've seen (that it can provide a short boost in productivity that's useful for meeting a critical deadline), is clearly a short term benefit. No game developer who enjoys the respect and admiration of their fans are in such esteemed position because 10 years earlier they hit a deadline or kept their original release date. They are respected because they put out consistently high quality products. It's why the "we'll release it when it's done" attitude works. In the long run, nobody remembers a game that slipped, but everyone remembers a disappointing game.
Anyone thinking about what it would take to create a strong team that is equipped for long term success ought to give special consideration to crunch. Like other easily measurable short term performance boosts, crunch can and does have hard to measure long term negative side effects. There is no formula I know of to model its long term effect of driving away some of the most valuable developers - the ones who will never be happy obsessing over a single hobby and throwing their entire life away for certain periods of time, no matter how much they love games.  
For managers who are genuinely committed to long term results, this kind of dilemma (do we encourage crunch for short term gains, at the risk of long term loss?) is a no brainer. They never risk any long term negative side effect, no matter how enticing the short term gain might seem. They do so even at the face of missing data about the potential long term side effect, against readily available and very measurable data about the short term benefit. As long as the team can survive without the short term benefit, the choice for anybody focusing on the long term is easy. The crunch problem then becomes clearer: many developers have no choice but to force themselves to crunch, because they can't afford not to. Being in a relationship with a publisher that holds all the power to fund and make last minute requests, for example, is such a situation. Working for a public company, where the investors typically have a very short term view and will punish any date slips is another.
The question of whether crunch can ever be fixed cannot be held in isolation from such pathological but very common situations that force teams to take a short term view. But the first step for making any progress whatsoever against crunch is to address the myth that good games cannot be made without it.


Eliminating Crunch is hard - but not impossible
"What I'm saying is that games - I'm talking about non-sequels, non-imitative games - are inherently unknowable, unpredictable, unmanageable things. A game development process with no crunch? I'm not sure that's possible unless you're working on a ripoff of another game or a low-ambition sequel."
This kind of thinking is rampant among the developers who have been well trained over the years to uncritically reject any thought that crunch might actually be a problem that can be fixed. Imagine a young developer going to work for such a studio as their first job in the industry. What they are hearing from senior management, perhaps including industry legends like Spector, is that crunch is a feature, not a bug. Making games (the *good* games, at least) is impossible without it. Watch the logic in the above quote, because it's typical. It's implying that if you don't crunch, you must be making some terrible game: a low ambition sequel, or cloning someone else's game. Who in their right mind would even suggest eliminating crunch in such an environment?
And then it gets even worse. Trapped inside the echo chamber where everyone is quick to point out how unavoidable crunch is, some brave souls go even further to prove their dedication to the cause. They start questioning whether crunch is such a bad thing to begin with. Surely it must have *some* advantages. For example, many developers agree that "working through adversity helps bring team members closer together". Going through hard times, they claim, creates long lasting bonds. It's easy to fall for such absurdities when you're working on such a team: of course when you spend every waking hour with other people, it's possible you'll get to know them really well and maybe even like some of them more (just as you may also dislike other people you don't get along with but are forced to work with all day long). That doesn't make the idea that torture is the only or most efficient way to bond with your team any less silly. Another common suggestion is that "crunching in small doses can actually stoke the creative fires", ignoring both that crunch most of the time ends up being chaotic firefighting where nobody has time to even think of anything creative, and the fact that all sorts of research indicates that creativity works in the exact opposite way.
So basically, anyone who would dare speak up against crunch in such teams, would sound like someone who doesn't care about whether the game they're making is any good, doesn't care about his team mates, and doesn't really want to be too productive or creative.
But it's not just many development teams that fall into that mode of thinking: it's outside observers, too. The press has a lot of incentive to contribute to this impression that crunch is unavoidable if you want to make good games, or even any kind of games. Teams that experience unreasonable crunch often are targeted and exposed to become public spectacles, disaster stories not for everyone else to learn from, but to entertain, all the while pointing out how ingrained the practice is in game development culture. From this Kotaku article:
"From multimillion-dollar blockbusters like Call of Duty to niche RPGs like Trails, just about every video game in history is the net result of countless overtime hours, extra weekends, and free time sacrificed for the almighty deadline"
"Just about every video game in history"! Not sure how you even fact check a statement like this, but maybe the thinking is that if it's attention grabbing and dramatic, it must also be true.
Do you remember the last time Kotaku or any other press covered a well-made game, focusing on how smooth things went and crunch was minimal? Neither do I. To be fair, that article would probably be extremely boring even to me.  
And in this way, the myth that "crunch is here to stay" perpetuates. After all, even when those junior people become senior many years later, and after having put in a large amount of overtime themselves, it would be very uncomfortable to admit that all that pain may have been for nothing. For the ones who did enjoy the pain, it's even worse - they would never let anyone question their badge of honour.
I don't think most developers are perpetuating the "crunch is unavoidable" myth on purpose in order to maintain the crunch status quo. They are instead generalizing certain limitations that have applied to them for the entire time they've been making games. Some of these limitations do make crunch very hard or even impossible to avoid - i.e. hard deadlines, enforced via live-or-die funding rules by occasionally unreasonable publishers who are happy to change requirements just before such a deadline.
So these people are basically arguing that, because their entire development career has been subject to such limitations, there *hasn't been* and there can *never be* any process that creates good games and avoids crunch.
Why is it so hard to understand that it's perfectly possible for a team to create an extraordinary game with zero crunch? What is it exactly about the well-known uncertainty and need for iteration in games that makes crunch required? Why can't we instead embrace that uncertainty with a mix of more flexible milestones, longer development cycles and better complexity management? What's the inherent factor that guarantees there can never be a disciplined team that can schedule more time and deliver a game at the same high quality that so many teams have already delivered with crunch? And what's the inherent factor that would forever prevent all investors from believing in such teams and funding them a bit extra for the additional amount of time? There are no such inherent factors. It doesn’t matter that many developers have never worked with such disciplined teams, or such long term view investors - they do exist, and will hopefully become less of an exception as the industry matures.   


The small first step against crunch

The very sad part of this entire situation is that it would take people exactly like Spector to fix crunch. While outside observers and investors keep being told by both prominent developers and the press that all good games require crunch, they will not only keep parroting those statements, they will also have no tolerance for developers that are up front with them about the inherent unknowns in game development. They will keep seeing any pitch that includes uncertainty as a sign of an incompetent team, or at least a team that's not as good as those other "better", more “confident” developers who promise better timelines and then risk killing themselves to achieve them.
While I don't see the established industry at large making progress against crunch this way, other strong forces of change bring alternatives for developers who want to make good games but will no longer tolerate an environment that encourages crunch.
15 years ago, by far the most common way of publishing games made things very hard even for teams that wanted to choose the long term benefits of not crunching. Traditional publishers had all the leverage to dictate features and release dates. They would withhold funding when a milestone was missing features or if they decided they were not implemented to a high quality. Such funding was often necessary to keep the development team afloat. It's understandable that in such an environment, developers would see all this "long term negative" crunch discussion as hot air, even if they had time to think about it amidst all the crunching to meet the next deadline.
While similar situations still happen to a large degree today, the digital distribution trends have made it more feasible for teams to skip publishers completely and rely directly on their fans to sustain themselves. Sometimes they are self-funded (lowering cost of entry is another powerful force that assists with this), or they may work with investors who have more tolerance for uncertainty (because it's much more evident in the kinds of games these teams typically work on). Because they are completely out of the spotlight, they're not subject to the same outside pressures to make a specific date or have a presence at a conference. These teams have more freedom to focus on the long term and are more likely to attack and fix the forces that make crunch unavoidable, if they choose to. Who knows, maybe if they start scaling up and can maintain these good practices, maybe the big guys would start noticing.
If you're interested in fighting crunch today, there's a small change you can start with. If you've fallen prey to the myth that crunch is unavoidable, get out of it. Whenever you see someone talking about crunch as if it's some constant of the universe that can't be changed, point out they're over generalizing their particular situation. When you see someone bragging about the fact that they crunched, and how it was an absolutely crucial part of their success that nobody else can ever possibly meet unless they also torture themselves, tell them to meet more people. Tell yourself, and every supporter of "crunch is impossible to fix" that if they must, they can replace "impossible" with "very hard". If you are in a management position, don't tell your team "this is how things are, making good games requires crunch, don't even bother trying to change it". Instead, put them in the right problem-solving frame of mind by telling them, "crunch is a very difficult problem to solve because of very strong forces at work. We will try to expose to you those forces as they happen, so you have the full picture. Like other very hard problems on the job, we hope you will help us fix it."
Of course, understanding that crunch *can* be fixed is only the first step. On future posts, I'll address in more detail factors that contribute to crunch becoming a necessity, and how teams can set themselves up to defend against them.