May 28, 2022

Is Crunch Inevitable? A Project Management Perspective.

Crunch isn’t really a good thing but is it necessary evil? We take a simplified look at how projects are managed to ask the question, is Crunch inevitable?

The concept of Crunch in video games has been a very hot topic of late but this article is here to ask the question, is crunch inevitable?

Crunch or Crunch time is the period during video game development whereby deadlines are met by extended working hours of the developers for a sustained period. Typically this is often in the weeks or months before the launch of a game. The practice is not new in the industry (nor indeed in others) but it has come under increased criticism over the last ten-fifteen years. The concept of crunch has once again come under the spotlight after it was revealed the Cyberpunk 2077 developer CD Projekt Red demanded employees work additional hours. This came after the studio previously declared there would be no mandatory crunch.

Crunch is a tough topic

Crunch is a contentious issue but there is mounting evidence from various sources that the life of a video game developer can be brutal. Industry burnout is very high. The job is rarely secure – there are lots of studios that push hard to get a game out only to then lay off those same game developers because they are no longer needed (if you want to see the extent of industry layoffs, check out this site here.

Of course, gaming isn’t unique in that respect. We are sure that many readers have worked above and beyond for themselves or their organisation, often because they want to do a good job. Sadly, we are sure that many out there have also faced redundancy. Or have very hard jobs. It is a complicated topic that touches on global employment laws, compensation, culture and many other facets that we couldn’t possibly cover in just one article.

Can you make games without crunch?

We want to look at one common assertion – that crunch is not avoidable. It has been said by several in the industry that crunch can seem inevitable. Obsidian CEO Feargus Urquhart was quoted as saying “”Why do I think it will always exist? Because, as game makers we create things. Creation is hard. I doubt that Einstein packed it up after 40 hours a week and I doubt that James Cameron puts in his eight and then turns in for the day.” Junction Point Studios founder Warren Spector explained “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”.

Key art for the outer worlds
Obisidan do make exceedingly good games…

We can’t wholly dismiss these points. A video game is a creative endeavour where the end result is not known at the beginning. It requires creativity, iteration, technical and hardware consideration. The end product is rarely something that can be planned at the start. So many games or pitches don’t make it past early pre-production. Whole games have been cancelled very far into development.

Games have to release

Games can’t remain in development forever. They need to release to recoup budgets and investment. Every single day that a game is in production costs a lot of money. Release dates have constraints on them. Does it need to come out for the Christmas period to be profitable? Or for a hardware launch? Let’s not forget that when one of these games does release it has to actually work. To succeed, it needs a level of quality. Unless you’re Bethesda. Then it’s a feature, not a bug.

With all these floating factors, how can a studio not crunch? What if you try to juggle everything and time just starts to slip? Doesn’t that make it…inevitable?

Project Management Triangle

Not necessarily. The above could be true of any project, game development or not. Simply put, these competing needs perfectly sum up the well known form of the project management triangle (or the Iron Triangle if you like to be dramatic).

You see any project is constrained by a triangle with a core centre:

1) Scope of the project – what you want it to do
2) Cost – how much will the project cost
3) Time – how long do you have to do it
4) What will be the quality given the above?

The concept is general but pretty simple. If you want to release a game with huuuge scope (i.e. does lots) really quickly, without compromising quality, it will cost you more. If you don’t care about quality as much, you could push that out quicker and cheaper. Or if you wanted to get something smaller in scope, the cost and time will be less. These elements are at constant war on any project.

Announcing our new studio… Any Button Gaming

Let’s imagine that we run a studio called Any Button Gaming. We bang heads together on an idea for a game. Our first step is some R&D to turn that idea into a working concept. We spend 6 months on one of our ideas and have got to a point where we need to sell the project to a publisher/investor to pay for it. We create our pitch. Behold Spooky Surveillance: Breakwind. It is a large open world third person shooter. It will have a 40 hour cinematic campaign with professional actors. The visuals will be AAA standard. It will have multiplayer with several modes. We think it will cost $80 million dollars based on the fact we have a team of 150 and we think development will take 3 years with this level of resource. Big Publisher PLC sees the monetization opportunity and BOOM we are greenlit!

Let’s pretend we understand what all this means…

Big Publisher PLC

To add complexity, Big Publisher PLC anticipates a gap in their release schedule that will sit in quarter 4 in 3 years and will be one of 2 tentpole releases for them that year. All very exciting, let’s make Spooky Surveillance: Breakwind the best third person shooter released in that quarter!

So what does our game have at this stage of development?

A game plan

We have:

The release schedule (time),
The people and resources (cost)
What the game will do (scope)
Assumed high quality in line with consumer expectation (Quality).

Let’s be clear, these are really lofty estimates. Such estimates come from experience, early expectations, optimism and sometimes plain guesswork. Regardless, they are needed to get the ball rolling and they are needed to measure against.

Sim City…

At all times, those 4 points will be scrapping over what takes priority. Let’s be all game dev simulator here and throw in some upsets. Our game studio, Any Button Gaming have nailed the scope and play tests fine but we have bought an engine from a bloke down the pub and it is taking forever to get to work. We have a clear plan but with the proposed cost, scope and quality we are going to miss the release schedule. What do we do?

Miss the release schedule?

Well, we can miss the release schedule. Big Publisher PLC are nice guys and are happy to move the release date by a whole year. Problem (hopefully) sorted. Or maybe they aren’t nice guys – their shareholders demand this amazing new game or else their profits to shareholders will slide. To hell with the expense, they say, get it out on time. So with more money, you bring in other studios to help or maybe you hire. Money is no object.

Or do you chop the bits from the game that are causing you issues? Did you really need a smart talking robotic side kick for the whole campaign? Drop the scope to get it out. Or you might be really ballsy and just… eh, we can get it hanging together. Ship and we’ll fix after launch. Game goes out and is buggy as hell but hopefully day one sales get the numbers you wanted.

A simplistic analysis for sure

Are we being simplistic? Yep! What has this got to do with crunch? Ultimately, everything. You see crunch is when you try to avoid having to compromise too much on any of the above. If you change scope late in the project but don’t want to move the date or increase resources, you work harder. This translates into crunch. What if the game is scoped but the quality is not acceptable close to launch? Do you move it? That can be tricky. Crunch. Or maybe the launch date was never realistic and not in line with the ambition of the game but you don’t want to under deliver. So you crunch.

Famous examples

Again we are being simplistic but there have been reports of some of these scenarios that no doubt resulted (or at least contributed to) crunch. Let’s take Anthem – according to the in depth report from Jason Schreier when he was at Kotaku this was a project that had serious issues in development. The largest being, no one really had a vision for what the game should be or what the game should do. The article highlights that the game only began to solidify in the last year or so of production.

The Bob Dylan of games?

According to the article, the first trailer shown at E3 in 2017 (less than 2 years before the game came out) was the first time many of the dev team even saw what the game was going to be about. Though the publisher, EA, did move the games launch they had spent many years in Production and the game had to come out. Allegedly, it did so with over a years worth of crunch that reputedly caused many staff to suffer from extreme stress and burnout.

Anthem – poorly managed?

Assuming the article is accurate, Anthem is a very classic case of a poorly managed project. The scope was ill defined and changed constantly. It was using an engine unsuitable for the end product. Because of this it was in development for a long time, all of which cost money. EA, as a publisher, got to the point where it needed a title to release. That meant it had to ship in a certain window and the quality was low – the game worked, but there was very little content or support. Subsequent patches periodically broke the game.

If you go back to our lovely triangle, every side was squeezed. Scope, cost, quality and time. In a very real way, none of those fundamentals was tackled during the production of the game but instead, papered over with crunch. The game, when it started to fall behind, could have been canned. Or halted until the scope was determined. More money could have been thrown or more time. None of which were. One could argue the only reason the game came out at all and in a playable state, was because of the crunch of the devs. The core project reasons could have been addressed at any point. Instead, they fell back on crunch.

Oh boy… WWE 2K20 happened

What about buggy games? Let’s take WWE 2K20, a game that launched in late 2019 to much meme merriment. This game was a broken mess. A yearly franchise that had swapped developers, this game is an example of when a release date is more important than cost or quality. Did the developers crunch to make this happen? We suspect so. We can all agree that 2K should not have released it in the state they did. This is a project failure.

Yeah… we couldn’t resist.

Read Dead Redemption 2, indeed almost all Rockstar games, are synonymous with crunch culture. Another Jason Schreier article on that development highlights both positive and negative but a striking feature is the constant iteration. Within the last year, the cinematic bars on screen were changed (adding weeks and weeks) of work to the schedule but at this stage, the release date had been locked in after several shifts. The answer was… a lot more work, and for some, it appears, extended crunch. This is often termed scope creep.

Is Crunch Inevitable from a Project Management Perspective?

Now Red Dead Redemption 2 is an amazing game. Beautiful, epic, engrossing, supremely detailed. All of which came at a cost. Could some of that detail have been cut to reduce the amount of crunch needed? Yes. Or maybe the game needed more time?

Just hanging out… crunchin’

Talking about a game of the quality of Red Dead Redemption 2 brings us full circle to the comments from the the Obsidian CEO at the start of this article. How can you make great games without pushing everyone to the limits? Would Red Dead Redemption 2 have been half as good without the constant iteration and rework that led to its long development cycle and crunch hours? Possibly not. Yet that does not mean that crunch is inevitable. Games have to ship. They have to work. They need to be creative. Tough decisions need to be made but when a deadline or a budget isn’t going to be made, there is always a choice.

The choice, ultimately, is whether to pay your dues and fix the real problem on the project or try and paper over it with a push to your workforce. Anthem should have been delayed. Red Dead Redemption 2 could have locked its scope far earlier. WWE2K20 should have been shot as a mercy killing. The fact they weren’t but still needed crunch says something about the industry as a whole.

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