We Need To Talk About Crunch

We Need To Talk About Crunch
Marie Dealessandri

By Marie Dealessandri

April 3rd 2017 at 11:00AM

Crunch is still all too common in the games industry. Marie Dealessandri asks Partnership HR, Sony Interactive Entertainment London Studio, Real Time UK, Playtonic and Rare how they tackle the issue

We’ve all been there: one day deadline day seems like a vague idea, a distant point in time, and the next day, everything rushes. You suddenly realise all there is to accomplish and you end up drinking an insane amount of coffee and working every evening and weekend.

This is crunch and it’s a plague on the games dev industry.

Kelly Murrell, HR consultancy director at Partnership HR – who in the past worked with the likes of Microsoft – thinks the first problem with crunch is not the company or the management team, but the employees themselves and how they perceive what is expected from them.

“The way I sometimes hear crunch spoken about, it almost seems as though when it happens it is a ‘rite of passage’,” she tells Develop. “If you haven’t been through crunch, have you really pushed as hard as you could have to deliver the best game possible? The temptation can sometime be to put in as much as possible before the deadline. I also think it is hard for people to go home on time or to not work the really long hours when you see your colleagues doing this, which perpetuates crunch.”

She continues: “This impact on perception also leads me to worry about how much ‘presenteeism’ occurs in crunch. Having people at their desks as there is some comfort in the numbers of people working on something, rather than people being there because there’s something they need to get completed that is truly integral to the game.” 

Avoiding crunch is the responsibility of every person on the game team 

Liz Wyle, Sony Interactive Entertainment, London Studio

EVERYONE’S RESPONSIBILITY

Crunch is a complex issue and, while most studios agree it’s difficult to avoid these periods, they all have a different approach to addressing the matter. Echoing Murrell’s statement, Liz Wyle, executive producer at Sony Interactive Entertainment London Studio, reckons it first and foremost comes down to teamwork:

“Avoiding crunch is the responsibility of every person on the game team and they’ve all got a different role to play,” she says. “It’s up to the producers to be thorough in their planning and to ensure that adequate contingency is factored into the schedule so that the late and inevitable changes can be made without delay. It’s up to the design team to make the most of confidence-improving prototypes and design docs to help try to avoid unnecessary work when it turns out things are less fun to play than expected.

"It’s up to programmers and artists to learn from past projects and to use their experience to hone their estimation skills and lose their natural tendency to either overestimate or underestimate the work. It’s up to QA to test design as well as code and art. It’s up to leadership to find ways to push work forward in the dev cycle and to ensure everyone is working smart. And it’s up to everyone in the team to communicate well and have the difficult conversations that must be had when someone’s gut is telling them things are off track. Only then can the right people respond and mitigate the risk or clear the issue.”

Planning and communication are the key to avoiding crunch, agrees RealtimeUK’s head of production Jane Forsyth: “It is inevitable that there is crunch time at any studio, especially one like ours where every project is different and we’re continually using new techniques to push internal boundaries. We do however try to avoid it with planning, milestone sign offs, and so on.”

At Playtonic, individuals can decide for themselves what crunch is 

Gavin Price, Playtonic

Although crunch is everyone’s responsibility, studio heads also favour an individual approach when needed, such as Playtonic’s studio director Gavin Price.

(Clockwise) Gavin Price, Jane Forsyth, Susan Russell, Liz Wyle

“We have a diverse range of opinions on what constitutes crunch and so our approach is to listen to each other’s individual opinions rather than apply a company-wide definition of ‘crunch’,” he tells Develop. “For some, myself included, working consistently longer outside of core office hours is fine, however for some the time away from the office is more valuable to recharge and enjoy other activities and hobbies. A one-size fits all solution, though easier to manage is ultimately a lazy, unfair and broken one.

"At Playtonic, individuals can decide for themselves what crunch is and never be expected to align to someone else’s definition. We respect individual choices and strive to find ways no one person is crunching by their own standards and pre- emptively find solutions. Be it sharing the bug-load, moving features around, re-thinking how to achieve a result more efficiently or avoiding making bad decisions in the first place. Are we doing this perfectly? No, I’m sure we make some common mistakes.

"Too often we want to put more content in than can be realistically delivered to the high-quality we expect of ourselves. But our individual-focused approach and commitment to avoiding crunch have helped us do better than we ever did working elsewhere and having Yooka-Laylee go gold very recently, we now have a metric to measure ourselves against in future and do better.”

 

When we do experience crunch time we work as a team to support each other 

Jane Forsyth, RealtimeUK

 

HEALTHY TEAM, HEALTHY GAME

When badly managed, crunch can have a devastating effect on the team, which ultimately will have a lingering effect on the finished product.

“If this increase in activity is prolonged, it can lead to growing fatigue within the workforce, which can have a knock-on effect on morale, staff sickness and retention, which is a bad thing for a studio,” Rare’s HR manager Susan Russell explains.

Partnership HR’s Murrell adds: “Intense and sustained periods of crunch not only impact the wellbeing of people working long hours, but I think also have the potential to have a negative impact on the product as performance can only decrease as people’s wellbeing is impacted.

But also, perspective can be affected. Distance, time out and a change of scene all afford opportunities to reflect and achieve clarity about the work at hand and what really makes the biggest difference, rather than being stuck in a single mindset of just needing to get stuff done. I think perspective on the game, why you are doing it and the choices you make, are really important and I think crunch can affect this.”

But, sometimes, very basic day-to- day improvements can help relieve the pressure, Russell continues: “The company ensures that the team receives adequate rest periods, good healthy food and breaks from work in the form of massages or personal training sessions to ensure people move away from their desks. At the end of any intense periods, we also look at giving people time for rest and recuperation.”

Knowing when to actually end a crunch period is crucial and managers should be aware of this, Murrell further says: “After long periods of crunch it can be difficult to get out of the ‘habit’ of working late nights. Studio leaders need to clearly communicate for people to take time out. We should be mindful of those we see continuing to be in long hours to ensure they are not feeling this is something they are having to continue doing.”

The team receives adequate rest periods, good healthy food and breaks from work 

Susan Russell, Rare

Apart from the very much-needed support from the management team, Real Time UK’s Forsyth also highlights the importance of supporting each other within the team: “When we do experience crunch time we work as a team to support each other.

We endeavour to bring in extra help and spread the workload where possible. Making sure the artists are well fed and have a few treats for those extra hours they are there also helps. We also try to front load tasks at the start of a project to allow that bit of extra time to polish and perfect, taking some of the pressure off the team at the end of the pipeline.” 

Providing regular training to the staff beforehand is also an easy way to avoid crunch – a well trained team being more unlikely to lose ground and thus able to avoid crunch in the future. “[Studios can care for their employees by] providing the training that improves a team’s ability to is okay for them to discuss how they are feeling or the issues they may have. We can all look out for each other and know it’s ok to talk when something is not quite right to find an alternative approach.”

She concludes: “I know for some crunch is part of the journey and a necessary part at that, as it is part of a creative endeavour. And that from crunch can come great comradery and sense ofachievement, which are things to be valued, but it would be great to think this can be achieved whilst ensuring a happy, harmonious and healthy team.“