Develop Jury: The threat of crunch and overtime

Develop Jury: The threat of crunch and overtime

By Rob Crossley

January 21st 2010 at 5:00PM

Developers discuss the impact of sustained, intense work periods

Recent developments turned this week's Jury Service to the contentious topic of overtime.

We asked developers:

How damaging is crunch to studios and their projects?

Fortunately, the response we received back was not stymied by vehemence or anger – there was no mud-slinging.

Instead there was reasoned, sympathetic and impassioned debate, emphasising the delicacy and complexity of this huge issue which has been around as long as the industry itself.

You can read all the opinions that we received, in their entirety, below.

(Develop Jury Service will be back next week with a new question for the industry. If you’re a developer who’d like to take part in future debates, ping an email to rob.crossley@intentmedia.co.uk.)

Order!

Develop Jury Service #6

How damaging is crunch and overtime?



Adam Green, Managing Director, Assyria Game Studio
Well, running a company, and being relatively young passionate about games I'm likely to be somewhat bias.

But I personally have no problem with crunch. I tend to crunch even when not needed simply as I'm passionate about what I do!

For instance at the moment I'm both working on the studio's current project from 9am-6pm, as well as working on a personal iPhone project in the evenings.

There are a number of people far older that me in industry that I know do similar, and work on their own animations and games outside of work hours.

Obviously there are times when excessive crunch is not really fair on the loved ones of those in industry, but I think it really depends on the duration though.

As one or two weeks of crunch in a 6 month project I think is entirely reasonable, where as crunch every day obviously isn't...

Crunch is obviously something that really is part of the job, as within any software development there is likely to be issues that arise that have not been accounted for. The issue is when crunch is being planned into development cycles, rather than being used as it should; to catch up on over-runs that were un-planned and require more than the contingency time available.

Andrew Smith, Developer, Proper Games:
Overtime is a deeply damaging habit which is easy to fall into on both sides of the Developer/Management divide.

If you care about a game (and most of us get into the industry to make things we care about) then it's so easy to do the odd late night to make sure you get what you want done properly and on time.

If you care about timescale and budget, then it's ok to ask a few late nights of your troops on occasion. A few well-worded requests for extra effort usually produce the desired effect.

The problem is that it gets out of control very quickly, and there are a multitude of ways it can cause damage.

The most obvious is that it makes people tired and less productive over the long term, and shortens tempers. Small discussions can turn into heated debates at the tail end of a project, while simple solutions are missed while people get bogged down talking about the wrong thing or are distracted more easily.

The main worry I have is that the industry still doesn't seem to grasp the true scale of the long term effects. What essentially boils down to poor management by everyone on the team has a huge negative effect. Employees get disgruntled, families get affected, faith and trust in the company's ability to successfully manage a project (especially if mistakes are repeated), and tolerance for failure of any sort just hit a downward spiral. All of this stuff is accentuated by overtime, and can fester beyond recovery.

It's worth saying that this 'poor management' includes the coders, designers and artists who get used to doing overtime, but then forget to factor it into subsequent tasks.

For example, it's all too easy to forget the 3 late evenings you did one milestone when estimating a similar task on your next project. This can be solved by eliminating overtime in the first place so all estimates are used as reference when they're inaccurate, or explicitly tracking those inaccuracies and referencing them when it comes to planning the next project.

Not all the blame can be laid at our collective feet though. Vey few other creative industries have to deal with a regular, 6 year cycle of new technology.

This frequent sea-change means that sure, we can build up some experience with various tasks and become more accurate in our work over time, but before you know it half of that stored knowledge is rendered inaccurate, and you're forced to re-learn a large chunk of your skills again.

How can anyone accurately predict how long a level will take to make with brand new tools that don't even exist yet?

Of course some companies offer time in lieu, some pay for overtime, and some claim not to have it at all.

Honestly though, the only time people should be doing overtime is when they want to accomplish something outside the remit of the product - something that, if it fails, will not negatively affect the product or the schedule. Look to other industries - call centres where overtime is made available to those who want it, not because there is a deficit somewhere.

Nobody likes things being late, and we're a passionate and creative industry, but that doesn't mean we should put up with being exploited.

Chris Kruger, Founder, Kruger Heavy Industries:
What can I say. It's rhetorical question in my view. Crunch is totally damaging, but much more so to the individuals involved. An almost failed marriage in my case.

To the company the cost of crunch is very hard to define but any benefit at all is easy to measure. That's why it's such an easy decision to make for most companies.

Unless there is a push back and the cost is made clear, it won't change. In my view self regulation doesn't work, and the only real solution is external regulation or utter agreement from the vast majority of staff on how to approach the matter (but that sounds like a Union doesn't it?)

David Amor, Creative Director, Relentless Software:
We've never crunched at Relentless so perhaps I'm least qualified to answer.

I used to think that crunching would always have a negative effect on staff turnover and studio morale, but now I believe it's more complex than that: sometimes crunch will bring a team together, sometimes it's exciting.

What I still believe though is that things become less predictable and more chaotic. It's hard to be sure that you're going to meet your milestone date when you're just past Alpha and already the team are working evenings and weekends.

Missed milestones put a strain on the relationship with the publisher and a strain on the cashflow of the business.

Ed Daly, General Manager, Zoe Mode:
Some people and projects work well at a consistent, moderate pace. Other people and projects have naturally varied periods of high creative and productive intensity interspersed with lulls or time not working at all - I imagine creative geniuses from Beethoven to Einstein worked into the night on occasion to great effect.

Yes of course asking individuals and teams to work at a constant unsustainable pace is a bad thing. A mature organisation doing creative work should show flexibility, on both sides - accommodating the guys and girls that need to knock off early to pick up the kids, and also the night-owls that like to burn the midnight oil and then take a day to rest up.

And there is more to productivity than hours in the office, we're not on a production line, an instant's inspired thought can cut through hundreds of wasted hours slogging away on the wrong problem.

Kevin Hassal, Director, Beriah:
Obviously crunch is a bad thing - it damages morale, people make more errors, and so on, and everyone knows those arguments very well. But the important questions are how common is crunch, and what are its causes?

There are doubtless still a few studios which have a "your-life-is-mine" philosophy, but most don't - very few studios plan to crunch on projects. In most cases, crunch results from bad planning earlier in the project catching up with the team later on.

If people really want to avoid crunch, they should spend more time agitating for better planned projects, and less time complaining.

Lol Scragg, CEO, Cohort Studios:
Crunch is still an unfortunate necessity in this industry, as much as we try and avoid it. Even with great planning, strong project management and a dedicated team, there will always be situations where overtime is unavoidable.

However, exploring and developing methods of minimising the need for crunch periods should be a priority for any studio management team. Ultimately, crunch periods fatigue the staff and there’s a genuine risk of increasing the overall project workload due to that fatigue causing mistakes and errors.

At Cohort, we try and avoid crunch as much as possible. Sure, we have a few late nights on the run up to milestones, but if at all possible, we ensure these are few and far between. The degree of lateness in those late nights is key too - push for overtime into the small hours and that counter-productive fatigue becomes a real risk.

In our four years working on various projects, we have probably asked (note: asked, not demanded) our team work a couple of weekends in total and we have never asked anyone to do any all-nighters. Even when we do work late, we generally won’t allow working beyond 10pm.

Our company IS our team and alienating or fatiguing members and departments does no long-term good. Most publishers will appreciate a stand being taken here, and will understand that whilst extra hours here and there are fine, asking a team to do days in excess of 12 hours on a constant medium-to-long-term basis adds little (and potentially removes plenty) from the final product for the customer.

With publishers, having a good, well-experienced producer is huge advantage. As persuasive as a developer’s arguments can be, having someone client-side who understands the impacts client-requested changes or additions will have on timelines and milestone deadlines is invaluable to minimising the need for heavy crunches. We need more producers that are focused on working *with* developers rather than steam-rolling them into a corner where crunch is the only solution.

Martyn Brown, Studio Director, Team17:
I think it can be more devastating to the studio and the individuals, rather than the project. Sustained periods of crunch in no way benefit projects, people or studios, increasing illness, stress and motivation. I don't think staff mind the occasional development drive, but it certainly must not be taken for granted.

Our studio is committed to being family-friendly and that means sane working hours and fair working conditions - our industry has grown up and we shouldn't be driving talent into the ground by working all hours.

Patrick O'Luanaigh, CEO, nDreams
We're fortunate in that we managed to pretty much avoid crunch - maybe just a few days each year. Most of the team work their normal working hours each week, and the others work a few extra hours because they want to.

It might be because we don't do traditional projects with huge teams, but we've managed to avoid crunch and we feel that our team are more productive because of that ;)

I remember my days working crunch as a programmer at Codemasters, and I tended to create as many bugs as I fixed when I was working extremely late and tired!

Sarah Chudley, Commercial Director, Bizarre Creations:
The vast majority of 'production' industries (i.e. those with an end product) always have some sort of crunch time in order to complete or polish their products - but where games suffer more over the shorter-cycled industries (such as magazine production) is that our projects usually last 2 years, meaning that crunch lasts far longer than a few days mad panic at the end!

If crunch time is managed well (enough breaks, avoiding counter-productive hours such as all-nighters, looking after staff needs, such as providing meals, etc) then it can be beneficial, as everyone pulls together to get that final polish in place. Where it falls down is if crunch time extends over too long a period, needs aren't being met, no respite is given, etc, which will ultimately lead to burn out.

I really can't see games (or other similar industries) being able to be produced without any sort of a crunch, (whatever some studios might claim!) because passionate and creative people WANT to utilise as much of the available time to make the best games they can.

But as the industry matures, crunch time is becoming more of a sensible nature... we're all getting older, and there's only so much of this us oldies can take!