OPINION: Why crunch is vile and how to escape it

OPINION: Why crunch is vile and how to escape it

By Nick Cook

January 25th 2011 at 2:02PM

Nick Cook, former creative director at Pumpkin Studios, looks back on the industry he leftâ?¦

"During a 21-year career in the games industry, I’ve occupied every position from production artist, to the senior management of Pivotal Games and Pumpkin Studios. I have also worked on the publishing side during my time at Microprose.

I’ve seen the crunch problem from every angle, but it wasn’t until I left the industry four years ago that the benefit of hindsight really began.

To put my cards on the table, I believe that extended crunch time is simply unsustainable.

Not only does productivity sharply start to drop, but also quality begins to suffer … and that’s just the consequences at work. I feel far more serious and corrosive, is the human cost of all this. An extended crunch saps morale, destroys work/life balance, burns people out and affects health.

Its continued existence shows that something is fundamentally wrong in the production models that most studios use.

I know how easy it is to point the finger in this situation, but as a HR manager once advised me, blame culture serves no one and ultimately, changes little.

Everyone gets defensive, hackles are raised, and scapegoats are selected. Yes, without doubt certain individuals are probably more culpable than others, but everybody has their part to play in contributing to a situation where crunch becomes inevitable.

Many production staff find it practically impossible to predict how long a task will take; producers are often too quick to believe an unrealistic estimate and not allow sufficient slippage in the schedule; studio managers keep changing their minds and want ever greater bells and whistles squeezed in; then of course the publisher often contradicts studio management direction and still insist that completion dates are hit regardless. It’s a recipe for disaster and its ultimate consequence is crunch time.

So is this pit of doom really inevitable, or can something be done about it? Well, here are my thoughts. You may not agree, but if nothing else this will stimulate your own thoughts on the matter and encourage debate that leads to real change, because that’s exactly what the industry needs to do. Extended crunch time was wrong ten years ago and its still wrong now.

A VERTICAL SLICE OF PIE IS NOT ENOUGH
It makes so much sense on paper doesn’t it? An example level that shows off all the major features and USPs of the product. Publishers get enthused… they can really shift mega-numbers of this new baby… sales estimates drawn and financial models constructed.

The studio gets the green light for full production and the cash starts really flowing, everybody is happy – until problems begin to mount up. It all starts falling apart: the inevitable feature creep has kicked in; wobbly tool sets keep breaking; bug counts go through the roof; and art quality that looked great for the demo, suddenly is way behind the curve of the latest products hitting the shelves. This tale of production woe has a familiar ring to it and is the industry’s very own, Groundhog Day.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe the vertical slice philosophy almost works but fails in one major area – it’s not ambitious enough. Forget a slice of pie, we want it all. A prototype should be the whole game, something that uses only rudimentary graphics to keep costs down, but is fully playable.

If there is anything that should be proved before setting off on full production, it’s gameplay. As an art director I was often dismayed by how often people would fixate on the eye-candy at this early stage. Yes I know it gets sales and marketing pulses racing when a slick graphic demo before them, but is it really going to get great reviews for gameplay?

Certainly you should produce a proof of concept for graphics, but don’t fixate on it. A prototype should be robust enough to lock key content down and to give sufficient insight into a product’s potential for the publisher.

This has to include any major coding and scripting requirements. It is this prototype, design complete (stress test with dummy graphics as necessary), that is signed off on.

The next stage is the key part… this is what is then built. Kill off feature creep by extending the prototyping period as long as it takes. Do not let full production start until you know its going to be a great game.

STOP MAKING IT UP AS YOU GO ALONG

I can hear the gnashing of teeth already… what about the costs I hear you say? Well, this is the beauty of extending production time for a prototype… do it with a skeleton team.

The size of that initial team will have a lot to do with the ambition of the project, but by keeping the staffing relatively small, costs are minimal compared to a full team.

And the real beauty is you keep the prototyping period going as long as necessary. Publishers, you have to view this as a loss-leader. Fund lots of prototypes in the hope that one of these frogs may turn out to be a princess. Why? Because you only throw the big money at something that’s really proved itself with rudimentary visuals. You know it’s a great game because it’s actually past the smell test.

But the deal has to be this is the game that’s going to be built. Think of the prototype as a car designer’s blueprint… it’s the finished design. When it hits the factory, people don’t suddenly decide that the SUV they’ve agreed to build, is actually going to be a sports car, and start adding bits as its slides along the conveyor belt.

IS THE STUDIO MODEL TO BLAME?

Costs are escalating as the complexity of games demands ever greater team sizes. By placing a large studio onto a production footing from almost day one, burn-rate is massive.

Does it really have to be this way? Look at Hollywood. Only once a script is green lit and the director has been selected, will the actors be cast and production resources drafted in… and they are freelance. When a film is finished, the team dissolves back into the talent pool.

Couldn’t we do the same? A small core prototyping group dovetails rather neatly with the idea of surrounding them with freelance resources. Hire in the staff once the project has got the go ahead. Like the film industry, it would be easy to imagine lots of independent specialist companies forming. A design group with a proven track record in interfaces, scripting specialists, that guy who did amazing lighting job on that other game – you get my drift. Yes, of course you will always need a core team, particular in areas of code and tool sets… but this at least worth thinking about and is directly linked to squeezing crunch out of the system.

The out-sourcing model is most effective when they are given a rock solid brief. That’s exactly what you have with your full prototype and will help them hit their deadlines. Suddenly a lot of the guesswork goes out of the system, i.e. scheduling, and everyone is dealing with a known quantity. Perhaps the real future for studios will be that they become the core prototyping team, surrounded and augmented by a much stronger freelance industry, populated by a lot of the talent currently working in-house. I certainly believe this would take a lot of stress off the studios, reduce the hiring and redundancy cycle that’s once again rearing its head. Most of all I believe it would reduce crunch time.

SUMMARY
I know there are lots of ifs and buts that you’ll be coming up with, but these are just my ideas and the intention is to stimulate debate. Crunch time can probably never be killed off completely, but many studios can certainly handle it more effectively than they are now. Just think about this for everyone’s sakes, including the profit bottom line.

You develop in a fast moving technologically based industry, so think radically in terms of your solutions for it. My fundamental philosophy is that great games come from happy staff. Create an industry where people can work and play, live lives that are in balance. The time to ask questions and come up with new sustainable strategies, has come. "