Crunch: People are a problem

Crunch: People are a problem

By Keith Fuller

September 12th 2011 at 9:42AM

Keith Fuller, the founder of Fuller Game Production, weighs in on the crunch debate

Douglas Adams summarized the summary of the summary nicely when he stated, “People are a problem.”

All the more remarkable given that, to my knowledge, he wasn’t a AAA game developer.

Crunch, a.k.a. inordinate and prolonged overtime, is something I’m happy to see discussed in public forums because my own business is largely based on ameliorating it.

Thus I was quite glad to see Paul Ross talking about the methods Criterion has used to reduce crunch on their recent projects.

Similarly, I was enthused by Jurie Horneman’s telling rebuttal as I’m in agreement with Jurie on the vast majority of his points.

Continuous build integration is critical. Automated testing can yield enormous savings. Agile approaches can greatly improve the chances of success in game development. And the companies like Criterion and Mi’pu’mi that dedicate the time and energy to create infrastructures in support of these processes should be commended and looked to as examples.

I’m also largely in agreement with Jurie when he states (and this is the main thrust of his article), “Crunch is not a technical problem. It's an economic problem, and a people problem.”

Personally, I’d put it as a people problem first and an economic problem second, but it’s splitting hairs as the two are significantly intertwined. As such, the introduction of all the things discussed by Mr. Ross may be important (and they are – they’re beyond crucial, in fact) but the underlying workings of AAA production are what need to be addressed. I’ll get to that.

First, however, let me get slightly picky on Jurie’s treatment of a couple of industry sectors.

From his article,

“Let's look instead at online games. These games, once they are playable by the public in some way, are not, in fact, projects. They are operations. They are services, not products. This is a very hard thing to understand for people from the project-based development world. You don't have hard deadlines, you just manage priorities, trying to improve the game as best as you can, every single day. It's stressful, and sometimes you have to scramble to fix a server problem, but the causes of crunch are not programmed in, the way they are in AAA console development.”

All very accurate, right up until the last sentence, which needs a little more attention.

Admittedly, there are other examples to be used which may be better or worse, but I’ll use Zynga since I’ve heard the most stories from the most projects under their roof.

To boil it down, I have yet to have someone tell me of how easy life is on a Zynga project and how much they enjoy working only 40 hours a week.

Rather, the operation itself (and it’s definitely appropriate to term the ongoing development of a launched social title an operation as opposed to a project) is inherently and consistently crunchy.

Changes are derived from analytics that determine how to drive up numbers. More players, more dollars per player, etc.

Those changes need to occur yesterday because the company needs to increase its revenue-per-second without losing any of those seconds.

Were the company to take its time implementing the changes so as to allow their developers a reasonable quality of life, they would see all of their good three-letter-abbreviations go down, all of their bad three-letter-abbreviations go up, and some other company would be getting their money.

Which comes back to all of Jurie’s statements about time and cost and why you shouldn’t allow your company to be forced into playing by those rules.

Point being, this is happening in online games, too, so I wouldn’t hold up this sector of the industry as an example of the Right Way To Do It.

Another point Jurie raises that needs additional exploration is this, “What about indie games? If you are going to distribute the game yourself over the internet, you are no longer dependent on factories and trucks, so it's a lot easier to move that deadline, if you can afford it.”

I won’t disagree with this statement. Rather, I want to expound upon it because it’s an important topic.
The distribution method is a big factor in games development. Certainly for indies, but perhaps even more so for AAA products.

What happens when the next generation of console comes out and it doesn’t have a tray on the front? You have to buy a peripheral of some sort to be able to play a disc? Admittedly, that’s a complete dramatization (I don’t honestly think the PS4 won’t have a tray) but it drives home my point: we’re already seeing digital distribution playing an increasingly bigger role in core titles and that changes several of the constraints on the Iron Triangle of AAA game development.

If you’re going digital, you don’t have to worry about missing a deadline resulting in Best Buy giving away your shelf space.

You don’t have as many ways to legitimize the $60 price of your game when you no longer have to pay for fabrication and shipping. You have an extra two or three months of development time to get the game out the door for Christmas.

What’s to keep the price from going down to $40 at that point? Or even lower? When you start relaxing some of these constraints there will be room for easing up on the boot applied to the neck of AAA development’s Quality of Life.

Hopefully we will start seeing more commentary on this topic so that the machinery may be changed for the better (@RaphLife, I’m looking at you…kill it at MIGS, my friend).

Now, here’s another great point from Jurie’s article,

”It's an economic problem because AAA console developers have to crunch to be able to play where they're playing. (In a red ocean.) The economic incentives of the people who decide that the team must crunch (and who often crunch themselves) are simply set up that way.”

True. And yet, there’s more to it than that. Valve was mentioned as a counter argument to being chained to immovable release dates.

It’s worth noting that Valve makes more money per capita than Google or Apple, and my friends who work at Valve don’t complain about the Quality of Life.

The popular foil here is, “Yeah, but Valve started with money,” or perhaps, “The QOL and the per-capita figures are driven by Steam and only big, established companies can do that.”

On the contrary, I had burgers last night with the CEO of a three-person studio that has defied both of those statements. They’ve produced a AAA quality game and proprietary tech that has made the company very desirable.

What I’m saying here is that you can operate in this space and do it successfully if you’re smart and don’t just throw your hands up and accept the status quo.

And the reason big established companies aren’t challenging the status quo? Well, Jurie’s bang on again.

“It's a people problem because of our psychological limitations. You want to make the best game possible. You want to think things will work out. Crunching worked last time, right? (If you survived it.) It wasn't that bad. We've made better plans. This time is different.”

It’s the way we’ve always done it. Overpromise, get down to the wire, then crunch. Get stuck in your ways and make the front line contributors pay for it again and again.

People in charge tend to think that’s OK because it’s worked in the past. Fighting against complacency is very difficult. Continuous improvement is hard to pursue. But it’s something people need to do, because tech isn’t the solution, people are.