It’s 11 pm. You struggle to stay awake, but you have to keep going. Your big project is due tomorrow and your back is up against the wall. There is no more time; it’s do or die now. You type furiously, stress creeping into your shoulders, hands starting to cramp, but you can’t slow down. Every second counts now, even though all you really want is to go to bed. You’ll need to pull an all-nighter to get this done.
Whether you were a procrastinating student like me or work for a highly demanding business with short deadlines for big projects, this story likely sounds familiar. Pulling an all-nighter is not fun and can often be avoided. Either you start working on the project earlier, giving you plenty of time, or you ask for an extension. Often though, game developers don’t have that kind of luxury, so when it comes down to getting everything done before release date, it’s crunch time.
Why Does Game Developer Crunch Happen?
Typically, deadlines for video games are pretty set in stone, without a lot of flexibility. Once the release date is announced, it’s a race against the clock for developers. Yet, like most things in life, problems arise. Data gets deleted on accident, mistakes get made, the flu hits the office and everybody is out sick for a week, or the work just takes longer than expected.
Yet, the deadline for the game release is still there. Publishers are often very strict with a game release deadline, seeing any delay as lost revenue. If the developer is really behind, then they’ll consider pushing back the date, but they usually can’t. Most game developer studios are really afraid to ask for extra time, fearing the publisher will just cancel the game entirely. That means, the game developer has to buckle down and work like crazy to get the game ready for release.
Many game developers have outlandish, but true, stories of work conditions during crunch time, such as: people having to sleep in the studio, and not seeing their homes and families for days on end; the company buying and delivering food to them so they don’t need to leave their desk and keep working; workers losing or gaining unhealthy amounts of weight because of the stress, working 16 hours a day for a whole month, and doing unpaid overtime.
It’s not just leading up to a game’s release that crunch happens. Everybody has their own unique jobs in a game studio, and sometimes other workers rely on their coworkers to finish their task before they can start. If they get their work late, the crunch gets passed around.
Why Crunch is Bad
Think back to your time in school, having to pull an all-nighter to finish an essay or project. Likely, you didn’t get a great score. Maybe you got a C, and you were happy because at least you got a passing grade. The question is: out of your video games, do you want C level work?
Of course not! You want to be playing a beautiful masterpiece, not something that is average. Yet, when developers have to work overly hard to meet their deadlines, the quality of their work suffers. They become focused on finishing the job, not making it their best work.
It’s also important to consider the lives of the developers. We as fellow human beings should want them to be happy and healthy. Your video game can wait so other humans don’t have to slave away in terrible conditions, putting their health at risk. Hundreds of games come out every day, you can find something else to play while you wait.
It’s Becoming More Common
Thanks to patches, DLC, and games as a service business model, when a game is released, the work isn’t done. That’s great for keeping developers employed and helping them maintain a stable life, but it also means the possibility of more crunch. The weeks leading up to a game’s release (especially with AAA games) isn’t spent finishing the game, but working on the Day One patch that will fix a ton of bugs.
Crunch is becoming much more common because of the need to consistently pump out new content for games. Games that update weekly with more and more content are more likely to put extra pressure on developers to keep up with those quick deadlines.
How Developers Can Help with Crunch?
It’s unlikely that crunch will ever go away for developers. Publishers will always demand they meet hard deadlines, mistakes will always happen, and projects will fall behind deadlines. These are all things studios can’t fully control or prevent.
What they can do is help alleviate the conditions of crunch, minimize when it happens, keep their employees healthy and happy, and find ways around it. That way, it lessens both the strain on their workers and can prevent poor work from showing up in the end product.
First, the studio needs to make sure it prevents and discourages unhealthy work conditions. Employees shouldn’t be doing 19 hour work days, or having to sleep under their desks. By improving work conditions, it can help take the stress off of the employees and keep them in a better mood. Simple things, like having a well designed office that encourages hard work but also cooperation can do a lot when it comes time to get busy.
The mental health of their employees should also be considered during stressful times. Being forced to be creative under increasing pressure can be very rough, possibly leading to bouts of depression. Combine that with long hours in a dark office space, not a lot of time outside, and limited exposure to loved ones and friends, and studios put their employees in serious risk. Studios need to invest in ways to prevent depression among their workers when the times get rough, from encouraging walks outside to even lights to help combat seasonal affective disorders.
Another solution to decreasing crunch is utilizing contract workers for short term relief. If the studio’s management can foresee a large period of crunch for a project (6 months crunch is pretty common), they could hire some short term contractors to help lift the burden. While it’s likely they won’t produce the same quality of work that their full-time employees do, they can take on some of the less important work. This can make the difference between reasonable and crazy work conditions.
What Can You Do To Help?
As a general consumer, you don’t have a lot of control over what happens during the game development process. But that doesn’t mean you are completely helpless.
When a game you are excited for is delayed, for whatever reason, don’t complain about it online. That just makes publishers more demanding and less likely to give deadline extensions to future projects. Instead, on social media, express your patience and understanding. Encourage them to take their time and assure them the delay won’t affect your decision to buy the game. Then, when the game does come out, buy it!
By showing support to anti-crunch developers and using your wallet to show publishers you would prefer a finished product than one sent out as early as possible, you can help reduce crunch. That means happier fellow humans in the world, better produced video games, and an improvement to the world of gaming as a whole.