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"Crunch Time" Should Not Be Celebrated, Praised, or Smiled Upon in the Games Industry

Ever-growing crunch periods chew older developers to bits, and burn up talented young developers before they have a chance to grow.

Opinion by Nadia Oxford, .

Earlier today, Polygon published an excerpt from "Significant Zero," an upcoming book from writer Walt Williams. The excerpt relays Williams' emotional and sometimes confusing thoughts about crunch.

In industry terms, "crunch" describes the final push to get a game out the door. Bugs are tested, code is polished, graphics are tweaked—and that's just for a start. Crunch can be emotionally and physically stressful for developers, sometimes devastatingly so. Normal work weeks bleed into 18-hour days, desks become dinner tables, and crude cots become beds.

Those of us who scratch any kind of a living can expect busy periods at work, especially when everyone's zeroed in on getting a big project out the door. Thing is, whereas this industry's crunch period used to last a few weeks on average, now crunch can last for months. Worse, developers who sacrificed their free time, their home lives, and replaced the blood in their veins with Red Bull for the sake of their project have a too-large chance of getting laid off when everything's wrapped up.

This is the only Crunch developers should have to worry about (he'll shred the roof of your mouth if he's given half a chance).

"Crunch" isn't just short for "time crunch." It also describes the sound that echoes through a studio as developers' bodies, bones, and souls are ground into a dry, dusty fuel. It's no wonder Williams' article, titled "Why I Worship Crunch," is already controversial. It reads like a celebration of crunch, an approval of sleepless nights, poor diets, and the bad planning that begets extended crunch in the first place. Williams uses one corner of his mouth to say crunch damages the industry and the people who work for it, but then uses the other corner of his mouth to sing about the joy of being a cog in the machine, and anyone who's not down with being worked to death like Boxer from Animal Farm should probably stay out of the kitchen.

Williams has already addressed the controversy on Twitter. He says he never meant for "Why I Worship Crunch" to be read as an approval of extended crunch and its harms. "The excerpt is from a moment in my life when I was at my lowest and giving in to my most self-destructive tendencies," he tweeted. "I wanted you to see that through my eyes; to hear the things I tell myself when I consider throwing my life away for a work binge. Living and working that way led to a breakdown. I'm healthier now, but you know what? I still crave it. It is a CONSTANT fight for me."

This is a good Crunch.

I genuinely wish Williams all the best in his quest to tackle his demons, and I sure know the pain of writing a piece that just doesn't land with your audience the way you intended. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the fact "Why I Worship Crunch" has a manic, celebratory tone that tries to put its arms around everyone reading. Thing is, there is nothing about months-long crunch sessions that is worth smiling about. Even the small highs crunch offers—like the comradery that comes with being in the trenches with your fellow workers, or cornering a great story hook while under pressure—can be achieved through far less harmful means.

Right here, right now, the games industry treats its young talent like faceless meat machines. If you force a twenty-something to endure one extended crunch session after another, they're going to burn out by the time they're 30. Executives might say "Big deal, more where that came from," but it's an incredibly poisonous attitude for a young industry that's still trying to find its voice amongst other artistic mediums. We desperately need more Wrights, Miyamotos, Romeros, and Iwatas, but they're not going to be found in young developers who are forced to turn their back on an industry that gives them dangerously high blood pressure and heart palpitations.

Williams' article talks about passion, i.e. what we call "crunch" is just another term for passion (albeit in a more collective form that's shared between all the members of a dev team). It's true that some of the best games were born out of sheer devotion: Off the top of my head, Mega Man 2, Cave Story, and Stardew Valley are three incredible titles that exist because their developers dedicated their free time to the project. We love these underdog stories, and with good reason. That said, Mega Man 2, Cave Story, and Stardew Valley were personal projects, and there's a big difference between giving your free time to a personal pursuit and being expected to give all your time and energy to a job that doesn't compensate you for half your efforts.

If you visit Canada or another Commonwealth country, you should also try this Crunch.

But the paragraph that troubles me most in Williams' article describes how he chases crunch as a kind of high. He gets a rush out of those long, thankless hours of work, and the physical and mental degradation that come with them. I worry this is the kind of writing that makes triple-A studios feel better about working their young developers to death. "Hey, they're full of energy! They'll cope! They'll look back on all this and laugh, like all-nighters at college!"

This attitude scares the hell out of me as I get older. I'm on the downhill side of my 30s. I work hard, but there's only so much energy I can wring out of my stores on a day-to-day-basis. If an employer expected me to participate in crunch periods for weeks at a time, I simply wouldn't be able to do it. Then what? I'd probably be disciplined, laid off, or fired in that deviously passive-aggressive manner tech companies excel at. Someone who's younger and more energetic will take my place in a second. And when their foundation inevitably starts to crack, what happens to them?

This is the most important crunch of all. Don't neglect exercise.

"Here's a secret about growing up that no one tells you," Williams writes. "When you're young, your body is basically a meth lab, bubbling over with all sorts of hormones and strange chemical reactions."

Well, here's another secret. When you hit your '30s, the tiny authorities that govern your body shut that shit down real fast. Despite your best attempts to take care of yourself, you get tired more easily. Your joints start to go, usually starting with the knees. The bad genes your parents blessed you with at conception scream "It's showtime!" and surface like dire headlines.

But you still need to make a living. Probably for the next 20, 30 years. Maybe longer. That's going to spell a lot of trouble if you're part of a society that treats crunch time like a sporting event where the winners take all and the stragglers are cast into a bottomless pit.

Crunch is uncool.

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Comments 20

  • Avatar for Vodka-Tonic #1 Vodka-Tonic A month ago
    As someone also over the hump of the 30s, I can COMPLETELY agree with your description of the physical degradation that begins at 30. Oh, how I miss the health of my 20s. ;_;
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  • Avatar for mattb0527 #2 mattb0527 A month ago
    it seems one is able to find someone praising the worst aspects of anything these days. unfortunately it is accepted as the norm by both employers and employees. it would take quite a paradigm shift for that to truly change. i hope it can.
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  • Avatar for ArugulaZ #3 ArugulaZ A month ago
    Well said. I'm hoping that "crunch time" becomes less prevalent now that developers are shifting from big-budget AAA titles to indie games and mid-budget titles.
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  • Avatar for moochan #4 moochan A month ago
    Sadly "Crunch time" is just not in the video game industry but in a lot of places. We seriously need to enforce actual regulations on things like this. Maybe it's fine in small burst every so often. But more time than not faceless cooperations just push and push and just toss out when they feel are holding back and get someone younger and more willing to take it to pay off the insane debt they collected after college. It's the meat grinder that everyone talks about but seem no one actually tries to tackle it in any meaningful way. I hope you guys over here don't get too stressed out when writing for this site. Because I love reading your articles but hate feeling like you are going through that meat grinder just to get more and more articles out.
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  • Avatar for Dr-Lame #5 Dr-Lame A month ago
    I agree with everything you said here! Also, I love the image you chose to go along with this article. Crunch time really does sort of feel like like fighting the Demon Wall. But way less fun, and way more harmful.
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  • Avatar for RushDawg #6 RushDawg A month ago
    I didn't know that Crunchie was a Canadian / Common Wealth exclusive! Still wouldn't recommend it to visiting Yanks though; it's not very good. I'd recommend Caramilk or Smarties instead.Edited last month by RushDawg
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  • Avatar for Sixtenfifty #7 Sixtenfifty A month ago
    I just finished up a 80+ hour work week, but even this seems a bit excessive. The more this type of work ethic is accepted, the more these young people are going to be exploited, and the turnover rate will just keep climbing.
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  • Avatar for Talraen #8 Talraen A month ago
    There's a pretty easy solution here. Actually pay employees overtime. Crazy idea, I know. And sadly un-American.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #9 riderkicker A month ago
    Does Crunch Time happen more with male-dominated developers or female ones? I guess it may be tough to test that considering the tech industry isn't very diverse.
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  • Avatar for riderkicker #10 riderkicker A month ago
    @Talraen Yeah, some of the Clowns in Congress decided that overtime should be exempt for tech workers.
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  • Avatar for WiIIyTheAntelope #11 WiIIyTheAntelope A month ago
    Their first mistake was taking anything Polygon writes seriously.
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  • Avatar for NiceGuyNeon #12 NiceGuyNeon A month ago
    I'm a firm believer that your mind is only as healthy as your body. You have only one body. People buy a freaking phone, game system, or car and they lose their minds when it has a scratch or a crack. But you can replace STUFF. You have one body and it can't be replaced. Treat it with care, and that includes not freaking crunching. Crunching keeps you from going to sleep on time, exercising, and not pouring junk food down your throat all day because you can't eat normal food. So many basic functions are just NECESSARY for people to not feel like trash, and crunching neglects all of that.

    Sometimes, people need to take a day or two off for their mental well-being. And that's without factoring crunch. It's such a crappy practice.
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  • Avatar for ghostsandgoblins #13 ghostsandgoblins A month ago
    Wage theft is a far more insidious problem than piracy of intellectual property.
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  • Avatar for docexe #14 docexe A month ago
    I have never worked in game development, but having been part of a couple of tech implementation projects, I can say that a certain period of crunch time is inevitable in most cases. No matter how well you might plan for contingencies, there will come a moment where something completely unexpected happens, there is a delay in the workflow, the deadline is immovable and you have to buckle up and endure some excruciating days in order to get the damned thing out of the door on time.

    The thing is that crunch time should never exceed more than a few weeks, if not a couple of months at most (AT MOST!). If the crunch turns into several months, it means that something truly catastrophic happened during the course of the project. And let’s not mince words here: that catastrophe most likely had to do with one if not several imbeciles at some managerial position seriously screwing up with something (which is unfortunate as they are also the less likely to be punished for said screw-ups).

    The fact that several studios and publishers in the gaming industry continue to rely on insane periods of crunch time is incredibly dispiriting. The horror tales that several developers have shared about inhumane crunch fill me with astonishment and trepidation (more than 50 hours per week for 18 months?! Seriously: WHAT THE FUCK?!).

    All of that being said, after reading the original text at Polygon, I’m not sure it’s supposed to be taken as a celebration of crunch time. Sure, some paragraphs definitely read like a romanticization of crunch, but the rest is filled with bitter irony, passive-aggressiveness and even a hint of self-loathing.

    Having learned from the author’s comments on Twitter that the text is an excerpt from a book about his memoirs as a game developer and that it’s supposed to reflect the kind of mindset he had at the time, it can actually be read as an insight into the mind of a workaholic (aka someone with an honest to goodness pathological addiction to work), and the kind of bullshit he keeps repeating to himself in order to blithely justify his self-destructive tendencies. I suppose it might actually work better in the context of the book rather than as a separate piece.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #15 VotesForCows A month ago
    Research has a lot of this. I'm about to launch into a clinical trial - will be testing in various sites quite far from my base every weekday (and some weekends) for the next year. Likely to be very long days. Dreading it. But as people have commented, 'crunch' and similar phenomena are required if you want to progress in your career. It sucks.

    @riderkicker Good question re the gender split. I've described my experience above, but my wife was a ballet dancer - her life for a decade was 3 months unpaid lay off each year, then 18 hour days of brutal physical effort for the other 9 months. I think unhealthy working practices exist anywhere you find an extreme imbalance of power.
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  • Avatar for VotesForCows #16 VotesForCows A month ago
    Related to my previous point, my field has recently been talking about this a lot due to the suicide of a young researcher. The impact of unstable, intense working is very real, but I'm sceptical that anything will ever be done about it.
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  • Avatar for Toelkki #17 Toelkki A month ago
    I think I've read an interview that told how the CEO of Colossal Order (Cities Skylines devs) told the devs to throw out the sleeping bags or something they had brought to the office for the supposedly unavoidable crunch time later down the line. And how they finally turned the release version of Cities Skylines (or was it one of their earlier games?) a few days before the deadline. I need to look for this interview; it's possibly in Finnish. So consider what I said above just unsourced hearsay for now.

    At least their RPS interview kind of refers to avoiding the crunch. https://www.rockpapershotgun.com/2015/04/03/mods-maxis-and-forward-motion-cities-skylines-interview/2/

    Game development really is one of the few fields where poor project management is something people are proud of. (Something I probably stole from a Finnish interview they gave.)
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  • Avatar for mobichan #18 mobichan A month ago
    Not sure referencing Miyamoto and Iwata as people we need more of in this industry is a good idea in this context. I read about the kind of hours they worked in their heyday and the expected hours their staff were made to feel necessary (might have been in a US Gamer article). Japanese staff, at least up until maybe the last 10 years, have always been perfectionists, which in turn caused self-imposed crunch. And in that case, you could call that passion, pride or simply respect for your employer.

    Every story about the evils of crunch fails to mention that this is not something that only occurs at the end of a project. It occurs whenever there is a milestone. If you get publisher money on a schedule, the crunches usually happen every few months (before a payment). If there is a tradeshow demo to make, then that causes another crunch. I am not condoning planned crunch, but it is EXTREMELY hard to maintain a consistent schedule in game development. I even spend a good 10 years at the beginning of my career berating my bosses for their scheduling failures, assuming they were doing it wrong. But the reality is that things come up, people are only human and usually you don't get things done on time.

    Working on games is a high if you are really into it. It is incredibly rewarding, regardless of whether you are a cog or steering the ship. And there are a lot of people in the industry who would gladly give up all the other things in life to simply make games. So Williams is not alone. In my 40's I found I wanted a better balance in life. And the tradeoff was to be less competitive with younger staff if I wanted to continue to practice my craft or move up to management. I don't think this is something exclusive to games.
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  • Avatar for nadiaoxford #19 nadiaoxford A month ago
    @mobichan You're definitely right about Japanese devs (and Japanese workers in general) being over-worked. That's a huge issue that deserves its own article. That said, Miyamoto and Iwata were quickly recognized for their talent, and were promoted accordingly. They are / were also highly respected. Triple-A western devs are far more likely than their Japanese counterparts to work employees to near-death and then lay them off.

    (Not to say there aren't Japanese devs who aren't guilty of screwing over their employees, cough cough, rhymes with Ponami.)
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  • Avatar for mobichan #20 mobichan A month ago
    @nadiaoxford My point about Miyamoto and Iwata was that the crunch didn't stop when they were promoted to positions of power. Crunch in Japan was (and is) a cultural reality and lifestyle choice. Hell, most salaryman positions deny people a good work life balance there.

    I do agree that Western studio are more publicly shamed over this, but I think that falls more on the cultural differences. Japanese companies are very tight-lipped, so word of their practices aren't as in your face as a western studio where an employee's internet rant outs a company's practices. Japanese employees rarely act that way.

    As for Japanese companies screwing employees, that became more of a reality in the last 15 or so years. Prior to that, companies took care of their staff in return for unflinching loyalty. Newer generations don't want to make that pact, so the industry there has shifted.
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