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.
"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."
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.
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?
"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.