At DICE Summit 2020, co-founder of Naughty Dog and current VP of Content at Facebook, Jason Rubin, outlines three key principles that guided the studio when he was its helm: good, cheap, and fast. The triangle, he explains, represents three key factors of development. If you prioritize fast with a deadline, you sacrifice good. If you prioritize cheap, you sacrifice good too. "Good is the most important," he says, "always."
Rubin's a part of the inaugural DICE Summit 2020 Town Hall, a panel Q&A for peers in the industry with leaders of respective companies. Joining Rubin are Jade Raymond of Stadia Games and Entertainment, president of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board Patricia Vance, Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price, and co-founder of Respawn Entertainment Vince Zampella, moderated by The Washington Post's Gene Park.
Rubin's talking about crunch, and the realities of it. The panel are asked about how studios deal with crunch, and if it's possible to live in a reality where no studio ever crunches. For Rubin, the sacrifice of "good" in the pyramid is never avoidable under crunch. Jade Raymond, formerly of EA and Ubisoft, echoes the sentiment.
"I think we have come a long way, to be honest," says Raymond. "The game industry has gotten a lot more organized, a lot more rigor around product management methodologies. And also we have the data that shows, and I firmly believe that you don't really get much over the long term. Crunch is sort of a fallacy that you're going to continue to work harder these extra hours. It actually ends up creating bad habits on the team, people not being as effective. So [...] if you are in a situation where you're not getting to the results you want, I actually don't think crunch helps you get the better result."
"Fast Had to be Given Up"
Rubin mentions that semi-recently, Oculus extended a deadline for Insomniac for a VR title, presumably last year's Stormland. "Fast had to be given up," Rubin says of the extension, "which meant we were also giving up cheap because we were spending more for the extra time. And that hopefully caused less crunch and, Insomniac, hopefully it's causing less crunch." Price affirms that it did help, and describes how the relationship between developers and publishers is also partially to blame for when studios do fall on crunch.
"When you have a great relationship [between developers and publishers], and you can talk honestly about the penalty that your team experiences when you have just immovable objects, then usually that can resolve. I mean, especially with our relationship [with Oculus], it resulted in something that the team really appreciated, which is more time to create greatness without sacrificing their lives, their personal lives. We all understand the cost, and that usually ends up being actually a worse product and people who are burned out and nobody wants that."
Price shouts out Sony, too, for being an understanding partner that prioritizes quality, including "quality of life," above all else. The pressure doesn't always come from inside the house, so to speak, either. As Zampella describes, in the case of Apex Legends, the pressure comes from the fans, not the publishers.
"We feel a pressure not from a publisher, but from the fans to keep up with, like they want more content. We just had to draw a line in the sand and say, this is what we can do without killing people," says Zampella. "And, you know, we push, but we don't push too hard. We try to find that balance constantly."
The panel members are in agreement on one thing: Above all else, it's a good thing everyone's talking about crunch, and acknowledges that it's bad. It makes for a healthier industry in the long run.
"I think over the last probably seven or eight years is that the conversation has become louder and a bit more honest and transparent as an industry about the negative effects of crunch. And I will say, just as an example, at Insomniac, one of the things that we are always looking at ways to try to acknowledge crunch, minimize it," says Price. "I would love to be in a company where there is none. At the same time, I also think we all understand that when you are trying to do something that is incredibly challenging that has never been done before, you run into situations where people are working their asses off, and the best thing we can do generally is try to make better decisions earlier so that we aren't getting stuck at the end."
The representatives on stage don't absolve themselves of any mishaps. Price opens up about how one candid practice of outlining the scope, staff, and budget for a game struggles to ever get "100 percent buy-in." Sometimes employees have expressed frustration at leadership that isn't "looking at the cost of bad decisions or decisions that are made too late." There is always room for improvement. A delay isn't even a surefire way to avoid crunch, and in many reported cases, just makes it last longer.