The Crunch, and How to Fix it
Warning: Long video with plenty of NSFW language. Watch 3:55-10:45 to get to the point.
Everyone knows about The Crunch(TM). It's as much a part of the gaming industry as micro-transactions these days, and as the video above describes, many who work in the field are forced to accept it or risk being blacklisted from working for some of the larger studios.
The Crunch is what happens when companies commit to delivering a release or update by a specific date, usually accompanied by pre-orders of the game. But even without pre-orders, the date commitment is when they can start to recognize revenue for the game.
It's also reflected in the community's expectations of game studios. Gamers can be a demanding group, and are not usually kind to who delay releases, nor are they accepting of defects at launch, and rightly so. Unlike many other pass-times, video games require a certain physical and mental investment more in line with organized sports. So it's not surprising that players who commit not only with their wallet but also a great deal of personal time feel entitled to a flawless gaming experience.
So we have the perfect combination of satisfying high customer expectations and the financial demands of the business which force studios to deliver on time and with high quality or risk losing millions. No surprise here, it's all about money.
But what can we do about it? Studios aren't going to stop taking pre-orders on games, despite the community repeatedly trying to boycott the practice. If people are excited about a game, they will usually buy it early. Sometimes it's to support a game or studio they like, and sometimes it's to gain access to the incentives offered by the studio for ordering early. Whatever the reason, it's futile to expect the practice to change.
Then there's the customer expectations. Let's face it, most people don't understand how difficult it is to create a game from nothing, and launch it as a bug-free masterpiece. We've covered this topic previously, so I won't hammer it here any further.
The point is, we can't change the demand on the system but we can change the way games are brought to market. Yes, I'm talking about testing. Automated testing.
By enabling test automation early in the development life-cycle, developers and testers can increase their coverage by automating features as they are completed. This provides immediate feedback to developers when those features which have previously been automated show failures after a build. As this cycle is repeated with every iteration (or sprint), test coverage is dramatically increased over manual testing alone.
This process can also dramatically reduce the amount of time spent manual testing, which frees up cycles for testers to focus on new features, and cover areas of the game that would previously be out of scope.
Through increased test coverage and faster, more consistent feedback to developers, we decrease the overall burden on developers and testers alike while increasing product quality. This can help reduce the pressure felt by having end-date driven development, but of course there are other parts to this equation.
Following Kotaku's post-mortem of the release of BioWare's Anthem, there is clearly a need to set expectations early in development for what can be delivered in a project by a given end-date. But this isn't a problem that tools or even development practices can fix alone, and is becoming endemic to game production. But perhaps by introducing more rigor to the development of games we can slow the bleeding, and ease the pressure caused by this booming industry.