How Development Crunch Happens
The video game industry is a space with countless success stories, excellent artistry, and memorable Immersive Experiences made by talented creators. Unfortunately, there is another reality of game development that has been present for quite some time: crunch.
Crunch is the implementation of consistent, at times compulsory, overtime work hours during the development of a video game. This labor issue has been at the forefront of numerous conversations around the sustainability of game development, talent turnover, and other factors that make up working conditions in the industry. In some cases, crunch has even become a human-rights issue.
With countless case studies attesting to the impact of crunch, it’s important to understand some of the most prevailing reasons why it occurs. Crunch is a nuanced, difficult subject to summarize succinctly, but here are some of the most important, high-level traits to understand when mitigating development crunch.
It may sound obvious, but many cases of crunch are arbitrarily imposed as an expected outcome of a game’s development. Instead of inputting policies and practices that help curb or outright prevent crunch from the onset, many developers view this kind of work environment as an expectation of the job.
The number of developers that expect this from any given employer has gone down in recent years, although it is still a significant portion of talent.
While turnaround times and work schedules do tend to be negatively impacted in the later stages of development, regardless of management quality, its ubiquity is proof of attitude and cultural conditions in the industry.
There are many industries that promote speed over quality and readiness, and gaming can be one of the worst offenders. Even when games are being made by some of the top talent in the industry, major Triple-A releases can take upwards of five or more years to make. This makes the impact of delays to a given release particularly acute. Development budgets are finite, and the need to ship and recognize revenue increases with time.
While there’s always human error to account for, many of these examples can simply be attributed to the sheer size and scope of a production. Consumers are expecting more and more out of the gaming medium, and with those expectations comes experiences that can take longer and longer to produce. Delays clearly give developers more time to release the product, but many delays happen because publishers, investors, or other stakeholders determining release schedules underestimate the time needed to complete the work.
Evolving Gaming Technology
Consistently changing hardware and software landscapes can also be a notable contributing factor in extended development time. Aligning a development schedule with console generations can be extremely complicated, and can perhaps change the scope of a project with the addition of cross-generational or cross-platform capabilities. On top of that, new hardware compatibility could mean major engine changes as well.
Delaying projects for these reasons can often lead to crunch. Once again, management could offset this reality, but even the best workplaces could be susceptible to overtime work when a game needs to function across more devices.
Setting out this kind of scope from the onset of a production is one way to combat this. It’s also important for leaders to equip their teams with adaptable tools so that they can produce their work as the ebbs and flows of technical requirements come through.
There are many factors that contribute to crunch in this industry, and tooling isn’t going to alleviate all of them. But we have evidence from parallel industries such as manufacturing and enterprise software that strongly indicates it can be a mitigating force for change. Automated testing enables teams to do more with their existing resources, to increase the scope and consistency of testing, and improve overall time to market through rapid iterative feedback.
Tooling also serves to provide a maturity and career path to resources who may otherwise be burnt out by the effects of crunch, which helps to improve employee satisfaction and retention. This is something we will cover in more detail in another article.