Crunch (Gaming)

by CruelLEGACEY @, Toronto, Sunday, May 24, 2020, 14:09 (77 days ago) @ Cody Miller

I share your concerns when it comes to issues of literal abuse or any kind of illegal activity. But when it comes to the issue of crunch, I have a real tough time caring. It’s not that I like the idea of crunch, or that I lack sympathy for people who suddenly and unexpectedly find themselves in that kind of position. But I happen to believe that working for a AAA game developer is not an intrinsic human right. Nobody is forced to work for studios that foster a crunch culture.

Now before anyone accusing me of being callous, please understand that I am 100% aware of the pressures to earn a living and provide for one’s family. And i’m aware that the pressures of real life frequently put people in situations where they feel like they have no good options (do I stay in this job which demands more of me than I feel is fair, or do I put my family’s financial security at risk?). These situations suck. I’m right smack in the middle of one myself.

But the crunch situation has layers to it that make it far more nuanced than the workers rights movements of the early 1900s.

First of all, some people like to crunch. There is a small percentage of the population who are absolutely obsessed with work. Many of us look at these people as having an unhealthy work/life balance, and that is probably true. But these workaholics are also responsible for many of our greatest achievements. So right there, something like “eliminating crunch” strikes me as counterproductive. A far more interesting and potentially helpful approach might be something like “how can studios identify crunch-lovers and put them into positions where their work habits are maximally beneficial, without requiring EVERYONE on the team to meet the same standards?”.

Another issue is that at this point in time, crunch in the industry comes as a surprise to literally nobody. We have enough information to know which studios are particularly bad when it comes crunch, and which studios have taken steps to prevent crunch. Between media coverage or websites such as GlassDoor, all this info is more readily available than ever. Generally speaking, if you have the training and skill set to get yourself hired by a AAA game developer, you’ll be able to find good paying work in other industries too. But people go into games because it’s something they’re excited or passionate about, or because it pays better than many other fields... these elements all come with a cost, though. Game development is a viciously competitive field, and any competitive field will reward those who are willing to push themselves harder and farther than those around them.

This leads into the most difficult problem with this whole situation; it isn’t exactly clear that anyone knows how to make great video games without crunch. That’s not to say that it isn’t possible, but it’s far from solved equation. There are exceptions we can point to. Halo Reach was supposedly done with far less crunch than previous Halo games. But that was also a veteran team making their 5th consecutive game in a single franchise, allowing them to draw directly from a huge pool of transferable knowledge and experience. Most of the team leads had been making Halo games for 10-15 years at that point. They had it down. And even then, I haven’t heard anyone claim that Reach was “crunch-free”. Just that the whole process ran more smoothly, that the game was in a fully playable state a year ahead of launch which allowed way more time for test and polish, etc.

Looking elsewhere in the industry, Ubisoft is the developer who I think is farthest along in trying to solve the issue of crunch. But they’re also in a somewhat unique position to do so, thanks to their sheer size and number of studios. They have so many games in development at any given time, when the art team at Ubisoft Toronto finished their work on project A, they can get them working on project B which is being lead by Ubisoft Montreal, rather than just firing the whole team until Toronto starts their next big project 2 years later. So this helps curb the ballooning and busting of team sizes that comes with crunch, but there are still periods of crunch for each and every team in each and every studio, as they approach their various deadlines.

Still, this is all dancing around the elephant in the room that I brought up earlier; we don’t know if making great games is consistently possible without crunch. I’m sure we can all admire Bungie’s dedication to sparing their team from crunch. It’s nice to see a company take such interest in the wellbeing of their employees. But we can’t pretend that Bungie has been doing particularly great work of late. I’d argue that the quality of Bungie’s output is the worst I’ve ever seen it in nearly 20 years. I’m sure there are plenty of reasons why, but I have no doubt that lack of crunch is part of the equation. Just look at how often Bungie themselves bring it up as justification for why feature X or Y won’t be returning or happening again. They did it in the past, but they had to crunch to make it happen, and they refuse to do it again.

I was at an Xbox One launch event in Toronto back in 2013, chatting with a bunch of game developers who were there. A bunch of people from Ubi Toronto, as well as smaller local teams. A journalist who was there asked everyone “what’s your favourite game that has come out lately” and every single developer in the group said “GTA V”, and then they all said something to the effect of “... but i’m glad I didn’t have to work on it”. I was standing beside a Ubisoft creative director and I said I was surprised by their answer, because while I thought GTA V was impressive as hell, I didn’t think it was actually that fun. He told me that he wasn’t even thinking about it that way. Some people find fun it it, others don’t. But from his perspective, he simply couldn’t get over the sheer number of moving parts in the game, the scope, the detail, the mechanical breadth AND depth, and the fact that it all works. He said that as a developer who knows what goes into making games, something like GTA V shouldn’t be possible. And THEN, he said “you know, it’s like the pyramids. We look at them and can’t believe that they exist. They’re this amazing example of what human beings can do. But they were built by slaves.” If THAT doesn’t hammer the point home...

It’s funny that i had this conversation with a Ubisoft employee, because the more recent games that come closest to the sheer scale and scope of GTA V have been the last couple Assassins Creed games. They’re just mind-bendingly vast in a way that transcends gaming. They’re getting close enough to genuine time travel that I’ve been using AC Origins and AC Odyssey to teach my daughter about ancient Egypt and Greece. Origins’ recreation of Egypt is so detailed that you can’t help but learn about the Egyptian religion and culture, the tensions between the Egyptian and Greek peoples as more and more Europeans travelled south, the connection that those people had to both the land and their ancestors and how intertwined it all was for them, all just by walking around in the game. And while I’m sure there was no shortage of crunch involved with the development of these AC games, we don’t hear the horror stories that we hear about studios like Rockstar or Naughty Dog. So I think there is hope. Some people are figuring out pieces of the puzzle. But I don’t know if we’ll ever reach a point where true masterpieces are made without significant sacrifice. I don’t think the latest God of War would exist without the all-consuming effort that the team put into it for nearly 5 years.

All this to say, if we start boycotting games because of crunch, I’m not sure any of us will get to experience the greatest games that get made. And i’m not sure that’s a problem that can ever be truly solved.

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