Breathing In

Oof.  I've been away a bit.  I buried myself hard in crunch this year, and have been suffering from the aftermath.  Sorry for the silent treatment.

I've just about got air back in my lungs at this point.  I want to get some dev blogs going again, but first I want to share some brief thoughts on crunch while they're fresh on my mind.

I don't work for a company that forces me into intense year+ crunches or anything of the sort, so I won't speak to that.  I work on a live game where I constantly have to wrestle my desire to make more/better against the insatiable hunger for content to come sooner.  A lot of game devs struggle with this in varying forms, live product or not.  There's always time pressure, and there's always more you can do for your game.  There's no such thing as perfect.  At some point, you have to choose to stop, but typically just before that, there's a temptation to work your ass off to finish and improve everything you can.

You do it because you love the work, and because you care about the thing you're creating.  For me, I also do it because it alleviates the guilt I feel when I have to stop short of some more perfect vision in my head.  If I give it everything I have, then I can't look back and blame myself for not doing more.

So what?  Why are crunches bad?

There's a lot of hate in the industry for the concept of crunch right now.  Much of it very justified.  Personally, I don't think all crunches are bad.  I think long crunches are bad, and intense crunches are bad (giving up all of your nights and weekends).  But putting in some extra hours during critical portions of the project is something I have a hard time imagining letting go.

During the development of Cataclysm, I was focused entirely on quest design.  I worked on improving some of the older zones, like Darkshore and Azshara.  I redid the troll starting area, Echo Isles.  And I worked on some new zones (at the time), like Vashj'ir, Deepholm, and Twilight Highlands.

Cataclysm was intense.  We took on a lot of quest work that expansion.  At first we thought we could keep it sane by making the redos of the old zones pretty light where we could.  We color-coded the zones: green for a zone that was in a pretty good state and only needed light redo, red for a zone that needed to be wiped clean and started fresh, and orange for a zone in between.  As we dug deep into the zones, we discovered that most of them were what we started calling "watermelon" zones: green on the outside, but very red on the inside.  Dramatically more work than expected.  So many of us crunched to make up the extra time we needed to do them right.

While we were working on Cata, the crunch didn't bother me.  I loved the work, and was happy to stay longer doing more of it.  I dropped raiding, and I didn't spend much time with friends or family, but they understood and were supportive.  I grew to enjoy the late hours even more than the normal work day.  The office was quiet, there were less distractions.  I could just put my headphones on and do what I enjoyed most.

It wasn't until after we finished and went back to normal hours that I really realized the impact the crunch had on me.  Normally, my brain is a flurry of idle thoughts - bouncing between subjects rapidly, daydreaming about the new thing I want to make, planning processes and conversations ahead of time.  After this crunch though, everything was quiet.  I'd catch myself staring into the distance, unable to recall any thoughts I'd had over long lapses.  I would zone out mid-conversation and have trouble pulling myself back in.  I had no urges to create, no excitement for what I was going to do when I got home or when I woke up in the morning.  I was just fried.  Some hollow remnant of myself.

This sort of stunned me.  I'd experienced that sort of mental fatigue you get after a long day, but I'd never experienced my brain just shutting down like this before.  It took at least a couple months for me to really recover, and I can honestly say I wasn't much use to anyone in that time.  There was no creative drive left to push me forward at work.  I had time back to be with friends and family, but my brain was just absent.

It all came back eventually, but this is when I personally learned some of the toll that crunch takes.  Whatever time I gained during that short period was certainly lost in the following months.  I have the good fortune of surrounding myself with people who understand my passions and my work well, and forgive me for being an absent friend, but there are certainly developers who pay a much higher cost in lost friends and relationships due to these kinds of crunches too.

Our passions drive us, but we cannot let them take over entirely.  We have limits, and there are other important things in our lives that deserve our time as well.

So why are there crunches?

Crunches are not cost-effective.  Most producers and companies are very aware of this.  More work might get done per day, but less gets done per work-hour as people wear out.  And typically when the crunch ends, most of those people need recovery time for a while afterwards, resulting in a net loss in productivity over long periods.

There might be some companies with ignorant decision-makers that push for this crunch atmosphere anyway, but in my personal experience, it's not actually exploitative behavior that motivates most crunches.

It's easy to say that if you schedule everything well, crunches should never be necessary.  That's a half truth.  When you're doing creative work, accurately predicting how long anything will take is a black art.

  • You can try to schedule against how long it would take if everything went right and you found the fun immediately, but that never happens.  
  • You can try to schedule against the average time it takes across many similar projects, but then find that this feature-set or development team actually end up having very different needs.  Or find that this project requires more rounds of iteration to get it right.
  • You can schedule against an extra loose time period, and then find yourself wrestling against feature creep that fills the space (which is not always easy to spot) and against the worker-psychology that there's still time to explore and make it better. 
  • You can try to babysit the entire creative process to force each stage to progress by a certain time, but creative minds tend to resent the control.  Not to mention identifying the entire road-map ahead of time for something that creatively unfolds is extremely difficult.
  • You can loosen all the constraints and accept a scaling schedule based on how things go, but your anticipating audience or might lose interest (or your investors/bosses in some cases).

Somewhere in the middle of all of that may be the right answer for scheduling, but in truth, whether your scheduling is good or bad, it's only half the reason why you might end up in crunch.  The other half stems from the needs of the creators themselves.

Most good developers are extremely passionate about the things they're creating.  They aren't operating on an assembly line as much as they are fully absorbed in the organic act of building a beautiful world.  Day-dreaming about it in their off-time.  Excitedly (or frustratingly) trying to share it with their co-workers.

Early in the process, that passion only comes out in spurts, because it's hard for a group of people to all find the same common vision.  Some will be exploring the gameplay, some the story, some the aesthetic, some the technical architecture, and they'll all have slightly different ideas of what the game will be.  On a highly functioning team, there's typically only one or two people with the full vision of the game in their heads at first, trying to guide all of the others to it.  This part of the process can be difficult and feel a lot like work at times.  It can involve disagreements and compromises, and a lot of iteration.  Effective developers know how important iteration is, but that doesn't make it enjoyable, especially when it's motivated by the opinions of others.

Late in development, everything starts coming together.  All of the developers can see what the world looks like, interact with it, experience it.  They all start reaching the point where they understand the common vision of the game, and are inspired with numerous ways to expand it and make it even better.  This is where the passion takes over far more easily, and it stops feeling like work.  This is where time just disappears and there starts to be a burgeoning desperation to get more things in.

This is where crunch happens.

If you're a developer who loves creating, when you see a deadline looming or a ship date approaching, and in your head there are visions dancing of all the things you could do to make the game greater, it can be hard to hold yourself back from giving it whatever hours it takes.

In truth, no developer ever finishes their game.  It's never done.  There are always faults to be corrected, there are always beautiful things that can be added.  It can always be better.  But at some point we have to force ourselves to accept some set of features, some version of 'complete' that seems sane.  At some point players need to actually play the game, so we have to finish.

But as those final stages approach, as you become aware of how much more the game can be at the same time as you know you need to stop soon, you have to find a way to make that okay.  To give it everything you can in those final hours.  

Crunch often happens because passionate leaders want more of the game, or because passionate creators aren't done creating.  

The harmful act of creation

I'm not glorifying crunch.  It's unhealthy.  

It's unhealthy when it's mandated.  It's unhealthy when it's assumed norm of the entire industry.  And it's still unhealthy when it's motivated by personal passion.  But it's important to understand something if you want to change it.

If you look around at other creative industries that have been around longer then game dev, you'll find them still struggling with similar problems, if for slightly different reasons:

Scheduling this type of work is challenging.  Forcing moderation upon yourself is challenging.  Both even more so when you're working against the pressure of money or an eagerly awaiting audience.  But they are none-the-less important, and I'm hopeful to see more smart minds sharing their wisdoms for combating these struggles in practical ways as time goes on.

In the meantime, I accept some amount of crunching, at least for myself.  I just hold it as my own responsibility to not let it happen at the expense of other things in my life, and to always check myself with some reasonable amount of moderation.  While we as an industry figure out how to tackle these problems more effectively, I hope others remember to take care of themselves properly as well.



[My thoughts and opinions are my own.  They are not those of Blizzard Entertainment, and they do not necessarily represent Blizzard design philosophies.]