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Harrison: "Crunch is a relic of the 20th Century"

Thu 21 Jul 2011 12:42pm GMT / 8:42am EDT / 5:42am PDT
Development

Games as a service is part of the solution to easing pressure on development, says former Sony boss

Former Sony Worldwide Studios boss Phil Harrison has said that the problems of crunch are primarily linked to physical products, and as the industry adopts more digital models, traditionally long hours, weekend working and demotivated staff should ease.

Speaking at a panel at the Develop Conference in Brighton today, Harrison, FreeStyleGames co-founder Chris Lee and Frontier's David Braben all agreed that the industry is getting better at handling crunch although it's still a serious issue.

"Crunch is a relic of the 20th Century," said Harrison. "Products have crunch, services have a constant hum.

"If you're building products for Blu-ray or DVD or a particular release date, we always talk about 'finishing' them with a crescendo of energy and activity. But a service is when you launch, it's when you start. Services have their own updates and crunch therefore should disappear in the future."

Products have crunch, services have a constant hum

Phil Harrison, London Venture Partners

The issue of crunch has been raised again this year after the completion of hit Team Bondi title L.A. Noire, where a troubled seven year project led to accusations of a broken development environment, overwork and exploitation.

According to Chris Lee, part of the problem is not communicating clearly to staff why crunch is necessary and the financial and product rewards for putting in more extreme working hours.

"For many years there was an assumption of crunch," he said. "A lot of people indulged in it because it seemed to be the industry norm. From a product management perspective we've go better, from a scheduling perspective we've got better.

"The thing I've made a mistake with in the past is not communicating why we're crunching, why it's important, that's it's not just something that we do because we can, it's not exploitative, we're not doing it in the naivety that it doesn’t impact on their lives."

Elite creator Braben added that it can be difficult motivating a team working on projects with such long development cycles.

"It's a difficult thing to manage and an easy thing to be complacent about," he added. "Any product related business tends to have crunch whether it's making hardware or shipping devices. Motivation is the challenge. The longer the games cycle, there's a point where you hit a real low where nothing's being shown."

Harrison also said that part of the problem is that the games business continues to build new technology, increasing the workload of developers on top of their creative output.

"I think it's a huge part of it. When Spielberg goes to make a new film he doesn't reinvent the Panavision camera. With the exception of special effects, the traditional craft of making films hasn't really changed in the past 50 years. We throw away the Panavision camera every time we start a new game.

"It's getting better, the fact that middleware is more accepted way of deploying and building high-end products, if I was building a game for a major console release I would think very hard about building my own tech. I would almost certainly licence something," he added.

30 Comments

Lawrence Makin Audio

41 11 0.3
The biggest problem with crunch is that in the games industry, there is very little, if any, reward to the devs who had to crunch in the first place.

Take a look at, say, bankers on the other hand - huge reward for crunch. The games industry deals with vast amounts of money, but very little of that trickles back to the ones who made it in the first place.

There is still a lot of room for working condition maturity in this industry...unions to help accelerate that, perhaps?

Posted:3 years ago

#1

David Wilson

2 0 0.0
the only problem is games are not a service they are a product. Just because you distribute it digitally does not mean it no longer needs a beginning middle and end. You could no more do this with films. Crunch happens for many reasons however i feel a large culprit is publishers squeezing developers to promise stuff they can't deliver to get a deal or developers believing against the odds they actually can do it on time!

Edited 1 times. Last edit by David Wilson on 21st July 2011 3:13pm

Posted:3 years ago

#2

Alan Wilson Vice President, Tripwire Interactive

29 30 1.0
Sure services have a "constant hum" - actually, even that isn't right. There are always deadlines, even if it is just a new hat for TF2. Deadlines mean "crunch". How bad that crunch is depends on a LOT of factors, including project management skills, budget and so on. How people are treated for crunching depends entirely on the company they work for. We're crunching on RO2 right now, so ask our guys in a few weeks time. But a large part of crunch-time for smaller studios is just the desire to cram in as much as possible, squeeze the budget just as far as possible, when time is running out (usually because the money is, too).

Posted:3 years ago

#3

Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer

578 322 0.6
Um, but does the customer want all their games to be services?

Why stop at games? Why not make movies as services? Music as a service? Books as a service? (Though the delivery mechanisms of some of those are services, *they* are not services themselves. At least not now...)

In fact, let's just obliterate art. Art was never a service. But, hey, if we can make it something like getting your plumbing fixed, then it will be so much more efficient.

It will be the death of creativity though...

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Tim Carter on 21st July 2011 3:37pm

Posted:3 years ago

#4

Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing

1,136 1,174 1.0
Imagine missing any deadline and then using this argument as an excuse. "Don't think of my work as a product with a due date, think of me as being a service"

Posted:3 years ago

#5

Aidan Fitzpatrick Artist

48 2 0.0
It's not exactly uncommon these days that the reward for extra hard work at the end of the dev cycle is to be laid off once the game hits the shops.
Of course the managers etc that couldn't deliver the project without excessive crunch keep their jobs, while artists, QA and junior roles in other disciplines are dumped only to be replaced with fresh graduates after the next project gets the green light.
Hardly a great motivating factor tbh.

Posted:3 years ago

#6

Mary Hilton Community Manager, Reclaim Your Game

38 20 0.5
Of course the managers and executives of same said studios not only keep their jobs, they get bonuses and incentive pay, which is denied to those of the 'working' class. Those people just get laid off/fired/made redundant with the shipment of the game out the door.
Long term employment prospects for ordinary employees at gaming companies are not good for anyone under the management level.
It's a sign of bad management when a company always depends on crunch-time to make up for delays in normal workload. That means there's something terribly wrong in this system, and making excuses for it won't make it any better.

Posted:3 years ago

#7

Barry Scott Software Design

19 2 0.1
Professional project planning, risk management and engineering that is backed by management can fix the crunch.

Posted:3 years ago

#8

Tom Hays Founder & General Manager, Rocket Sound

2 0 0.0
What Barry said. Many of us have worked on many games which wasted person-decades of creative work, requiring the project to essentially be done more than once because it wasn't properly planned.

One of our team's mantras is that by being insanely well-organized, and obsessed with pipeline management, we allow creative people to be creative instead of chasing asset messes. Sure, game development will always have some chaos associated with it, but that fact is too often used as a shield to justify crunch and waste.

So, I agree that crunch is old-fashioned and unnecessary - there are people now who really know how to do this right, and we're no longer a craft in its infancy. However, I'll chime in with those who don't see how online delivery is the magic bullet.

Posted:3 years ago

#9

Kim Blake Senior Events & Education Co-ordinator, Blitz Games Studios

22 0 0.0
What Tom said ;)

Posted:3 years ago

#10

Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer

240 99 0.4
What kind of nonsense, it doesn't matter if the product is released on disc or digital distribution, in both cases you still have deadlines..

And you'll always have crunchtime no matter how well you plan (you actually plan crunch time), because there's no way you can calculate technical problems (especially with new hardware/engines).. Creating a game for a well established platform using a well tested/used engine it would be possible..

Personally I hate episodic gaming (like the telltale games), as it just seems to me it's a ploy to take money for an unfinished product. as a gamer you just hope they actually finish the serie, but like on tv it's not the first time a product stops after episode 1 or 2 leaving you with 'nothing'..

Posted:3 years ago

#11

Chris Olson Director, Online Business, SEGA of America

3 0 0.0
What most of you guys said -- crunch is more a symptom of bad management than something that is applicable to a specific business model (or delivery mechanism). As Alan said - the presence of deadlines is what leads to crunch and since most projects (that hope to ever be released) are subject to deadlines, the risk of crunch is always going to be there. In fact, given the way in which games as service is often approached, the risk for constant crunch is very real. I worked at start-ups in which there were no clear lines drawn and we were constantly held to seemingly arbitrary deadlines. Then priorities and scope would change and upend the schedule. I understand that change is part of any project and managing to that change is key, but if deadlines aren't respected, then there's the temptation to slip in more features (or even overhauling systems), especially by those who don't have to do the work.

I see "games as service" to be game development using methodologies (and timetables) from web development. This can be a very powerful thing, if managed correctly. If not, you run the risk of a constant slog/crunch with very little light at the end of the tunnel.

Posted:3 years ago

#12

Phil Harrison Co-founder and General Partner, London Venture Partners

1 0 0.0
Crunch is rightly an emotive topic and I certainly wasn't trying to trivialise the issue. The difficulty of panel discussions at conferences is that time restricts the depth of an answer to any particular question.

The point I was making is that the "bad old way" of developing games often resulted in sustained crunch and damage to the industry's most valuable asset - the creative and technical people who make the games. The worst crunch time often lasted for extended periods as deadlines were missed or shifted.

Games that are produced as "complete" products at launch (whether shipped on disc or distributed via an online store like PSN, XBLA or Steam) suffer the most because all of the content and value of the product has to be finished before the game is shipped. Yes, there are additional DLC packs, but the main release still has to be considered valuable for the up front retail price being charged in a highly competitive market.

By contrast, games that are developed and produced as services - often with a free-to-play business model - start life as smaller and tighter experiences and then grow in direct relation to the audience growth and feedback of the players. This is what I mean by games-as-a-service - where there is no enormous content and feature package that is written in one go, but developed and released over time, often over months or years.

Yes, there will still be sprints and crunches to release specific content or feature updates but the impact on the team should be more manageable and shorter.

In either case, better project management, planning and tools within the team will always make the development process more predictable and therefore less chaotic. The best teams and studios know this and are making excellent games without the need to crush their staff though crunch.

Finally, an observation: when 200 people hurl themselves over the finish line of a big console game schedule it's called "crunch" and is bad. When 20 people work really hard to build a web game or iOS game they call it being "entrepreneurial" and is more respected.

Anyway, happy to see the topic is being debated and the quicker that best practise in the industry is shared and becomes accepted norms the better we will all be.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Phil Harrison on 21st July 2011 7:30pm

Posted:3 years ago

#13

Greg Meurders Venture Capital Consultant

13 0 0.0
Well, that was hardly an article about observations, but an article about a desired state.

"The point I was making is that the "bad old way" of ! managing the funding and development of ! games often resulted in sustained crunch and damage to the industry's most valuable asset - the creative and technical people who make the games. The worst crunch time often lasted for extended periods as deadlines were missed or shifted."

I've taken the liberty to specifically edit that statement here, as it saves me from typing quite a bit to highlight the core issue.

I'm sorry, I know this is a bit cold, but really you are making a shift here which is just going to get internalised on an executive level in further challenges of what is simply the continuation of the same fundamental issues.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Greg Meurders on 21st July 2011 9:01pm

Posted:3 years ago

#14

Julian Cram Project Manager, Appster

50 28 0.6
Not one single person working in the games industry would complain about crunch if we were fairly compensated for it.

However, with Team Bondi and other recent stories, the main issue has not been the continued crunch, it's the lack of financial reward for putting up with the work.

People working overtime should get time and a half pay, double on weekends and public holidays.

Don't give me this rubbish about raising costs of the end product and outsourcing to China bullshit - games are full of product placement, advertising, and other revenue streams and we have not seen the FINAL price of packaged games come down in the slightest. All those do is line the pockets of publishers with even more money.

This needs to be given back to those who work on the game!

And no, sorry, getting "time in lieu" simply doesn't cut it.

Posted:3 years ago

#15

Kessia Thomas Studying 3D Computer Animation, University of the West of Scotland

16 1 0.1
Interesting article and even more interesting comments..nice to know what I will be potentially getting my self into in three years time quite scary....

Posted:3 years ago

#16

Michael Vandendriessche Studying Computer Science, K.U. Leuven

85 12 0.1
@ Doug Thomas, I was thinking the exact same thing.
I"m quite excited for experiencing crunch myself.

Posted:3 years ago

#17
I'm pretty sure this is incorrect, but what is history is nothing but crunch. Each creative industry has their own on/off cycles. Shooting a movie takes incredible hours and is utterly exhausting, but they get to blow off for weeks or months after, or if it's a really long shoot, during production.

What the industry needs is a way to get huge, triple A games out in a reasonable time without a huge turnover rate. Maybe a periodic blow for everyone at the studio would be a good idea? 6 months before gold and the inevitable big crunch time everyone gets a month off? Crunch is not destroying other industries, I see no reason why it should destroy the AAA video game industry. But there should be far more effective ways of dealing with it.

Posted:3 years ago

#18

Abbass Hussain International Business Development, AQ Interactive

13 0 0.0
I think "Crunch" simply needs to be factored into management bonuses as a negative. Overtime hours are a measurable quantity that can easy become part of management-reward formulae. Were this to happen, managers would soon find the 'motivation' that Phil says is missing, and would strive to hit the perfect balance of being on-time and on-budget with the minimum impact on working conditions.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Abbass Hussain on 22nd July 2011 8:40am

Posted:3 years ago

#19

Yannick Boucher Project Manager, Crytek

27 1 0.0
Really good comments here, the heavyweights have come out of the shadows... ! Glad to see Phil chiming back in too. I agree that crunch is most often the result of management failure (or inexperience/incapacity), and I also agree that physical product vs. service doesn't do much of a difference, so long as there are deadlines to hit (and indeed there are, regardless of how you're delivering).

Yes, maybe some social games start out small and keep iterating one little layer at a time, but people haven't come out of the woodworks there yet, it's a work in progress. And if you take some of the bigger MMOs out there which are already functioning on the basis of "games as a service", I can guarantee you that there is crunch there when they release a new expansion or new features, just like with any shippable physical product.

+1 to Phil though on highlighting how subjectively people see this, depending on the size of the company!Indeed regardless of all this, demonizing big multi-million-selling boxed/AAA products isn't really an answer to any questioning we have in the industry.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Yannick Boucher on 22nd July 2011 3:53am

Posted:3 years ago

#20

Sandy Lobban Founder and Creative Director, Noise Me Up

315 208 0.7
The reasons that you end up with a period at the end of development that gets referred to as crunch.....

1. The first few months are wasted because the design isnt solid and youre already eating into the budget.
2. Because the design isnt solid, its a nightmare to schedule properly.
3. Art assets come to late in the day when the design isnt solid.
4. Tech or "equipment" changes are hard to visualise when the design isnt solid.

My view is we have a long way to come in the area of game design more than anything else. Knowing what your making always makes things more predictable. This is where experienced game designers with an understanding of tech and knock on effects matter.


Posted:3 years ago

#21

Robert Jenkins UI Artist at Best Boy Media, TT Games

4 0 0.0
'Crunch is a relic of the 20th century'
I'm sorry but it's as much a relic as greed! Every publisher and studio manager etc wants to make as much money as possible - that's the point of business. If in the next 5 years you can squeeze 4 games out by utilizing crunch instead of 3, then who's going to argue with the extra $millions it makes!?
The problem is rewarding those who have to do all the extra work. As so many others have said, often the reward is to be laid off!

(Obviously there are some companies who are generous and most of their employees are happy with the rewards for overtime hours in crunch [Myself included]. But even so it's still grudgingly done on the whole because no amount of bonuses should make up for not having a social life, seeing your partner or seeing your kids grow up for several months each year!)

I can't see crunch EVER disappearing as it's always going to be needed for the current games model. Yes Phil is right, with service based games it could be reduced an awful amount. But to be frank episodic content/ever growing games as an industry standard is terrible. As Andrew said, I don't want to get into a game but after a couple of episodes/1season) it gets canned, just like TV shows run the risk (firefly and Jericho spring to mind).
It's like suggesting we stop making blockbuster movies and concentrate on TV series. Yeah TV series can be great and you can develop characters and story over time; but movies are also good for a quick 2hour blast of excitement/drama/fun, and you know you're going to have a conclusion.

Edited 2 times. Last edit by Robert Jenkins on 22nd July 2011 11:13am

Posted:3 years ago

#22

Matthew Eakins Technical Lead, HB-Studios

49 27 0.6
For anyone who thinks better management is panacea I would like to point out there are inherent problems with software development that better management can alleviate but sometimes things still go tits up. Sometimes even the best management can't prevent crunch time. At the end of the day (unless you are swimming in cash) you still need to hit your milestones so that you get paid. I highly recommend everyone in our industry (not just games but software development) read The Mythical Man Month. In it one of the chapters discusses why software projects fail and there are three points that even the best management can't address:
- Difficult to estimate time
- Optimism
- Effort is not equal to Progress

Posted:3 years ago

#23

Curt Sampson Sofware Developer

596 360 0.6
The next book to read after The Mythical Man Month would be Kent Beck's Extreme Programming Explained or at least the project management parts of it. It addresses all three issues.

Posted:3 years ago

#24

Nicholas Lovell Founder, Gamesbrief

196 198 1.0
I still think people are misunderstanding why Phil is arguing that crunch is going away.

You used to have a single release date. Now you have a release every four weeks (or two weeks, or even less).

There is not a single big deadline by which everything has to be done. You iteratate and launch, iterate and launch.

You have fixed time and (roughly) fixed budget, so scope slips into the next release. Given that's only four weeks away, that's no biggie.

Bad management can still make this horrible. Startups and web service businesses can be horrible places to work. But it is no longer about "one last push to get it over the line, team". The game is endlessly iterated, endlessly played, endlessly improved. So crunch no longer makes sense as a concept.

That's games as a service meaning games like Tiny Tower on iOS, anything on Facebook, all the games by Bigpoint, MindCandy, Jagex, etc, etc.

Posted:3 years ago

#25

Private VIdeo Games

103 14 0.1
Can anyone name some AAA games which sold well in the past few years which didn't have a crunch period?

Posted:3 years ago

#26

Yannick Boucher Project Manager, Crytek

27 1 0.0
Hey Graeme! Shame we never actually met in person... ;) but you are perfectly right. Doesn't mean it's not a target that we should aim for, though. Of course there's always a difference between always being in crunch mode because you can't plan for craps, and crunch because of deadlines (realistic or not). When I say "project management is responsible", I actually meant project management is responsible ALL the way to securing more development time if it clearly doesn't make sense. But you need metrics and numbers to back it up. That's why you need to do a proper management job. Of course, we're all just human too.

Posted:3 years ago

#27

Tom Hays Founder & General Manager, Rocket Sound

2 0 0.0
For the people (especially students) who don't think crunch is always bad - totally agree. There have been times when teams have voluntarily slammed huge amounts of work in at key moments, to make a project that they were passionate about better. Eons ago, when I was playing in bands and engineering, there was nothing I wanted more than 16-hour days in the studio - it was fun, and I saw no point in doing anything else.

My complaint is with companies that institutionalize massive crunch, and leaders who assume that it's necessary every time. It's exploitative, and drives good people out of the business at a young age.

I stayed in the business, and I had years where I barely saw my wife and kids for months on end. I have very consciously worked to structure my job now so that this doesn't happen. I still work more than most of my neighbors, and I'll have a couple of insane weeks now and then, but I have a life outside of work.

@Matthew - I agree to a point, but I think your take is overly pessimistic.

Cheers

Posted:3 years ago

#28
Rather than look at crunch, one should look at how. Project has creep and delays to the overall development and delivery of a project. UltimTely, there will be delays even with well managed systems. Factor in these projects are produced by teMs of bipedal opposable thumb humanoids, a element of 1 to 2 month buffer would be logicL for large scale projects and so forth

Posted:3 years ago

#29

Michael Perez Student - Game Blogger

3 0 0.0
I hate the all-digital-media idea..... and this article only supports my idea. I fail to see how digital distribution will get rid of crunch. The biggest gaming company cashing in on "service" would be Blizzard with WoW.... their subscription fees can, and should, be considered a service. But this does not stop them from having internal deadlines for patches or new expansions releases. I think it may relief the heat of crunch, but not get rid of it.

In the end the service idea (subscription) can be a double edge sword because it will suck out too much money out of the market if every game attempts to do it. Unless you plan to get paid for ongoing services only once.... which its just plain stupid.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Michael Perez on 1st August 2011 4:57pm

Posted:3 years ago

#30

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