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Confessions from a crunch addict

BioShock and Borderlands vet Walt Williams talks about the devastating impact of crunch culture in the games business

Crunch. Just the mere mention of the word probably causes shivers to go up and down some developers' spines. The AAA segment of the games business has been grappling with the delicate matter of crunch for some time. It's one of those issues that doesn't seem to fade away. Just ask Bungie's Luke Timmins, who recently described the studio's 13-year battle with crunch and detailed how Halo 2's "brutal" crunch led to a new way of thinking about people management. And while some people loathe crunch or feel it's a necessary component of development at times, there are actually some who "like" it.

Walt Williams, who worked in the AAA industry on titles like BioShock, Borderlands, Civilization and Spec-Ops: The Line, is one of those people. Moreover, in an excerpt on Polygon from his book Significant Zero, Williams talks about his addiction to the crunch phenomenon.

"I let my health, relationships, and responsibilities fall to the wayside. When I finally come up for air, there's a smoking crater where my life used to be"

"Crunch is my chase," he writes, "and it leads me to a high that's like Vegas, Amsterdam and Bangkok rolled into one. See, there are few things I love more than being in a fight. It fills my need for power, pain, and righteous indignation. If I win, I'm a god. If I lose, I'm a martyr. Both feel fucking stellar. No sir, there's nothing bad about a fight. And Crunch is a fight from start to finish. It's the entire development process condensed into a never-ending string of dustups, like in Game of Death, starring Bruce Lee. Except instead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you're fighting tech, memory, art, design, publishers, players, reviewers, budgets, schedules, weekends, egos, studio closures, unpaid royalties, cultural relevance - the list goes on and on.

"When I worship at the unholy altar of Crunch, everything outside of the work fades away. By design, my world is reduced to where I sleep and where I work. Every day must be fast, focused, and above all else, homogenized. Give myself too much downtime, too much room to think, and I start asking questions, like 'Why am I doing this to myself?' So, I lose myself in the routine. When every day is a rehash of what has been, and a preview of what will be, they blend into one another. This creates an out-of-body effect, not unlike highway hypnosis. Soon, who I am becomes an abstract concept-a loose collection of character flaws and neurotic tendencies. Only then can my body become the vessel through which an impossible amount of work will be accomplished in a short amount of time.

"I love it, except for when I hate it, but I can't hate it if I never stop. Even when I'm not crunching, I work too much. I've edited scripts in ICU rooms, responded to emails while begging lovers not to walk out the door, sent brainstorming lists during the birth of my child. I held my grandfather's hand while he passed away, then went into his office and wrote text for mission descriptions. None of this was expected of me, and no one would have dared to ask. I did all these things for me. Work brings order to my world. When things get tough, I slide down into my job and disappear. I let my health, relationships, and responsibilities fall to the wayside. When I finally come up for air, there's a smoking crater where my life used to be. Instead of picking up the pieces to start again, I slip back down into the thick of it. This is how I cope."

It's a fascinating and sobering perspective from someone in the AAA trenches, and it's not an issue to be taken lightly. In other parts of the excerpt, Williams also challenges some of the assumptions or preconceived notions many people in the business have about crunch -- for example, when crunch works it's OK and it's simply someone's "passion," so it can't be all that bad for the individual. Go read the full excerpt for more; the entire book is no doubt worth a read for further insights into the issue.

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James Brightman avatar
James Brightman: James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.
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