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"Crunch is bullshit"

Failbetter CEO Alexis Kennedy says for every story of devs who went to extremes to make a great game, there are countless others who suffered for games that never even launched

Failbetter Games CEO and creative director Alexis Kennedy said lots of interesting things during his GDC presentation on open development last week, but few were as succinct as his stance on the long-standing game dev practice of crunching.

"Crunch is bullshit."

As he explained, "Some of you have no choice but to crunch. If you have a choice about crunching, crunch is bullshit. I've only been a game developer seven years, but I've been in tech 20 years. The data are in. It's really clear. If you work overtime for a week or two weeks, you see a boost in productivity. If you work overtime for four weeks, eight weeks, six months, productivity drops."

"[T]he further in the crunch pit you get, the harder it is to get out."

While his session included advice on other topics (iterate on your marketing; let your community tell you what's wrong with the game but not how to fix it; make sure your Early Access narrative-based game has an ending right from the start), Kennedy's discussion of crunch seemed a bit truncated. Speaking with afterwards, he went into greater detail on why crunch is still a problem, even for indie developers who answer only to themselves.

"Because it is a slippery steep-sided pit," Kennedy explained. "People love making games, and games are a very competitive industry, so there's pressure to perform, as there is in many industries. And if you start getting into a hole, the natural thing to do is just to work more hours or to encourage your team to work longer hours. 'We just need to get this one release out the door and we'll be ok. We just need to fix this one bug.' And once you start going there, it starts to be a natural solution, and your ability to look at the bigger picture and your ability to think clearly are both compromised. So the further in the crunch pit you get, the harder it is to get out.

Kennedy said he's been in that pit himself, working hours he called "preposterous" only to realize after the fact that there were better approaches to the problem at hand. But the practice of crunching persists for a number of reasons. Kennedy said part of it is simple pride, with developers believing they can push through any obstacle if they work long enough at it. That's further exacerbated by an industry-wide tendency toward mythologizing crunch stories.

"On the indie end, I think the message to hammer home is that not crunching is not failure of courage. Crunching is failure of courage."

"We all know and love stories of creative individuals or teams who put in 80-hour weeks in order to get this victory out of the bag, who love the myth of the artist who says, 'If I had not wept blood into my keyboard, this game would not have been a success,'" Kennedy said. "But for every one of those stories, there are countless stories of people who wept tears of blood into their keyboard and released a game that nobody ever bought, or didn't make it to release because they lost their minds."

As for what can be done to change the culture of crunch in gaming, Kennedy acknowledged the IGDA's recent push for better practices from major employers in the industry, but said he wasn't familiar enough with that program or AAA development in general to have an idea of how successful it will be.

"On the indie end, I think the message to hammer home is that not crunching is not failure of courage. Crunching is failure of courage," Kennedy said. "If you put a 60-hour week in rather than think about what you're doing and finding a smarter way to work, then you're often taking what feels like the hard approach, but is actually the less considered approach. And this goes triple if you're making a team do that, rather than taking a timeout to see if there's an easier way to do things.

Ultimately, Kennedy doesn't think crunch is sustainable. It can provide a boost of productivity when used sparingly and in short bursts of a week or two, but the all-too-common practice of crunching for months on end is self-defeating. If studios need to crunch, he said, they should provide their employees with additional compensation for the work, as well as a concrete end date for the crunch period as soon as it begins.

"I want to make sure that we're building a studio that will be around for decades, and won't disappear with the first failed project that we have."

Sustainability is a point of emphasis for Kennedy. He doesn't just want his individual developers to thrive over the long haul; he wants the same thing for Failbetter itself. Before the Sunless Sea Kickstarter in 2013, the studio had been on hard times, with its first project, Fallen London, not paying the bills. Kennedy said he had to lay off three friends to keep the business afloat, and while Sunless Sea's success has seen the studio balloon from 4 people in 2014 to 16 today, he's still wary of doing anything that might put him in the same position of needing to cut headcount to get by. Perhaps counter-intuitively, that could mean doubling the size of the studio.

"I think 30 [people] at the moment is in my head as the place where we top out," Kennedy said. "12 already felt like the best size for the studio because everybody knew everybody, but I would like to be able to work on slightly more ambitious projects, and I'd like to be able to work on more concurrent projects so we could spread our bets. I want to make sure that we're building a studio that will be around for decades, and won't disappear with the first failed project that we have.

"I think our thing will always be games that are distinctive rather than technically ambitious. I cannot imagine we'll touch VR with a barge pole--unless it becomes extraordinarily mainstream technology with a very low cost to entry--and we are always, in our DNA and our soul, going to be a narrative-centric studio. Whether that narrative is text, animated art, whether it's expressed through gameplay mechanics or whatever else, narrative is at the core of what we do."

"[I]f you're reading this and you're a woman and you're not sure if your project is a fit, give us a go."

For example, narrative is the explicit focus of the studio's Fundbetter incubation program. In an effort to support interactive fiction and small narrative games, Failbetter is offering developers up to £20,000 ($28,600) on a per-project basis. While the priority here is supporting storytelling, Kennedy said there are two aspects about the program that people may not be quite clear on. First, the projects are supposed to make their money back. There's a spot on the application for creators to detail their marketing plans, but judging from the bulk of applicants so far, Kennedy said people don't really think about that, and indeed find it "slightly hurtful" that they would be asked.

Second, Failbetter is hoping to use the program to support people outside the traditional game development circles.

"So far, our total of female-led applications stands at 4 percent," Kennedy said. "We made a point of telling people those applications are welcome, and we're still having a hard time seeing that. And the thing is, I do not believe--especially in narrative led games--that 96 percent of the talented people are men. That means we are missing out on half the great applications we could be seeing, which breaks my heart, even before we get to the issues of representations of diversity and difficulties women experience in tech. So we'd love to see more applications from women. In particular, we know from both research and practical experience that very often women are tentative about applying for things, where men will just butt on through.

"So if you're reading this and you're a woman and you're not sure if your project is a fit, give us a go. The worst thing we could say is 'No.' And we'll say, 'No, thank you,' because we're polite."

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Brendan Sinclair avatar

Brendan Sinclair

Managing Editor

Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot in the US.