While the industry practice of crunch is by no means eliminated, more and more big studios and veteran developers are talking about the devastating impact crunch can have on employees and team morale as a whole. Double Fine Productions' Tim Schafer is the latest designer who's lived through lengthy crunch periods and is now speaking out against it.
Schafer, who started his career in games at LucasFilm Games in his early 20s, working on classics like The Secret of Monkey Island and Grim Fandango, recounted how much he loved working at George Lucas' video game division, but he also recalled how intense the overtime work became.
"We were happy, and the work was so rewarding, it never occurred to us that we were being exploited," he said. "Ron [Gilbert] came into the office at one point and said 'We're going to have to start working evenings and weekends!' and we just said 'OK!' But at one point we did calculate how much we were being paid per hour and it came out at $3.50, and we were a little more depressed after that."
The more Schafer and his co-workers crunched, the more he witnessed how it was affecting his personal life and those of his colleagues. It's hard to be a good husband or father if you're never around your family.
"You don't realize until it has happened that you're doing all this damage to your personal life by staying at work all the time," he continued. "You can mentally put the rest of the world on hold, but the rest of the world can't necessarily be put on hold by you. I was so gung-ho about it. If you think someone will wait for you and tolerate you not being around... people move on."
Even at Double Fine, when his studio's Psychonauts was cancelled by the publisher and Schafer had to borrow $250,000 to keep the business alive, he let the practice of crunch creep back into his mentality, but for different reasons that time.
"We stayed up crazy hours because we were so happy to still be in business," he noted. "But you don't do your best work. At 5 a.m. you're probably entering more bugs than code. You're not all there, you're not as creative and you get bad habits, like coming in at 11 a.m. because you know you'll still be there at 3 a.m. Meanwhile the dishes aren't getting done, the laundry is piling up and you haven't seen your family..."
As he's gotten older, Schafer said he's become less tolerant of major stress and that includes crunch. He believes it's "misguided and old-fashioned" and that leaders in the industry should not be subjecting their employees to it.
"It's one thing to throw yourself whole hog at a project because you believe in it. But once you start managing other people you can't throw them at the rocks - they'll just splatter against them. I learned over time to be better with that and try to lead more by inspiration," he said.
"I'd also like to convince the world we don't need to have crunch mode. We tried to build a company that nurtures creativity... that encourages them to find a wealth of creativity inside themselves and allows them to do their best creative work."