Can de­vel­op­ers avoid crunch and still re­lease on time?

PC GAMER (UK) - - CONTENTS - By Xalavier Nel­son Jr

I’m talk­ing to Jake Bir­kett of Grey Alien Games, de­vel­oper of Re­gency Soli­taire and up­com­ing card-based RPG Shad­ow­hand. “It oc­curred the day af­ter I had done some kind of crunch un­til 5 am,” he says. “I got up in the morn­ing and crawled un­der my desk to switch the plugs on, and my back went out. I’m just in my early 40s now.”

In a blog post from 2015, cre­ative di­rec­tor Clint Hock­ing said the 80-hour weeks he worked dur­ing the devel­op­ment of Splin­ter Cell: Chaos The­ory “gave me brain dam­age”. Whether or not crunch time is nec­es­sary to re­lease a game ‘on time’ is a peren­nial topic in game devel­op­ment cir­cles. The web con­nect­ing con­trac­tors, pub­lish­ers, plat­form hold­ers and de­vel­op­ers that de­ter­mines how re­lease dates are de­cided upon, and whether they ac­tu­ally get met, is ob­scured be­hind a cloud of non-dis­clo­sure agree­ments. When you throw the pos­si­bil­ity of com­mu­nity-en­rag­ing de­lays into this po­tent mix, it quickly be­comes ap­par­ent how de­vel­op­ing a sched­ule that al­lows you to make an ex­cel­lent game, while tak­ing care of your­self and launch­ing in a rea­son­able pe­riod of time, is far more com­pli­cated than it might ini­tially ap­pear.

Since re­lease dates are usually set far in ad­vance of a game’s com­ple­tion, de­vel­op­ers are al­ways try­ing to find more ef­fi­cient ways to ac­count for hur­dles that pop up along the way. In the case of Dream Daddy, di­rec­tor Tyler Hutchi­son de­vel­oped a com­piler that, no mat­ter what changes were made dur­ing the game’s dev cy­cle, would au­to­mat­i­cally plug all of the el­e­ments of the vis­ual novel in their proper places upon its com­ple­tion. How­ever, de­spite this tool, the team still worked 14-16 hour days lead­ing up to launch. “It was a team of all in­die de­vel­oper peo­ple so ev­ery­one was just like, ‘Nah, this is fine! We’ll just make some more cof­fee and keep go­ing!’” Hutchi­son says. “Ev­ery­one was re­ally gung-ho, and, of course, that com­pletely ex­hausted us.” Dream Daddy ended up be­ing de­layed by six days, but af­ter the re­sult­ing ex­haus­tion, the team still worked over­time. “All of us were so aware of it,” says Hutchi­son. “To be like, ‘Okay, we’re not gonna do this again!’ And then we’d send a build to QA at 4 am and just be like, ‘Fuck! We did it again!’

Tanya X Short, co­founder of Moon Hunters de­vel­oper Kit­fox Games, ex­plained the phe­nom­e­non of con­sis­tent over­work thusly: “Crunch­ing can feel amaz­ing. You feel more pro­duc­tive, even when you’re not!

“Ev­ery dev dreads dis­ap­point­ing their play­ers, but, hon­estly, if you have to choose be­tween dis­ap­point­ing them with a de­lay or dis­ap­point­ing them with a buggy sub-par game ex­pe­ri­ence, I’ll pick the de­lay ev­ery time.”

Re­gard­less of de­vel­oper size, it seems the con­ver­sa­tion of how to mit­i­gate crunch when it feels nec­es­sary reg­u­larly oc­cu­pies the in­dus­try. Bill Gard­ner, lead de­signer on BioShock, and co­founder of Per­cep­tion de­vel­oper The Deep End Games, re­calls Ir­ra­tional Games oc­ca­sion­ally forc­ing peo­ple to leave the build­ing so that they could get some much-needed rest. “The sad real­ity is ev­ery place I’ve ever been to, ev­ery project I’ve ever worked on, I’ve never spo­ken to any­one who knows how to avoid it,” he says. “In an ideal in­dus­try, that wouldn’t be a thing, but games are in­cred­i­bly com­plex. No amount of plan­ning, or fore­sight, or ar­cane rit­ual is go­ing to al­low de­vel­op­ers to an­tic­i­pate the in­creas­ing com­plex­ity of the things we make.”

Be­tween A rock and a hard place

As de­mor­al­is­ing as a de­lay can be for both de­vel­op­ers and their au­di­ences, that ex­tra time could mean yet an­other de­vel­oper won’t get burned out of the in­dus­try they love. In the case of BioShock In­fi­nite, ex­ec­u­tive VP of devel­op­ment Rod Fer­gus­son felt even a month-long de­lay could be the dif­fer­ence be­tween re­leas­ing a good ti­tle, or a great one. The risk of a de­lay isn’t triv­ial, ei­ther. “A de­lay can be com­pletely dev­as­tat­ing,” Paul Kil­duff-Tay­lor co­founder of Frozen Sy­napse de­vel­oper Mode 7 Games, tells me. “You can lose money you’ve al­ready com­mit­ted to ad­ver­tis­ing; you can lose a pro­mo­tional slot with a plat­form holder; you can get into cash­flow dif­fi­cul­ties be­cause you have to wait to re­lease the game: de­lays can po­ten­tially sink a com­pany if it isn’t healthy to be­gin with.”

Which again brings me to crunch: the labour prac­tice ev­ery­one be­moans, but few man­age to elim­i­nate. When a sched­ule looks in­ad­e­quate, and a mile­stone is loom­ing large, crunch of­ten seems like the only op­tion left.

“It can be very hard just to keep your nor­mal ev­ery­day life go­ing,” He­len Carmichael of Grey Alien Games says, “But to be pro­duc­tive, ef­fec­tive worker, you still need to eat, sleep and wash. All of those things are re­ally pos­i­tive and im­por­tant, and it’s easy to let them slide.”

“I’ve never spo­ken to any­one who knows how to avoid [crunch]”

ABOVE: Over a five-year dev cy­cle, BioShock In­fi­nite was de­layed two times pub­licly.

FAR RIGHT: DreamDaddy’s launch was pushed back by six days af­ter driv­ing its de­vel­op­ers to ex­haus­tion.

RIGHT: ThisIs ThePo­lice was de­layed by a week be­cause the pub­lisher for­got to press a but­ton.

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