The Game Industry’s Crunching Problem: An Interview with Stardock’s Derek Paxton

Yesterday evening, development studio Crytek boasted of how the team developing Ryse was served more than 11,500 dinners over the course of its development, which was described by the Twitter account as a “crunching team,” implying that the game had been in crunch mode for a very long time under the hashtag #RyseFacts. 

Many gamers, developers and industry insiders alike took offense to the notion that games should be developed under crunch time, with many expressing their disgust to the practice, which treated developers with a certain callousness rarely exhibited in industries outside of the game industry. As of now, the #RyseFacts hashtag has been almost completely overtaken by reactions against the tweet. 

I spoke with Stardock’s Derek Paxton, who has some pretty strong feelings about crunch and why Stardock doesn’t do it as a studio.

 stardock entertainment

Why does crunch make zero sense?

Because it makes games worse. Companies crunch to push through on a specific game, but the long-term effect is that talented developers, artists, producers and designers burn out and leave the industry. The studio may have gotten Kung Fu Chicken done on time, but what about the next game? What about all the games that would have benefited from the talent and experience of the professionals that end up leaving the industry rather than live at their desk?

This becomes even more of a concern with developers that aren’t in their early 20s. People with families and children are less willing to work 80 or more hours a week. Those extremely valuable voices end up leaving the industry, and we lose their experience and more mature worldviews.

What would propel a studio to initiate crunch?

There are two answers to that. In general, the games industry doesn’t value project management. Many producers either don’t have the experience required to run these large and incredibly complex projects, or the company isn’t giving the producers the authority to do their jobs. Producers become communicators and aides instead of team managers, and in some companies are seen as subordinate to game designers (because “the game comes first!”) instead of a balance to designers’ idealism (and I say that as someone who is both a producer and designer and has argued both sides of this issue).

Those situations leave little hope for building and maintaining a reasonable schedule. But even if those traps are avoided there is a second half that needs to be in place: the external forces.

There are 4 external forces that create crunch:

  1. External publishers
  2. Stockholders
  3. Retail
  4. Financial pressure

Creating games is a very different beast than creating business software. In the business software world you have a requirements list enumerating all the things your product needs to do, and you implement each in a relatively known amount of time. There are always hiccups when some unforeseen thing pops up, but it’s manageable.

In the games world there is another requirement for every product we make: it must be fun. This is the huge unknown. No matter how good the design sounds, no matter how much we think features A + B + C sound great together – when you get it done, some things work well and some things don’t. Games also face technical challenges unimaginable in the business software world. Put that together and no matter how good you are at scheduling, sometimes a significant amount of additional work will pop up in the middle of a project.

If you have any of the four constraints listed above this becomes a problem. If the game needs another six months to redo a system that isn’t working out, the publisher may not allow for it, and you get stuck crunching to get it in by the original target date. The same goes for companies that prioritize their stock price as a short-term goal, or that have to be on store shelves by a specific date that was contracted long before release was getting close. Lastly, some companies simply can’t afford to maintain their burn rate (their payroll and expense each month) without releasing, so they aren’t able to give the game the time it needs, instead they crunch.

What kind of psychological effect do you think it has on a team?

For the short term, especially for the young that enjoy living their dream jobs, crunching can be fun. It builds a sense of camaraderie with the team (much like going to war) and enthusiasm for the game.

In the long term the cost to families, marriages, physical health and all the things that make us well rounded individuals is dramatic. It’s fun for your first game, but after a few times going through crunch, developers have to ask themselves what they are making this sacrifice for. 

How does it affect, in your opinion, creativity?

In the short term crunching and focusing everything on your game can be a great way to focus. Over time, most people drift from being creative to getting through work as quickly as humanly possible. Why take extra time to add detail or nuance to a game if you have work piling up on your desk faster than you can get it out?

But more importantly, the creative loss of those leaving the industry can’t be understated. This is a dream job for so many, we should do everything in our power to make sure those that are in it want to stay so we can have the best and brightest creating better and better games.

Wouldn’t better planning be in everyone’s long-term interest? Why do so many studios find themselves in crunch? 

Crunch is a symptom of broken management and process. Crunch is the sacrifice of your employees.

Planning is half the battle, as I discussed above. At Stardock we publish our own games, we are a privately held company with one owner who is willing to let schedules slip rather than sacrifice quality or cause crunch, we don’t release to retail (in digital we can adjust dates and move the schedule as needed), and we are profitable on our back-catalog sales (we make enough selling the games we have already made to cover our monthly expenses).

Those are rare qualities and Stardock doesn’t have a monopoly on that combination. The real secret is to have the ability to prioritize the long-term success of the game over short-term revenue goals. It’s a lesson we learned from Galactic Civilizations II. Stardock released that game in 2006 and it continues to provide 10 percent of our revenue. 

The money takes care of itself when you make a great game. Take the time to do that.

Some people say “that’s just the way it is” – what do you think about that?

Companies and individuals should stop wearing their time spent crunching as a badge of honor. Crunch is a symptom of broken management and process. Crunch is the sacrifice of your employees. I would ask them why crunch isn’t an issue with other industries. Why isn’t crunch an issue at all game studios? 

Employees should see it as a failure. Gamers should be concerned about it, because in the long term the hobby they love is losing talent because of it. Companies should do everything in their power to improve their processes to avoid these consequences.

You have a background at Novell. Do other IT industries outside of the game industry have the same practices? 

But you don’t live at work, and the company isn’t proud of their overtime. They work hard to prevent it.

No. I worked on projects with many Fortune 500 companies. The companies were full of people that were just as passionate about their jobs as those in the game industry. One of my favorite clients, Huntington Bank, was chronically understaffed and the team worked long hours to make up for it. That’s what professionals do; when it’s busy you work over. You may work an occasional weekend to get caught up before the week starts.

But you don’t live at work, and the company isn’t proud of their overtime. They work hard to prevent it.

Is there any time when it makes sense to have a crunch? Exceptions to the rule, as it were?

Fallen Enchantress was in development for 20 months. Twice during that project, I asked (mandated) that the team come in and work at least one day on a weekend. They could pick Saturday or Sunday and I would be in both days.

I didn’t do it because a lot of extra work got completed on that extra day. I did it because the team was failing to meet reasonable milestones. Mandating a weekend day for everyone to come in made sure that everyone was a lot more productive during their normal 40 hours and it reduced the amount of chatter and goofing off to “Stardock normal.”

I expect all professionals to occasionally work over to help keep reasonable schedules on target. And we show appreciation for that by allowing them to take flex time off when it’s more convenient. It influences raises, bonuses and promotions, etc.

And even though I said short term crunch has its benefits and it seems harmless to ask everyone to work late every night, including the weekends for the month before the game goes into beta. What about the single parent raising kids? What about the married parent whose spouse is expected to act as a single parent for that time? What about their other responsibilities?

Our industry is founded on making people happy, we should make sure the people that work in it are part of that equation.

Disclosure: The author is acquaintances with Stardock CEO Brad Wardell.