Erin Hoffman's Inside Job

Erin Hoffman's Inside Job
Inside Job: Why Crunch is Awesome

Erin Hoffman | 2 Nov 2007 21:07
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Stress and addiction are closely linked, as they both induce heightened states of brain activity. Neither can be sustained over long periods of time, but they serve their purposes in the moment: survival, by any means necessary.

In a world where even a simulation of mortal challenge must be manually engineered, software development, in the form of crunch-style "extreme" programming, offers a biologically driven high. Early addiction to this style of management, which is inherited through the basic history of game development, means even in a well-designed project, the response to a smooth delivery trajectory is to add new features. This in itself is hardly inherently wrong; we seek to achieve, and within the life cycle of a project, there is a distinct and finite window of potential that must be achieved or lost forever.

With the most effective planning, the best a project can do is create a fertile, stable ground for innovation. The innovation typically happens in these adrenaline-like bursts, which, in order to fulfill their potential, do often require full engagement, a full test of the abilities of the team.

And that is why crunch is awesome. In and of itself, it is the caldera of innovation, the high-intensity environment where greatness is born. At the end of the day, what elevates those in the spotlight of development innovation is often what - of themselves, of their families - they are willing to sacrifice to the volcano.

Because crunch cannot be sustained, a manager or producer's job is to exist outside of the caldera; to be able to see where the team is going and where it should wind up - and then ensure it has the energy to get there. (The ethics of the situation arise in determining how much a team has to have left in them when they cross the finish line.) Too frequently management, too, exists from moment to moment, inheriting from the same traditions that historically have caused catastrophic results: slippage, death march and cancellation, all of which create a global atmosphere of distrust and difficulty in generating new studios that don't operate this way. But it is no excuse to blame the industry's problems on management; poor management will exist only as long as the rank and file developer lacks the fortitude to demand better - or the courage to educate and provide leadership for themselves.

Admitting that this high intensity environment is desirable and addictive is part of finding how it can be adequately managed. But that management is critical, and not just because the stakes keep getting higher; what was once a one-man act of C-64 heroism on the scale of a PS3 title becomes a serious health and legal risk. But beyond this is the fact that the U.S. and the countries that compete with it are engaged in an overwork epidemic that is destroying lives. This struggle is not limited to our industry, and in fact the game business remains largely insulated from some of the worst problems. But as we exist on the cutting edge of technology, so too do we exist with the potential to solve these problems in new ways, if we can admit the addiction, and overcome it.

This month's "Inside Job" will look at the pain cycles in game development, and what we can do to prevent them.

Erin Hoffman is a professional game designer, freelance writer, and hobbyist troublemaker. She moderates and fights crime on the streets by night.

"Inside Job" appears every first and third Friday, only at The Escapist.

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