It’s now November, which means that, for most developers, the end of the season is here or nigh. Now, if all is well, the product is out the door, we’re a little frayed (or have already proceeded to sleep for a week), but things are quieting down for the slide into the holiday season.
If all is not well, we’re just beginning to approach the point when most developers are finally willing to consider that there might be a better way of doing things, because it is from this period of time that concepts like the “day one patch” originate.
With the tremendous diversity present in this now giant industry, there are a variety of production schedules, from six-month Gameboy Advance titles to colossal four-year next-gen endeavors. But almost none of them escape the inevitable holiday rush. Though some titles this year are jumping ship on the holiday ’08 push, for most of the industry, the numbers say it all: As long as wallet-bearing family members are looking for holiday gifts, there will be a Q4-focused rhythm to the development cycle.
So as long as there is an annual cycle, and as long as there is heavy competition, not to mention shifting publisher demand, there is going to be a turbulent cocktail of events coming between game developers and the noble attempt to have a reasonable family life.
But these are exterior challenges. On top of them, beneath them, around them, is a deeper problem:
Crunch is addictive.
Before I get into this, let me make it absolutely clear that I am not talking about death march. Death march is the destination; crunch is the journey. I am not talking about the brain-devouring, soul-crumbling, desperate state of clinical psychosis and sleep deprivation that is death march, but the addiction that leads so many teams to that sobering experience.
This is important to talk about, because game developers are a generally smart bunch. The pressures of an amorphously creative objective and a high octane development environment, no matter how real and quantifiable, aren’t really enough to explain why smart people would do such a colossally stupid thing as to throw away the priceless years of their children’s youth, their marriages, their friendships and their health for a goddamn job. But there is something about this business that no matter how many times we hear it, and no matter who tells us, crunch is not a matter of “if” but “when.” We are given the answers, and we keep on ignoring them.
In a way, the crunch experience itself is when – and frequently how – a lot of developers come into the field in the first place. Don’t tell the game universities this, but the fact is people who really want to make games for a living just go ahead and make games. And whenever you engage in something creative, there inevitably comes that moment, usually in the isolation of deep night, when things just start working. Some piece of code you’ve been pounding on for weeks finally clicks into place, some level for the first time really starts to come alive, some infuriating piece of AI finally stops floating upside down and does what you told it to. It works.
When that happens it’s hard to stop. And the really insidious thing is that the deeper the problem, the greater the addiction to solving it becomes. Anyone who has worked with web programming knows this; something’s broken, it really shouldn’t be, and you just want to try one more thing, and then you note with dread the fact that the sun is starting to rise.
Like adrenaline, when crunch is running full bore, it attains a certain – brief – Zen-like quality. No matter what else is going wrong with your life (and the longer you stay in a crunch-prone environment, the deeper these problems become), in the immediate moment there is only the problem needing to be solved and the willpower you can apply to it.
No healthy studio approaches crunch with less than trepidation, but most studios also approach it with a well-meaning attempt to make it as comfortable as possible, and this, too, leads at least initially to a semi-celebratory atmosphere intended to raise morale in the hopes of solving problems faster and ending the crunch sooner. Meals provided, toys purchased, luxuries promised all heighten the inclination to focus on the present, not the past or the future.
Although the moment can’t last, the charge of that kinetic problem solving state weirdly positive. As the pressure increases, so to do the triumphs, and each success is a bonding experience for the team. Regardless of the source of the stress, in the moment, it is real, and the same principles that drive U.S. soldiers to form emotional bonds with bomb-defusing robots bring teams together under stress and mutual assistance. It creates heroism and with it bravado. Who will crack under the pressure? Who will stand it and survive?
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 Gamewatch.org and fights crime on the streets by night.
“Inside Job” appears every first and third Friday, only at The Escapist.