Crunch Mode

Like most things, “crunch mode” is not all bad, nor is it completely good (certainly not). Here are the good, the bad, and the ugly of this cultural institution within the game industry.

First of all, we need a definition. Crunch mode is that time in a development project, and I dare say almost any game project, when the team members (especially programmers) are expected to put in significantly longer hours to meet a deadline. This is often toward the end of a project, but it also regularly happens leading up to important events (such as E3) or contractual milestones. To put a number on it, anything more than 60 hours per week would be crunching, though 80 or more hours per week are common. I know of at least one game developer who did 128 hours in a week, which is not a record anyone should try to break.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, there are good aspects to crunch mode. It can be a fundamental bonding experience for game developers, working together and putting in extra effort for a common cause. We support each other and struggle “in the trenches” striving towards a shared goal. Often, the expectations are cultural or internal, rather than imposed, and pushing oneself to succeed is a respected theme in this world. There is a natural tendency to push a little harder when a deadline is looming, or just when the finish line is in sight. Even when working on a one person project, I often find myself crunching despite having no pressure other than personal satisfaction and taking pleasure in my work.

Additionally, crunch mode happens because, for short periods of time, it works. If productivity is good, and team members are motivated, then extra time results in more development getting accomplished. When an entire team is putting in the longer hours in a coordinated fashion, there are also fewer impediments to progress due to the person with a critical function or knowledge being unavailable.

Some of the bad parts of crunch mode are fairly obvious, and many can be found reading between the lines to see the caveats to the positive aspects. Extended hours inevitably take a toll on productivity after a while, and the longer it continues, the worse it becomes. Crunch mode has an adverse effect on health, and the lack of sleep and recuperative time, as well as additional stress, compounds the problem. This can lead to mistakes that have to be corrected, resulting in negative productivity.

Perhaps the most serious long term impact of crunch mode is to relationships, both professional and personal. When there is friction among team members, this is exacerbated by the situation, and the resulting discord can have a very detrimental impact on the project. Outside the job, family and other social relationships necessarily suffer, and this is where crunch mode is most dangerous, jeopardizing the well-being of people beyond the actual developers. Nobody should suffer marital difficulties or limited time spent with an infant child for a game project; a game is simply not worth it.

It is fine if crunch mode happens as a natural result of enthusiasm and self-motivation. When it is required to meet a deadline, it is bad, as it indicates a lack of proper planning or other project management failures. That is, unfortunately, a reality sometimes. However, when management figures crunch mode into a schedule, ever, that is where it gets really ugly.

Crunch mode should never be taken into account when planning a game project. If this is ever a consideration, it is a clear sign that the project is on a path to failure. A recent anonymous blog entry, an another by a former employee, suggest that at least one major publisher is scheduling, and requiring, crunch mode for months at a time. If true, this constitutes abuse of their developers, and action definitely needs to be taken. The IGDA Board of Directors issued an open letter about quality of life issues, which is a step in the correct direction, if only symbolic.

Extended crunch mode is known as a “death march”, a fitting and appropriate moniker.

Curmudgeon Day

The day after Thanksgiving Day (here in the United States) is recognized in our household as Curmudgeon Day, a holiday I devised many years ago.

Curmudgeon Day is to be celebrated by never leaving the house, a practice which I faithfully observe every year. This is a day that many Americans have off from work as part of a four day weekend, and it is hyped by the media as the official start of the Christmas shopping season (despite the encroachment of Christmas promotions into October or September). This results in a shopping frenzy, making this the largest day of the year for retail sales. I am willing to bet it is also ranked high on the list of most dangerous days to be on the road, and simple observation informs my conclusion that it is the day that the most braindead walk (and drive) the Earth.

The massive commerce on this day makes it the most important day for retail games. When I worked in the retail game industry, it was almost inevitable that final deadlines would be based on having boxes on the shelves by the day after Thanksgiving. In the PC world, with lead times for packaging and CD pressing, this generally means a deadline for a final master set at October 1st, with a “drop dead” date of October 15th. I have even worked on a game that had this deadline in consecutive years! I understand that console games have a much longer lead time, while games published on the Internet, obviously, have relatively little lead time.

In my opinion, the industry is a little too trained on this schedule, and recent release schedules indicate that, although there is still a focus on the Christmas selling season, there is a little more variety in release dates. This helps relieve the issues of production scheduling, which used to be a problem with CD pressing, and having loads of brand new titles competing for finite cash, both for marketing and from the consumer. Big releases in slower times of the year could allow for more press coverage and less immediate competition.

The one Good Thing about this schedule is that it does help to greatly reduce the likelihood of “crunch time” during a busy holiday season.

Spartasoft Talk

Later today, I will be giving an informal talk and Q&A session for Spartasoft, the computer game development group at Michigan State University.

This will be the second time I have spoken with students at Spartasoft, and this time I have been asked to use the development of Pretty Good MahJongg 2.0 as the basis for discussion. Two years ago, I spoke generally about my long career in the game industry, rambling on for quite a while. Nobody actually walked out, so I will take that as a positive review.

It was just a couple of weeks ago that I spoke to Wolverine Soft, the game development group at the University of Michigan, about the game industry. This talk was immediately prior to the meeting of the Southern Michigan Chapter of the IGDA (International Game Developers Association), and the meeting report described the talk as “extremely interesting”.

In 2003, Spartasoft had two finalists in the Student Showcase at the Independent Games Festival, out of only ten selected. At least a few of the Spartasoft members at the time have now gone on to careers in the retail game industry. During the IGDA meeting this month, the Wolverine Soft demonstrations were impressive, and at least one has been submitted for 2005 IGF consideration. Suffice it to say that there is a great deal of game development talent right here in Michigan.

Pretty Good MahJongg 2.0

The big news around here this week is that our latest project, Pretty Good MahJongg 2.0, shipped last Thursday.

Not surprisingly, this was a major update to Pretty Good MahJongg, a game successfully developed with Goodsol Development. The original version was a hit, and I expect that this version will do even better, especially given the scope of the new features. I will probably describe the development of PGMJ in more detail later, but in the meantime, you can read about its history in this post from A Shareware Life.

After months of development, including a long beta test, we finally released the game. It is a wonderful feeling to complete a game and be able to be proud of the quality of the final product. Since it is published online, using the shareware model, it is not quite the same as seeing a box on the store shelves, but there are not the weeks or months of waiting, either. Nevertheless, despite still being in the recovery phase, I find that I really enjoy playing the game.

Gamecraft Blog

Welcome to the Gamecraft Blog!

This blog is all about the craft of making games, and in particular, computer games. Gamecraft involves a broad range of topics, including design, development, quality control, packaging, marketing, management, and life experience. I intend to share the knowledge and information gained through more than a quarter century of programming games, as well as that obtained as we move into the future.

As my obligatory first post, it is appropriate to lay the ground rules for the blog. It seems to me that the primary danger in blogging is making an artificial commitment to a mostly invisible audience, so I will commit to nothing. This blog will be updated when I both have something to say and the time in which to type it. I believe that necessarily means that there will be flurries of activity (especially at the beginning) and some quiet patches (and inevitably a last big one). The topic will be interpreted as loosely as desired at the time of any post as well, though it is safe to assume that as a craftsman in the computer game industry, I will rarely stray too far.

May my words be worthwhile to save for posterity.