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.