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The game industry must learn that uncompensated crunch isn't normal

After the International Game Developers Association announced our renewed focus on crunch time at GDC 2016, including ensuring fair compensation for the persistent practice in our industry, a new dialogue has resulted around whether or not crunch time is truly a “problem” and the role it plays in the game industry’s creative process.

Without a doubt, crunch time has a long legacy in the game industry. But the reality is crunch times are common in many creative media, including games, film, television, literature, and so forth. Part of the inherent nature of creative works is that they’re never truly complete (in fact the notion of a “content complete” date often remains a running joke). Creative works reach a point of sufficient release because they’re typically tied to a specific date that dictates all the related machinery around the work’s launch (such as marketing campaigns). In many cases, the creative project gets extended in some form – such as director’s cuts of films, downloadable content in games, sequels to books, and so on. So we have to accept the reality that as another art form, games are not immune to experiencing that final push to achieve the best possible vision of the creative work.

However, the strong exception must be made when that final push isn’t final at all; it becomes a persistent method for normal working conditions — as has been the case in the game industry for far too long. While some try to wrongly justify this approach as a test of true dedication to game development, or worse, glorify it as an honorable and effective way to create game content, the reality is extended periods of crunch for weeks or months are a proven case of diminishing returns.

Condoning unrelenting, ongoing, uncompensated crunch as some form of positive value for the game industry is an antiquated notion, and it continues to harm the industry’s image and its capability to attract top talent, who now have many other tech-oriented options to choose from. My hope is that by highlighting this issue, we’ll see more companies rethink their approach to crunching and realize the importance of valuing the people who work for them as creative professionals and human beings and not just easily replaceable cogs in a machine.

The opinions of those who support crunch time as a common work method are definitely in the small minority in today’s game industry, as evidenced by many ongoing, anecdotal conversations with developers worldwide as well as opinions expressed via the IGDA’s Developer Satisfaction Survey. Over half of respondents (52 percent) did not agree with the notion that crunch is a necessity and over half (53 percent) attribute poor/unrealistic scheduling as a top reason why crunch occurs. While you will see companies that somewhat maintain crunch as a virtue, or rather an “unfortunate necessity,” many other successful companies rarely crunch. My assertion is it’s more about performing an honest rethink of management and scheduling practices in our industry and stop pushing it off as something to deal with in the future.

The goal isn’t to necessarily eliminate crunch, as I think the creative nature of games will maintain some aspect of a final push in the completion process. However, we must commit to maturing the game industry’s approach to talent and productivity which means working to minimize the reliance on crunch as a “normal” work method in this industry. Better management of crunch needs to focus on three key areas:

  1. Disclosure: Prospective employees of game studios should be informed about the degree to which the company typically crunches. The potential employee can then make an informed choice about whether or not that’s the environment in which they wish to work and develop their career.
  2. Choice: If an individual wishes to give their all and work extended hours, they should be able to choose if that’s an option for them. But employees should never be expected, demanded, or coerced into working extended crunch hours.
  3. Compensation: If an individual is going to work extended hours, then they need to be fairly compensated for their time; this includes both contracted and salaried workers.

I believe the majority of the companies in the game industry are aware of the need for better work-life balance and better management of the factors that are conducive to creating extended crunch periods. That being said, many of them still aren’t taking sufficient action to make sustained crunch more of an anomaly than a norm.

Ultimately, each individual needs to assess for themselves the degree to which they’re willing to sacrifice their time, health, and energy. They need to ask blunt questions of potential employers about their working conditions and crunch hours. The more people who continue to raise the issue, the more companies will realize that upholding crunch as a viable work method could be a factor negatively affecting the attraction of talent.

Kate Edwards is the Executive Director of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), appointed in December 2012. She is also the founder and principal consultant of Geogrify, a Se… All Kate Edwards news »

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