In a recent interview, famed video game developer Peter Molyneux shared his thoughts on crunch, the times in a game’s development cycle when teams work long hours with few breaks to meet deadlines or milestones.
I mean, one of the things — and this is quite a controversial point. I am a great believer in crunch. I think we did have a spell in this industry of us trying to say, “Oh, we condemn crunch.”
But crunch is energy, and that’s what you need, is you need that energy in people and you do need to all come together. There’s this wonderful thing that happens to human beings when they’re faced with the impossible, which is that they often bring their best foot forward and that’s what you need.
Anecdotally, lots of developers agree with this statement — to a degree. Crunch might inspire a team, and bring it together to create something that feels impossible. That’s the spirit Molyneux remembers so fondly from his pre-Lionhead days developing the original Black & White, a time recalled in this Eurogamer profile:
During one particularly brutal nine-month period, the Black & White team worked every single day, each for at least 15 hours.
“There was no life,” Molyneux remembers. “If I wasn’t at the office then I was sleeping.
“I know a lot of people would say, this is crunch. But this was a real work of passion. It wasn’t a work where you told people to come in. We really felt we were making something that never existed before. Everybody was totally up for it.
“It was hard for some people because they had families. At that time I wasn’t married or anything. In fact I only met my wife just as Black & White finished. It was intense. But it was intensely creative. I don’t think many of the team who were there would look back and regret the amount of hours they spent on it. It just felt like we were making something that never existed before, and that was a fantastic thing.”
But periods of crunch that last nine months, a year or longer aren’t often remembered quite so fondly, especially by those who aren’t in charge of creative projects. Writing for Polygon this week, game developer Iain Denniston shares the devastating consequences of spending over a year of his life crunching on the original Fable, one of Molyneux’s greatest successes. As Molyneux suggests, Denniston doesn’t regret the time he spent crunching, and he’s proud of his team’s creation. Like most people, though, Denniston wasn’t totally up for it.
He talks about weeks of work days that were 12 hours at minimum, with a single day off at most. Work sustained with takeout dinners and sugary drinks. Theoretically, all those extra hours were intended to result in large volumes of high-quality work, but the reality wasn’t quite there.
Some days I’d make exactly zero progress on anything. I’d even resort to random code changes in the vain hope that prodding the code in the right place would cause the bug to fix itself. Hitting my head against the keyboard might have proven more productive. My brain power was essentially zero. I’d used up all my reserves and had no way to replenish them.
On Fable, crunch lasted over a year. Even the most inspired, motivated team will struggle to keep working those hours over so long a period. Denniston’s team tried its best, and they game they produced was wonderful, but it came at a high cost.
The consequences for the team were dire. Relationships were being tested to the breaking point, and a great many of the team were on medication for stress-related illnesses, myself included. General chatter in the office faded off, and smiles were replaced by pained grimaces.
The consequences for me were devastating. I was briefly prescribed anti-psychotics at my lowest point. I experienced migraines, complete with terrifying tunnel vision, blackouts, severe depression, anxiety, panic attacks, paranoia, hallucinations and thought insertion.
Denniston may not regret the time he spent crunching, but that’s quite the price to pay for a game’s success. Condemning crunch across the board may not be realistic, but it’s hard to hear a story like Denniston’s and see the hugely negative impact crunch had on his mental and physical health without wondering if there’s a better way.
Fortunately, we may be on our way to finding it. The International Game Developer’s Association is starting to track studios’ use of long hours and unpaid overtime, and to take reports of workplace concerns. Developers are speaking out about crunch, and rejecting the idea that the privilege of working in the video game industry outweighs the costs of crunch.
The idea that crunch is a badge of honor, a marker of a team’s determination and unity, may be on its way out. As it goes, we have the opportunity to reestablish healthy working conditions in the industry.