Amy Hennig Discusses the Unwinnable Arms Race of AAA Crunch

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2

Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver 2

At Take This, we concern ourselves with crunch in video game development — how to avoid it, when possible, how to make it healthier when it’s not avoidable, and how to help the video game industry find better solutions than long hours over weeks, months, and sometimes years. We’ve looked at the research, and it’s simply not a sustainable practice.

That’s why hearing lived experiences of crunch from industry members like Amy Hennig is so important. Hennig has been an integral part of the teams for the Legacy of Kain series, Jak and Daxter, and the Uncharted series, working in roles that include director, writer, lead designer, producer, and creative director. She has a deep understanding of how the industry functions — and how it doesn’t.

She recently sat down with Soren Johnson of the Designer Notes podcast over at Idle Thumbs (part one and part two). Over the course of the three-hour interview, she talked about her life in games, from the very first game she encountered in 1977 to her most recent experiences in the industry. She got into some big issues, including the hostility toward women in games, and the ways the conversation about that hostility may be holding the industry back.

But the most difficult issue she delved into was crunch.

Hennig spent more than ten years at Naughty Dog working on the Uncharted series. By her estimation, she worked an average of 80 hours per week the entire time she was there. One of the things she recalls is the difficulty of transitioning from one game in a series to the next — particularly when you get past the first couple entries.

“You’ve got a team that’s raring to go that you have to feed, and you might not be able to because directors are always first in, last out, right? So I would be sitting there still finishing the game, bug fixing or whatever, reviewing the game, writing the strategy guide with people, and not having left yet. People are coming back from vacation all refreshed and ready to go, and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m still working on the last one.'”

 
She wasn’t alone in that experience, either. While directors may have been first in, last out, she also talked about how her team was generally right there with her.

When Johnson asked her if all the crunch was worth it, Hennig, like many game developers, was conflicted. Ultimately she didn’t believe the crunch was worth it– but for herself, wouldn’t have changed anything if it meant she hadn’t made those games. When it came to the rest of her team, though, she was more certain that the level of crunch wasn’t acceptable.

“It’s clearer for me when I think about other people than my own sacrifices. I don’t mean to make that sound so dramatic — I just mean that you sacrifice things, you sacrifice personal time, and all that kind of stuff. But when I look at other people, there’s people who never go home and see their families. They have children that are growing up without seeing them.

When I look at other people and I realize that we had people whose — my health really declined, and I had to take care of myself because it was bad — and there were people who collapsed, or had to go check themselves in somewhere after one of these games were done, or they got divorced. That’s not okay — any of that. None of this is worth that. We have to get our act figured out as an industry. And the problem is that ante keeps getting upped.”

“It’s an arms race that is unwinnable, and it’s destroying people.”

There are no easy solutions to crunch — at least, none that Hennig could come up with on the spot. She suggests that something has to change, be it decreasing game scope, increasing development cycles, or otherwise changing the industry to account for the people working in it. Research shows that increasing work hours doesn’t increase productivity indefinitely — returns diminish starkly after the first couple weeks of crunch — but even knowing that, many developers feel that the extra hours they put in are necessary and ultimately more productive than fewer hours could possibly be. As Hennig observed, it’s all too easy to demand everything of ourselves. Maybe the answer lies in looking out for each other.

As the unwinnable arms race continues, though, something inevitably has to give — and all too often, it’s the people who make the games we love.

Fight mental health stigma in gaming. Support Take This on Patreon!