Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Game Developer Promoting "Crunch Time"

A few weeks ago I posted some news from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) looking to review the negative effects of "crunch time" and implement changes to the industry to try and break this habit.

"Crunch Time" is typically referred to as a part of a game's development cycle where employees are expected to put excessive hours at work to ensure the product is released on time. This includes final renders of the game, removing bugs, and the like. It's so well known, the term is  in the dictionary.

Loads of people in the industry, who do not work in top-tier positions, feel "crunch time" is counter productive. A number of studies over the years have proven that any industry (not just gaming) where this type of attitude is promoted can deter production. Instead of making a better game, it can cause employees to falter at their responsibilities. Numbers range in productivity rate, but most studies seem to concur that an 8 hour work day shows a 16-20% increase in ability over a 9 hour day. As the work-day gets longer, the productive drops dramatically. The take-away from that is 8 hours is the max a person should work in a day. Any more and their productivity rate will fall.

The interview with Kate Edwards, the executive director of IGDA, showcased just how important the issue of "crunch time" was to the community. Not necessarily in punishments, but it is a start.

Alex St. John, who co-created Direct X at Microsoft and founded the game company WildTangent (which has produced advergames for Nike, Coke, and Ford), wrote a counter-article on VentureBeat.

Brace yourself. You're not going to like it.

I'll have to agree with Kotaku's initial reaction to the piece, that it reads more like someone is trying to be sarcastic, until you keep reading and realize that St. John actually believes the dribble he has written. He not only approves of "crunch time" but that it's required to make art - and video games are art. Therefore, "crunch time" is a necessary component of the development process. That's almost like saying "making clothes is art - so the use of child labor in third world countries to produce the items is required."

It doesn't help that the initial article, and his follow-up response on his website, calls out gaming employees as lazy Millennials who expect a living wage to work. That they don't earn it with hard work, like everyone else.

If you hear the pitchforks rising up, you would be right. Even as he tries to backtrack to clarify his statements, a number of industry employees and gamers themselves are not happy at St. John's comments. And the man is sticking by them!

It's one thing to have an opinion. I understand that this is a free country and people are allowed to believe in, or in this case be incredibly wrong, whatever they like. But in this instance, a man in a position of power thinks it's perfectly normal to tell underpaid, overworked employees to work even more hours, ignore their health, their family, their friends, their LIFE all for the sake of getting a game out on an artificial deadline. Why?

People who create video games are doing more then "moving a mouse." The concept art, the hundreds of thousands of hours spent coding, building models and wire-frames, rending the content; working in the game industry is not a George Jetson job where you click a button, and you make a sprocket appear out of a machine. In game design, the computers do not do all of the work. You have to tell the machine what to do, how to do it, and then code it all to make it happen. That takes an immense amount of resources, mentally and physically. And when you push your workforce beyond their 40 hour limit, it's asking for trouble.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with an employee asking for a living wage - i.e. they want the ability to feed, cloth, and house themselves just like everyone else in the world. They chose to work in video games because they have a passion for it. They shouldn't be treated less-then human, made to work half their life in an office for a wage below their worth.

To argue otherwise shows how out of touch St. John is with the rest of the industry.

If you take the time to read the articles, the irony is so mind numbing you have to wonder if St. John is playing a practical joke on everyone. In the development of Direct X, St. John burned himself out for months during "crunch time."

'He would pass out at his keyboard and straggle into morning meetings with key marks on his face. Worked sucked everything out of him; his marriage disintegrated. In 1997, he succeeded in getting himself fired, as he tells it, “and walked out of Microsoft feeling 100 lbs. lighter." '

And this happened again and again when he was in programming positions until he founded his own company...and then proceeded to ask his staff to undergo the "crunch time" ritual. You'd think he would be against "crunch time" but you'd be wrong. It's also amusing that St. John mentions that if people don't like how "crunch time" works, up and quit Microsoft and go start your own company, like Zynga (btw, none of the founders worked for Microsoft.) News Flash: Not everyone wants to run their own company. Some people want to focus on the line art, or want to code. They would rather work as part of the team environment, not the head of the team. And that's okay!

It's a sad look into the ethos of the gaming development industry. "It's art!" and "You should be grateful you can be in game design" are the type of scare tactics that keep employees working longer hours with little pay (sometimes no overtime pay if the stats from the IGDA are any indication).

The bottom line is that "crunch time" is worker exploitation for something that can easily be avoided. Release dates can be changed. Moderating schedules to ensure an optimized workforce can be built. Blaming employees for being lazy and not invested in the product is a cop-out. Asking people to work a lifestyle that doesn't compensate them is corruption and profiteering on an inhumane level.


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