Crunch can and should be avoided

EDIT 2011-10-11: Michael Pachter has issued an apology for his statements and says the situation was “embarrassing, especially with overworked employees left unpaid”.
Well done guys 🙂

I read this article today, Opinion: Crunch is avoidable by Charles Randall, and that made me want to write about this as well. It was written as a rebuttal to statements made by Michael Pachter claiming that “Unpaid crunch deserves no sympathy” because “it’s part of the games industry”. The article is well written and has some very good points, but I wanted to take it a little bit further, as I think there are more sides to it than the ones Randall covers.

First of all I think Randall is too nice on Pachter. When Pachter says that you shouldn’t complain about unpaid overtime because it’s “part of the industry”, he’s basically saying that you shouldn’t complain about being oppressed if it’s a common problem. Isn’t that saying that if the problem is serious enough, then it’s OK? That doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. Unfortunately I think there are a lot of developers out there, not just in the games industry, who think that they have to do free overtime, because everyone else is. He also says “game development tends to remunerate staff, often lavishly so, through bonus schemes”. Now, I don’t have 12 years of experience from the industry like Randall, but I’m pretty sure that I know that’s simply not true. Like Randall points out, there are loads of games companies that never make any profits and where the developers risk getting the sack any moment either because of this lack of profit, or due to the company being bought or changing strategies. Another factor here is that salaries in the games industry are notoriously lower than in all other IT industries.

What Randall mainly talks about is the cause of crunch. He’s saying crunch only takes place so often because of bad planning which is in turn caused by the immaturity of the games industry. This seems to fit perfectly with my own experiences, and when both managers and developers realise this they can work together towards eliminating bad planning and get better products delivered on time. One thing Randall only touches on briefly, is that this isn’t only beneficial for the employees/developers, but also for the managers and the business. This is something I think the maturer parts of the IT industries have realised and they know how to get the best out of their employees. They realise that what they need are clear headed, enthusiastic, bright minds working on their products in a thorough and organised way. They don’t need tired, depressed, apathetic employees who are more likely to make mistakes and will probably stay with the company for shorter periods.

When Pachter mentions bonuses as a way to compensate for unpaid overtime, this again seems too familiar. Using “performance based” bonuses this way seems to devalue the bonuses. They are supposed to be awarded for performing well – hence the name, but now they are just given instead of paying for overtime. And in many cases they don’t match what would have been paid if the overtime had been paid for in a conventional way. I might sound bitter, however this isn’t something that has happened to myself, but I know of people who are working under such conditions. I know there are some who burn so much for what they do that they will gladly spend every waking hour at work. This shouldn’t necessarily be forbidden, but even the most enthusiastic employees can be demoralised when their extra effort becomes expected and unrewarded.

What is the justification for expecting people to do extra hours for no pay? As I see it, there’s a very simple equation of work put into the company and value coming out. When extra work is put in that should equate to extra value of the company or product. The people who did the extra work should be the first to be rewarded for this. If a certain deadline is important to make for the business, then the people who make it happen should be the ones to reap the benefits; not just the share holders. Once this becomes apparent, I’m sure the businesses will learn to plan properly as there would be a direct financial cost for them to let crunch happen.

17 thoughts on “Crunch can and should be avoided

  1. Eli

    If you don’t like unpaid overtime you can ggiiiiiit oooooout. Or you can demand a revocation of the regulation making all “computer professionals” overtime-exempt salaried employees, and we could start getting time-and-a-half during overtime like we deserve. Somehow I think having to pay 1.5x for every hour over 40 would put a crimp on “crunch”.

    Programmers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your unpaid overtime!

  2. Brian

    People should be paid for their labour. If I went to my boss and asked him to pay me for labour I didn’t work, he would be rightfully angry. If someone asks me to do work, and doesn’t compensate me for it he has committed theft of service, no different than if I walked into a mechanics shop who did work for me on my car in good faith and then I stiffed him on the bill. Line workers assembling things, such as toy cars or code should always be compensated for their efforts. This idea that someone’s labour should be free is obscene and immoral. This is America, not some communist hellhole.

  3. Daniel Lyons

    There are certain industries where the supply of talent far exceeds the demand (in other words, the job pool). Game programming is one of these. It doesn’t matter how badly you guys are mistreated, there will always be another crop of morons who want the job badly enough to endure the low pay, long hours and miserable working conditions. The problem isn’t that game companies treat programmers horribly, it’s that programmers want to make games for a living so desperately they’ll endure this kind of treatment.

    The only way to fix this problem is to reduce the supply: stop wanting to make games for a living! Look at the way the music industry treats musicians. It’s the exact same problem for the exact same reason: having that job is itself a major perk. You don’t get compensated fairly because there’s a dozen faces pressed against your office window wishing for your desk. You don’t get to make demands because there’s a line of people waiting for the moment you give up or get sacked. There is no other niche in programming that has this problem, and there’s no other industry that treats programmers as badly.

    If you want, you can go ahead and demand 1.5x overtime pay. If you get enough programmers together, you may even make it happen. The games industry will then make your standard compensation $13.50/hour, and you’ll be lucky to make $45K/year with your overtime. And they’ll get away with it, because there will always be idiots who want to make games badly enough to endure these conditions.

  4. Chris

    @Daniel, you basically have the truth of it. My own experiences tell me that the average game programmer is a lot like the average investment banker. Work your ass off for 5 years, burnout, find another job in a different field. The difference is the investment banker is motivated by extremely high pay, while the game developer is motivated by a love of video games.

  5. Federico

    Sounds like I can forget about my dreams and just suck it up and move forward on web development… I always wanted to be in this industry, and how naive I was to believe it was a “cool” and “googlish” enviroment

  6. Svend Post author

    Thanks for all your comments 🙂 Keep them coming!

    I agree with what several of you say, that’s it’s only possible for the employers to “exploit” the developers because there are many who would gladly take their place. But there are two major reasons that the employers should change their way even if they’re not forced to by a sort of international games developers workers movement:

    A) Having crunch with heavy load and unrealistic deadlines and overtime requirements is bad for their product and therefore themselves as well as the employees.
    B) Even if they can keep hiring new developers, they will not be able to build expertise and will more likely end up with the less talented developers as the others will end up with the few companies who do have proper planning and remuneration for effort.

    @Brian: I’d just like mention as this (i.e. where I’m writing this block is not America, but also not a “communist hellhole”, so your point is still valid 🙂 Though I think capitalism rather than communism might be where this issue stems with it’s inherent “the rich must be right, because otherwise, surely, they wouldn’t be rich” mentality 😛

    @Frederico: Don’t give up your dream! Just keep looking for a company mature enough to make the right decisions, and if you join one that isn’t, try to push it in the right direction 🙂


  7. Anonymous Coward

    Most of the Engineering staff at Blizzard Entertainment are hourly.

  8. Chris Nicola

    @Eli where is this regulation you speak of (or where). I live in BC and I have heard this regulation be bandied about in IT and software but I’ve checked, it is nowhere in the current labour act. Check it out where you live, likely it is only a myth:

    One exception is apparently the “time bank” where overtime can be built up and taken in lieu, later but this *must* be at the written request of the employee. Also it seems “High Tech (non-professional)” can work 12 hours in a day without incurring time and a half, but no more than 80 hours in a week total, otherwise anything over 80 is paid at time and a half.

  9. G

    You can really avoid unpaid overtime with good planning. However, planning is the enemy of art, so you are in a catch 22.

    The best games I worked on were those that didn’t turn out as planned. The worst ran smoothly and professionally. I guess when you have art you need blood.

  10. Pingback: Mythbusters: The overtime exempt IT worker |

  11. James

    You’re taking Pachter’s comments out of context. He said it’s part of the industry when you’re making $80,000 to $100,000 a year, you get no right to bitch. And he’s right.

  12. Uncompetative

    There is a simple solution:

    Collaboratively Develop Open Source Middleware.

    Independents already have things like Box2D to build successful commercial games on, like Angry Birds. Yet, 3D games appear to lack an integrated development tool of some maturity. Every indie developer should pay its staff to improve the engine whilst keeping the tool accessible. This would be their gift. Their game would be sold on the content it contained: level design, textures, models, animation, sound effects, music, dialogue, AI scripts, user interface, game controls, story, etc. This is why it is entirely fair to charge for DLC, or release games episodically, whilst reusing the same engine.

    The consumer doesn’t really care about the engine. They seek compelling experiences that mysteriously transcend the fact that they are interacting with a computer program – whilst the Press spend months hyping unfinished games, forcing developers to make artists impressions, Photoshopped screenshots, and fake demos so they can decide which AAA game ‘wins’ in terms of a fatuous metric based upon “Realism”.

    How many linear games have a well written story, dramatic cut-scene direction and voice acting even as good as an average TV movie? How many non-linear “sandbox” games have the courage to let the action be determined by the simulated relationships of numerous NPCs with secret personal histories motivating their hidden agendas all happening largely “off stage” as the player only feels the impact of their actions indirectly? How many FPS games are crippled by awkward controls? How many racing games are spoilt by overly aggressive AI? How many adventure games suffer from difficulty spikes relating to either impassable bosses or poorly sequenced puzzles?

    Too many.

    Why, when these things obviously matter to their respective genres above all else?

    Because they put most of their time into developing a next-generation graphics engine or wrangling with the superfluous finery of some ludicrously expensive, yet developer hostile, middleware. Because their publisher told them their game had to look better than X, which was also coming out next November. Because their marketing dept. had formed the opinion that innovation in graphics was needed to capture the interest of the Press. Because hype sold magazines.

    Consumers buy the games their friends bought, often to play with them. The strongest community and well established ‘name’ is deemed a safe bet for what is an expensive purchase. Cost makes consumers risk averse. Original IP therefore suffers and there is a gradual stagnation in each genre. Eventually, improvements in graphical fidelity will be imperceptible and consequently an insufficient justification for rehashed content – the feeling that “I have done this before” will become more pervasive and sales will dip. However, the mobile sector (e.g. iPhone games) dodge this by targeting a device with inherently limited resolution and capabilities, yielding profits for developers who catch the market’s imagination with cheap, impulse purchased, boredom fixes.

    Does a desktop, or console game, have to be AAA? Maybe it should have more depth than a typical iPhone game as it is more likely being engaged with for a longer interval and a compelling theme should inspire a dramatic narrative with strong multi-layered characters and, if the dialogue is spoken, decent performances from the voice actors who have been made to rehearse and record together ideally in a space not dissimilar to the virtual one, even if motion capture isn’t feasible on their budget several cameras recording the scene can guide the work of the animators. Maybe it should have decent AI that rewards replay by responding differently to alternate player strategies. Maybe the collision detection should be robust even over a mildly laggy online connection. Maybe the control layout should undergo User Centred Design until it is determined to be ergonomic and if there is a choice between the game keeping a feature at the cost of making the controls more awkward, reject the feature for improved accessibility and overall player immersion – the aim is to immerse them in an engaging universe, make them feel empowered when in truth the gamepad (or mouse & keyboard) make them feel as if they were disabled, lacking all the articulacy, subtlety and verisimilitude of an able bodied person moving around and interacting with their environment. Developers need to focus on making the feedback loop fun. In fact, they need to design feedback loops that encircle existing feedback loops without damaging their essential qualities. Design should seek to foster emergent gameplay, yet remain balanced and fair. Risks need appropriate rewards, but they also should be able to be avoided. Difficulty should be able to be set independently for each level, rather than one time at the beginning and then forcing a restart when late in the game it is found to be too challenging. How many games have been left unfinished because the player had no desire to redo 7/8s of an often mediocre story on an unchallenging difficulty? Graphics are incidental to atmosphere, they do aid immersion, but their cost is too great. Good control feedback is central to engagement, which also leads to immersion. Fancy graphics just pull the focus of the project away from the qualities that make or break an engaging game.


  13. JB

    Re: James: “You’re taking Pachter’s comments out of context. He said it’s part of the industry when you’re making $80,000 to $100,000 a year, you get no right to bitch. And he’s right.”

    You do realize that this is pretty standard compensation for a developer, right? This is on the low end of compensation for a developer who is working only 40 hours a week, actually. With no formal degree and less than a year as a non-gaming-related programmer, I make this at a job that expects 40 hours a week out of me. Sure, there are crunch periods once every few months where I’ll put in more than that, but this is the exception, not the rule. If you’re well into your career as a programmer and getting less than $100k, you should be getting other benefits that make up for any difference between your actual value and your compensation package. I feel the same way about forced O/T. For some people, the mere fact that you are getting to build games makes up for this. For others, it’s not.

    Don’t like it? Fortunately, you’ve got a couple options. There’s a line of others willing to take your place making games, and a line of employers ready to AT LEAST double your salary, provided you’re willing to work on something other than games. Supply and demand.

  14. Svend Post author

    @James: (“You’re taking Pachter’s comments out of context. He said it’s part of the industry when you’re making $80,000 to $100,000 a year, you get no right to bitch. And he’s right.”)

    This is exactly the kind of comment that Pachter would make, that shows he does not know the games industry at all, which is also the conclusion Randall made. Not even the average salary of a Software Developer across all fields is that high, and salaries in the games industry are even lower. I think it resembles the film industry, where hundreds of millions are invested in production of films while most the workers are paid near minimum wage (though that’s a different topic 🙂 ).

  15. juhanic

    It’s a pity that no-one ever seems to focus on the larger issue, though Svend touched on it in comments:
    Overworked tired people write bad, buggy code and they write it slower. Occasional overtime works fine and is reasonable to hit a deadline, keep people on target. Continuous toil is psychologically harrowing and physically tiring, and not a good condition for someone to be solving difficult mental problems in. The output code is of a quality that require further work to fix further down the line. It also results in turnover, meaning loss of talent and sometimes loss of people with central knowledge in company specific tools, requiring retraining of new people.

    As the author said, planning and realism is needed to avoid this. Then you can end up with a high quality title at the end.

    The hidden real costs of extended crunch are the problem, not whether or not the devs are getting a fair deal.

  16. Gustavo Barrancos

    Daniel Lyons says:
    The only way to fix this problem is to reduce the supply: stop wanting to make games for a living!

    – That’s what i did when i discovered that everything i thought i liked in the game industry is pretty much inexistent. Work for someone else for better conditions then make YOUR games at your spare time.

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