Between the initial EA Spouse blog post, the lawsuits, the academic studies and the calls to unionize, almost everyone has felt the urge to dogpile on EA. For some, the takeaway is that crunch is evil, and that it should never, ever happen. It’s not an uncommon takeaway – I’ve interviewed with several companies that have said, “We don’t believe in crunch, and we will never force you to.”
I always turn those companies down.
Crunching will always have a place in the games industry for a myriad of reasons. For example, in the online space, the assholes of your population are never polite enough to bring down your system during work hours. Even in offline box product games, though, scheduling is hard, for one simple reason: ‘fun’ is an elusive beast, and the process of finding fun is almost impossible to schedule. If you’re not willing to crunch, you will almost certainly ship something that isn’t fun, provided you aren’t cancelled along the way after you show your unfun product to the suits.
When you combine this with the fact that deadlines in the game business are relatively fixed (you have to hit our tech window, you have to hit our marketing schedule, you have to have a demo at E3 and a box on the shelves at Christmas), there’s no doubt that there will be some crunching from time to time.
Long story short: crunch happens. You will sometimes be forced to crunch if you’re going to ship a great title. Despite this, I’m in agreement with most commentators who say that EA deserves to be sued if the initial story is true. Why? Because scheduled, unending crunch is evil. Key quote from the original:
Within weeks production had accelerated into a ‘mild’ crunch: eight hours six days a week. Not bad. Months remained until any real crunch would start, and the team was told that this “pre-crunch” was to prevent a big crunch toward the end; at this point any other need for a crunch seemed unlikely, as the project was dead on schedule. I don’t know how many of the developers bought EA’s explanation for the extended hours; we were new and naive so we did. The producers even set a deadline; they gave a specific date for the end of the crunch, which was still months away from the title’s shipping date, so it seemed safe. That date came and went. And went, and went. When the next news came it was not about a reprieve; it was another acceleration: twelve hours six days a week, 9am to 10pm.
Crunching long hours for an unending period of time can destroy a workforce. It invites sloppiness. It stifles creativity. It makes people tense and snippy. It piles stress from the home front on top of the stress of work. I’ve seen many, many game professionals leave a project as damaged goods because of excessive crunch. Bad crunch is, ultimately, a failure of management that is paid for in the blood of engineers, artists and designers.
But ironically, one of the reasons to hate these extended ‘bad’ crunches is that they take away your ability to use ‘good’ crunches. At the end of the day, games are creative endeavors. Crunching in small doses can actually stoke the creative fires. That’s the sort of thing that adrenaline does. Crunching in small doses can also bond the team. Excessive use of ‘bad crunch’ takes ‘good crunch’ out of the producer’s toolbox.
And what about EA, specifically? Well, I should mention that, even in the darkest nights of UO2, our worst crunch was never nearly as bad as what was described by ea_spouse. That being said, EA is quickly turning into a studio where expertise and raw talent is becoming less valuable. Workers are designed to be replaceable cogs. Then they’re burnt out. Then they’re replaced. The old EA had all of the rock star talent. Richard Garriott, Raph Koster, Sid Meier, Peter Molyneaux, Warren Spector and Brett Sperry are all extraordinarily talented people and smart people who have enjoyed some sort of success with EA in the past – yet only Will Wright continues to work with them today. Hmmmm……