Article: Mitigating Crunch in Game Development

Working in video games is a hard, but rewarding career. But, every year the industry loses talent and knowledge as developers of all disciplines burn out and leave the industry. It’s a situation that sees everyone lose – employees, managers, and companies. Discovering people that have been in the industry a long time is comparable to finding bottles of scotch - the larger the number of years, the far rarer they become. 

The reasons why teams crunch isn’t simple to encapsulate. It is a set of complex and varied reasons which can change from company-to-company and project-to-project. However, there is usually a common factor at the heart of the matter,

There is too much work to complete and too little time in which to do it. 

One could write a book on identifying all the problems and proposing solutions. In the meantime, there are things that we can do now to better manage our projects, help minimize crunch, and reduce the pain on those that endure it. I believe that my opinion on this subject is valid, as I have been through as many crunches as anyone else in our industry. (I’m certainly not interested in wearing it as a badge of honor or turning this into a competition. The goal of this article is merely try to provide help toward one of our industry's biggest problems.) 

Those fortunate enough to be leading teams making games should be taking the following into consideration,

1) Proper product parameters must be in place before development starts. There should be an understanding on the size and scope of the undertaking that can be measured against the time and resources dedicated. When these don’t align, nothing should move forward until they do.

2) A strong definition of success should be created and a plan for its realistic achievement communicated. Too often there is great misalignment between expectation and investment. As much as we all want to dream big and reach for the stars, overachieving and performing miracles should not be considered the norm.

3) Effort must be made to identify and quantify 'new work' that is the result of the organic development process. 'Old work' should be prioritized and balanced against this on a regular basis, with cuts made where necessary. Teams should be structured such that no one person has the reigns to both creatively shape the project and manage the schedule – it’s a conflict of interest.

4) The prototyping phase should have a priority of discovering how to create repeatable processes, methods and implementation techniques that are shared and used during development by the team. It shouldn’t be used to chase near-impossible targets and ambiguous abstractions, which are then abandoned once full production begins.

5) Employee health and comfort should be paramount. There should be a limit on consecutive hours and days worked, healthy meal options, and help with getting home on late nights for those that don’t own a car. Leads and managers should have a solid understanding of exactly how long their reports are working every week. 

6) Project management should be open and transparent, with every team member able to see the status of the game and its development trajectory. There should be no false deadlines, hidden time buffers or 'secret schedules'. Large immovable deadlines should be clearly communicated and entered into everyone’s calendars by a member of the production team.

7) Demos should be kept to an absolute minimum. There should be strong resistance to creating one-off demos that add additional burden to the team and don't help to move the project forward. Certain demos (such as perhaps E3) may be an important factor in focusing the team in creating a small, high-quality portion of the game that can become a guiding light for the rest of development. Most other demos are wasted work that is dismantled or ignored as soon as the event has passed. If the team is mandated that the game is always in a working state and playable, then less bug-debt is accumulated and demos can be conducted without creating additional, unplanned time sinks.

While many of these solutions may seem simple and common sense, putting them into practice is key. I have witnessed first-hand, situations where people in leadership positions have understood where issues and imbalances are present. But, they have elected to bury their head in the sand or else feint ignorance, hoping that someone will pull a rabbit from the hat. We can do better.  

An industry filled with happy, experienced and knowledgeable employees is a win for everyone, be they developer, manager or company owner.