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Crunch - The dark underbelly of video game development

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Nobody wants a game to be bad. As players we don’t want a game that we’ll experience or play to be sub-standard, boring, unimpressive or disappointing. As developers, no one wants to be associated with awful or poorly performing games: It can’t look good on your CV to see you were part of a team that made, say, Ride to Hell: Retribution.

But we don’t often get a glimpse into the kind of world that leads to the creation of our favourite products. Usually, our insight into the creators consists either of famous names being proud - Peter Molyneus or David Cage - or crews being excited to show a video of their game. I’m as ignorant as anyone and thus was shocked to read Jason Schreier’s piece on “crunch” in game development.

The concept itself is pretty widely-known: cramming in extra work toward the waning of a project or goal. But there’s an element that’s unique to the video game world.

“Pretend, for a second, that you’re the head of an independent video game company. You’re in charge of ensuring that all of your designers, programmers, and artists hit their deadlines, which seems feasible because you set up a conservative schedule that accounts for standard 40-hour work weeks. So far, you’ve hit all your milestones—game-dev speak for project goals, like having a playable build of the game or hitting beta—without a problem.

One day, you get a call from the publisher financing your game: turns out your hero didn’t test well with focus groups, so they want you to completely redo all of his design, art, and voice acting. Also, they need you to hit the same release date—can’t change that fiscal quarter guidance! What do you do?

You could:

1) Tell the publisher you need more time or more money (for extra staff) to do this, at risk of pissing them off and getting your project cancelled.

2) Tell the publisher you need to cut other features to do this, at risk of pissing them off and getting your project cancelled.

3) Tell the publisher you can’t do it, at risk of pissing them off and getting your project cancelled.

4) Crunch.”

The rest of the article interviews various folks who’ve experienced this first-hand. The mental and physical health, the damage to bodies and relationships: all of it makes me wonder how much people sacrifice of themselves so that we can experience shooting aliens or explosions.

I can think of few things that are worth losing loved ones and taking a hit to your body over; certainly, video games - no matter my love for them - is not up there. But of course this is people’s jobs: It’s not “video games”, it’s how these people will continue to feed themselves, pay the bills. It’s a working environment and they’re all kind of awful.

So often we don’t see it - we only see finished products. The difficulty of criticism has never been that it’s easier to criticise than to create (it’s easier to walk than fly to the moon, but easier doesn’t mean bad); the difficulty of criticism is knowing no one person is responsible for a bad decision, that people are behind and that people, in general, aren’t trying to be jerks.  

When we get angry at games, we need to remember what it is people go through in so many instances; that shouldn’t stop us criticising (I don’t regret any of my harsh reviews or essays), but it should angle us in a more moral direction.

Image credit: Top1Walls

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