Working overtime (or crunchtime or hell, depending on the person talking about it) is a given in the video game industry. Though during my years with BioWare crunchtime was significantly reduced as scheduling methods improved it still remained a necessary evil. In other sections of the Lazy Designer I’ll go into more detail as to how to reduce crunchtime but this short blurb focuses instead on how to make the most, as an employee, of the overtime you will be working.
Your First Crunch
I keep a journal and though I am not consistent with updating it anymore I looked over some old entries I had made during the crunch I served on Baldur’s Gate II.
This is definitely the strangest time on a project.
I still agree with this statement. Crunch, whether it is handled poorly or turned into a strong bonding experience with the team, is always a little strange. There you are working away into the late hours… the time of night when sane people are out at the movies or partying or sleeping. And instead you are adding seven new types of demon to the database or fixing a texture issue or debugging a plot that seems determined to work opposite of what you intended.
Crunch sometimes felt to me like a house party that refused to end… always somebody lingering in the hallway well after everybody should have went home. But good crunches were also fun, and an opportunity to bond with the others on the team working late. I interacted more with departments outside of design during crunch than I ever did during normal working hours. And I learned more too… not just about how to make a great game but also about the kinds of people who make a game great.
A Bad Crunch
Okay so your manager has announced one of the lame kinds of crunch, maybe everybody has to go through all the dialog and remove the letter ‘k’ or something silly like that. How do you make it better?
Take breaks. Wander the halls. Talk to people you don’t normally talk to, even the creepy guy who insists on wearing his bathrobe and pajamas (or we hoped there were pajamas under the robe).
Realize that everybody else is stressed out. Don’t take anything personally — if a bug is introduced just get it fixed. Blame, accountability, responsibility and so on can all happen later but not at 2 in the morning.
Eat fruits and vegetables. Yeah I know that’s not what you want to hear but if you are in a long-term crunch lasting weeks, if not months, you need to be eating healthy. Keep the coffee and sweet snacks to a minimum. No spider cookies! And no, I never followed my own advice on this.
And bring enough food to share. Sharing makes cranky tired people happy.
If you find yourself working sympathy crunch, in that even though you have no bugs of your own to take care of, don’t be pissed off about it. Play test the game you made! And enjoy it for what it is, something you contributed to. And if that’s not enough to make you happy then be satisfied that every bug you send to one of your co-workers will make them more miserable. (Though do try and be constructive.)
A Good Crunch?
So what is a good crunch? The best crunches, in my opinion, are the ones where the team, together, is aiming towards a common goal — a demo candidate or a release candidate. These are the ones I still remember fondly… trying for a release candidate on a game, sending each one out to the publisher and quickly squashing the bugs when it came back rejected. That tangible goal was something everybody on the team could orient themselves towards, and was a common ground that could be talked about during breaks.
It created camaraderie, the entire team sharing the disappointment of a rejected candidate but ultimately rejoicing when a release finally passed… which meant the game had been accepted, which meant all the hard work over the months and years leading to that moment would soon be rewarded by having actual real gamers play your game.
That’s the best kind of crunch.
Make crunchtime work for you, try and get the most of it. Obviously if your team or your company constantly turns to crunch as a solution for shitty scheduling you need to be thinking about how to improve scheduling or moving to another studio. But when crunch is handled responsibly, it can be a fun and creative experience.
When I look over my journal, of my crunch time on Neverwinter Nights and Baldur’s Gate 2 I see phrases like ‘awesome’, ‘fulfilling’, and ‘worthwhile’ not the more negative expressions one might expect.
So go enjoy your overtime!
p.s. This message is in no way endorsed or funded by the Coalition of Game Development Studios Looking to Convince their Employees that Crunchtime is Fun.