Crunch: The Game No Employee Wants to Play

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What every business can learn from unproductive ‘crunch’ practices in the gaming industry

In Netflix’s “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch,” programmer protagonist, Stefan, designs a “choose your own adventure” video game in 1984. He’s obsessive over his work and fights to maintain the integrity of the game’s story and his sanity, all while struggling to meet a commercial gaming company’s strict deadlines.

This premise, while in a fictional context, may hit close to home for anyone in game development, especially those behind the creation of some of the world’s most popular games (known in the industry as AAA games).

 

The expensive truth about crunch

In the past few years, activists in game creation have been advocating for fairer working conditions for employees, many of whom often find themselves under intense pressure to work excessive overtime as deadlines approach. Also known as “crunch,” this last-minute push to the finish line is a well-known phenomenon among game-makers and is often seen as a necessary evil — an unavoidable aspect of launching a AAA video game.

But as more people become aware of the negative impact crunch has on employee health and well-being, workers are standing up to big game companies and asking for policy changes. Possibly the first prominent example of the outrage crunch has caused came in 2006. In an open letter to Electronic Arts Inc., the “disgruntled spouse” of an EA employee detailed how the grueling schedule and the personal harm it caused were not addressed by the company:

“The current mandatory hours are 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. — seven days a week — with the occasional Saturday evening off for good behavior (at 6:30 p.m.). This averages out to an 85-hour workweek. Complaints that these once more extended hours combined with the team’s existing fatigue would result in a greater number of mistakes made and an even greater amount of wasted energy were ignored.”

The resulting outpouring among game writers and developers revealed similar experiences with crunch. EA was soon wrapped up in a class-action lawsuit in which programmers demanded compensation for unpaid overtime. They settled the suit for $14.9 million.

A more recent example of excessive crunch came with the creation of the long-awaited, open-world Western “Red Dead Redemption 2” developed by Rockstar Games. Shortly before the game’s release in October 2018, rumors of 100-hour workweeks and anecdotes of overwork started to make headlines and raise questions about the people driving the game that would soon break sales records and see unbelievable success.

 

3 ways to avoid crunch in your business

While AAA games may be an extreme case, most businesses will deal with their version of “crunch” at one point or another. Whether it be a looming deadline or last-minute changes to an important project, sometimes overtime is the only way forward.

Problems arise when business owners and managers normalize crunch to the point that it becomes a sacrifice that’s expected of employees, even when the additional hours exhaust teams physically and mentally. But what many business owners don’t yet realize is depriving employees of rest could cost U.S. companies nearly $2,000 per employee each year in unproductivity costs — not to mention the cost of wage and hour lawsuits.

Luckily, there are a few things that can help business owners avoid crunch time when the pressure is on and project deadlines near.

1. Time management

It may seem obvious, but budgeting for additional hours ahead of time can do wonders for avoiding burnout, as extra work is often tacked on after teams believe a project is completed. But there are always ways to refine the finished product, so leaving additional time for revisions and iterations is paramount to planning a project realistically.

2. Staffing foresight

Are you fully staffed for crunch? If you look at how many hours your team might need to get a job done and you don’t currently have the right number of employees to make it happen without going into overtime, you might consider bringing on more talent. Working your team to the bone in a crunch could cost much more than hiring additional workers to ease the tension.

3. Seek employee feedback

Don’t wait for employees to write anonymous blogs about their quality of life at work to make a change. Regularly ask for feedback, either through surveys or face-to-face check-ins, and be quick to implement changes when employees express a need for better work-life balance. Hear your workforce out and learn from their anecdotes before a packed schedule causes burnout.

 

How does your company prepare for “crunch”?
Tell us in the comments below!