Sunday, October 27, 2013

Crunch! (part 1)

It's been quite a while since my last post. The title of this post explains why. I had to crunch for most of the first 7 months of the year. And then I took some holidays a little and intense work-for-hire time, and finally went back to work on my own project, on Super Toy Cars. I suppose I could've come back earlier, but I was too tired and probably didn't have something I itched to talk about. I'll try to come back to the habit of writing an article every 1-2 weeks. I'll try to discuss some of the design decissions on Super Toy Cars, some technical challenges and solutions, maybe sometimes just post images of the game for the sake of it and, of course, will visit topics I believe are controversial and I have a strong opinion of.

Ryse: Son of Rome

This week it is crunch, and it was sparked by some very unfortunate tweet (or is it twit? anyway in this case it's most likely a 'twat') from the official Ryse twitter about 11500 dinners being served during developmenet. You can read more about it and its backslash here:

I have a friend working there and I know for a fact that project wasn't particularly well managed in what refers to crunch, project scope, realistic goals, etc. I know that some people have been crunching for a long time to try to finish that project, giving the best of them up to exhaustion, and I know my friend to be one of those. I know he's quite disappointed with some of the management decissions too, but I'm not here to give voice to his complains, he'll do that if he feels like it. He's a big boy and needs no one standing up for him. I'm here more to talk about crunch in general and to give my opinion and experiences with it. It was this article that actually interested me the most:

I do agree with what Urquhart (creator among others of the first Fallout games and founder of Obsidian) says here:

"I've gone through periods of crunch that have exhausted me and strained my personal life," said Urquhart. "I've also gone through crunch periods, albeit much shorter ones, where I feel I was extremely productive and created amazing things. If I had to sum it up - crunch time, duct tape, and the force all have something similar - they each have a light side and a dark side."

I happen to have gone through a long period of mandatory crunch for various games (the last one I was actually working as freelance programmer) and I'm now working definitely more even than what I worked as mandatory crunch in my last project, but now for my own game, Super Toy Cars. These are 2 situations where I'm clearly working overtime, yet I find one feels completely different from the other. Why so? Because Super Toy Cars is a project I feel really close because I've almost complete control over it? Because I feel my work with Unity is so much more productive that what I did with an in-house engine? Because it's C# instead of C++? Because I'm now working with a talented artist which also happens to be my friend and with whom I get on very well? Well, all those reasons could be partly true, but they are not the reason why crunch in one case felt a lot worse than the other. Actually, I'd like to say that I neither dislike C++ (although I prefer C#) and that I feel I worked with very talented guys at my last company, many of which I think I can call friends. I actually miss working with such a talented and nice group of guys. As much as I love working with Lolo, I do enjoy working in a bigger environment with very experienced and different people.

Fallout New Vegas is one of the games from Obsidian, Urquhart's studio

So the main isssue for me was honesty. And I believe that's what makes or breaks it for me. When you are honest with your team and take calculated chances making everyone aware of the decisions taken and the reasons behind them, along with the risks, I think that's ok. At least, people will understand and, if they have any kind of voice in those decisions, will probably agree and back you working their asses off. On the other hand, if you just do what 'needs to be done' to finish the game, treating your workers as simple pawns that you use to win the game, sacrificing them where necessary, then it's probably not ok. I was caught in the latter. I must say here I don't always blame management for the crunch. Sometimes they do their best to minimize it and mitigate its effects, even in spite of circumstances. And sometimes people make honest mistakes. We all do. But that's not what this is about.

This last project was very similar to the one I suffered when I entered the games industry. I started working for Pyro Studios in a game called Imperial Glory. It was, theoretically 3 months from completion. When I had been there for less than 1 month we were asked to do a 'final push' (literal translation) during one and a half months, maybe 2 at the most. That meant working during Christmas Holidays (not Christmas Day or New Year's but yes during other local holidays and some Saturdays and Sundays). I must say that was particularly bad since many of the people working there came from different parts of Spain and wanted to go and visit their families for the Holidays and it made it hard. But still, I thought that was fair, it was just one final push, and the game deserved it, right?

Problem is, as you may have guessed, it was a push, but definitely not final. Right after Christmas, when the 2 months were about to expire, we had another meeting and we were told what we alreday knew: the game needed more time and the crunch period will be renewed for another month. Curiously right after working a bank holiday and a weekend day during the Christmas period. Curious...

Obviously it was all said with the typical business bullshit: "you're doing a great job", "we need to reach the highest quality level we can", "to do so we need you to do a final push", etc. 4 weeks later the meeting repeated again. Exactly the same, one more month of crunch time. And one month later it repeated yet again. Yes, 4 times we were asked to do a 'final push'. Obviously, the fourth time it looked more like they were taking the piss off us, rather than serious stuff. The initial 1.5 months ended up being 5 months of overtime. 10 hours a day plus many a weekend. I don't think I'd be wrong if I said I worked 12-15 weekend days or bank holidays. Probably even more, it was a long time ago and I don't remember well.

Imperial Glory - My first game in the industry

I was new to the industry. Actually, it was my first job out of the university, and I was new to everything. New city, new job, new industry, new people,... I initially believed what my managers said. At least the first 2 or 3 times. Why shouldn't I? Obviously, by the fourth time I couldn't believe a word they said. Other people were saying from the start that it was impossible to reach the target in time and they ended up being quite right and accurate with regards to timings. Some of these guys - by the way, an amazing group of people I deeply miss - were aware that we couldn't reach the target and that we were going to be asked for further efforts.

To be fair I have to say that, in the end, we were given some extra holidays (1 week I think to recall in my case) and a bonus (which by the time was quite ok for me). Still, that didn't cover not even half the overtime done, and that's with a Spanish junior programmer's salary which by the time was pretty low. That experience changed something in me. I stopped being that naive young enthusiastic programmer to become a very cynic one. I started trusting my experience and my gut feelings way better than whatever I'm told by managers, particularly with suits or very high up people.

At the time, I even seriously considered leaving the industry. And that's saying quite something for me since I've been trying to make videogames for a living since I was 11. Probably earlier, but that's when I learnt to code. The effects of continued crunch were hard on me. Maybe not physically, but emotionally. It was the good things, the good times and the great people around me that kept me going and I'm glad of it. But I definitely don't want that experience repeated. Particularly not now that I have a family. Not unless that's my last resort to keep me going and my family fed.

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