UW-Stout’s Take on Crunch in Video Game Development

Logan Myhre – 

Game design students at the University of Wisconsin–Stout are not unfamiliar with the concept of crunch. Crunch is the term used in video game development to describe long hours of overtime spent working on a game.

It recently became the topic of public discussion in the video game industry after an interview with Dan Houser, co-founder of developer Rockstar, was recently published in New York Magazine. In the interview, Houser talked about working 100-hour work weeks before the fast approaching Oct. 26 release for their upcoming game, Red Dead Redemption 2.

“[Crunch] specifically refers to working a lot of overtime as you come to some sort of deadline,” said Seth Berrier, an associate professor who teaches upper level game design courses at University of Wisconsin-Stout. “In the game design industry, it refers to when something needs to ship or when something needs to lock down and you’re trying to work extra hard as you come into that [deadline] to cram in as many bug fixes or features.”

Jake Houghton, a senior student in the game design program, said that crunch is something that occurs, at least in collegiate game design, because of the goals set for the project conflicting with the time available to complete them.

“To me, crunch is kind of just this clashing idea of scope, you know every game has its scope, this vision for what the team wants to accomplish, and then that coming into contact with time,” Houghton said.

Josh Frederick, another senior in the game design program, said that crunch for him can sometimes be self-induced.

“For an art student, crunch comes down to the fact that you are given a structure to work in. You’re given a project assigned and maybe it’s a potential portfolio piece, or maybe it’s something that’s right in your wheelhouse. There is no ceiling for how good it can be except for how much blood and sweat you’re willing to put into it,” Frederick said. “The only constant is the deadline because at that point you’re not going to have any time to work on it anymore. At that point, it’s a question of how far you are willing to go to be happy with something.”

Berrier said that crunch works differently in the professional side of game development. He said that often the business relationship between the publisher of a game (the company funding the development) and the developer (the company developing the game) is what causes crunch.

Berrier noted that sometimes this relationship can become exploitative when publishers use the passion that developers have for their project to coerce them into working unreasonably long hours.

Frederick also expressed concern about the effect that crunch will have on his prospective career path. Berrier noted that many developers end up getting fatigued by crunch and leave for other industries.

“Crunch definitely concerns me because it makes me think that even if I made it into a senior position, it’s not a position I would want forever. I definitely don’t want to be crunching by the time I’m 40,” Frederick said. “it’s something that I’m sort of anticipating unfortunately. It’s just kind of a reality. It happens here but I know for a fact that it also happens out there. I just cross my fingers that I end up working at a place that’s nice to work.”

Diane Christie, the founder of the game design and development program, said that crunch is not a new practice in the gaming industry, nor is it exclusive to the gaming industry. Christie also said that not every company practices it regularly.

“It depends on the company you’re working for. I’ve worked with Big John Games up in Edina, Minn. They are more concerned with putting out a quality product than getting [their games] out at the exact date that they had planned,” Christie said.

Berrier makes it a point to talk about crunch with the students in his game design courses.

“I’ll have times at the start of the year where I say ‘this is a crunch free zone, I don’t want you guys to crunch unless you are completely doing it on your own. I will never require it of you and in fact, I would ask that you don’t even do it on your own because I don’t think you do your best work in that environment,’” Berrier said.

Both Christie and Berrier tell their students to try to plan ahead as far as possible in an attempt to avoid crunching. Berrier also said that he stresses the importance of focusing on core ideas and letting go of ones that aren’t completely necessary.

Berrier said that he is seeing crunch talked about more in the public, which he hopes will lead to better working practices in the industry.

“Nowadays, I see it being talked about at GDC (Game Developers Conference), where there’s talks specifically about how you avoid crunch time and about how you manage employee expectations and publisher expectations. I see all these articles where journalists are willing to shine a light on it and say ‘hey, you love this game, here’s the people that made it.’”