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Programming The Almighty Buck Entertainment Games IT Technology

Crunch Tactics a Symptom of a Larger Problem? 63

Posted by CowboyNeal
from the game-management-and-long-hours dept.
An anonymous reader writes "One of the brave few: hot on the heels of the recent lawsuit filed against Vivendi Universal for back wages due to a developer who was allegedly asked to alter his timecard, Rob Fahey of gamesindustry.biz has taken the bold step of taking the position that the insane hours game developers are routinely asked to work are might not be in the industry's best interest, and in fact might be less profitable than planning projects well."
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Crunch Tactics a Symptom of a Larger Problem?

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  • by grm_wnr (781219) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:12PM (#9687189)
    Yeah, who would have ever thought of that? The fact that this statement is seen as "bold" should be indication enough that something is amiss here.
    • I never had crunch time while I worked in Japan for companies like Canon. Why? Everyone just worked extra hours anyway to impress the manager, so crunch time was just like any other day.
  • by JavaLord (680960) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:13PM (#9687204) Journal
    Anyone who has ever worked as a programmer can tell you that as a deadline creeps up they usually end up working more hours. Spec's change, deadlines get moved up and back, other developers quit, etc. In the video game market, where you MUST hit certain deadlines such as christmas, or before a certain quater to make your company look good for stockholders this is always going to exist. Unless you give yourself an extra 6 months to a year of slack time, you are always going to have suicide hours near deadlines because shit always happens.
    • by egomaniac (105476) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:37PM (#9687552) Homepage
      Anyone who has ever worked as a programmer can tell you that as a deadline creeps up they usually end up working more hours. Spec's change, deadlines get moved up and back, other developers quit, etc.

      ...

      Unless you give yourself an extra 6 months to a year of slack time, you are always going to have suicide hours near deadlines because shit always happens.


      Then you plan for that and include it in the schedule. If it "always happens", then you'd better always include it in the schedule. There is no excuse for doing otherwise -- forty years of software engineering history gives us a pretty strong indication that the belief "maybe everything will go perfectly this time" is a horrible fallacy.

      Things will go wrong. Specs will change. People will get sick. It happens every fucking time, and we all know it. So what the hell are we doing not building this time into the schedule? Not doing so is equivalent to jamming your fingers in your ears and yelling "la la la, I'm not listening!" at the top of your lungs. It might feel good for a little while, but it's bound to bite you in the ass later.

      At my company (not games, but trust me, you've heard of us) we routinely double or triple all time estimates provided by engineers, to account for unforeseen eventualities. Wonder of wonders, my team has always hit our dates and we don't have insane crunch time near launches.

      Obviously, truly earthshaking events -- building burns down, lead programmer hit by a bus -- can throw even the best schedule off. But surely we can be doing better than having the schedule thrown off every single time we build something, can't we?
      • Perhaps the project managers in the industry tend to have the same issues as the coders... ie, being more involved in the idea of the project and what is 'cool' than in any sort of proper business practice.

        It would be interesting to take an IT manager from a non-gaming firm known for getting projects done on time and drop them into a gaming firm and see what happens. Of course, if the root cause is insufficient budgets compensated for by abusing the labour pool, the results would end up being the same.
      • Then you plan for that and include it in the schedule. If it "always happens", then you'd better always include it in the schedule. There is no excuse for doing otherwise -- forty years of software engineering history gives us a pretty strong indication that the belief "maybe everything will go perfectly this time" is a horrible fallacy.

        Think you could call my boss and have a talk with him? :) Maybe you could get him to schedule in some slashdot time also.
      • Wow, thats great. So you account and budget for the time. Whoopdiddydoo. Your proposal doesn't actually functionally change anything. When someone figures out how to make a deadline not a deadline, then crunch time will go away. Until then, its just another choice: deal with it or quit.
      • On any given project: if you give yourself an extra 50% more time, the project will consume those 50 and still have crunch time. It's simply phychology. When a dead line is far away people work more slowly and on less vital things. As the deadline looms, the people frantically code the essentials, hoping beyond hoep to make the deadline.
        • bs (Score:5, Insightful)

          by MarcoAtWork (28889) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @02:27PM (#9688952)
          'if you give yourself an extra 50% more time, the project will consume those 50 and still have crunch time'

          this is bs, of COURSE if your staff is already burned out from the previous crunch time, for the first half of the schedule they'll 'recuperate' and not be very productive, which means that by the end they'll likely be a bit behind. Also a good project has a very 'tight' schedule (not tight = no time, tight = many meaningful milestones, possibly on a weekly basis)

          If your work force is not exhausted, on the other hand, you'll see that if you do your scheduling well (adding buffers and so on) more often than not you'll be bang on or even early. In video games development you'll always likely be bang on because there are always a lot of 'nice to have' features you can work on if you're early.

          The problem is how to go from an exhausted work force to a happy work force: you do this by having everybody basically take a month off after your last insane crunch spell and making it clear that from now on they will NOT BE ALLOWED to work more than 9 hours a day, and that if the deadline is not hit at the end they will NOT GET their bonus (which should be made a significant % of compensation).

          All of this will definitely encourage people not to kill themselves, to have a life, and to be happy productive coders for many years to come. In the end it would also save the companies money, because they wouldn't have the staff turnover problems (with retraining costs etc.) they have now and so on and on.

          Odds of this happening? pretty close to nil, also because there is some perverse 'you're not a tough guy coder unless you can go 48 hours on mt dew' psychology at work here as well...
        • On any given project: if you give yourself an extra 50% more time, the project will consume those 50 and still have crunch time. It's simply phychology. When a dead line is far away people work more slowly and on less vital things. As the deadline looms, the people frantically code the essentials, hoping beyond hoep to make the deadline.

          Then my team is somehow miraculously immune to this effect, as we have A) never missed a ship date, and B) never had to work twelve-hour days to meet a deadline.

          Most of t
      • Ever hear of Parkinson's Law?

        -- Formula invented by the English political analyst Cyril Northcote Parkinson, which states that 'work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion'.
      • Then you plan for that and include it in the schedule. If it "always happens", then you'd better always include it in the schedule.

        I direct you to Hofstadter's Law and the inevitable conclusion that, if you attempt to include the unforseen in your schedule, eventually you are going to be working on a project with an infinite budget requirement and no deadline.
    • by NanoGator (522640) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @01:03PM (#9687915) Homepage Journal
      "Unless you give yourself an extra 6 months to a year of slack time, you are always going to have suicide hours near deadlines because shit always happens."

      If it takes another 6 months, they should schedule another 6 months. That ain't slack time. If those dates are so important, they shouldn't be cutting it so close that Murphy's Law can derail the project.
  • I'm not a professional programmer, but EVERY book I've bought mentions the coders that stay up all night with coffee/jolt just so they can continue to code. Are you telling me that none of it is real???

    I guess it's a job like any other, but it would be better working overtime coding a cool game than, say, the next version of MS Word.
    • by mausmalone (594185) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:51PM (#9687760) Homepage Journal
      I'm not a professional programmer, but EVERY book I've bought mentions the coders that stay up all night with coffee/jolt just so they can continue to code.
      Every book on coding (well, beyond beginner C/C++) I've ever read mentions the same, but it's always tried to put it in a positive light. It's like they're saying "they stay up all night coding because they love to do it so much! and you will too if you make it through this book!"

      But I digress. Last night I stayed up all night to code. Any coder who has a project he or she enjoys to work on will want to stay up to work on it. But when it's work and you're there for like 15 hours a day and not getting overtime, then I have a real problem with that.
      I guess it's a job like any other, but it would be better working overtime coding a cool game than, say, the next version of MS Word.
      You'd think it would be, but game programming is sometimes completely mind-bending. There's lots of parsing, data management, bug-hunting, optimizing, and deadline-dodging that goes on. It's some of the hardest coding on the planet, as the entire thing has to have a good "feel" and "flow." It's not like you can say "thisGame.feel = great;" There are hours and hours of refinement and tweaking and debugging that go on, all in a very high-pressure environment (especially when you're under a release date or convention deadline). Game coders probably don't have it worse than any other coders, but I'd be hard pressed to say they have it much better.
    • I find most non trivial coding tasks take somewhere between 2-8 uninterrupted hours of coding. Given a task I could accomplish this in say 6 hours. I could start at 10pm and work till 4AM or I could try to fit it in an 8am till 5pm day.

      Now I get in at 8ish and start up my pc check my e-mail open the project read the documentation and wow it's 8:45 time for the morning meeting. Great now it's 9am and I am ready to go... Great work till 12:00 and hmm hungry time to grab some food. Cool well join a cowo
  • by hal2814 (725639) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:21PM (#9687328)
    I don't think that poor management is the problem here like the author indicates. These companies are working at a backbreaking rate so that they can remain competitive. It's not like EA can afford to cut their development time per day and only put out a football game every two years. Software companies drop off the map very quickly if they don't keep putting out new products that are popular.

    There might be ways via management and planning to reduce the time it takes to create a piece of software, but that won't lead to shorter work days for the programmers. It will merely lead to more projects being completed in a year with programmers still working 12 hour days. As long as the other guy has workers that are willing to work 12 hour days to achieve goals, you can bet that you will too.
    • Wrong (Score:5, Interesting)

      by blunte (183182) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:38PM (#9687570)
      Software company failures are not typically due to the frequency of release of games.

      The first and foremost reason a game company fails is that it failed to release its first game. This is often due to poor planning (business, game design, project management), and secondly to lack of resources/talent.

      The second reason a game company fails is because it releases a bad product. This can be a product that's very unfinished (rushed out), very bug ridden, or just not what game players want.

      Crunches usually happen because of external influences - trying to meet Christmas retail season, trying to get a playable demo ready for E3, or trying to meet a publisher deadline for a milestone.

      Anyway, game developers I've worked with were usually as committed to their game development as they were to their spouses (those who were married), or sometimes more. They _want_ to get it done. It's not simply a boss behind them cracking a whip.
      • The first and foremost reason a game company fails is that it failed to release its first game. This is often due to poor planning (business, game design, project management), and secondly to lack of resources/talent.

        For startup game dev houses making an original title, this is true.

        The second reason a game company fails is because it releases a bad product.

        yes, it all works through the amazing blue faeries that make sure that companies who release bad products go out of business. You can sleep well

    • The man is not suing because he was forced to work 12 hours a day, that's perfectly legal. The lawsuit contends that he was forced to falsify his timecards to say that he only worked 40 hours in a week. The unhappy part of it was that he wasn't compensated for the additional hours he worked. This may or may not be legal, but what isn't legal is falsifying your timecard. Falsifying timecards is a Federal Offense! If you are being forced to falsify your timecards, I suggest making a few phonecalls.
    • Software companies drop off the map very quickly if they don't keep putting out new products that are popular.

      Yeah, like Blizzard. Or Bungie. Both of them recognize that it's not the quality that matters, it's the frequency of their releases. It's also well known that most of their games are coded during crunchtime, in order to meet a pre-defined deadline.

      Low-frequency quality releases is far from a worthless buisiness model. The problem is more related to the fact that people constantly buy crappy
    • These companies are working at a backbreaking rate so that they can remain competitive. It's not like EA can afford to cut their development time per day and only put out a football game every two years.

      If nothing else, this is a poor poor example. EA is a rich company to say the least (Madden series), so to say they can't afford to hold out an extra year is pure marketing by EA.

      "Oh we can't hold out an extra year to fix all the lag and bugs in our games otherwise some other company will somehow manage to

      • I think you're wrong about EA losing market share if they don't put out a yearly title. Most of the people I know who are Madden fans have not played it's now-biggest competitor, the ESPN football series. If football fans play and get used to the ESPN football engine one year due to the lack of a Madden title, it will be hard for Madden to get them to go back to a more Madden-style game engine (just as it is hard to go to the ESPN engine when Madden is all you've played for a year). I switched to the Dr
  • by Torgo's Pizza (547926) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:21PM (#9687329) Homepage Journal
    I thought this was addressed in the Quality of Life white paper?

    Anyway, this was brought up at the June Dallas IGDA meeting. Several producers discussed ways that they avoid crunch time. Tom Mustaine, a friend of mine, told about how he schedules three-day workweeks (!). While sounding totally insane, when crunch time rolls around, they just go to a normal five-day work week and finish what they need without killing themselves.

    There's also much to be said for the effect on quality when quantity of hours are worked. In short, the longer you continually work, the more mistakes are made. What happens is that sometimes you lose more time fixing those mistakes than instead just going home and getting enough rest.

    The game industry is finally coming to terms that the long work hours caused by inadequate planning and management is driving away many talented workers and programmers.
    • by JavaLord (680960) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:33PM (#9687498) Journal
      The game industry is finally coming to terms that the long work hours caused by inadequate planning and management is driving away many talented workers and programmers.

      If you are a member of IGDA I'm sure you know that there is no lack of programmers that want to work in the game industry. The problem is the game industry has no method to bring in programmers who have experence programming, but not programming games. Basically you need a CS Degree, plus a hell of a working demo to get hired somewhere and the jobs are very limited. Once you are hired, and you are good enough then you can hang around, but most people in the gaming industry are very good programmers and at some point after working 80 hours a week they are going to say "I don't need this shit". Lack of programmers who want in isn't the problem, lack of an ability to keep them in might be.

      Maybe if the gaming industry brought on more low level programmers at the start of a project, they would have enough people so insane crunch time wouldn't be as insane. Of course then they would have to pay their salaries, which gets in the way of Profit!
      • You're comment hits the nail right on the head, unfortunately, after seeing this happen having shipped 3 games now. Within 5 years, most game programmers want OUT of the industry.

        There is an interesting concept in Jim Collin's "Good to Great", which I'll paraphrase:

        "It important to get the right people. Along with that, most companies think they need to motivate their employees, but it is MORE important NOT to DEMOTIVATE them."

        Peace

        --
        Orignal, Fun Palm games by the Lead Designer of Majesty!
        http://www.a
      • Weird, you described a problem that doesn't even exist. The "gaming industry" (as if there was one way of doing business) does cultivate its own talent. Yes, to get a senior position you have to have shipped titles, but junior programming jobs do exist. They do scripting, or menu implementation, or other such work. Hell, I know guys who started as testers with NO programming knowledge who knew games and were sharp enough that they got hired at developers as designers and learned the programming on the j
      • I will leave alone the idea of someone named "JavaLord" commenting on programming in the game industry.

        Lack of programmers who want in isn't the problem, lack of an ability to keep them in might be.

        You are touching on an important point, but are missing the core: The pay is crap. Game programmers work startup-type crunches (sometimes for years) without the same dream of a payout as a reward. Working in the industry is supposed to be it's own reward, but that doesn't do it after you get a good idea o

        • I will leave alone the idea of someone named "JavaLord" commenting on programming in the game industry.

          And what exactly is wrong with the name "JavaLord"? Do you have some kind of preconsieved notion that Java can't be used to make games? If you do, it's sad you are basing assumptions on what Java was in 1997-1998.

          You are touching on an important point, but are missing the core: The pay is crap.Game programmers work startup-type crunches (sometimes for years) without the same dream of a payout
          • And what exactly is wrong with the name "JavaLord"? Do you have some kind of preconsieved notion that Java can't be used to make games? If you do, it's sad you are basing assumptions on what Java was in 1997-1998.

            A bit touchy are we? Java people are so damn defensive you'd think they are a minority. Now granted there *are* a lot of stereotypes... Unfortantely for you, most of them are pretty correct.

            Before, I was unconsciously was thinking console and A-title PC game industry...

        • Re:moulah (Score:3, Insightful)

          by Joe5678 (135227)
          The best programmers are not paid crap. Maybe by crappy companies, but most of the companies know what the really good programmers are worth, and the best programmers aren't going to stick around crappy companies for very long.

          Mediocre programmers are paid a decent amount of money, but not when compared to some of the hours they have to work. Most of these are people who THINK they are the best programmers, but in reality only know basic data structures and algorithms and probably write code that is not
      • Actually, I think if the the industry brought on more people from outside the gaming world, things might improve. I think that maturity and experience in other fields would influence the way management deals with programmers to a certain extent.

        For example, it's no secret that management prefers to hire young programmers because they're single, cheap and for some reason like to work insanely long hours. Older programmers (from my time working in the industry) have families want to get their work done as
  • Yes about time (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BlightThePower (663950) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:41PM (#9687608)
    I notice already a few comments along the lines of "thats just how software development is; specs change, shit happens". But this is true of any venture in engineering, even the arts. Its about time more emphasis was placed on trying to change things for the better. The software industries need for change is great; 80% of software is either late or fails to meet the initial specification. Its clearly unacceptable, as are the crazy hours demanded. Hopefully as we in the 2nd wave (really) of software development get a bit older it will be increasingly less than acceptable for team leaders to tell us we are 'flying to Australia' (presumably Aussie coders fly to Europe or else have a relatively cushy time!). What has to be lost is the frankly self-defeating and immature hostility towards management. Sure, bad 'PHB' management is the pits. But as anyone who has worked on a project overseen by a skilled leader will know, good management makes things an awful lot better than would otherwise be the case. A bad manager makes you work, a good manager works for you. Sounds trite, but I really do believe that.
  • by quantax (12175) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:42PM (#9687621) Homepage
    The author's point is not that the games industry needs to eliminate crunchtime; crunchtime exists in almost any product-based situation, especially when it comes to computer products. Software development, games, and 3D animation are three that come to mind in that catagory and all of these require crunchtime when the deadline looms near. The issue here is mis-management from the start to finish, in which the project manager actually plans 12 hour shifts for everyone which naturally spills over sometimes to 14 - 16 hour shifts, that extra 2 - 4 hours going unpaid. We've all played video games and I think we can all tell when a video game was rushed to completion, Driv3r being a newer example; rushed games are obvious and the resulting morale drop from not only having busted your ass for the last 3 - 6 months on a game, only to be pressured by the publisher into a release date, then releasing an incomplete game which proceeds to bomb with reviewers as well as in sales. Whats the drive to really make an innovative game next time, knowing your publisher is going to knuckle you into the same situation again and again?

    The big game publishers are reaching the point big music publishers reached about a decade or so back with music: their very presence hurts the overall industry due to their pump-em-out-n-release-an-expansion attitude, EA especially. Perhaps it is nearing a time where like-minded people need to stop buying games and their expansion packs from companies such as EA, Vivendi, etc. Now that it has become as popular as its music & movie siblings, we can expect more and more re-releases of games redone for new engines & systems, more (potentially crappy) sequels, and more branding (street fighter, resident evil, etc).
  • Unpopular view. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by PhoenixOne (674466) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @12:43PM (#9687642)
    By the post before me, I guess I'm the only game programmer who doesn't like working 90+ hour weeks.

    Yes, I understand that overtime is needed at time. I really do love what I do, so I don't mind the all night code jams (which are only fun when you look back on them). What I don't like is the fact that many companies take advantage of this fact to set absurd timelines (I'm not going to name names, but they know who they are).

    Add the extra 6 months. Need a new NFL game every year? Then hire two teams and give each a the time they need to make a good game. Not only will your employees live longer (and be happy), the end product will improve (remember less returns == more money).

  • by Kevin Burtch (13372) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @01:00PM (#9687883)

    The problem is much more common and much more widespread than this.

    A good friend of mine works for Motorola as a developer.
    He is expected to work more hours than I would believe if he wasn't at work every time I call him.
    He works nearly every weekend, all weekend, frequently comes home around 2-3am (gets to work 8:30am I think) on any day, etc.
    ALL WITHOUT ANY OVERTIME OF ANY KIND!
    He likes to say he's "allowed to work all the time".
    I tell him it sounds more like he's forced to, but he corrects me on that saying it isn't true. When I ask him if he'd get fired if he didn't work those hours they're "asking" him to work, he says "yes" without hesitation.
    Sounds forced to me.

    He says that Florida has some law that allows this behaviour of "non-exempt" employees. Yeah, stupid term - I have no idea where they came up with it or what they are not "exempt" from.

    Another example is my uncle... who works for NCR as a hardware field tech.
    He works 2-4 COUNTIES away from his home, while people in those counties work in HIS.
    He has also been forced (for years) to falsify his timsheets to show 40 hours, even though he typically works 70-90.
    He also is forced to work 10 days, then take 4 days off (this would drive me nuts, but at least they give him time off, unlike my friend above).

    Both situations are 100% due to poor planning by idiotic management (I worked in one of these companies for 8 years, I know).

    This also shows that it is not only not limited to the game-developement world, but not limited to program developers.
    This is a growing problem in this country, and it is due to our rewarding people based on their B.S. skills rather than their _real_ skills.
    It's that way in big companies, and it's that way in our government.

    Unfortunately, I have yet to hear of a way to remedy the situation... it's in our culture.

    • Does FL really have such a law? Or, is that just what the co. lawyers tell him?
    • Exempt is equivalent to salaried. Hourly workers must be paid for their time. (of course, they could be asked to falsify time cards, but that would actually be illegal.)

      I'm only rarely called on to do massive unpaid overtime at my current job (here in Florida). Overtime pay doesn't exist as a concept at this company, but it is a comfortable job compared to many others in the area. At least here it only happens when somebody screws up and it will affect revenue. My old job was overtime every day, my m

    • You must be talking about Motorola in Plantation. They've done this for at least the last 20 years. No lie. You'd think with the change of upper management over the last couple of years, and the change of direction that particular plant has taken would have made a difference by now, but apparently it hasn't.

      The thing is, back in the day, they tended to hire kids right out of college and work 'em to death just like you describe. After a few years, they figure out they're being taken advantage of, and mo
  • by EatenByAGrue (210447) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @01:02PM (#9687902)
    The real problem is supply and demand for workers. Many, many young programmers really want a career in game development. It sounds fun, exciting and creative. So there's always other programmers willing to step in and work for lower wages than what they'd be making doing mainframe apps or something. This creates some problems - wages are held down by huge labor supply, and the most experienced qualified programmers and project managers go to some other field where they can make real money.
    • Agreed; this is the root cause. Without the overwhelming supply, none of the other effects could ever happen.

      For some reason, people think programming games must be fun, because playing games is fun. Really bad logic, and it leads a lot of people into career choices they will regret in ten years.

      Yes, it is fun for some people, but as a job it isn't half of what it is cracked up to be. Part of keeping all your programmers working 80 hour weeks is so they never have a sane moment to realize how brutally the
    • this is one of the areas where it makes sense. Both indutries are intensely project oriented, and both are "cool" and "fun" , so workers are willing to work for peanuts to get into it.

      What's interesting is that the movie biz is heavily unionized, so the movie studios can't really take advantage of the impulse to hire cheap labor and work them to death.

      In response to that, the movie studios have had to develop project management down to a fine art, because that's the only way they had to cut labor costs. I

  • Isn't a good solution to most of these problems to hire more good quality people? The game industry JUST seems to be pulling out of the old "hire straight out of college" binge because with all the competition they're starting to see games flop...horribly. Does it cost more money? Probably. Will it save you money in the longrun? My crystal ball points to "You bet your ass it will". Quantity + Low Quality + Crunch Time Quantity + Good Quality + No Crunch Time
  • by CarrionBird (589738) on Tuesday July 13, 2004 @01:45PM (#9688448) Journal
    All the players being bought up by big labels. Dubious quality, workers and artists getting the shaft as a rule. Competition with the big boys near impossible.

    Could apply to the music business or the game business. It's the conglomerates(sp?) utopia.

  • Looks like this guy, and some members of IGDA, might have read the Mythical Man Month, and perhaps even The Deadline [amazon.com].

    Come on. We should all know this by now. The extra hours are turning into people too tired to notice obvious defects, just plain crappy games, and an exodus of experienced people from the industry. It's not a shock-- the entire computer software industry knows this except, apparently, the people who run game companies.

    Hell, they know it too. But then they fuck up their schedules, fail t

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