Some of you might have heard these statements about crunch culture. You might have heard that crunch is an important part of the creative process and that you need to “struggle” to create epic games.
We are Anders Gyllenberg (CEO at Fall Damage) and Mikael Kalms (CTO at Fall Damage), and in this blog post we want to share some of our experiences from working 20 years each in the game industry. We want to share what we have learned and how we, together with the fellow co-founders at Fall Damage, use these learnings in our everyday approach. Essentially, we hope that this can give some guidance to other studios that struggle with maintaining a good work-life balance.
WHAT IS CRUNCH CULTURE?
Crunch culture is most often defined as a disregard for the importance of the work-life balance. Encouraging and sometimes even forcing team members to work hours of overtime each week without any time to recuperate. Usually, it is a result of bad planning and communication. But sometimes it is a part of the management’s overall strategy where they actively put too much work into each milestone.
Developing games is a long process and it is only natural that reality will affect previously laid-out plans. This can be because of something breaking or malfunctioning unpredictably, or changes in product scope or direction partway through development. Crunch is one “solution”, but it completely misses the target.
FALL DAMAGE’S APPROACH
The first thing we do to maintain a good work-life balance is to truly take responsibility for the culture that we foster. This is important as most of our employees, and probably in the game development industry as a whole, are very passionate about what they do. When you do something that you love and are passionate about it is very easy to fall into the trap of working too much. As studio management, it is our job to prevent this. We need to step up as leaders and clearly convey that working overtime is neither appreciated nor expected. We need to actively monitor work-related channels to identify employees that might follow an unhealthy pattern. While also guiding them in how to get the help and support that they might need.
Our role is to be the safety net that protects our crew from having to deal with unreasonable demands. To succeed, setting the right expectations from the start is key. We refuse to be naive when calculating work hours. Instead, we push the focus from detailed project roadmaps and deadlines to actual results.
Together with our publisher, we have abandoned dates and deadlines as the main checkpoints of our projects. Instead we focus on the result: what is done instead of when. This is a fundamental change of mindset. From a top-down perspective, where the most important thing is that something is produced by a certain time, to a bottom-up approach that encourages the studio members to work smart and focus on what really matters.
We work in one-week sprints, with the game playable at all times, and we make formal releases every week. This approach shifts the focus to quality over speed, which essentially means that there are no longer any good incentives for crunch. It is simply not worth it to add one bad line of code or one art piece that is out of place, as it may completely destroy the overall quality of the game. For this reason, our approach also leads to us having to spend less time and energy on fixing breaks.
We believe that this works very well for us, as it enables each and every one of our studio members to think beyond the road map specification and focus on what really makes a difference. We don’t see the value of banging our heads against the wall just to meet a deadline. Instead, it is in everyones’ best interest to rest and recharge for the next release, it’s only one week away after all!
We have all worked in the industry long enough to see people burn out and never come back, and regardless of how epic the game ends up being, it is not worth it. Not even close. To encourage crunch is to put both the health of your team and the project at risk. You risk losing the studio’s most valuable asset, its people, for a working method that rarely leads to any high-quality results.
When we founded Fall Damage we agreed to refuse to sign off on the crunch culture and all bullshit that comes with it, and this far we consider it a success. It would be a lie to say that we will never do overtime at Fall Damage. We probably will at some point. However, we can truthfully say that we never will allow overtime to be a part of our culture. This is one of our core principles and something we do not compromise with.