Advanced build technology can help maximise project efficiency, studio says

Criterion: Fighting crunch saved us $700,000

In its pursuit to eliminate crunch work and excessive overtime, Guildford group Criterion saved $700,000 in quality assurance costs alone, a studio executive has said.

Paul Ross, chief technology officer at EA’s flagship UK studio, told Develop that an investment in build servers, auto testing and tools can dramatically improve production efficiency and thus eliminate workloads placed onto staff.

“The thing is, very few people ever offer practical advice on what you can do to avoid crunch, outside of ‘better scheduling’,” Ross told Develop in a new feature published today.

“The only thing that everybody can agree on is that crunch is bad. It’s bad for the team crunching, for whom it’s very unpleasant,” he said.

Ross said that “in between the blame game” that follows an excessive crunch period there is little advice offered, which in itself is a mistake.

“Here at Criterion we’ve made significant inroads in how we can, if not eliminate, certainly ease the crunch process. Our secret to alleviating crunch is to make every second of development count. The more you can keep the production line running the fewer wasted hours your team has to make up with crunch.”

And the solution to this, he said, was to “invest massively in build infrastructure”.

Ross said the studio has used build servers, auto testing and various tools to constantly update the build process.

“The code, the data and all of the tools have to build at all times. Doing this avoids members of your team getting latest [build] and finding they can’t work. Every hour of downtime that you avoid is an hour that you can put into game quality and an hour that you’ve eaten away from crunch,” he said.

Ross explained that Criterion used “top of the range build servers that constantly churn through the game and all of its branches” to help the studio develop the blockbuster racer Need For Speed Hot Pursuit.

He said the build servers used had included a simple mechanism that meant staff were auto-emailed when certain changes had to be made to broken builds.

“Staff could then see what had gone wrong and submit a fix. This basic mechanism keeps the build building at all times,” Ross said.

"We invested heavily in build servers, auto testing and tools to figure out what was happening during our production processes," he added.

"By doing this we made our production far more efficient, resulting in savings from our QA bill of around $700,000 for example, as well as limiting the amount of overtime we had to put in to get the BAFTA-winning game Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit done."

For a full in-depth look at how Criterion is battling crunch work, go here.

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