Crunch controversy has made its inevitable return, but what can we learn from it?

OPINION: No rest for the wicked, nor the wonderful

I’m aware of the irony here.

Last Thursday, during my meagre eight-and-a-half hours at Develop, I received an email from a studio insider at Kaos who – as you may know by now – described a dev team overwhelmed by intensive work and late hours.

In pursuit of a fair response from THQ, I contacted the dev source (wasn’t easy), discussed the issue and condensed what was said into several points (tricky), then searched for an appropriate THQ contact in the US (never easy), and then sent out a list of accusations that I would soon publish.

That brought my working hours up to eleven. My colleagues, and journalists from other publications, will certainly not be shocked by that number. Friends of mine would.

THQ’s response came through on Saturday while I was, of all things, drunk, yet still with the story in the back of my mind. Voluntarily I spent four hours on Sunday working the news article, and features, and what you’re reading now, until I reached my own thousand yard stare, at about 1am.

Overtime, it seems, respects no industry – be it PR or game development, or even one that has to report on it.

Yet what always strikes me is how the term ‘crunch’ is used to describe both what I did over the weekend and what is happening at Kaos and behind closed doors at numerous other studios.

Have I just crunched? I would, in bare-wart honesty, describe what I’ve done as ‘fun’. In game development too, you hear of studios pulling together, with comradeship and unity, because of a shared mammoth task.

Even the Kaos insider recalls a time when crunch work wasn’t necessarily a grim scenario. Perhaps, even, enjoyable: “We were establishing a new company which may have made it feel like it was a different ‘we are all in this together’ kind of situation.”

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome with crunch is its definition.

Crunch can improve someone’s own pride as much as it can damage ties with family and friends. It can be fun as much as it can ruin productivity. It can take people up their career ladder and plunge them into clinical depression.

This blurring of scenarios – merging the acceptable with the enforced, the voluntary with the unacceptable – will not help the debate. The ills of this work phenomenon need to be identified and separated from its values.

In that regard, respect should be paid to David Votypka at Kaos, and THQ, who have responded to accusations with an openness never seen before by a developer and publisher.

EA and Rockstar were largely silent when both had their own crunch and PR crisis to deal with. Little was learnt from the scenarios.

With Kaos, a wider picture has emerged. Slow progress made early in the Homefront project appears to have overloaded work into its latter stages. There were allegations of over-committing, leading to this work crisis in trying to deliver on big promises.

Votypka, while not ignoring these problems, is clearly fixed on his studio finishing the project. He has publicly urged his team to get through this gruelling final stretch and emerge triumphant.

You have to wonder what came first; the squeezed crunch schedule, or the desire to do whatever it takes to create something special.

And that self-governed desire to excel is problematic when discussing ‘crunch’, or ‘overtime’, or simply ‘hard work’.

Key to understanding crunch is figuring out why people come home from work to write novels, edit Wikipedia, build model ships and hack PS3s. Why do people do this in their spare time, for free?

Finally, the issue of rewarding crunch with bonus pay needs reassessment. Our Kaos source said THQ “does have a bonus program but most people feel that it will not reward the team enough”. It’s far from being the first time I’ve heard this from a developer.

In a incentive experiment conducted by MIT, it was discovered that pay bonuses upon project completion can have a negligible positive affect on workers. In fact the study, repeated again and again, showed that pay bonuses led to better performances only in tasks that required mechanical skills.

In tasks that required even the most rudimentary cognitive skill, bonus pay rewards always resulted in a drop in performance.

Dan Pink’s speech on motivation for the Royal Society for Arts, in the video below, explores the issue wonderfully.

“Money is a motivator, but people work best when they are paid enough not to think about money,” he said.

“If you want engagement, if you want people to be motivated, self direction is a better method.”

His conclusion was simple – hard work shouldn’t be enforced. Votypka understandably is calling for his team to finish the Homefront project with expedience and passion. The key problem, it seems, is when this need for passion is enforced.

Back to work.

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