Doing crunch right

Captain Forever Remix developer Dean Tate on keeping the work/life balance
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[Dean Tate is a developer who has previously worked on games such as BioShock, BioShock 2 and Dance Central. He is currently working on Captain Forever Remix.]

I used to crunch. A lot.

CRUNCH

verb

  1. 1. To spend all of one’s time working, usually on video games or software, often for extended periods of time. “We’re in crunch mode. Sorry I can’t hang out.”

When I was a teenager, every second of my spare time was spent making levels for Starcraft and making mods for Unreal Tournament. Late nights lead to many days in high school with my head on the desk and my eyes half open.

Then when I started making games for a living, I moved into an apartment right across the road from Irrational Games in Australia. I loved living so close to the office and having the option to work at odd hours, and often for very long hours. Throughout my 20s I worked extremely hard and crunched a lot. Especially on BioShock 2. On that project I fell into a deep obsession with my work and basically lived at the office for nine months.

It was AMAZING. I loved it. Every second of it. Being so excited about my work, being full of ideas, and having the freedom to explore them and put them into the game was just the bee’s knees. My brain wouldn’t let me concentrate on anything that wasn’t the game. And then when my work on the project finished, a fog lifted. I’d forgotten what I used to do in my spare time. My friends hadn’t seen me in months. I felt unhealthy, and had gained 30 pounds. I felt old. 

I vowed to never, ever crunch that hard ever again.

Which is fine, but what do you do when that passion and creativity threatens to take over your life again?

Now I’m indie game developer, and my office is two flights of stairs down from where I sleep. For most of my time on Captain Forever Remix, I’ve kept a pretty good work-life balance. But now I’m starting to hit that point on the project where a) we’re getting close to shipping on Early Access and b) I’m getting really, really excited about the game.

I mean I was excited before, don’t get me wrong, but it was the sort of excitement where I was able to keep space in my brain for “things that are not the game I’m working on”. But I think sometimes, when you’re psyched about a project, a little switch flips in your head and it becomes really hard to think about anything *but* your work. And that can be really dangerous.

That little switch has flipped in my head for Captain Forever Remix.

Other indies have talked plenty about the very real dangers of crunch, especially when there’s potential for there to be such a small separation between your work-life and your life-life as when you’re indie. Alexander Bruce has talked about his entire life being swallowed up for years as he worked on Antichamber. Recently I thought this post from Mike Bithell was very sobering. This article from earlier in the week has a bunch of developers commenting on this industry’s crunch culture. And there are plenty more out there.

So now that this little switch has flipped in my head, what should I do? Do I start crunching my butt off until the end of the project, putting the state of my mental and physical health at risk? With the potential that there isn’t any actual upside for the game?

This time around, I’m going to be a little more careful. Extra hours are being spent on Captain Forever Remix, but not all of the hours I have. And I’m being more thoughtful about what I spend those hours on. If I work on the game at night, it’s on stuff that is fun to work on, or doesn’t tax my brain too much.

It’s alright for that little switch in my brain to flip. In fact it’s pretty great. The feeling of excitement and obsession with your work that it can lead to can be intoxicating. I’m privileged to have the opportunity to do work that even allows for the possibility of that. 

Now I’m experienced enough to know the consequences of extended crunch. The type of crunch where your life splits into two halves: work, and (sometimes) sleep. I know that it’s not the best thing for myself, and it’s not the best thing for the game.

And that’s why this time, I’m going to try to do crunch right.

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