Some time ago, I took a few days to read an interesting little book by Bloomberg reporter Jason Schreier, named Blood, Sweat & Pixels. In it, Jason interviewed a number of game studios behind some of the most famous games, learning the crazy and somewhat miraculous stories that brought those games to life.
Though I would highly recommend that book to anybody with even a remote interest in the gaming scene, there was one element that kept recurring over the course of the book, and one that I wish Jason tackled in a less detached manner: development crunch.
In the video games and general development scene, a developer is said to crunch when they are working inhumane hours across a relatively short time span (usually some weeks, but it could be months) in order to deliver a project in time. Essentially, it is a form of overtime (often times unpaid) which is brought to the extreme, and it is fairly common in the gaming industry.
You may use that term in the same way or use an entirely different verb altogether, but the process may ring a bell. What about those times when you worked 60 hours in a week to deliver a pitch?
Image credit: John Koay
The issue of crunch and why it has to stop
The problem with crunch is that, before the era of social media and widespread information, it was simply a widely accepted practice in the game development scene and one that developers would silently accept. It is a given, it is normal; if you want to deliver a demo or a game in time, you are expected to crunch heavily as you approach the final deadline. Does it lead to better games? Well, not really.
The problem with such an approach to overtime is that the entire team’s mind is practically off the charts. Employers most likely have to handle delicate business and investor relationships, with either a publisher, a brand or any other kind of client; managers and team members, on the other hand, feel the pressure to deliver from above. While the team may appear focused, what really happens is that they become more detached than ever. So that in the long run, you risk losing them to another employer (or worse), but you also risk the quality of your work – and your business with it.
From an employer’s perspective
An employer usually has to juggle a number of different business relationships at once. Some of these may get jeopardise when it comes to delivering a project in time. Obviously, this applies to pitches as well.
When the whole team is focused on a pitch, there is no takeaway pizza order that can make up for the time spent away from home. I’ve heard literal horror stories from the industry about people sleeping in to finish a pitch, and then not even winning against the other shortlisted agencies. “It’s brutal, it’s part of the game,” we tell ourselves; but this doesn’t make it right.
Nor does it automatically warrant a well-done job. It is proven that employees with a healthy work-life balance perform far better at work. Milking every single drop of life and sanity out of them isn’t going to do any business any good; employers will find themselves with a bunch of overworked employees, some of whom will most certainly under-deliver.
When the pitch is lost, or the final work released performs under expectations, and a ton of money has gone into an idea that burned out your creatives, there is no one you can blame but yourself. Do that enough times and you’ll start losing valuable members of your team, either to indefinite sick leave or another employer altogether. Your reputation will travel around the industry of course, which will make it more difficult for you to attract talent – and if your work is poor, to attract valuable new business as well. So what is the solution to this?
Image credit: Dennis Otieno
It’s all good and fun to aim for growth, but businesses should never chew more than they can handle. Certainly there are opportunities to grow your business that don’t require 70 hours a week for one month straight. Mind, it’s absolutely okay to expect some overtime from your time every once in a while – I’m a highly committed professional and I love to help when possible. But it won’t take long before your employees start picking out the things you could do better, if overtime happens over and over and over again, for reasons which are well within your control.
It’s easy to dismiss the issue as a problem with poor planning, but of course there’s more at play in any single team doing overtime. It may be pressure for a new, tight deadline that needs to happen this week. It may be a needy client looking for huge, incredibly well paid work to be delivered within a month. What is important is to cultivate a healthy company culture around your deliverables and projects. But, unless you have no other choice to save the business, you always have the chance to say no. If you don’t feel like your team can do it comfortably within the deadline, don’t ask them to. You will save yourself a ton of stress, and you will have happier employees at the end of the day.
Even if this is your only shot at saving the business, something tells me that you should have seen it coming a long time ago. The problem there is most likely a lot deeper than a series of tight deadlines, one after the other.
From an employee’s perspective
Crunch and overtime of course sucks for everybody, including employees, and team leaders. If there is a project or a pitch to be delivered within a certain deadline, they will feel like there’s no other choice but do it. The most diligent workers will sacrifice their own social life and personal time to help the team – but this doesn’t mean they wouldn’t rather be doing something else.
Loyalty and diligence should never be abused. An employee may well want to help push a team past a deadline, but ask that too many times of them, and they will be going for the door quite soon. If they are that committed and talented, after all, someone else will certainly be willing to steal them from you – and why wouldn’t they accept?
Imagine a retail store. Image credit: Linda Evans
If these abstract concepts don’t seem to land, consider this: if you’ve ever been a sales assistant in retail, you know how it feels to feel pressure on your shoulders from above. Especially in the biggest stores, managers push for KPIs and performance all the time, and this slowly takes its toll on your mental health and wellbeing. The problem is that, the moment you get back home and stop thinking about all that for a bit, there will always be one tiny, imposing question popping up in your brain: “is it worth it?”
Indeed. Is it worth going through so much stress for a business that doesn’t value you enough? Is it worth stressing out, burning yourself out for a project that will put most of the money in someone else’s pockets? Is it worth working for someone who doesn’t value your time and mental health enough to plan accordingly in advance?
We have some of the most beautiful creative agencies and companies here on Creativepool, and the best ones to work for all have one thing in common: they think of their employees before thinking about their business. Sure, the business has to grow, but there’s no way it can grow without a dedicated team and the desire to pursue impact over money. As an employee, you can find tons of other companies that are willing to value you enough. All you need to do is start looking, and your talent will be recognised, sooner or later.
According to Alex Evans, Managing Director at Studio Blup, there are several ways to help fight burnout: "I’ve noticed that having a routine that includes mental and physical exercise helps the body and mind unwind and de-stress. A routine can also be very useful in the workplace when it comes to managing to do lists and meeting deadlines. Staying organised with client activity and workloads helps the team feel positive about their work, and if things do start to pile up, having a strong black book of freelancers to bring in when needed is helpful to keep things moving without over stretching your employees. Another way to avoid burnout is through changing up your working environment and shifting to a different physical location - especially with the hybrid work model we find ourselves in."
Is it worth it?
So, no. It isn’t worth it to burn yourself out for that pitch. It isn’t worth it to expect your team to do it, or to put pressure on your managers so they can force someone to be more of a “team player”. That is just a pesky excuse, a way to nurture the toxic culture of overwork and productivity.
Your mental health, personal wellbeing and general peace of mind is worth more than a deadline on a calendar. You are worth more than a project whose only purpose is to come before the next one. If you feel like things could be handled better at your current employer, they probably could; so run away, and find someone who looks at things the same way – before your health pays the price.
Everybody makes mistakes, of course. One unfortunate series of miscalculations is acceptable; two can still be handled; three are stupidity. There’s always a chance to learn from your mistake. All you can do is find a team who can understand that simple, yet often underestimated fact.