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The Unsustainable Nature of Crunch Culture

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INFLUENCER: It's time for the creative industries to work towards a better work-life balance for staff, says REWIND's Kate Ellis

The Unsustainable Nature of Crunch Culture

You’ve forgotten what your family looks like. It’s been months of overtime. Leaving the house before they’ve woken up, coming home after they’ve gone to bed. You tell them that ‘it’s expected, and everyone else is doing it’, well aware that’s the same excuse others are giving their loved ones. And you don’t complain, because you love what you do, and there’s a queue of people ready to take your seat if you do.

Crunch Culture Is Entrenched

Crunch breeds martyr syndrome, the notion that if you don’t suffer for your project, you are not truly invested in it – a damaging idea in any industry – and in the creative industries it has fostered an untenable relationship between passion and burnout, with crunch time stories turning into bragging matches about who worked more hours and suffered more. Crunch is both seductive and destructive, and that’s why it’s still prevalent and even glorified in many industries, particularly the games industry.

It has been over 13 years since ‘EA Spouse’, and yet the problem of unpaid overtime still persists. It’s been prevalent for years, but it’s becoming the norm to sign contracts or waivers that state you give up your rights and are happy to work over 40 hours a week, something I naively did myself when I accepted one of my first jobs. It was that, or the contract wasn’t mine. One word…hindsight!

Looking back, I don’t think anyone in their right mind should or would be happy to walk into a new job, with a new team, both of which require a level of familiarisation, to know they will be expected to work X number of extra hours with no cap applied. It’s bonkers! Yet it is still happening, and we’re hearing far too regularly when things don’t work out.  

In February 2017, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) Developer Satisfaction Survey (DSS) reported that 76% of game developers still work under crunch conditions, and that percentage is actually lower than it used to be. I think it’s important to say though, that the dedication of any staff member who has experienced it has helped facilitate what was hopefully a very successful end product.

This culture is so ingrained, that fundamentally it is part and parcel of working in games (and many other creative industries), and this leads to instances such as when Crytek tweeted this during the development of their game RYSE: ‘By the time #Ryse ships for #XboxOne, we will have served the crunching team more than 11,500 dinners throughout development. #RyseFacts’. The IGDA reported that, of their data sample, ‘89 percent…did not receive paid overtime but rather perks like meals, future time off…or simply nothing at all.’

The Shocking Reality Of Crunch

An 80 hour week, week after week will eventually take its toll. Extended periods of stress can lead to headaches, fatigue, pain, and abnormal changes in behaviour, and these things can mount up and cause severe issues. Walt Williams’ book Significant Zero deals with some of the personal and physical fallout of crunch: ‘When things get tough, I slide down into my job and disappear. I let my health, relationships, and responsibilities fall to the wayside. When I finally come up for air, there’s a smoking crater where my life used to be.’

Caffeine and adrenaline aren’t enough to fight off the exhaustion of working extended overtime. Whether you’re writing code or modelling characters, stress and sleep deprivation can have a negative impact on what you’re trying to accomplish. Yes, tight deadlines and occasional all-nighters can sometimes make miracles happen, but it’s not sustainable.  

In Creativity Inc, Ed Catmull talks about an episode in the scramble to make Toy Story 2, where one exhausted employee left his child inside a hot car instead of dropping him off at daycare (the child lost consciousness but later recovered) – the shocking reality of what can happen when sleep deprived. Balance matters.

Despite the knowledge of it occurring and the efforts to try and squash it, crunch is so ingrained in the games industry, and the practices and culture of many other creative industries, that it is going to be hard to ever completely eradicate it. The fact it’s driven from the top down, and from clients too, makes it even harder to push out, and this is compounded by overly competitive industries devaluing their product by delivering with crunch.

So is this why ‘perks’ are so important to new hires? Shouldn’t it be the work and the projects that draw talent in, rather than salary and perks being any new starters primary concern? Do those perks ‘supposedly’ make life easier during crunch? Remuneration is, of course, important but work satisfaction and loving what you do is too.

A Clean Slate

With VR and the immersive industries, we have a clean slate. We have hindsight too! We can, and have, learned from the mistakes of other industries. We can begin to make headway and change the perception of crunch project by project; client by client.

At REWIND, we’re mindful of the effects crunch can have on our staff, and have taken steps to minimise it. Of course, there will still be occasions where a late nights here and there are required to get a project out of the door, but we want that to be the exception rather than the norm. It might sound like a cliche, but there is a huge cultural drive within the company to ensure that the team is not just colleagues, but friends. The awful phrase, ‘all for one and one for all’ comes to mind!  If we do have to pull a late one, morale stays high. Company culture is important to us and we want to run a happy ship, and we don’t want to crunch unless it is absolutely necessary. We all have a life outside of REWIND but as colleagues and friends, we all have a vested interest in creating the best possible product.

Preventing Crunch

Currently, the demand is for short-form VR and the concise nature of the content means that we can scope the project out fully, being mindful of schedules. There are only 24 hours in a day, and whilst additional manpower can be added, it will be to the detriment of additional pound or dollar signs. We must, therefore, scope, budget, and resource realistically. Although I will add, it’s usually those ‘non-realistic’ proposals which get our juices going. Our CEO, Solomon Rogers likes to use the phrase ‘Sol++’ – if he can think it, it can usually be done. It’s about bringing the smart people together to join the dots and find the answers to the seemingly impossible.

However, as VR/MR/AR projects get more complex and longer, and more stakeholders are involved, there’s a danger of crunch creeping into our industry. The difference in managing a three-month budget compared to a three year one is huge, but the experience we are gaining on the short-term projects is a great foundation. We have learned how to be nimble and produce quality over weeks not months. We know what the final outcome needs to be and we can get there effectively and efficiently, (with a few twists and turns along the way) and we can apply that knowledge to longer-term projects.

When working directly with brands like HBO, BBC, Red Bull etc, we get to define budgets and schedules from the outset. As an industry leader in this field, we need our clients to trust us.  This trust is built from harnessing relationships, and a deep level of understanding of what we do. It’s our job when scoping projects to get under the skin of the brief, and fundamentally understand why the client wants to use one of these new mediums for their project. Does it answer their problem? If not, what can we propose that will ultimately deliver a better project? Given the reins and this freedom to drive and shape the creative, it loops back around to ensure we’re also delivering against any budget and time requirements.

Those building blocks you create at the start of a project and relationship need to be as strong as possible. Something we’d like to think we’re pretty good at.

Communication Is Key

Focusing back on being realistic, communication is absolutely key. From the questioning to understand the creative intent to the management of expectations and using ‘no’ – ’ when to use that dead-end word, understanding the consequences, using it wisely and carefully. No one wants to be on the hook for a bad project; agency or brand. Or REWIND. ‘No’ allows us to question the creative intent, discuss, reshape, guide, and educate the client, and in turn gain respect from one another.

We like to work with the client to find a better solution that ultimately delivers the same objectives, but uses a different path. We’re an exceptional team of problem solvers and that’s gained us a lot of respect in the industry. Clear communication is key to any creative process, both internally and externally, but particularly important to us given the speed at which the technology landscape is changing.

I have done numerous all-nighters prior to my time at REWIND, knowing that if I didn’t answer a 3am call, my day would be significantly harder. But it’s all relative. Did those all-nighters resolve the issue at hand? If I’m honest, and in hindsight, probably not. Just a very tired, and ineffective me. However, it taught me to communicate, negotiate and build a team of like-minded individuals and who are driven to produce the best possible thing in the best possible way.  

Project crunch at REWIND happens. I’m not going to lie. With Ghost in the Shell, we knew it was going to be tough to turn around the VR experience in seven weeks, so whilst senior management was excited to take on the challenge for a piece of IP that meant so much to us, we were also very keen to ensure that the rest of the team were as excited. To use the same phrase again, ‘all for one and one for all’. I’m pleased to say that 95% of the team was excited about the challenge and everyone really did dig deep and put their heart and soul into the project. We were lucky that we were able to drive the quality, pushing to deliver an Oculus version, as well as the Gear VR version (which was originally penned). Of course, the blow-out wrap party at the end had us all tucked up in bed for a few days after! This short period of crunch (short being the operative word) actually made us stronger as a team. It gelled us together.  Looking back, it wasn’t as bad as I think we expected (no additional working hour waivers were issued!). Most of the issues we faced were technical hurdles with new unreleased hardware we had to fix with no prior RnD time. We love new tech so it wasn’t too much of a hardship!

The Utilisation Of Downtime

As such, working on the bleeding edge, it is key to build in contingency time either into the project, but ideally upfront during its early conception. Sometimes things take longer to crack than expected. To prepare against this, we utilise downtime between projects to ensure that our pipelines and infrastructure are robust, and flexible if need be. This allows us to resolve potential issues and create a knowledge base across the board – art to development and vice-versa – so that we can be more experienced as a whole in light of our next project and tackle problems confidently.  New business, accounts, and production play a vital role here too. There is a collective drive across the board to ensure everyone at REWIND is as well versed as humanly possible.

The Payoff

In VR, people aren’t chasing glory in the same way they might in other industries – the medium doesn’t have the status of TV, film or AAA games (yet!) –  so there is more resistance to crunch, there isn’t the same level of fame pay off. As a result, there is seemingly, certainly within REWIND, a real drive to use this to our advantage, and push the level of creativity to a far greater degree. Many of the team have already had their ‘bright lights’ moment, and have a desire to reach the ‘ultimate creative success’ high through other ‘world first’ methods. Yes, the audience reach might be smaller (in the short term), but the likelihood is, it’ll be equally as impactful. This desire for the ultimate creative success stands the industry in good stead for collectively pushing back if things do get out of control, but we all need to stand together and do our best to ensure the immersive industries don’t fall into the bad habits of games, VFX, and other industries.

While we can’t compete with people having their name in lights (yet!), we can offer a better work-life balance. A sense of fulfilment. For many, at some point in their career seeing friends and family becomes the priority and we have been able to attract senior top talent from the games industry for this very reason. It’s about differentiating ourselves from the norm. We’re not a games company, we’re not a VFX company, and we’re certainly not going to pigeonhole ourselves or tarnish ourselves with the same paintbrush attitudes that drive other creative industries.

Moving Forward

Yes, the industry is booming, but is it booming with the right intentions? New startups, monster investment from VCs, it’s all well and good, but only if it is sustainable and if talent can hold on to their jobs, master their skills, and pass those skills on to those still mastering their trade.

The desire to create great content is still very much there, but we all need to work together to look after our staff, with the same respect, dignity, and level of professionalism that we treat our clients with, and importantly ensure that crunch isn’t at the heart of it.

Kate Ellis is Head of Production, REWIND

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Genres: Animation, People, Visual VFX

REWIND, Thu, 01 Feb 2018 11:29:05 GMT