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Crunch time

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For years and years I''ve wanted to work "in the industry". Now that I''m a professional programmer doing business and imaging applications, I look at the games industry and find I''ve got some serious questions about it, mainly to do with crunch time. Time and again we''ve all heard the nightmare stories about teams working 18 hour days, 6 days a week for months on end - and this from professional, experienced reputable development houses. What am I missing here ? In my job, having to do a crunch like that means that there''s been poor scheduling and project management, and someone is going to get reamed for it. I could understand the odd occasion where a lead programmer leaves or something like that, but it seems to happen to just about every game you hear about. I''m well aware of the pressure publishers put on developers, but surely there''s an answer to this. I now find myself in the position where, with a child on the way, I question myself as to I''ll ever get my foot in the door, and even if I want to. I suppose there''ll be plenty of people telling me "I just don''t have the dedication and passion to work in the games industry", but there''s a big difference between that and having to bust my guts because someone couldn''t properly plan and schedule a 2 year development.

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You make several good points:
Yes the games industry does suffer (badly) from bad scheduling, and no the producers/line managers don''t generally get reamed for - ok maybe they do, but for the most part it''s just a verbal "telling off".

The real question here is why are the schedules so far off, so possible answers include:
i. Games programmers aren''t very good at scheduling their time - and yes I do include myself in this catagory, ask me how long something will take and the answer will probably be two-weeks .

ii. Feature creep - we games programmers take a large amount of pride in what we do, we all want to have a number 1 hit, which means adding all those little twiddly bits that make a game fun, playable, user-friendly, look cool, etc... And most of these things never get scheduled fully (if at all).

iii. Ever increasing hardware specs - the voodoo5 is all well and good, but a game started 1 year ago would have had the voodoo3 say as its hi-end spec video card. If your game doesn''t support the newest coolest hardware the hardcore gamers (and reviewers) are not going to be impressed. Result: more (unscheduled) development time required to upgrade the software to the hardware.

iv. The competition. When other games of the same genre come out management (or the programmers themselves) tend to evaluate the software and "steal" the best ideas and add them to the spec. Invariably this is done without adding any extra time to the schedule.

v. Fixed release dates: Publishers always want there game out for Xmas, which actually means it needs to be finished and in test by September to allow time for the testing, duplication and distribution. Publishers will almost never shift the release date because they don''t want to miss the Xmas sales - they''re it for the money and generally have no problem with letting the quality slip inorder to meet marketing/release deadlines.
This point contradicts ii. which is why IMHO you end up with so many disgruntled games programmers.

The solutions, I''ll leave those for somebody else...

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It really depends on which company you work for. A lot of game studios do have reasonable expectations, manage their projects well, and have a relatively low burn out rate. On the other hand there are a lot of A level studios that have horrible management and go through workers like water. Unfortunately it''s a lot easier to get a job in a place like that. But even for the good ones, expect to put in more hours than you would at any other programming job. The pressure to deliver the greatest leading edge technology when the product ships is always a back breaker.

Then you''ve got the game studios that aren''t interested in producing the latest greatest things, and concentrate on delivering content. These places are usually more low key, reuse the same game engine a few times in a row, but are great places to work. If you don''t mind not being on the cutting edge.

Right now I think the sweet spot in the industry is on maintence team (or live team) for an online game, such as EQ or Asheron''s Call. You get to work with current technology, and the on-going nature of the projects means that crunch times are a lot shorter in duration. (e.g. a server goes down, but as a programmer you probably won''t be the one directly responsible.)

Overall I wouldn''t want to be on an A level product development team, if I had a family. Or even a relatively good social life. But there are plenty of less glamorous jobs in the industry that will engage and challenge you that will still let you live your life.

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