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Why I worship crunch

An industry veteran tackles a controversial subject

Yager Development/2K Games

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Walt Williams has worked in the AAA gaming industry for over a decade. The following is an excerpt from his book Significant Zero. After this excerpt was published, the author shared some context about the piece in a thread on Twitter. With permission, we’ve included it below, edited for style and clarity.

Hey. I'm a mess of a human being who also makes video games. I wrote a book about that. It's a memoir, not essays or an expose. Just me. Crunch is destructive. It is not necessary (with good planning), and should not be forced on people. It is also seductive to certain types.

For whatever reason, I'm broken in certain ways. Destroying myself to make something fills an emptiness that I can't shake. That's bad. The excerpt is from a moment in my life when I was at my lowest and giving in to my most self-destructive tendencies.

I wanted you to see that through my eyes; to hear the things I tell myself when I consider throwing my life away for a work binge.

Living and working that way led to a breakdown. I'm healthier now, but you know what? I still crave it. It is a CONSTANT fight for me.

As an industry, we need to talk about crunch — how we define it, and especially how exploitative it can be. I didn't go into that, because I didn't want it to seem like I was forced to work this way. I did this to myself. Still do, to be honest. And, if I'm being just really open about it, I wasn't sure I could do that discussion justice because I have a hard time seeing it clearly.

But, we're talking now, and that's good. My hope was that by being honest, it would encourage others to do the same. This has to be a conversation. We each have to recognize how we feed into it. This is mine. I hope it helps.


C r u n c h.

One of the most loathed words in our industry. It’s that period of time in which a team must tighten their belts, buckle down, and work more than the standard forty-hour work week. During crunch, it’s not uncommon to work ten- to twelve-hour days, seven days a week. Crunch can last a week. It can last six months. It drains you, literally sucks your life away. Time flies by, and you have no idea where it went because you were locked in a dim room for a month, surviving on lattes and Cheetos, the pale glow of your monitor mirroring the fading light in your eyes.

Yes, Crunch is that fun. And yeah, I’m going to capitalize Crunch as if it were a proper noun, because Crunch is not some idle concept or a construct of the human mind; Crunch is a demon lord, hiding behind the no-charge Coke machine, laughing as you guzzle down those free sodas, knowing that each delicious slurp sells off tiny pieces of your soul, and that soon — so very soon — that bill’s gonna come due and Crunch’ll step out into the light and there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth as the hope vanishes from your overly caffeinated eyes because you know this is all your fault; it was you who allowed this foul demon into your midst and now your ass belongs to Him.

When I think about Crunch, my heart races. It only takes an instant for my eyes to drift off into that thousand-yard stare, and then it all comes rushing back. My head goes all swimmy, like I haven’t slept in forty-eight hours. My tongue dries up, aching for the disgustingly sweet taste of Red Bull. My mouth wants to rage and howl and spit until designers and directors alike bow to my creative will.

All hail Crunch.

There are many arguments against Crunch. Crunch is exploitive (true). Employees feel their jobs are at risk if they resist the will of Crunch (also true). And, most damning of all, crunch isn’t necessary (so true it hurts).

Opponents of Crunch claim it is avoidable. If our industry learned basic time-management skills and exercised restraint, we could ship games on time and on budget without Crunch’s shadow ever crossing our door. It’s true; all of it. Conveniently so. That tends to be the case with demons, even metaphorical ones. It’s why they make such easy villains — you never have to give them a second thought. But nothing’s ever as clear-cut as it seems. There is another side to Crunch you can rarely hear over the sound of righteous indignation. Luckily, it’s just you and me right now, all by our lonesome — no message boards or comment posts to get in our way. So, let’s turn down the lights and get to cuddling, because I’m about to whisper sweet truths in your ear.

“IT’S ONLY CRUNCH IF YOU DON’T WANT TO DO IT.”

Crunch isn’t a pandemic or a death march. It’s not even exclusive to the games industry. If anything, Crunch is a natural occurrence brought on by the creative process. Driven by passion, artists give themselves entirely to their art. When art exists in a collaborative medium, Crunch will always deal collateral damage. How much damage you personally sustain will always be inversely related to your investment in the project.

Listen: someday you will find yourself Crunching on someone else’s project, hating every wasted second. You will rant and rage and pray to gods in which you don’t believe, begging them to strike down this corrupt system so that something pure and good may grow in its place. Your prayers will go unheard, but take heart — you have not been forsaken. The system is not broken; it is, in fact, working exactly as designed.

Yager Development/2K Games

When you choose to enter a collaborative field, you become a cog in a machine. It is inevitable you will work on a project you do not like, under terrible conditions, for miserable pay. When it happens, take comfort in the knowledge that you are not being melodramatic. Your situation is truly as bad as it seems. Afterward, once you’ve stopped feeling sorry for yourself, be happy with the fact that your sacrifice is helping bring someone else’s vision to life. You may think the vision is terrible — and I’m sure it is — but even shitty ideas mean something to someone. If you find no pleasure in helping others achieve their shitty dreams, then you can always quit. Or, you can Crunch hard, keep your wits about you, and try not to lose your head. If you manage that, someday you may get to be the asshole building their dreams on the backs of those less fortunate.

Ooooh shivers. What’s that? You want more? Well, okay then.

WE ONLY CARE ABOUT CRUNCH WHEN IT DOESN’T WORK

It’s easy to hate Crunch when you don’t like the end result. However, when Crunch results in a game people love, then it wasn’t Crunch at all — it was Passion. That’s the lie we tell ourselves, because it’s the one you let us believe. Polish and innovation come at a cost. Not to you, of course. You’ll only pay sixty bucks and not a dollar more, because you lack the ability to measure the value of digital goods either through cost or effort. If we try to sell you five-dollar downloadable content, you’ll attack us with negative reviews, claiming we’re trying to nickel and dime you. But if we package our game with a plastic figure and book of concept art, you’ll shell out an easy hundred because it’s “limited.” It’s this same mentality that allows you to say Crunch is plaguing our industry while shouting, “Masterpiece!” at games that laid waste to the hearts and minds of their developers. You’re a bunch of fucking hypocrites, but it’s OK — so are we. We’re happy to Crunch when we believe it will pay off for us individually. There’s a reason studio owners, creative directors, and people who drive Lamborghinis never complain about working too hard. It’s only when the payout is less than the wager that we get pissy.

Just saying it makes me feel dirty. Still not there yet? No worries; I have one more.

SOME OF US ACTUALLY LIKE IT

Here’s a secret about growing up that no one tells you. When you’re young, your body is basically a meth lab, bubbling over with all sorts of hormones and strange chemical reactions. You don’t realize it, but you’re getting high on your own supply twenty-four-seven. Everything you feel is vivid and intense and seems like it’ll never end. But it does. In time, the hormones stop bubbling, the chemicals even out and you become a more or less sane human being. The problem is, you never forget the high. Without it, you’ll always feel less than you once were, as if you lost a vital part of your soul. You’re going to chase that high for a long time. Booze, drugs, sex, love, work, art—anything that allows you to let go and give yourself completely—that’s where you’ll find it. There’s nothing wrong with the high. The high is natural. The high is good. It’s the chase that kills you.

Crunch is my chase, and it leads me to a high that’s like Vegas, Amsterdam and Bangkok rolled into one. See, there are few things I love more than being in a fight. It fills my need for power, pain, and righteous indignation. If I win, I’m a god. If I lose, I’m a martyr. Both feel fucking stellar. No sir, there’s nothing bad about a fight. And Crunch is a fight from start to finish. It’s the entire development process condensed into a never-ending string of dustups, like in Game of Death, starring Bruce Lee. Except instead of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, you’re fighting tech, memory, art, design, publishers, players, reviewers, budgets, schedules, weekends, egos, studio closures, unpaid royalties, cultural relevance — the list goes on and on.

When I worship at the unholy altar of Crunch, everything outside of the work fades away. By design, my world is reduced to where I sleep and where I work. Every day must be fast, focused, and above all else, homogenized. Give myself too much downtime, too much room to think, and I start asking questions, like “Why am I doing this to myself?” So, I lose myself in the routine. When every day is a rehash of what has been, and a preview of what will be, they blend into one another. This creates an out-of-body effect, not unlike highway hypnosis. Soon, who I am becomes an abstract concept—a loose collection of character flaws and neurotic tendencies. Only then can my body become the vessel through which an impossible amount of work will be accomplished in a short amount of time.

I love it, except for when I hate it, but I can’t hate it if I never stop. Even when I’m not crunching, I work too much. I’ve edited scripts in ICU rooms, responded to emails while begging lovers not to walk out the door, sent brainstorming lists during the birth of my child. I held my grandfather’s hand while he passed away, then went into his office and wrote text for mission descriptions. None of this was expected of me, and no one would have dared to ask. I did all these things for me. Work brings order to my world. 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. Instead of picking up the pieces to start again, I slip back down into the thick of it. This is how I cope.

My muscles ache for no reason. Sleep eludes me. I sit in my living room with the lights off and stare at the wall. When I manage to doze off, I am plagued by recurring dreams in which I’m trapped in a plummeting elevator, or buried alive, unable to move. It may sound like torture, but it fills me with a sense of purpose and potency. This is what God must feel like when he’s on a bender.

This isn’t an endorsement, by the way. It’s the confession of an addict. Some people will say it shouldn’t be like this, that making games shouldn’t come with so high a price. And, in a perfect world, maybe they’d be right. It’s clear what kind of world we wish for; its design has repeatedly appeared in our games for decades.

Our perfect world is not devoid of struggle or opposition, but the path to victory is much more certain. Hard work always results in positive growth, a growth measured in strength and power. What once held us back can easily be overcome if we just put in the grind. So long as we keep working, we will continue to grow stronger. Our bodies will never flag or waver. We are forever young, and there is no obstacle we cannot overcome.

That’s not our world. In this plane of existence, we are limited. We can accomplish almost anything, but only if we’re willing to pay the price. It may not be fair, and it definitely won’t be the same price quoted to someone else, but it will still need to be paid. In this industry, we all make sacrifices: love, life, health — those things we’re told we cannot live without. It’s natural to wish things weren’t this way, but it won’t change anything. You either agree to the cost or move on with your life. Those who rail against it are either naïve or bitter — they paid the price and didn’t go as far as they had hoped. That’s the risk you take. Being an artist is not easy. Selling your soul will not always bear a profit.

I’ve paid the price more than once. In return, I more or less got exactly what I wanted — I shouted into the void and the void shouted back, “We hear you.” That puts me in a unique position to look back on the past ten years and ask, “Was it honestly worth it?”

I don’t know. But I know the price was fair.


Walt Williams is an industry veteran, having worked on BioShock, Civilization, Borderlands, Mafia, The Darkness and the acclaimed, genre-bending Spec Ops: The Line. This piece is an excerpt from his first book about his experiences writing games, Significant Zero.

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