Loving the Crunch

Making games needn't be painful says Sean Murray in his latest EG column.

Sean Murray's kindly offered to provide Eurogamer with a regular insight into indie development as Hello Games heads towards the release of its next big project, Joe Danger 2: The Movie. This week, Sean asks if crunch is as bad as it's made out to be.

Hello Games is in crunch right now. I'm not embarrassed by that, and you should cheer us on. You should bar our doors and hope to find our stinking skeletons when we go gold, keyboards stuck to fingers.

No one plays a bad game, and thinks "well at least the team had a good work/life balance". I want the developers to have sweated and suffered to make it perfect. I thought LA Noire could have used more elbow grease from Team Bondi. I want Ken Levine fat when BioShock Infinite is done, pizza matting his beard (obviously we'd still love you Ken, you beautiful David Duchovny look-alike you). If I passed George R. R. Martin's house at night and saw no light on, I'd wake him up shouting how he should be finishing Game of Thrones. Work harder and make better things. Making games is supposed to be fun anyway, isn't it?

I realise I might not sound like much fun right now, but let's take an example. Last night at 5pm our time, our QA team were arriving to get to work in the States, expecting an Alpha build. Once we go Alpha then that's it - we can't add any more features. There's a whiteboard covered with post-it notes listing features not complete. I started naming things to the team that we'd have to cut.

I picked an easy one - the unicycle. It's never been fun. Besides, QA would have a s**t attack if we sent them a build with a new vehicle at this late stage. I can picture their faces, watching Joe teetering out on a single wheel, giving them a cheery wave from Hello Games, as if to say "Good luck finding all the bugs with this". Let's cut it. I uttered the ultimate copout; "We could do it as DLC..."

If I passed George R. R. Martin's house at night and saw no light on, I'd wake him up shouting how he should be finishing Game of Thrones.

Everyone booed and Dave was having none of it. Vehicles are his baby, the unicycle the scrappy runt child that he swears has potential. "It's a beauty this one Sean, watch me on this level," he tells me, desperately trying to pretend he's in control of the thing. We agreed to disagree.

An hour later, I found everyone round his desk. He'd got unicycle multiplayer working and it was pure slapstick, but it was instantly fun. Checkmate. I told QA we were having problems uploading the build - it bought us a few hours.

What followed can only be described in montage. Aaron building a unicycle, replacing the cube Joe was riding. Dave and me trying to make it so someone other than him can control the damn thing. I got a friend in Brighton to record audio from their neighbour's BMX.

Cut to shots of the check-in emails piling in, people at white boards nodding, fist bumps and scrunched up lists. Not just the unicycle of course, but each person grabbing the post-its notes they cared about. Ryan put on the late night playlist (everyone joining in to sing Dolly Parton's '9 to 5'). Grant nabbed us all a Nandos (he didn't need to ask our order). I'm a programmer, and this is the most creative I can be. It's coming together, and it's intensely fun.

I wish you could see it, feel that buzz. It would make you want to play this game, or make one of your own. I like to picture a fan of Joe Danger on my shoulder, and he's shouting at me to fix more bugs. He's on his feet, cheering us all on.

I'm a programmer, and this is the most creative I can be. It's coming together, and it's intensely fun.

Then the comedown. Bringing together the build, and finding a million new problems caused by tired eyes. New lists. More builds. Progress slows. I feel like Kevin McCloud, and the roof has started leaking. Dave falls asleep in his seat around 1am while I am talking to him, so I take over his bugs. Ryan has his second can of Monster, and he's back on form, carrying the team, loudly chewing through his list.

So this is crunch I guess, but it doesn't feel like I've ever heard it described. You probably know the feeling if you've ever created something you cared about for a deadline. Writing a book, cramming for an exam, jamming with your band into the night, doing a game jam; just losing yourself in the process. No matter how hard you work it'll never be enough, but you get better so much quicker.

It was similar but never the same for me when I worked at EA. There's a big difference between working hard to hone your craft, and working all night against your will. I understood then how a love of games could be manipulated into slave labour at a huge corporation.

Around six in the morning we crashed out into the nearest greasy cafe. Hazel the vegetarian was eating bacon sandwiches. We looked like the nerdy walking dead, mixing with builders on their way to do some real work. When we got back the build was done - and technically it was still today in the States, so we might have hit our Alpha deadline.

Around 9am this morning the taxi arrived, and everyone helped me, Grant and Dave fill the car with TVs and dev-kits. We have to be in LA for E3 later today. I hadn't had time to pack again, so I bought some clothes at the airport and stumbled onto our 14-hour flight. That's where I am now, writing this. Grant dribbling on my shoulder. I'm hoping he's asleep. In 24 hours the floors are going to open and 70,000 people are going to flood a convention centre with their sweat. Let's hope this build is good. At least we've done everything we can.

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