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Apparently if I say "crunch is awesome," it gets attention.
In response to this month's first column, a couple of industry news sites linked to the article, and a few readers commented, on their sites and here at The Escapist. This in itself is fantastic because it prompts a dialogue I consider a core part of the column's purpose. But it does also put me in the position of having to clarify a couple of points.
Crunch is indeed distinct from "flow." However, the crunch process can become intent to induce group flow; it, and much of game development, exists to harness this Zen-like creative process. The problem is this phenomenon isn't limited to programming, and when managers indulge in the flow state - which, by definition, does not allow for timely, rational decision-making - there is in effect no one at the helm. And when managers abrogate their organizational responsibilities in order to permit or share in the flow process, a project can spin out of control.
Game production lets flow run wild for a series of reasons. The first and most common excuse is "if people want to work late voluntarily, I'm not going to stop them." It's voluntary, right? Who am I to intercede? The problem is telling someone to go home can actually quantifiably increase the quality of his output and is therefore more efficient than allowing him to run himself ragged - as a programmer, particularly a junior one, is prone to do when running up against a problem he can't immediately solve. Is there a difference between an isolated few late nights and a regular habit of spending more time in the office than at home? Of course. But many managers will refrain from kerbing destructive habits, to the detriment of their product, out of a disinclination to prevent workers from spending extra hours in the office.
Flow is perceived to be a necessary part of the creative process and therefore uninterruptible and beyond criticism. Uninterrupted flow leads to burnout, which leads to missed objectives, which leads to crunch, which leads to deathmarch. For these reasons, the two are indelibly intertwined, and without cracking the mythology of flow and admitting the addictiveness of the pressure-cooker crunch environment, we cannot get to the root of the attitude problem associated with poor production environments.
What's more, many managers will refrain from interrupting flow because they understand it too well. Until relatively recently, almost all game managers came out of the ranks of whatever department they started in; artists become art leads, programmers become engineering leads. And unless a lead makes a concerted effort to study management methodologies and techniques, what they bring to the position is valuable expertise on a subject they, in large part, are no longer practicing.