Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Crunch and the Part-Time Indie: Five Tricks to Getting Your Game Done Without Self-Destructing

Posted by Rampant Coyote on February 3, 2012

I don’t know when I was introduced to the concept of “crunch time” as a kid. Somewhere between stories like Tracy Kidder’s Soul of a New Machine and other tales of heroic efforts on the job, I came to see it as being the hallmark of the driven, passionate professional. Although in all those stories (or in the movie Gung Ho), it sounded kinda cool and … well, heroic.

Then I got to go through that experience myself.  Repeatedly. You know what? It ain’t so cool, except maybe in hindsight.

I mean, I don’t think Twisted Metal or Warhawk or really any of the games I’ve ever made could have happened – or at least not been as good – without the insane hours we put in to make them happen.  So I guess I’m glad we did what we did. But it was brutal. I remember at the beginning of October realizing that I’d almost literally missed the entire summer. I’d enjoyed few weekends, and no time off except for the fourth of July.  I’d arrived at work at dawn and left after dark every single night so I only saw the sunlight through the windows and on the lunchtime excursions down the street to grab food. All of us had shortened tempers, hygene occasionally slipped, and we lived under a constant level of near-exhaustion.

And that first time was probably the “best” crunch mode I’ve ever worked under, largely self-imposed rather than management-imposed. I’ve had far, far worse since then. I still think “crunch mode” is a valid tool for short sprints, but it’s no way to manage a game project. Or any other project. After 2-3 weeks, productivity sinks back down to pre-crunch levels, no matter how many hours they put in at the office. Seriously – crunch mode sucks, and there’s really not much cool or heroic about it. It’s just… something that has to happen, sometimes, and you do what you have to do. But it can seriously degrade your quality of life.

Now, arguably, being a part-time indie means kinda-sorta perma-crunch. The part-time indie is effectively working two jobs – their “day job” and their side business. Where does that fit in?

It’s different, though exhaustion and a diminishing of social life can still be consequences. Working 60+ hour weeks – 40 at the day job, 20 making games – may still be the order of the day, and I still don’t find it easy. It’s a context switch – I find that working two totally separate jobs for 60 hours is a little easier on the brain and body than doing a single job the same amount of time.  But I’m still not great at it.  If I was better and more disciplined, maybe Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon would have been completed a year earlier.

There are a few of tricks that have worked okay for me in the past. Once this day-job crunch is over, I’m going try to work on these a little harder in my own life to get back into the swing of things.

#1 – Establish a rhythm. The human body (and mind) are built to adapt to situations, but they can only adapt to things that are predictable. Establish a rhythm of life – eat, sleep, work, even play, and after a few weeks it will be a lot more comfortable. I know – I’m the kind of personality that balks at the idea of regimenting my life. But if I want to have the time to both make indie games *AND* enjoy the other important things in life – time with family, friends, and actually playing games – I have to do this.  This doesn’t mean the schedule can’t be flexible. But the exceptions can’t become the norm. You need to have a regular schedule that becomes a rhythm.

#2 – Make a task list, and review it at the beginning of your development session. I have a very difficult time switching gears from coding-and-testing to “management” or design. Task transitions can turn into speed-bumps in my productivity, and I’ll linger overlong on one task because I am unsure as to what I should do next. It’s much easier for me to make a “short list” of immediate tasks that need doing over the next day or three all at once – doing it all while I’m in a “management” frame of mine. Then I review this “short list” as my first task of the day / session, so I am reminded of everything I intend to accomplish from the get-go. I try to plan out tasks a couple of days in advance, so if I happen to get done more quickly than expected (which doesn’t happen often enough), I can just keep going rather than having to switch gears and pick new jobs from the master list.

#3 -Plan your distractions.  The Internet is one of the greatest tools ever invented for both improving and destroying productivity. Twitter and forums and blogs and instructional websites can be extremely motivational and educational (as I hope this particular blog can be), but they can be a distraction that completely destroys all hope of ever getting anything done. One thing I’ve done in the past which has proven pretty successful is to stick to  a plan for when I can spend some minutes checking email and Twitter, or play a quick game of Slay or something. Either at the completion of a task, or after a period of time (say one ten-minute break every hour). Otherwise, the browser’s only use is for reading reference manual pages, if necessary. That way I turn a potential distraction into a motivating tool.

#4 – Impose Deadlines. There was an old joke in the computer (and games) business that if it weren’t for trade shows, nothing would ever get done. Those looming, “big event” deadlines really do help with the motivation and focus on getting the critical parts done early.  It works for solo or small-team indies, too! Plan “events” to act as deadlines. What kind of events? Well, how about a weekly (or monthly) blog update? Or if you participate (or have organized one), how about an “indie night” where indies are presenting their works in progress? Or a “Screenshot Saturday” on Twitter? This should be something you should commit to and be held accountable (if only by your own team, friends, family, or whatever) for. It should hurt if you slip in some way. For this reason, keep them *reasonable* while still being aggressive.  You want to grow accustomed to success, not blowing deadlines because they are never possible.

#5 – Don’t sleight the day job. For me, the day job finances my indie thing. It pays for the necessities of life. That means it gets priority, as much as I’d rather be putting all my time into making Frayed Knights 2. But it’s also liberating, as I don’t depend on the game selling thousands upon thousands to keep the bank from foreclosing on my home.  Eventually, there may come a time when that relationship changes, but until then I always give priority to the job that pays the bills. ‘Cuz I’ve found the stress of unemployment outweighs the advantage of having more supposedly free time.

So that’s what works for me. Anybody have some additional suggestions to help keep part-time indie development from becoming a death-march style slog?

Filed Under: Biz, Production - Comments: 9 Comments to Read

  • jzoeller said,

    I’m just about wrapping up 13 months of development on DarkLight Dungeon Eternity. Some of my insights (some already mentioned)

    1.) Making a list is a big thing, and always trying to plan ahead goes right along with this. Before starting on DD2, I had tons of notes and pages of design on paper. I spent days reviewing them, applying what I learned from DD1, and trying my best to refine the “general” concepts, improvements, must haves, would be nice, etc. My main goal in DD2 was to try and improve every aspect of the game that I could.

    2.) While I had all these wonderful ideas on paper and in my head, much of them were not to be implemented until later on down the road, there was a lot of engine and designer tools work that needed to be done first, and I tried to make that as solid as possible. (All the engine code and design tools I had written, about 100,000 lines of code).

    3.) Once the engine/design tools were getting close to finished, I started playing around with all those ideas that I had, design test dungeons, etc. Verifying what I had created fit with what I had planned in all those pages.

    4.) Once actual design began, it was really exciting and as the design progressed and was implemented so where additional features in the engine, many small, several large. I would take small breaks during the design work with the tools, to flush out further the design work already done on paper.

    5.) I found during the design phase, to keep things from getting to “dry”, I would switch between, editing graphics, creating descriptions for areas, monsters, items, spells, 3D modeling, lots of testing, balancing, and any additional coding. Working on any one thing for a long period of time results in a good chance of getting burned out, and if you continue like that, it will show.

    6.) The light at the end of the tunnel for me is very close now, but yes, there were times when it seemed pretty dark, making the push to move forward at some constant rate, difficult, but following through and completing the project (especially one this large), is the biggest and hardest part of the whole process.

    7. Moral…. I think many indies deal with this through their development/design cycle. Some days everything you are doing feels right/perfect, other days you have to wonder, after all this work are people going to really like it? As many indies will tell you, your chance of making a living off this is next to nothing, and I do enjoy developing games like DarkLight Dungeon, a big part of why I do, but there is another part, a father with four kids to put through college, that hopes maybe he will make a fair profit to help see that happen.

    While I didn’t really hit on crunch time, I feel I have shed a little light on what its like, and where those possible self-destructing moments may occur.

    Best of luck to every indie out there, doing their best to follow their passion wherever it may take them!

  • Brian 'Psychochild' Green said,

    And that first time was probably the “best” crunch mode I’ve ever worked under, largely self-imposed rather than management-imposed.

    I think this is exactly the issue here. There’s a world of difference between me wanting to put in extra time to make something a bit better and management deciding that 60-80 hour workweeks are what I need to do to make their schedule happen. I think this is how crunch became so prevalent in the industry; management saw people wanting to put in extra time in a project and deciding they could just schedule for that to happen.

  • James said,

    Hey Jay, aside from Screenshot Saturday, are there any other good examples you’d suggest of ‘indie nights’ or shows?

    jzoeller- Does your game have a site? I’m curious about it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    I have used the Utah Indie Night as a deadline a few times (including my final release!). It’s kinda arbitrary, but it works, especially when I may be able to meet with a couple members of my time that night, and show it off to fellow indies. There are some other shows like GEEKS which you can use as an informal show, especially if you arrange a private get-together one evening. Pretty much any time you have a chance to show the game to others could be used as a vehicle. You could do the same for GDC or whatnot.

    We’re still talking about trying to do our own “mini-GDC” for indies here in Utah. There’s been enough interest, and we’ve had enough people volunteering to speak, that we could probably put something like that together – a full-day indie event. Once again, a great opportunity to network and show your game around.

    Once, for Void War, we arranged a “Beta Test-Fest” in conjunction with Outpost Kaloki’s beta and invited a bunch of friends and family to the office for a day of pizza and gaming. That worked, too.

    Of course, the best milestones in this respect would be press-related. That’s a little tougher for an indie to pull off, as we can’t often afford to go to the big shows (like E3 or whatnot), but those remain possibilities.

  • jzoeller said,


    Yes, http://www.DarkLightDungeon.com

  • Steven Fletcher said,

    Forget crunch time. It’s amazing when I actually work on my game at all.

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  • Rubes said,

    Good stuff, RC. I always find that lists work really well for me. Deadlines are good, too, but that’s become less of an issue on my project the longer it drags on.

    But hey…Screenshot Saturday? What a great idea! Can’t believe I hadn’t heard of that. Definitely going to get into that.

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