From the 2010 Christmas holidays until May 2011, Krzysztof Nosek, the multiplayer programming lead on Call of Juarez: The Cartel, was working himself into the ground.
Due to some “unlucky business negotiations” with publisher Ubisoft, Techland hadn’t been given enough time to finish the game. With a release date looming and far too much work left to complete, the team turned to one of the video game industry’s most notorious practices: crunch.
“We all had the enthusiasm and drive to create a good game, but there simply weren’t enough hours around the clock to fit everything in,” Nosek says. “Out of exhaustion we were making stupid mistakes, which required even more patching later on. We would lose our tempers easily, and at some point we developed a pretty surrealistic attitude to the project as a whole.”
Even staff with their tasks largely finished – with very little they could actually do to help – were expected to work extended hours. “The atmosphere was that all hands must be on deck since it would be a hit to team morale if some people didn’t sit and crunch while others did,” Nosek recalls.
Another former Techland developer (who asked to remain anonymous) explains that, “from Monday to Friday it was around 10 hours a day on average,” but it often went well above this. Saturday was usually an eight-hour shift, with a few extra hours on Sunday to “tie up loose ends that would help the team with their planned work for the following week.”
The long weeks soon turned into long months, and the crunch began to take a personal toll. Life became work; work became life.
Nosek describes his mental state during The Cartel’s final five months as like being on an extended binge: “Imagine excessive partying for a few days, or marathoning a video game for a few weeks straight when you were younger. You get tired, feel dizzy, behave a bit weird. Quite often you smoke, drink, eat, or take other mindless distractions so your concentrated bursts of focus take a hit.”
Paweł Zawodny, the then-head of production and chief operating officer at Techland, says, “Longer crunches turn me into a mindless zombie. I don’t care about anything else in my life other than going to work and trying to get the project finished.
“And getting it out does not make me happy; it’s more like relief than satisfaction. Often when those kind of crunches are done, my immune system just turns off, I guess to reset or something, and I usually get ill.”
It isn’t until after a crunch period, when the time to reflect finally presents itself, that the real damage done can be properly assessed.
“In retrospect you see the different directions that you and the world around you have taken, and you must judge whether it was worth it or not,” Nosek says. “It’s a tough moment that can quite often bring bouts of depression or low morale – the infamous ‘post-crunch realizations,’ as they are known.”
The fact that there’s a common insider term for this speaks volumes.
“I was perhaps luckier than others,” Nosek reflects. “I know stories of divorces, packing on 30 kilograms, etc. But I didn’t come out untouched. I restarted smoking due to crunch. I blame some of my children’s educational struggles on a lack of me being there during their crucial years. I know I should have spent much more time with my wife when we were younger, and so on.
“I recently came across my family photos from that time period and it struck me that I’m sleeping in almost all of them: on the couch, at the table, on the floor of the kids’ room…”
Next: Crunch isn’t a problem isolated to a single studio.