In search of lost time

Crunch, the period before a deadline when everybody has to put in the extra hours just to get things finished on time, is as much a staple of Japanese game development as it is in the west. It may even be worse here as nobody is making any kind of effort to combat it, like a few good managers and legal suits in the west have managed.

Japanese schedules, especially if you’re working for a quick-buck developer or publisher, can be insanely tight. From what I remember from a previous life, last-gen projects in the UK were scheduled around 18 months to two years. You can easily halve that for Japan, current-gen. As a result there are a few outsource companies as well as developers hiring out their staff for outsource work in lean times.
That doesn’t mean, obviously, there is no strain on the in-house team, but with already outrageous working hours you may wonder if crunch really makes much of an impression on your average Japanese worker. In a sense, yes it does. In yet another, no, it doesn’t.

When alpha or any other arbitrary deadline approaches people stay in even later, sometimes even staying overnight. However, this takes its toll and eventually to compensate people will come in a little later. So in a sense the working day is slightly prolonged and shifted a few hours. Staying overnight doesn’t mean more work gets done, of course. People fall asleep at their desk at some point in the night and wake up some time during the next morning, often after other colleagues have come in and started work already. No one can live on just a few hours sleep so little naps during the day are not uncommon. We all know tired employees work less efficiently than rested ones so in the end the amount of work done doesn’t really make any giant leaps, if any forward movement is there at all.

What does happen during crunch is that the usually decision-shy Japanese eventually get to finalise things. While you are refining and redoing a lot of stuff during the regular periods, during crunch there is a higher chance of being able to put a full-stop behind some things. For the upcoming deadline anyway.

But is crunch avoidable? Of course it is, with good management, working practices and common bloody sense but don’t expect those to be introduced into the industry any time soon. As a foreigner, of course, you can get away with more and avoiding crunch should be possible. The most important thing is to get your work done on time, and if you can manage that there is no reason to stay nights. But if you walk in in the mornings and see your colleagues, husbands and fathers, sleeping at their desks you must be pretty heartless not to feel sorry for them, and as a result you may force yourself to put in the extra hours anyway. Yes, it is their own responsibility and it shouldn’t really have any effect on you, but sometimes, for moral quietude, you may find yourself burning the candle at both ends.
Don’t expect to be rewarded for this though. Though working hours can have an effect on your bonus, you won’t receive any special bonuses on top of that, except maybe to see your extra time transferred into daikyuu, (paid holidays in lieu), at your boss’s discretion. If you count the extra hours you put in and the time off you get in return, it probably won’t match up.

You may also be asked to work weekends. Your boss won’t demand, as that is a bit too strong for the Japanese, but they will ask; which means it’s a demand, really. You could play the “cultural divide” card and say “ok, well, no then, I won’t”, or force your lead to say “it’s okay, you don’t have to” by asking him specifically. He will want to say “yes, you must!” but probably won’t. Legally they cannot touch you, but don’t be surprised if this turns into blotch on your escutcheon eventually, which may crop up again around bonus time or during contract renegotiations.

I, personally, absolutely refuse to work nights. I did do it a few times a few years back, but these days my aged mind and body simply can’t cope. If I work through the night I need a few days of solid sleep to recuperate immediately after and that is often not a possibility. I don’t mind working the odd weekend, as long as that is immediately repaid in daikyuu. I also don’t mind working late on occasion but if things get too bad I always use the “I have plans for tonight” excuse to get out of the office while I still can; it’s basically my way of saying “I have a life, you know!”

Crunch, sadly, is a big part of game development in Japan, and that won’t change any time soon. It’s your choice to follow that route or not. As I mentioned earlier it is advisable to choose you battles carefully. On the one hand flat-out refusing unpaid overtime and weekends or night let’s your boss know what he can expect of you. On the other hand, occasionally giving in a little shows him you are willing to go the extra mile now and again. It’s a difficult balance but one you’ll have to find for yourself or perish.


  1. my workplace is quite good about things, for the States, at least. If I am asked to work a weekend then I get paid for the day and get a free day to take off later.

    Being a 'Get in early, get out early' type, the japanese hours sound kinda scary.

  2. great blogg! keep it up

  3. Further exacerbating this problem is that whole 'ethic' of not rocking the boat.

    My current boss has given numerous lectures on obtaining reasonable hours/quality of life in the game industry and the way he did it when he was working for a a big Mega Publisher notorious for 80-90 hour weeking people, he gave the following tip:

    Get a multi-disciplinary core of people and band together. Start working reasonable hours, do quality work and do it on time. My boss' boss at the time gave my boss crap for not pulling long hours like other parts of the company.

    Boss the reminded manager that they were submitting quality deliverables, on time and changing their hours meant a change in that aformentioned pattern.

    Summoning the courage to do something like that is just as rare in America as I'm sure it is in Japan.

    There seem to be a few companies out in Japan dedicated to reducing stress in employees so that they'll output their best.

    Stay well

  4. It's not rare here; it simply doesn't exist.

    As for company blurbs, buyer beware! Even my place had an article on-line recently where they were saying they were committed to excellence and good working practises, in-house training and revolutionising the way games are made. I had to double-check which company they were talking about; I didn't recognise it at all.

  5. >JC

    I do appreciate the warning! Given your rant, I found that statement rather curious to say the least.

    Most of the companies that crunch like hell tend to stress that they have good benefits, work on prestegious titles, won awards, etc over "our workers have lives outside of work."

    Something's gonna crack, that's for sure.