Crunch is the inevitable conclusion to a games project. The argument is that a well planned project shouldn't need overtime or late nights. I think that crunch is impossible to avoid because it's human nature. The deadline to submit the game is exactly the same as the first night of a show, or the final exam or packing your case for a long holiday. The truth is if the 'test' is something you care about you want to do the best you can and because we believe in hard work we like to keep working as late as possible hoping that the extra effort will make the final result more favourable.
The games industry is generously decorated with stories about features being dumped into games at the last minute. Invariably the features are essential or pivotal or what made the game so successful. I'm sure you'll find the stories about Links spin attack in the Zelda games and the radar in Elite if you're not sure what I'm talking about. I'm sure that these stories are true, but lets be realistic here. Developers are hardly going to tell you stories of the games that were messed up by changes made at the last minute. Even if they did, would you believe them? Wouldn't you just think 'idiot', wasn't it obvious this was wrong. Still the last minute miracle is a fond and powerful belief in game development.
I also believe that hard work, putting in the hours feels good. Like when you work out at the gym or order a salad instead of pie and chips. There's a protestant work ethic, a masochistic pleasure in working through tough times. I think this works on several levels. First of all there's a team spirit feel, pitching in against the odds (even if the odds were stacked against you by yourself). Secondly the crunch is a time in a project when you all have piles of work to do and you can make progress. Everyday you have a full set of tasks and by the end of the day you've made significant contributions to finishing the project. That feels good. Another factor is bonus. Often a team has some cash incentive tied to finishing the game on time. Earning cash is always worth a bit of hard work.
Lets just recap a minute. I'm saying people like working hard when they feel they are making significant contribution, when they can be given a clear set of tasks that they can achieve, when they are working for a valued reward and when they are part of a team.
Games are entertainment and much to the annoyance of the business guys who supply the cash, it's not a predictable result. When you start making a game you assume that some things are going to 'work' but they don't always and then you have to 'fix' them. this takes time. Time you didn't plan to spend. If you don't keep your eye on the ball, if you didn't start with a strong idea about what your game is about at the start then these nasty surprises are bound to happen. They will define your game and you'll spend more time returning to them to work on them. The problem with this is that the time spent here is spent shoring up the game, rather than pushing it forward. It's a matter of bringing up the worst parts up to standard.
The danger here is that the hard work is spent making something that's just 'alright'. The hard work can cover up flaws in design and planning.
Here's the danger. A project can pass into crunch period and the team can work hard, possibly even feeling good about doing the work but the result of the extra hours may just be making a bad design or plan - less bad. Quite frankly that isn't good enough. There's nothing I dispise more than waste. wasted talent, wasted energy, wasted work. At the moment the only solutions I can see, have to be made when the foundations of the game are laid. That means the team can be signed up to make a game bound to fail. All their best efforts will just make up for poor design and planning.
We really need to throw the responsibility for this situation back on the people who agree to make a game. Those unknown executives in the grrenlight meetings approving funding for game X,Y and Z. Why aren't those people held responsible for the decisions that they make. Why don't they try harder to understand what makes a game successful and how they can spot that potential earlier on. Instead they throw money around (or withhold it) without any consequence.
Where are our equivalents to the X-factor judges? Were are our talent scouts who can see the 14yr old footballers that will become the next Rooney or Beckham? Where are the sackings for those managers who consistently back losers or push mediocre games forwards, while great games go unmade?