Your work starts to take on a more frenzied pace. Things you normally do to dot the i's and cross the t's get abandoned in order to achieve your goal. You start to lose a healthy sense of perspective. The thoughts that run through your mind at 2 am when you're amped up on caffeine and/or sugar are probably not well reasoned nuggets of analytical thought. Speaking of which your productivity takes a dive and you have to make up for it with even more hours of staring blankly at a mocking screen.
So, maybe this is not how you have experienced crunch. It comes in various forms, differing levels of severity. A recent Gamasutra piece featured an interview with Blizzard's Jay Wilson, game director of Diablo III. He said about crunch
"...while game development cycles have a tendency to crunch towards the end, usually for a few reasons, at Blizzard, it's actually driven by quality. But most companies you work for, it's not actually quality that makes you crunch. It's usually bad planning, and a lack of focus."while defining it as working 50 to 60 hours per week, or more than 40 for an extended period of time. Now, game development crunches are some of the most well publicized (google "EA spouse"), but by no means the only examples. Others that I can think of include defense contractors, research organizations, small businesses. Almost no organization with a salaried workforce is immune.
My experience with crunch has not been driven by quality unfortunately. How noble that sounds! Mine falls squarely in the second camp. I will grant that it is difficult to forecast projects when they are all so different. It is downright hard to juggle a limited number of people's participation in a number of projects, ramping in and out, overlapping just enough to balance out the month. The bottom line is that when you've signed a contract to deliver X to a sponsor at the end of Y months, you have to do your best to deliver if you hope to build a reputable name and win repeat business.
Nevertheless, it sometimes makes me want to go herd goats for a living.
Is there any industry, any company, where the grass truly is greener? I suspect it depends more on the good fortune to work with an experienced project manager who knows how to estimate cost and calculate burndown rates.
In the meantime, I'll dutifully keep doing my crunches. My abs should really be harder than this by now.
For more information about crunch, check out Crunch Mode: programming to the extreme.