It's Time to Radically Remake the Games Industry


#1

Content Warning: We discuss the inclusion of horse genitalia in Red Dead Redemption 2 from 54:00 - 56:00, in the context of labor, development resources, and publisher priorities. A second reference is made in the outro at 1:11:22.


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/3kekw8/its-time-to-radically-remake-the-games-industry

It's not just the details that should make you wonder about the work that went into them
Don't Let Telltale Milk Your Fandom Until They Pay The Workers They Screwed
#AsAGamesWorker
#2

As a software developer (though not a games developer), so much of this podcast hit home for me. I’ve been sharing it in as many forms as I can find, as I think the labor issues in software development (and game development specifically) touch on the fundamentally toxic relationship between American employers and employees.

Before I delve into some thoughts I had while and after listening, I just want to take a moment to say how grateful I am that this site, and the voices it elevates, exist in our current discourse. So much love to all of the Waypoint crew.

  1. A large reason for the inherent toxicity of this relationship as that employees depend on employers for basic things like access to affordable health care, but also because we fetishize “loyalty” to the company and praise those who work late nights, while not praising those who look out for their own self-interest. When one or two employees work late, it creates a team or even company-wide downward spiral where everyone feels they have to be ‘seen’ working late.

  2. With incredibly rare exception, companies do not care about you and do not have your back, especially when it comes to mental health - and one should operate assuming they are not the exception.

  3. Even in “high skill” industries like video game development (and software development in general), workers can and should organize. We have to have each other’s back, because no one else will.

  4. If organizing isn’t an option (and for many, it won’t be, at least until there are some fundamental culture shifts), at least have each other’s back. If you see a co-worker working late constantly, push them to log off. If you’re the co-worker who is constantly working late, listen when people tell you to log off.

  5. Barring fundamental shifts in culture that include things like universal health care and universal basic income, or some sort of job guarantee program, companies of a certain size should be legally obligated to provide severance pay and benefit extensions when an employee is laid off. If a company cannot afford to include this in their budget, then perhaps they shouldn’t be in business in the first place. Don’t pretend the money isn’t there; I’ve seen how much these executives make.

  6. Fight for legislation that empowers employees. This includes things like universal health care - an employee who isn’t dependent on their employer for health insurance is inherently more empowered.

  7. Always remember that all our faves are problematic. It’s okay to enjoy whatever art you want, but I think it’s important to be a responsible consumer and be aware of the working conditions under which our favorite art/devices/etc. are created.


#3

Some comments already covered in the Execs pillage Telltale games, devs left with nothing thread but one thing I didn’t talk about there is the early discussion around costs.

I think the discussion of price is actually not as relevant for games as chocolate. If twice as many people buy a brand of chocolate bar, we don’t get twice as much chocolate each for the same price. The near zero duplication cost for games in this digital future means the way games are scoped and work as something being purchased doesn’t analogise well to considering the cost of physical goods which are dominated by the variable cost of those materials and labour when producing a single item (and, say, auditing the supply chain to be free of slave labour). For video games, there is no similar inherent conflict between the rights of workers and the rights of consumers of that labour.

The entire notion of games costing more very much ties into executives eager to maximise profit per customer for their company (buying them another boat) and actually works against long-term industry health (as a producer of mass market products that are funded via free duplication after an initial expensive development process - the industry relies on trying to make games that delight everyone and everyone can afford to engage with; ideally spreading consumer spending over a lot of different projects to reduce project risk, as risk under capitalism typically costs). It ties into $100 “Ulitmate edition” AAA releases right now testing the water for pushing beyond $60. Unfortunately it also ties into executive talk about how “we have to chase Whales to pay for games” or “we have to include gambling-like systems to pay for games”.

That exec speak is not true; games are scoped based on expected revenue for the project and so if those revenue sources evaporated then the games would still get made but with a scope more suitable for the price the market could pay (without being exploited). The total market size is based on people having the money to push into a hobby they find fulfilling so it’s built around finding that market and nourishing it (not great in this global economic downturn but that’s actually a reason to push harder to lower unit prices and ensuring the market continues to expand). Again, just as with “crunch doesn’t really work (long term) but even if it did (as execs discount the cost and so pretend it does) then it’s wrong” - here we have “pushing up prices doesn’t actually work (as it contracts the market) but even if it did, it’d be wrong to push for further isolation of mass entertainment as the domain of only the well off”. We can’t put worker rights as something paid for by the exploitation of consumers, be that via dishonest business practices (like targeting gambling tendencies) or pricing anyone who isn’t in a higher-income family out of the market. It won’t work for a start and it’s not the actual conflict. Your boss’s boss is the one running away with the riches they didn’t work for and that should be transferred from the players (including those on lower income who deserve access to quality entertainment) to the developers who make the things being played.


Gameindustry.biz - Rockstar has been “working 100-hour weeks” on Red Dead Redemption 2
#4

I remember, when I was in Community College, I was reading Soul of a New Machine around the same time that EA Spouse happened, and being both very surprised, and then very not surprised. Now, I’ve changed to being tempted to just ship copies of the book to people, so whenever someone is shocked by the labor practices in tech in general (and games in particular) they get a copy with a note that “This has been going on for forever - but the industry has been good about covering this up and wallpapering it over, so things don’t change.”


#5

Another angle on game prices - back when loot boxes were in the spotlight, there was discussion around how they’re sometimes “a necessity” to keep things afloat. This Paste magazine article points out that, generally, executives in video games are getting boatloads more money than the average worker, the way it is in every other big industry. Game prices don’t need to go up before executives stop making millions and millions of dollars.

This piece is fairly short, I recommend giving it a read.

There’s so many reasons devs don’t need to be crunching. The money to just pay them for a longer period of time is there, it’s just going to executives who make 200x what the average dev makes. And I have a feeling, from the behavior of Telltale, that the higher-ups probably maximized their personal gain at the expense of hundreds of people.


#6

Rob’s recalling of workers telling his younger self about the drawbacks of unions is so spot on. I’m a chemical engineer, which is a non-unionized, licensed profession that often has me working in close proximity with unionized manufacturing workers. The amount of anti-union rhetoric parroted by my colleagues, in hopes that one day they’ll be a corporate-cell-phone-holding manager, is frankly intolerable. You’d think a profession of people who like to style themselves as free-thinkers would be a bit more open minded, but alas I’m surrounded by boot lickers.


#7

I got severance pay from Krispy Kreme when they shut down my local store at the height of the financial crisis a decade ago. I don’t understand how anyone could not be furious about this whole situation. I mean, I understand why, because of decades of propaganda convincing people to identify with executives instead of workers, but on a gut level it seems so galling that a part of my brain malfunctions whenever I see someone not upset by this.


#8

A former Telltale employee is suing the company in a class-action lawsuit, alleging that it violated labor laws on the books in California and nationwide when it laid off hundreds of employees on Friday in advance of a planned closure of the studio.

Here’s hoping employees will win this lawsuit.


#9

This is nothing new, it’s an epidemic problem across many industries in the US. I’ve never seen anyone, outside of the union workers, get severance or even a warning before being let go. I’ve been in the auto industry in Michigan for over 10 years. Many of us who work in automotive are not on a shop floor and therefore don’t have a union.

One of the biggest contributors I’ve seen (and hate) is entry level salary jobs. It’s habitually used as a way to basically force regular unpaid overtime. If you’re work is done on a computer, they can make you salary.


#10

Yeah, I find the notion of “games need to be more expensive to make more money” odd since the cost of games isn’t based on margin or cost but on what maximizes revenue. Whether you’ve spend Earth Defense Force money or GTA money on your game you still want maximum revenue. The only consideration here is “does increasing/dropping the price change the number of sales enough to increase the total revenue?” and since game prices are staying relatively stable (excluding special editions) it looks like the optimal price for games is 60$. Increasing the price would make less money because fewer people would buy it.

A more expensively made game may have an easier time convincing people to shell out larger sums but ultimately it matters little whether you make ten dollar each from ten million copies sold or make 100 dollars from one million sales (net). Hollywood isn’t making 60$ per sale and yet it’s running massive surpluses on much higher budgets.


#11

Hearing Patrick dismiss the Capcom Vancouver closure as not being equal to the Telltale closure irked me a little. I understand the viewpoint of the admiration and appreciation of Telltale but the point about them being in San Francisco as compared to Vancouver isn’t accurate. I used to live in Vancouver and it’s the most expensive city in Canada and ranks up there with San Fransisco in terms of housing pricing and availability. But unlike San Fran, Vancouver’s developer scene has dried up considerably. There’s a small mobile development community but in terms of larger development studios, you either work at EA, The Coalition or Relic. Those are the only large studios in the city so being able to find work without moving out of province is considerably more difficult than San Francisco.


#12

I interpreted Patrick’s comment to be that at least Capcom Vancouver’s management gave notice for their closure and will be paying out severance. So comparing the two mass layoffs shows the Telltale situation to be “worse” in the relative sense.

Note that I give no credit to Capcom Vancouver for this. Canadian labour laws are far more stringent than US, which is what drove this difference. It certainly wasn’t because of the generosity of the moneyed class.


#13

I agree with mostly everything the Waypoint crew says my one criticism is this notion that unionizing is the best solution. While i agree there should be some form of union, it should be much better than what is currently out there right now. Unions aren’t looked down on for no reason. There have been stories time and time again of people abusing the system. I doubt game devs will abuse the system but in many other areas people do.

I’m all aboard for radically changing the games industry. But in that same manner lets create something that is better than what unions are today so that both parties can be somewhat happy.


#14

Personally I don’t really care that much about whatever level of corruption / waste will be introduced by unions. The levels of waste will fluctuate and certainly exist already across our economy in both public (government) and private organizations. Our employment laws are so flimsy that the burden to unionize is incredibly low and the barrier to unionize is incredibly high. At the very least we should make strides to balance these factors. Employment laws should provide further protections so that fewer work forces feel compelled to unionize and when employees do wish to unionize the barriers should be lowered significantly.
Note: Video game development is niche/complex enough that I think it will fall into the category of nearly always requiring unionization. Worried this is an overly neoliberal shill POV so I’m super open to being deeply wrong about this.


#15

I’m not a student of political science, but I did grow up in a small town with one main employer, and several unions. Strikes were an annual occurrence, and touched the lives and livelihoods of everyone I knew. I had family members on both sides (management and union). I have stories, is what I’m saying. But overall IMO, the existence of the unions made the whole town and industry better. Unions are, by design, powerful organizations. Humans being humans, that means that the powers of these organizations will be used unwisely, corrupted or abused. But the same is true of the organizations that utilize labour.

IMO, the fundamental need here is to have some power effectively represent the needs of labour. This clearly didn’t happen with Telltale. While I can sympathize with the feeling that unions aren’t perfect, they are better than a situation where labour can be simply discarded in this manner without consequence. Effective representation at the government level is an option, but that is unlikely to happen so long as employers are better able to exercise influence over governments than labour. Labour Unions, traditionally have been a major player in encoding basic labour standards in law, like in Canada.

I’m not sure I buy the idea that, within the existing governmental and economic structure in the US, that there is something other than a union that can exert the power to create the kind of change needed. I feel that the inevitable frictions that having unions have are worth the desired outcome, and are minor in comparison with the consequences of not having labour effectively advocated for. Maybe crowdswarmed political activism in a Doctorow-esqe future could do it, but in my mind that’s basically Just-In-Time Union formation.


#16

[quote=“epigraph, post:15, topic:17803”]
I’m not sure I buy the idea that, within the existing governmental and economic structure in the US, that there is something other than a union that can exert the power to create the kind of change needed. [/quote]

My career has biased my feelings here and perhaps it is wholly unique, but my work is subject to government regulation with pretty intense scrutiny which leads to both the stated goal of the regulations being met and the creation of a sustainable middle class workforce. This leads me to have faith that it is possible for our system to effectively regulate when empowered to do so. Certainly not the only path forward but personally I don’t think it’s an impossible one.


#17

I agree that governmental regulation can produce good outcomes. I’ve seen it happen in the O&G industry where some of my friends work in Canada. The political will to regulate has to come from somewhere though, and I feel like for labour issues, it’s hard to see that happening without a mechanism for granting power to workers.


#18

It’s done to food service managers and assistant managers too. Salary them so you can make them work 50, 60, etc hours a week without overtime. And I imagine it’s a low salary too, of course.
I had decent experiences in food service and I hated seeing the terrible hours forced on them


#19

I’m Australian. The idea that you can get fired with no recourse or severance is completely bonkers to me. It just can’t happen in this country, or if it does the employer will find themselves in court. Unfair dismissal is a very common legal proceeding. About the only way around that is to have people working on contract, but even then you know what you’re signing up for and the conditions of early dismissal will be included in the same.

If people want to buy games from companies that guarantee worker rights then that can generally be achieved by purchasing from companies that aren’t based in America. Obviously there are exceptions to this rule, but a lot of first world countries provide their employees with solid conditions and rights.


#20

Honest question, if you’re in game development and are a software developer of some kind why are you settling for the way the industry treats you?

The Bureau of Labor and Statistics projects a 24% growth rate in the software development industry from 2016 to 2026 and 31% if you are specifically looking at application development.

Your skill set is seen as incredibly valuable by just about everyone else outside of the games industry.

Look at this data breakdown from Glassdoor
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and keep in mind that game studios are located in the most expensive places to live and yes the biggest names in tech tend to be as well however you can get a job doing software development just about anywhere these days. Not to mention most software developers work a 9 to 5 and go home. They’re not doing 60 - 70 hours a week with no overtime pay. They get to have a life.

We are also living in a golden age of game development where tools like Unity and UE4 are easily and readily available to you. It used to be that the idea of one to five people making a game on their own with no funding was seen as impossible. Now it is the norm.

If you are in the industry because you love games why not do it for yourself instead of for a corp? Like plenty of other people, you could be working on your own game a few hours every night where you and your friends have full creative control and don’t have to answer to BS deadlines that hurt you physically and mentally.

No matter which way you cut it being a software developer in the games industry makes zero logical sense in 2018. Stop selling yourself short and realize just how valuable you really are.