- Video games are a multi-billion-dollar, international industry; the once-niche medium has gone mainstream.
- Video game development, however, remains stuck in the past – game developers across the spectrum report archaic business practices.
- The issues with game development have come to a head in the past six months, with repeated reports of workplace issues, ranging from 100-hour work weeks to stress-induced leave.
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Playing video games is delightful. The business of making video games is another story altogether.
Across the last six months – and, more sporadically, across the last few decades – a common theme has emerged from dozens of reports about video game development: It’s far too often a gruelling, disorganized slog that leans on passionate individuals to deliver multi-million-dollar blockbusters.
Whether we’re talking about all-ages fare like “Fortnite” or adults-only games like “Red Dead Redemption 2,” the same story surfaces: Too often, game developers are working unethically long hours to complete games, something that is often referred to as “crunch culture.”
Here’s where it all began, and what’s been going on lately:
The decades-long problems in video game development first became public nearly 15 years ago, in November 2004, with a letter from “EA Spouse.”
“No one works in the game industry unless they love what they do,” said “EA Spouse” in an open letter published anonymously in November 2004. “The love of my life comes home late at night complaining of a headache that will not go away and a chronically upset stomach, and my happy supportive smile is running out.”
The letter wasn’t the first, but it was certainly the most impactful early sign that something was seriously wrong with the way video games are made.
The “EA Spouse Letter,” as it came to be known in the gaming community, eventually resulted in multiple lawsuits filed against Electronic Arts (EA) and the publisher paying out tens of millions in settlements.
Nearly 15 years later, little has changed.
The same type of reports are regularly surfacing from major video game development studios: Companies like Epic Games (“Fortnite”), Rockstar Games (“Red Dead Redemption 2”), and, yes, Electronic Arts (“Anthem”).
Another “spouse” letter appeared in 2010, but this time the spouses were connected to “Grand Theft Auto” and “Red Dead Redemption” developer Rockstar Games.
The second “spouse” letter was published in 2010, and was attributed to, “Determined Devoted Wives of Rockstar San Diego employees” – the studio in charge of developing the first “Red Dead Redemption” game at the time.
Similar to the original “EA Spouse” letter, the letter, attributed to wives of Rockstar San Diego employees, charged the studio with mismanagement, disorganization, and overworking staff.
Even before the Rockstar spouses letter was published, the company had quietly settled a multi-million-dollar lawsuit with former employees over allegations that Rockstar failed to pay adequate overtime.
This was the first public allegation of issues at Rockstar Games, but it wouldn’t be the last.
Though the “spouse” letters brought game development issues to light, it was only in the past few years that the issues reached a fever pitch.
In September 2018, suddenly, the video game developer Telltale Games closed. Hundreds of employees were left without work, seemingly out of nowhere, and didn’t even receive severance.
One employee was said to be, “working until 3 AM the night before with no inkling that the studio was about to let them and over 200 other employees go,” according to a Kotaku report.
It was an extreme, tragic example of the tumultuous world of video game development, where layoffs are common, even after a successful game ships.
In the case of Telltale, that successful game was a series based on “The Walking Dead.” It was a hit for the studio, winning awards and selling millions of copies. Subsequent attempts to replicate that success went significantly less well.
Telletale’s story was yet another example of mismanagement in video game development leading directly to real human costs. Hundreds of people were instantly out of work in a hyper-competitive field, many of whom lived in the San Francisco Bay Area – a notoriously expensive place to live.
Unfortunately, Telltale was just the first of several recent examples.
A trio of recent blockbusters — “Red Dead Redemption 2,” “Anthem,” and “Fortnite” — are the subjects of major investigations detailing the messy work of creating blockbuster games.
When “Fortnite” launched in the summer of 2017, it wasn’t an immediate hit. It didn’t even have the Battle Royale mode at first – it wasn’t until September 2017 that the game added its absurdly popular mode and catapulted into mainstream culture. Across the next year, it became the most popular game in the world.
But the massive success of “Fortnite” came at a cost: “I work an average 70 hours a week,” one person told Polygon. “There’s probably at least 50 or even 100 other people at Epic working those hours. I know people who pull 100-hour weeks.”
Another said, “I hardly sleep. I’m grumpy at home. I have no energy to go out. Getting a weekend away from work is a major achievement.”
At “Red Dead Redemption 2” maker Rockstar Games, a similar story played out.
“We were working 100-hour weeks,” Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser said in a New York Magazine interview, which prompted game developers across the industry to speak out. “Working conditions in the industry have improved, but when the co-founder of a studio working on one of the biggest releases of the year can openly brag about their ‘100 hour work weeks’ and have it lapped up as a marketing pitch, it’s clear how much further we have to go,” one developer wrote.
A Kotaku investigation further detailed the sometimes gruelling hours worked by Rockstar Games employees to complete “Red Dead Redemption 2.”
A similar story played out at EA with “Anthem,” where employees reportedly were put on “stress leave” due to working conditions. “I actually cannot count the amount of ‘stress casualties’ we had on ‘Mass Effect: Andromeda’ or ‘Anthem,'” one developer at EA’s BioWare studio told Kotaku.
Now, talk in the game industry is turning to unionization.
Unlike other entertainment production mediums, like TV and film, the video game industry has no real union options.
One advocacy group, Game Workers Unite, wants to change that.
The group isn’t a union unto itself, but it is a grassroots organisation attempting to encourage unionization across the industry. GWU’s mission is, “to connect pro-union activists, exploited workers, and allies across disciplines, classes, and countries in the name of building a unionized game industry.”
GWU is still new, and thus far it’s unclear if any game studios have unionized as a result.
One thing is clear: something has to give. As video games get more expensive and more complex to create, working conditions aren’t likely to improve by themselves. Unionization is just one possible solution, but clearly, steps need to be made toward better conditions.
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