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‘Every Game You Like Is Built on the Backs of Workers.’ Video Game Creators Are Burned Out and Desperate for Change

12 minute read

Spending on video games and related equipment reached an all-time high last year, with Americans shelling out $42 billion to immerse themselves in virtual worlds where they can steal cars, shoot cowboys, and fight Nazis with abandon. But as tens of thousands of video game fans and creators gather in Los Angeles this week for the Electronic Entertainment Expo, more commonly known as E3, a difficult truth about the gaming industry is beginning to emerge: what’s seen by outsiders as a fun, creative business is becoming psychologically and financially unbearable for those working in it.

“Every game you like is built on the backs of workers,” says Nathan Allen Ortega, 34, who thought he found his dream job when Telltale Games offered him a position as a community and video manager in 2015. Ortega was such a Telltale enthusiast that he used to participate in cosplay—the practice of dressing up as a particular character for events—as Rhys Strongfork, one of the main heroes in the company’s Tales from the Borderlands. So it was an easy decision to pack up his stuff in Texas and relocate near the company’s headquarters in San Rafael, California. But he was soon so stressed out by work that he developed an ulcer and started coughing up blood.

Part of the problem, Ortega says, was that executives would order up game changes at the last minute, sending developers into overdrive, which then led to inferior products. This made Ortega’s job of marketing the game even more difficult. “I was working with compromised games made by people killing themselves to get them out the door month after month after month,” he says. Both his doctor and therapist advised him to quit, but he stuck around until Telltale laid off 25 percent of its staff, including Ortega, in 2017. Telltale shut down permanently in October of 2018 and laid off 250 employees after it failed to secure more funding. The company was then sued by both its co-founder and by one of its former employees. (Records for the first lawsuit were sealed to protect confidential information, and the second lawsuit was dismissed in early February. Lawyers for Telltale did not return TIME’s requests for comment.)

The nightmare hours and job uncertainty at Telltale are by no means unique in the game industry, according to 10 video game workers who spoke to TIME. “There’s a belief in the games industry that working in it is a privilege, and that you should be willing to do whatever it takes to stay there,” says Emily Grace Buck, a former narrative designer at Telltale. “The most important thing to remember is that it’s not every single game studio that’s functioning like this, but this is the vast majority, this is normal for this industry.” Indeed, the chief executive of Rockstar Games, publisher of the hugely popular Red Dead Redemption 2, bragged in an interview last year that people there were working 100-hour weeks to finish that game in time for its scheduled release date. Another top gaming company, Activision Blizzard, said in February it was cutting 800 jobs even as it reported record 2018 revenues of $7.5 billion.

Games creators face other serious challenges, too. In early May, 150 workers walked out at Riot Games, which publishes League of Legends, saying that the company was not doing enough to respond to repeated allegations of sexism. One developer for Mortal Kombat 11 recently told gaming site Kotaku that he was diagnosed with PTSD after working on the extravagantly violent and gory fighting game.

Riot said in a statement that it supported the employees who made their voices heard during the walkout, and that it would “continue to listen to Rioters regarding all things, including their thoughts on arbitration.” Once the active litigation is resolved, the company will give employees the choice to opt-out of mandatory arbitration for sexual harassment claims, a spokesperson said. Activision provided a statement it had shared when it announced its layoffs in February, and said that it had not met its goals for growth and was increasing investment in its biggest franchises. Neither Rockstar nor NetherRealm, which makes Mortal Kombat, returned requests for comment.

Like the software industry more broadly, the gaming world is known for “crunch,” the period just before a launch when workers are expected to put in 100-hour weeks with no extra pay. In decades past, especially for console games, that crunch period was typically limited to the weeks before a game’s release date. But conditions are worsening in part because the underlying technology powering video games is changing, altering players’ expectations — and the industry more broadly — in the process.

A decade ago, a company would release a video game in a box, players would go to the store and buy it, and there wouldn’t be any updates or changes unless there was a sequel. But today, more than 90 percent of video game consoles are connected to the Internet, said Mat Piscatella, a video games industry analyst with research firm NPD Group. That has allowed game studios to constantly update and refresh their existing games, in part through “DLC,” or downloadable content, like new weapons or levels that players can purchase. Gamers now expect and demand such content, which studios can profit handsomely from — putting yet more pressure on workers for months or even years after a game’s release date. “Now, games are living, breathing worlds, and they can receive updates for years,” says Piscatella. Game company Take-Two Interactive, for instance, said in its annual report in May that digital sales made up 63 percent of revenue in the most recent fiscal year, up from 52 percent in 2017.

Meanwhile, because studios are so focused on keeping players interested—and spending money—in their games, they often request last-minute changes from workers based on player’s feedback from pre-release beta testing or preview footage. That leads to yet more crunch. “The whole player base for video games is like King Joffrey in Game of Thrones, and the whole game industry is terrified of losing [players] because there are so many other options,” said Jermaine Davis, a military veteran who used to go home after 12-hour days playing video games for work and play for six more hours for fun before all the crunch soured his perspective.

These changes have been painful for gaming industry workers, but lucrative for gaming companies. Total spending in the U.S. video game market in 2018 was 38 percent higher than in 2016, according to the NPD Group. Players are returning to games more frequently because of the new digital content, and this engagement drives them to spend more within games than they had previously, Piscatella said. Companies can make more by adding on content than they can by going through the expensive process of developing new games, some of which may be flops.

While video game companies used to make dozens of games a year in the hopes of striking gold once or twice, they are now focused on making a few big hits that will keep players coming back for more. “Having a hit game is more important now than it has ever been,” Piscatella said. That’s led companies to consolidate operations and shut down some studios. Electronic Arts, for example, used to have 49 titles; it’s now down to around 10, according to Michael Pachter, managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. The company laid off 350 employees in March. Pachter expects the cuts to continue. “This is probably a really big year for layoffs,” he said. (A Twitter account, @DaysWithoutLoss, tracks the number of days since the last game industry layoffs; on June 10, the number was six.)

Amid this turbulence, dozens of workers in the gaming business are calling for the industry to unionize. The turmoil presents them with both an opportunity and a challenge. On one hand, the instability can make it difficult to talk about unionization. Jet Bougan, another former Telltale worker, said that it was hard to ask colleagues to speak out when they’re also taking oatmeal from the office to eat for dinner. Still, a recent survey conducted by the industry group International Game Developers Association found that 47 percent of workers said they would support a union at their company, while 26 percent said they “maybe would.” In 2009, only about a third of game workers said they would support a union at their company.

These labor efforts started after a panel at an industry conference last year that portrayed unionization negatively, inspiring hundreds of workers to join a group called Game Workers Unite to talk about labor conditions. The group, which is run by game workers, now has 30 chapters internationally. Game Workers Unite U.K. said in December 2018 that it had become a legal trade union and joined the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain. The unionizing efforts come as tech workers in other fields band together in groups like the Tech Workers Coalition to push back against surveillance technology and arbitration policies at companies like Google and Amazon.

Some workers want video game players’ help to push companies to treat workers well. “I truly believe that if gamers started calling en masse for companies to start changing how they treat their workers, it would have a huge impact,” says Emily Grace Buck, who supports the unionization push. Consumers could also patronize studios that purposefully avoid crunch or that evenly distribute profits among workers, workers say. One French studio is structured as a co-op, so that workers own and manage the company. Nick Defossez, another video game developer, recently started compiling a list of companies that make games without crunch, evidence that it’s possible to find studios with good working conditions. But without some external push, he said, existing companies probably won’t change voluntarily. “There’s really no incentive or pressure to start providing benefits for crunching employees,” says Defossez.

There is a precedent for creative types like writers, animators and sound engineers to unionize. Hollywood unions like the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA), the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees (IATSE), and the Writer’s Guild of America represent workers whose jobs are similar to those of video game workers. (SAG-AFTRA also represents some voice actors who currently appear in video games.) Both video game workers and those in Hollywood contribute their creative talents to expensive short-term projects that could turn out to be hits or flops. Many of the Hollywood unions have been around since the 1930s, when workers got fed up with conditions like frequent layoffs, one-sided contracts, and creative control exerted by the studios.

Unionization doesn’t have to be a negative for studios, says Michael Kamper, a sound designer who has worked in both the video game industry and in Hollywood. It could give workers more certainty that even if they lose their jobs, they’ll keep their health care and pension, which could help keep talented people in the industry. The typical game industry worker is a 32-year-old white male with a college degree and no children, according to the International Game Developers’ Association study, and turnover is high; the majority of developers surveyed said they expected to remain with their current employer for three years or less. What’s more, workers and managers in the gaming industry are hesitant to take creative risks, Kamper said, because they know a game failure will lead to a studio closure, and then they’ll be unemployed.

Kamper has been both a manager and a worker, and his experience at all levels of entertainment companies convinced him that unions can help workers feel more supported in a volatile industry. He spent a decade as a sound designer for movies and TV shows; he’d work on a project for a period of time, and then be out of work when it ended. But because he was a member of the Motion Picture Editors Guild, he still had health insurance and a pension even when he wasn’t working. “It’s just offering a level of protection that doesn’t exist in games,” he said.

The gaming industry offered Kamper a full-time job with benefits in 2007, and he was excited to make the leap to a job at an Electronic Arts studio in Chicago. But the game industry proved just as volatile as Hollywood — 10 months after he started, the studio closed and he was out of work. He found another job quickly, but it was still a shock — one he would relive again and again. He’s worked for three studios that have shut down, always shunting him into unemployment without the same benefits and security that he had as a union member. Kamper loves the game industry, and has decided to stay in it, rather than return to Hollywood, despite the volatility. But he wants to help make it better, too. “Having come from both worlds, there has to be a situation that works,” he says. “What we currently have isn’t healthy for the workers or the studios.”

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