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Are Game Developers Standing Up for Their Rights?

January 9, 2013 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4
 

Spontaneous action on the internet is invigorating, but if all it does is create a short-term media buzz and collect anonymous missives of support, there is not much lasting momentum. As Paul Hyman asked in his May 13, 2008 Gamastura Feature, "Quality of Life: Does Anyone Still Give a Damn?"

So what should video game developers do? What do they want to do?

An additional action is possible, and that is the formation of a legal union or guild. This seems like a very large challenge, because most assume that the perception of unions in the game industry and in other high-tech industries is negative. But some prominent voices are in favor.

In a March, 2005 Gamasutra article on unionization, Paul Hyman quoted attorney Tom Buscaglia as saying, "I'm just not sure there's a way around it." In the same article, Erin Hoffman was quoted, saying, "...the only thing that will get publishers to budge is unionization, which I believe to be the best solution."

And the 2009 IGDA Quality of Life Survey shows that they are not alone. The following graphs show developer responses to two questions on unionization.

These results are more positive than some would have anticipated, but there are still a number of features of the traditional union movement that seem antithetical to the work of game development.

High mobility among video game developers is a powerful deterrent to unionization in North America because the certification and bargaining model is "enterprise-based." This means that individual unions or union locals of the same parent union are formed on a studio-by-studio basis, so all the negotiated advantages held in a collective agreement are linked to the ongoing employment relationship at that studio. This model does not fit a highly mobile industry where workers move from project to project and studio to studio; it is not worth it to fight for individual conditions at one studio if you do not intend to stay. It is also the reason people say that unions will increase production costs at one studio and make them uncompetitive compared to the guy down the street.

Mobility also poses challenges to typical union pay structures, which are based on seniority and long term service. Many see unions as anti-creative and antithetical to the meritocracy system that anchors excellence in technology-based industries.

Seniority is seen in direct contrast to the recognition of merit and to developers' self-perceptions as high achievers who continually learn, enjoy challenging assignments, and advance based on accomplishment. In this environment, reputation and skills are a driving factor to success, not necessarily time on the job. This was actually the consolation prize in the Rockstar San Diego case.

Several comments in the "Wives" online thread consoled the beleaguered team, saying that the boost to their reputations from delivering an amazing game under extreme conditions would be worth it in the end. One called it a "golden ticket" on their future resumes. They are trapped in an informal reward and punishment system linked to building a desired reputation. They are promised future benefits and rewards if they consent to overtime, but are threatened with a professional stall-out if not.

So, are unions not a viable alternative? Perhaps not in their traditional form, but other models are possible.

An industry-wide, multi-employer certification and negotiation process can address many of the above obstacles to unionization. This means that individual developers would not join a union or a union local at their studio; similar to the scope of the IGDA, they would join a single union representing video game developers across the industry -- nationally or even internationally. The agreements bargained between this union and an association of video game employers would set the standards across the industry and therefore remove the issue of studios competing against each other.

Other systems like this are in effect elsewhere. European countries are known for their centralized industrial relations systems, where most minimum standards are negotiated between unions and employer associations at the industry level. The auto sector in North America regularly engages in "pattern bargaining," where a standard template is applied across the main auto manufacturers so that none are disadvantaged with respect to the other. Unions in the film and television industries have been working under similar systems for decades.

A further legislative option can be found in Status of the Artist legislation that stems from a 1980 UNESCO recommendation. A form of this legislation is in place at the federal jurisdiction in Canada. A variant, An act respecting the professional status and conditions of engagement of performing, recording and film artists (RSQ c. S-32.1) exists in the province of Québec, Canada. This system for the performing trades allows for social insurance plans that follow you throughout your multiple employers and is an early adopter of the principle of portable rights as is used in the U.S. film industry.

Under this system, artists can also benefit from the state's health and security plan, and co-regulate the sharing out of incomes drawn royalties and residuals. Moreover, the act's provisions for respecting professional status can cover the appreciation of merit. This system promotes a minimum standard hiring contract, but allows for better conditions should the artist be more in demand or more prestigious. Similarly, individual negotiations or "above-scale deals" are a long-time industry practice in the motion picture and television unions.

In the 2009 IGDA Quality of Life survey, 64.2 percent of the 2,506 developers who responded were poorly informed about the labor laws where they live, and 63.4 percent said that they did not feel the laws would protect them sufficiently should a grievance arise with their employer. In material terms, developers are not void of motives for collective action, and yet their current individual and collective means seem unable to fix systemic problems in the industry.

Unionization is an option, but it will not be successful without a dramatic increase in knowledge among developers about what options are available in terms of union models and a greater understanding on the part of existing unions about what developers need. Maybe it is trite to think that as democratic institutions, unions are what their members make them. In the meantime, developers will rely on the good will of their employers and the success of their games as they build their reputations and individual bargaining power. And we will all wait for the next powder keg to be posted online.


Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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Comments


Johanna Weststar
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I hope you find this article interesting!

For more information about Quality of Life in the video game industry also have a look at http://gameqol.org

You can download and comment on a new report co-authored by me and Marie-Joseé Legault
about the 2009 Quality of Life survey that was administered by the IGDA.

This site is also an archive of the Quality of Life related stories that pop up online and in the news.

Glenn Storm
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It may not be apparent to those in commercial games that challenges such as these exist in the realm of serious games as well. And due to a relative lack of maturity of this sub-industry, as compared to commercial games, these problems are magnified.

The impression that this is fun and games, overriding practical consideration, is a pervasive viewpoint held by all but the most savvy of non-developers that the serious game community works with.

CT Bon
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Hi Glenn,

Can you clarify the distinction between commercial and 'serious' games?

Glenn Storm
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Sure. Serious Games: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Serious_game

Despite the challenges described in this excellent article, the entertainment-based commercial games segment of the industry tends to be more mature in terms of funding models, development expertise and general recognition than the serious games segment.

The comment was aimed at raising awareness within the game development community at-large about the steeper challenges facing this sub-industry. The question seems to reinforce the point.

Bruce Wilkie
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"EA later banned work on Sundays and adopted a policy favoring five working days a week."

EA did not ban work on Sundays after EA_Spouse. Was that only at EALA? Certainly at EARS Sunday became the new Monday many times after EA_Spouse. I'm curious where this information came from?

Johanna Weststar
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Hi Bruce,

Thanks for your inquiry. Unfortunately I don't have a satisfactory answer for you. Over the years we reviewed and gathered a lot of information from published sources, news sources and social media. I have trolled through my material and I am coming up short with a specific reference for this information. The trouble with online sources is that they often vanish and I am afraid we did not practice our due diligence with saving a copy of this one.

I would be interested to put this out to the community to see if anyone has more information about EA's response to EA Spouse or to the law suits that occurred in the same time period. I do have this link: http://www.joystiq.com/2004/12/02/ea-responds-to-disgruntled-spou
se-in-leaked-email/

From comments below @Samuel Burnstein it seems like any policy adjustments that might have been made were short lived.

Thanks for reading!

Legault Marie-Josee
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Hi Bruce,
Thanks for your inquiry. I found out the source, but it has disappeared from the web... it read : Once the EA Spouse, Erin Hoffman fights to keep the video game industry in check - February 27th, 2007 - By Ted Boscia - PALO ALTO, Feb. 27—In late 2004, Erin Hoffman sounded the alarm about worker exploitation at video game publisher Electronic Arts. Now she’s trying to keep EA and other gaming companies from hitting the snooze button and lapsing into old habits.... It was Erin Hoffman telling this about banning work on Sundays. If you want the whole, just ask me!

Erin Hoffman
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I believe what this is referring to is EA's "five great days" policy, which appears to date back to November 2005. There was media coverage of this at the time, but it appears to have evaporated. I don't believe it was just EALA. Someone -- Probst? -- released a statement, or perhaps it was a leaked internal document, discussing the changes they'd made (this was about six months before the two lawsuits were settled IIRC). I distinctly remember the phrase "on Sundays we rest", which is what I would have expected to yield a google search, but the source is gone, though you can still find references to "five great days". If it was late 2005 this would have been near the end of Probst's time, so maybe Riccitiello rolled it back? That would be disappointing to hear if so. Someone should ask him "so, whatever happened to that 'five great days' thing?" ;)

TC Weidner
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its starts with the problem of supply and demand, When the supply of workers outpaces the demand for workers, you get certain companies that will take advantage of the situation. We are seeing this across all spectrum's of business now with this one world economy fiasco. With business convinced that making money and profit trumps all else, taken advantage of workers falls into the category of " just doing business". I find this preposterous but MBA programs everywhere say otherwise.

Then again its why I dropped out of MBA business school and have been self employed most of my life. Its also why I eat free range and organic foods, I'm nutty that way, I think quality of life matters, for everyone and everything.

Great article by the way.

Lance McKee
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I really liked this article! Thanks for helping to shed some light on what continues to be a major problem. After 7 years in the industry I finally decided that it wasn't fair to my wife and kids to have to put up with an overly stressed father/husband who was always either scrambling to find a job or working way too many hours at a job. I've now got a much more stable and better paying job and can just develop games on the side for fun.

Jonathan Jennings
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I always feel sad reading posts like this because I know game development is a very passionate career and for people to devote so much of ourselves only to be pushed to a breaking point is disappointing. I hope I don't come to this point myself but i hear far too many stories about developers who worked hard, gave all they could to game development, and ultimately sound like they received very little in return in terms of respect and the impact on their well-being .

Samuel Burnstein
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EA banned working on Sundays after EA Spouse? Well, that's one policy that's been quietly rolled back.

Judy Tyrer
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Sadly, the devs perpatuate the situation by believing crunch is necessary, you can't make a good game without it. It's not just management that causes this problem. Once some good games start coming out of studios that aren't playing the crunch games, people will see this as the myth it is. At least, that's what I'm banking on.

Michael Herring
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It's not just management that causes the problem, but it is just management that has authority to fire employees.

Nat Tan
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More like: New features and ideas are added in by Management that doesn't have to work the OT and have never really been part of any core development, while the timeline apparently is not allowed to change.

Michael Rooney
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@Nat: It's not always management. Our management works at least as much OT as any developer; a lot of them stay at the office anytime anybody is doing OT so that they can coordinate schedules and deliverables with what actually gets done during OT.

edit: Executives/marketing are usually much more the culprit, but I wouldn't exactly put executives in an envious position work wise despite how their job generally comes off.

John Harmon
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As someone who respects the artisans within the gaming industry, I would love to see it unionized. But history has shown us that isn't going to be easy, and I would imagine that the publishers will put up a great deal of resistance. Knowing this, I was tried to think of ways that workers can give themselves more power. One alternative might be that all new up start up studios begin as worker co-ops. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worker_cooperative This would probably be more akin to the Valve style of business, just with a bit more democracy. I've always imagine that indies within the industry would spearhead in this type of alternative style of business, as they do not have adherence to publishers. As for studios that are own by publishers, I think that resistance would be the same as if it were a union. This could help workers rights in the short term, maybe in the long term, but it's something that would give each individual a voice. Of course they're could be problems with a worker's co-op, like managing deadlines (Half-life 2: Episode 3 anyone?) or trying to keep financially afloat (it's not like everyone has a Steam like service to keep their employees well payed). Who knows maybe Valve will be the only one to pull anything close to this in the next decade. There's two cents from a nobody that only sells video games in the middle of nowhere.

Michael Joseph
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As long as there are no steep artificial barriers in place preventing independants from bringing their products to market, I don't think unions are necessary.

The answer is for independants to avoid entangling themselves in debt and a lifestyle that requires a certain cash flow that ends up being a faustian bargain chaining them to their fulltime jobs and trading their tomorrows for a little of todays comfort.

Michael Rooney
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I think a part of the problem is also that developers are generally very passionate about what they are making. I've seen a good amount of people who work overtime because they want to when they've been told repeatedly to go home. There's definitely some studios that become toxic, but I think it has a positive reinforcement loop that's fed by both sides; executives want developers to work more than is reasonable, and a lot of developers want to work more than is reasonable. Those factors combined put a lot of pressure on people who don't want to work more than is reasonable to stay relevant in the company.

With that in mind, I don't think the industry as a whole is bad. I think it's just that there are some parts that are very very bad and give it all a bad name. I have never worked unreasonable overtime as a developer. The worst was fairly isolated as there was a major bug found really late in alpha.

I'm generally not in favor of unions for skilled labor. The companies that treat their labor the best will get the most skill and produce the best results. The market rewards treating skilled employees well. It's not like unskilled labor where you are treated more like a commodity.

Edward DiNola
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My latest job has been great for quality of life so far. Usually work 8-9 hour days, excellent benefits, haven't worked a weekend yet, the respect level is high, and the team and management have been very good about needing to leave work early or postpone arrival for health and family obligations. It's interesting because it's a very large studio, and I've seen nothing but evidence to the contrary that it's an excellent place to work.

This compared to another gig at a much smaller studio, where I was working 12-14 hour days regularly, had horrible pay, would often be yelled at by producers, and where there were a number of walking HR and contract violations (such as being payed days or even weeks late), and which is a company which will probably never get called on it.

Johanna Weststar
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Glad to hear your positive story! It is important to note that in the IGDA's 2009 Quality of Life survey "Almost 40% of the sample report crunching rarely and 6.2% never
crunch." So almost half of the 3000+ people who answered that survey do not crunch. That is a great news story about the industry! (note, not all the respondents were in core dev though).

The important message is this article (I hope) is bigger than crunch and OT. In all workplaces employees need to have an effective means to voice their opinions and concerns and have a hope of seeing them addressed.

@Dimitri Del Castillo - I totally agree with you. Game devs need a way to influence their workplace to make it better for them - quitting is a bad solution to long-term problems. The question is...what other solutions are out there and which ones work or might work?

Michael Pianta
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When I was in high school I wanted to make games as a career. I thought games were an exciting emerging art form and I had lots of ideas for cool things you could do with them. I took a lot of programming classes, but as I learned more about the industry I read a lot of stories like this. (This was before digital downloads and indie developers were a thing). I learned that working in games meant longer hours and worse pay than other industry - which you would accept because it's games and you're privileged to have a job in that industry at all! And also I learned that I would be a gear in a very large machine and that creative freedoms would not be given to me for a long time and that I certainly wouldn't be able to make the games I was dreaming of probably ever, and definitely not without putting in decades first. So I said "Being a creator is more important than working in games per se," and I majored in fine art instead (although I still have a great interest in games and develop them as a hobby). Who knows how many others did the same? Do these companies not realize that they are driving away potential talent?

Jonathan Jennings
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I have always heard the reason they abuse their powers is because no matter how much talent they drive away ( i almost quit on a career in games myself before starting for the same reasons you did). there are droves of people everywhere who would probably switch places with a developer any day of the week. it's easy to treat your number 1 commodity as disposable if there is an endless supply of other commodities to replace it .

Jacek Wesolowski
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Michael - No. They've developed a system of rationalizations to help them cope. They're also not terribly interested in long term thinking.

There is a dire shortage of potential employees in my home city and everybody keeps acting like they have no clue why.

Last year, I went to a job interview that lasted for an hour and a half. I talked to three guys at the same time: one did his best to convince me they didn't need me, another was openly hostile, and the last one spent the entire time contradicting all of my opinions just to prove he knew better. They basically spent an hour and a half trying to make me feel bad about myself. They seemed disappointed when I eventually declined to take a test.

Fortunately, the situation is actually improving. Roughly half of the workplaces in this city (or at least half of those that I'm aware of) are decent. The job I have now is the most balanced and most creative ever, which is a bit ironic, because this is a porting company that doesn't make games of its own.

Michael Pianta
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I think you're both right. I also think that the example of independent developers will influence this in a positive way. If you were a talented young designer/developer, now that you have Jon Blow and McMillen and countless others sitting there in front of you, why would you give these companies a moment of your time? Perhaps you would just to see how it worked, how projects were organized or how to work on a team or something, but I would think that such people would have a greatly reduced patience for ridiculously unfair practices, compared to the past when it seemed to be that or nothing. That will ultimately force these companies to change I expect.

Tony Giovannini
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"Some people convey a sense of toughness or machismo about "surviving" an epic crunch, and these episodes become part of the lore of the industry. "I was there when..." This means that those who do not survive or who complain are sometimes considered as those who can't take it -- "this industry is not for you."

--This attitude needs to die. If the industry is to progress in any way, shape or form, this sort of machismo needs to go. There is nothing macho about making video games, or crunching to make a video game (Nor should there be). Crunch doesn't build camaraderie at all, crunch just simply destroys lives.

mikko tahtinen
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Agreed, totally!

Dimitri Del Castillo
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It's a matter of advocacy. When the only people you can go to about your work issues are your supervisor or an HR person employees begin to feel that the only people that are looking out for their well being is themselves.

mikko tahtinen
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Ultimately people need to ask some questions:

1. Do we work OT?
- If we do? Then go to next question:

2. Why do we work OT?
- Did we underestimate: Workload, Time, Difficulties or Plannnign needed.
- Or, did we even negotiated the price totally wrong? Meaning we got underpaid and we pay the price?

3. How do we cope with planning?
- Do we keep the scope fixed or do we keep adding tasks?
- If we change scope do we adjust dates? Or dates are fixed and we keep adding to the scope?

Overtime should be treated as a instrument. The instrument gives an indication if something is wrong, in this particular case: Overtime. Overtime should be a serious indication that something is wrong.

Overtime will always be there, but should be treated as something you want to eliminate or minimize. If OT is used regularly and often then something is clearly wrong. Either the planning, budget, scope or knowledge, has clearly failed.

Erin Hoffman
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This is certainly one of the best articles I've ever read on game industry quality of life. Thank you for your work on it, Marie-Josée and Johanna.


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