Another MidBoss story. Another tale of Me-Too about the implosion of a beloved studio. Why am I typing this out? A well connected senior developer with a successful business and an anticipated console game in production… why would I want to share yet another story? What do I hope to gain from this?
Well, let me explain...
Last week was the Game Developer Conference, or GDC, where us developers gather in revelry to discuss business while basking in our craft over some cold brews, good wine, and rare company. This week, those festivities were brought to a bittersweet end as we witnessed the implosion of a company many of us held dear - MidBoss.
MidBoss is a company founded to give diversity a voice in the world of video games. The motto of their yearly convention GaymerX was even, “Everyone Games”. They put themselves out there to give a space for gamers who otherwise felt they did not belong. From the outside, they were a caring company that fought for diversity, freedom, and love.
However, what those of us who worked there encountered, and never, ever discussed to the public for a multitude of reasons, has now come to light as years of horrible management practices were exposed by countless people for all the world to see. This brought the company to its knees with nearly all staffers outright resigning, essentially ending everything MidBoss built - including the unknown way they treated their programmers and developers.
In late 2016 I joined MidBoss as a contractor, and while always a contractor, over time I officially became their lead programmer. Today, in 2018, I have watched as many of my friends there have been left jobless. I’ve privately spoken with more MidBoss people the past few days than I have in months after opting to leave this client - no, I fired this client - in late 2017. Now I put my efforts towards giving my newly jobless friends an ear and helping them find them work.
Many industry related stories have been discussed the past couple weeks, especially during GDC as game developer union discussions took the forefront of many topics. I’ve been in the industry for 17 years, having both failures and successes to credit my name. I can’t say I’ve always been the best person to work for or with, but I’ve done my best to learn and grow and figure out how to make an environment where people enjoying working not for me, but with me - both on contract projects for other companies, and for original games of our own.
With my long history and experience in the industry, I find myself in a position with MidBoss that most of their team did not share. Many of them were either fresh out of college, or still in college, and were building the foundation of their careers with MidBoss as the tentpole. Myself, on the other hand, had another client who paid extremely well, allowing me to work for practically no pay with MidBoss - which I did. I made very little for the console ports I helped produce and the other games I worked on for their company and clients. However, in my case, that was my own agreement and I was okay with it because I wanted to support what MidBoss stood for - the people who needed a voice and a place. So I brought my banner of experience to the company and went to work helping them in any way I could.
Looking back - I should have known better. Right from the start, the work environment was toxic but I didn’t want to believe it. I would think to myself, “Here is a studio that works hard to represent people who need representation - clearly I must be the problem here”, a mental thread that would be persistent and fed by MidBoss over the coming months.
Matt became a friend of mine, or so I thought. I would listen when he needed someone to talk to. I offered him comfort when his boyfriend passed away (a moment that we should all feel sad for regardless of how we feel about Matt - it was a terrible time, and there was a long period of suffering). I’d listen as he complained about previous programmers. Hell, I even fell into trash-talking previous programmers while struggling with the spaghetti code that made up 2064. That was extremely unbecoming of me to do, and super unprofessional. I do apologize for my own senseless comments said about previous programmers, especially after understanding why the codebase was so bad. As I later discovered the flavor of sauce used on the spaghetti of 2064’s code was extremely mismanaged schedules. Deadlines and requirements changed by the day, and they had been throwing the code at random programmer after random programmer - something that is damn near guaranteed to create some true creepypasta.
Regardless of what was going on, I wanted to help. I wanted to be a friend. And by this point that feeling that I was the problem had been extremely well fed. I felt like I was a pretty terrible person and a rotten programmer. So I put myself out there to try and be better - I loaned MidBoss money on many occasions to help pay their staff, and I loaned Matt money so he could afford to put on some of the Gay Gaming Professionals (GGP) parties during major conventions. He always paid me back in full, and I made enough money from my other clients that I didn’t mind being a loan shark… maybe not so much for him, but for who he was able to pay and help with that money.
It wasn’t until we were deep into production of a new project that I started to snap out of feeling like I was the problem. MidBoss and I came to the agreement to produce a new story-engine to produce Snatcher-esque games. This engine was never entirely MidBoss’s, and was something we would use to make the upcoming versions of 2064 and I could use to produce my own story and adventure games. We developed a schedule that built out the engine in two major parts - a first part, to be done in late 2017, which would be capable of injecting the majority of 2064 dialog code and elements. The second part, to be completed in early 2018, would then be used to produce an unannounced story game.
We were on schedule, and things were going well. However, despite this, I was constantly getting berated for things not being ready. Scrum calls became more and more awkward. Other people on the team who were using parts of the story-engine that were ready for use were having no real issues,and were porting 2064 just fine, but it simply wasn’t enough for management as they, for some reason, insisted that the tools had to be broken. The chain of trying to make me feel like I was the problem continued, like in any toxic relationship.
On top of this - the new story game they planned to produce in 2018 was suddenly kicked off in production without me knowing, almost a full 7 months ahead of schedule. Naturally, the full suite of tools were not ready for this - they were not planned to be ready, they were not supposed to be ready. Yet, out of the blue, they were now being used as if everything was ready and documented, and fingers were being pointed at me for the tools being in a unready, unfinished state - 7 months in advance. Based on many of the decisions occurring within management, it honestly started to feel like they were attempting to sabotage their own studio.
After many very awkward Scrum calls and private talks with Matt where he would tell me one thing another programmer said, and then the same programmer would give me a different story entirely, I was fed up with things. To top it all off, for someone who swears by ensuing people can go by the names, the gender, and everything they desire - he bluntly called me by my real name during a team Scrum call. He had never, ever done this before. Never even called me my real name in private, and I haven’t gone by my real name in this industry in years. But when he said it, the entire call of nearly twelve people went silent. This was a moment so awkward that a handful of people in the company messaged me afterwards to point out exactly how awkward the moment was.
It had been roughly a year since I brought on MidBoss as a client. I had invested hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sweat equity into helping MidBoss, just to be treated like the worst programmer they had ever met. It was almost as if Matt were two people - where in one moment he would invite me to come to Japan with him and his team, and in the next moment insist my code was trash and I wasn't doing my job. Regardless of the actual state of my work, I was so beaten down by the end that I just agreed with that I was told - you say my code is trash? Then it must be. You say my work isn’t done? Then I guess it isn’t. I guess I’m also trash. I guess I’m worthless. Why should I even bother.
As I would come to find out, this was how MidBoss treated all programmers - including each of the following programmers that they brought on after me (each was hired, and subsequently left or was fired, and in every case, Matt would extensively talk shit about them to others). As I know some of their other former programmers, I know how talented they were, and why they left MidBoss - and their stories are not too dissimilar from my own.
Matt said he had no interest in the story engine I wrote. While I’ve since been able to use the engine myself to begin some new business, it unfortunately meant that their poor overworked remaining C# programmer now had to rewrite everything from scratch. And based on her comments on Twitter regarding how overworked and stressed she was - this was no small feat.
After cutting ties with MidBoss, I hated myself. I hated my work, I hated my code. I truly felt like I was useless. And I felt like all of the issues were because of me, and were in my head. It took months for me to recover and realize something else had to be going on, and that my skills as a senior engineer actually were there, and I wasn’t a fake. Today I have some extremely good clients that require senior level code, and the reassurances from them that my work actually is top-level has helped me recover. And, more recently, reading the stories posted by other ex-MidBoss people has made me realize something - it was not in my head. I wasn’t crazy. They were the toxic relationship, doing their damnedest to make me hate myself so they could have full control over me. And they almost won.
So why am I typing this out? Another developer jumping in with another ‘me too’ of what happened with a company that at this point everyone knows how bad things were… what do I hope to gain from this?
I don’t want to gain anything. However, I think myself and other long-term experienced individuals need to realize two things.
One, to say that it doesn’t matter how much experience we have. It doesn’t matter how long we’ve been in the industry. We can still get suckered into a bad environment, and feel like we should stay. Charisma and charm can, at times, feel better than a contract, especially when you just want to help and aren’t concerned about money.
Second, to say that MidBoss is not alone. There are other companies out there, just as popular as MidBoss, and just as toxic to work with. I’ve been in this industry long enough to know who many of these companies are. No, I will not share names - even talking about MidBoss here took me a long time to consider doing. But sharing names and pointing fingers to other toxic companies isn’t my goal here. My point, is that as contractors, as people being hired, we can learn. We can learn how to protect ourselves, and how to protect those we care about. With MidBoss, I should have seen right from the beginning that Matt not wanting to do contracts and the way he spoke about others should have been warning signs.
But we never teach or talk about these warning signs. Why? Good question. If I had to guess, I would say it’s because many of us - especially when we’re very new to an industry - are taught to ‘Literally take anything we can get, and be happy you got that’. Which, as you can imagine, is a very good reason so many companies can take advantage of amazing young talent, and why so much amazing young talent leaves this industry so quick.
After working with MidBoss - along with many other toxic companies, and knowing about so many more - I am extremely in support of unions, groups, something - anything - where knowledge can be shared. Something that allows us long-term developers to teach the new people, and even teach ourselves, how to protect ourselves from those who would prey on us, our abilities, and leave us weak and broken on the other side.
Because as game developers, we are amazing at sharing knowledge about how to make games, but we are terrible at sharing knowledge about how games should get made.