Behind the success of triple-A video games is the constant labor of external developers. When a company like Electronic Arts, Gearbox, Ubisoft, or Nintendo needs additional labor resources, they'll turn to companies like Keywords Studios or U.K.-based service Universally Speaking.
There's been more attention on this end of the game industry thanks in part to the unionization of Keywords Studios employees in Edmonton, Canada. Those workers, who provided development support to Dragon Age: Dreadwolf developer BioWare, complained of unfair treatment and low pay and sought to organize to address those concerns.
With games growing larger and larger, needing ever-expanding labor forces, developers like the ones at Keywords Edmonton will be a huge part of the industry's major successes in the years to come.
Until recently, industry veteran Andrew Brown was the chief marketing officer of Keywords Studios. He's now the CEO of Universally Speaking, where he hopes to scale up the company's support services and expand what services the company provides to the game development world.
The biggest growth area for the company? It's in live service operations. Here's why:
Expanding external development
The language around external game development service providers can be a bit tricky. "Contractor" might refer to an independent contractor, a whole studio doing contract work, or a temporary employee "on contract" at a company. Brown introduced the phrase "exdev," short for "external development" during our conversation. In his mind, the expansion of "exdev" services is in the world of supporting huge live service games.
Brown said that in his time in the game industry he's watched it go through a "reverse Moore's law." While Gordon Moore was concerned with the doubling of transistors in integrated circuits, Brown has been watching the doubling of game development budgets. "The cost of game development goes up each year, and the complexity goes up with the race to find the next big thing that is going to be super engaging for consumers," he noted.
Across both companies, he's seen more major developers turn toward the world of exdev to manage those costs. Brown's end of the game industry has often been affiliated with quality assurance and localization services. But at Universally Speaking (which already works in other fields of development beyond those two disciplines), he sees the company expanding into live game support.
Brown noted that when many major studios set up shop or spun up teams to make major online games, they weren't prepared for the always-on, 24/7 engagement with a global playerbase that some of these titles demand. "There's lots of opportunities to further our support and make those experiences more engaging for players," he noted.
Universally Speaking already has experience with staffing up customer support representatives for different clients, but that's not the only discipline where "a relentless focus on quality" can play a crucial role. Studios need to produce new content at an ever-increasing rate. Some of that content is new gameplay features, and some of it is unique art assets that drive in-game spending.
Instead of trying to hold onto one pristine development team throughout a game's lifespan, companies might integrate the services of an exdev service provider to fill holes in the content schedule. It's not something that can just be spun up overnight, but it may help moderate the blistering pace of work needed with a successful online game.
Supporting long-term exdev careers
Brown spoke to Game Developer just a month after Keywords Studios employees in Edmonton successfully filed to unionize with the Alberta Board of Labour. Doing some back-of-napkin math, we determined he had been CMO of Keywords during the time period that workers were grappling with low pay and uneven work policies.
Did any of this land on Brown's desk at his last months at the company? He said he wasn't involved in that process, noting that "it happened at a point where I was focused on doing something else."
He didn't seem unsympathetic to workers' claims of low pay and tough working conditions, however. "We do have to make sure that we create a great employee value proposition [in the game industry]," he said. "Folks that work here need to feel that they're supported, that they're rewarded, and that they're on a journey they feel really happy about."
Brown's comments about the Keywords Studios union came after we discussed why developers might pursue careers with exdev service providers. It's a field of development that's shifting in quality, as the game industry begins to view quality assurance and other affiliated workers as less of a churning labor market and more as one filled with specialists and experts.
"We're often [considered] an entry-level step into the industry," he observed. "I think we want to evolve that [thinking] because we want to make sure people have career paths." We discussed the notion of a sort of trade pipeline that began with STEM education in different school systems. If Brown's vision came to life, there'd be a knowledge that pursuing STEM in secondary school could lead to an early career at one of these exdev studios, and companies like his could foster the next generation of industry talent.
STEM pipelines are all well and good, but we were curious what Brown would say if Universally Speaking's workers were to unionize.
He declined to say if he'd voluntarily recognize such an effort. "At the end of the day, I think my focus is going to be on making sure that the folks in our house are well treated, have the right support, and feel that they're enjoying the journey," he explained. "And we need to balance all that with the demands of the industry."
If a unionization push ever happened, then he'd "take a view on it," he said, characterizing himself as "not having a view on solutions."
"I am more people interested in the people enjoying the journey."
Update: This article has been updated to indicate that Brown was previously the chief marketing officer of Keywords Studios. A previous version listed him as the former CEO of Keywords.